Let’s not rush to define what’s going on in the Place de la Republique in Paris. The movement dubbed Nuit Debout (Up All Night) defines and redefines itself every night. We must understand the context behind it to understand what it’s trying to mobilize for.
There are two prevailing views on the matter. The skeptical position is that the movement will reach a dead end in a manner reminiscent of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Optimists are hoping for a long-overdue social revolution, or the rise of a French version of Spain’s Indignados movement. So far, nothing has happened. This may be because our economic situation is different from the situation in Spain or Greece. We are also living under the threat of terrorism — a force that is more evil and brutal than either capitalism or economic insecurity.
A massive protest took place on January 11, 2015. Almost four million people rallied in the streets. This is not to say that the thousands of Nuit Debout protesters have nothing valuable to say about the social and political despair building up in France. The risk of another attack should not justify overlooking these hardships. Conversely, can a social movement unite the left while ignoring this particular climate?
In media coverage of Nuit Debout, debates about the veil or even Salafism are accused of being “diversions.” As if no one in the media is discussing labor laws or the Panama Papers. As if social struggle is necessarily opposed to the fight against totalitarianism.
This method of belittling other struggles, such as those of women, in the name of the main cause, is nothing new. In 1905, or in the 1970s, leftist activists considered women’s rights movements to be secondary bourgeois preoccupations. And not much has changed since: The female body is still fighting, and the war of the left continues.
In short, the left-leaning website Mediapart considers that the main priority is to challenge capitalism and the government — whether with regards to unemployment or terrorism. They also consider — and this is the concerning part — that challenging the government should be done in collaboration with all its opponents, be it anti-fundamentalist and or anti-Charlie.
The “Charlie” left discusses social struggles and secular struggles, but it is accused of playing identity politics if it dares to suggest that women’s rights must be defended against the religious patriarchy. It is criticized for its belief that the fight against the new, obscurantist totalitarianism, is not quite… secondary.
For now, these two lefts exist side by side at the Place de la Republique. The question is whether they can form a common movement. Will Nuit Debout light a candle for the victims of the November attacks? Or will it be a flash in the pan that eventually pits the candles against one other?
The most seasoned activists of Nuit Debout have been rather resilient to radicalization attempts — including attempts by the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR) to inject its usual radicalized slogans.
Acts of vandalism have appeared, and have been accepted by some protesters as legitimate expressions of anger in the midst of a movement inspired by nonviolence.
Now what? Those who started the movement neither want to quit nor to initiate any activity on site. They are determined to remain a fairly homogeneous crowd. To remedy this, they plan to relocate Nuit Debout to the Parisian suburbs: Banlieues Debout. This may be a positive move, provided they don’t turn the “convergence of struggles” into the “intersectionality” of struggles.
What is intersectionality? It is a word often used to discuss the convergence of social conflicts — but others use it differently. When Frédéric Lordon, one of the emblematic economists of Nuit Debout speaks of the “convergence of struggles,” he dreams of uniting workers, refugees, taxi drivers, farmers, and all the victims of the capitalist jungle — whatever their skin color or religion — to create a more social Republic.
For others, intersectionality points to a much more Americanized and ghettoized vision. In the U.S., the idea was born to span multiple types of discrimination — the fact that being female and black means you are discriminated against not just as a woman but as a black woman. The idea pits “black” feminism against “white” feminism, which is often considered to be “bourgeois.”
Concretely, if the intersectionality idea of the PIR had to replace the “convergence of struggles” at Nuit Debout, its “feminism” committee would claim the right to wear a veil and to prostitute oneself. In the name of a queer and Islamic feminism, this would be totally incoherent and anti-progressive, but bound by the shared hatred of universalism.
For now, Nuit Debout is avoiding this. Until when? Between the energy it takes to stay on the course of non-violence and keep fighting for the social Republic, it will be a very very long night before they could invent a new world and defy the skeptics.
This post first appeared on HuffPost France. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.