Following up on my post exploring the Nuit Debout protest movement in France as creating a nocturnal heterotopia, I took advantage of a few days without teaching at the end of last week (May 5th-7th) to make a quick visit to the protests, and explore the site for myself.
Nuit Debout have turned the Place de la République into a nightly cauldron of protest, discussion, social support and experimentation. From roughly 2 or 3 in the afternoon until 1 or 2 in the morning – the protesters are now cleared by police if they try to stay later – the la République becomes the site of discussions, talks, film showings, soup-kitchens, art displays, music performances, political protest and partying, all drawing from the changes that take place in the city as day moves to night.
As a heterotopia – “a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live” – Nuit Debout is at once part of the city and separate from it. It draws from the city’s rhythms, and disrupts them: as one protester put it:
the main aim wasn’t only to occupy the place, it was to disrupt the rhythm, the rhythm that we all follow. You know the protesting, you protest in the day and the beginning of the afternoon, and then you go home. We didn’t want to do this, we wanted to disrupt the rhythm of the protest
By occupying at night, the activists challenge themselves and the city, forcing themselves to rethink protest and forcing police, local residents and businesses to change their rhythms as well. But this disruption also separates Nuit Debout; as a movement, it is in some ways less visible than other protests, cleared away every night other than a few posters and chalk traces, as this morning photo of la République shows:
During the night too, Nuit Debout is bordered both literally by the road which circles around la République, and also in spirit. On the Friday night, the politicized, radical potentiality of Nuit Debout sat in contrast to the hundreds of young people lining the Quai de Valmy, a popular canal-side drinking spot two blocks over from la République. Both la République and Valmy have an atmosphere of openness and sociability that we find at night, but they use this very differently. From the presence of armed police, to the intensity of political debate, la République is a heightened, affectively volatile site, in which outsiders meet each other in ways which lay claim to public space as a resource for change. Two minutes walk away, Valmy is still lively but somehow less intense, more readily relating to the rest of the city, a knowable and expectable part of the (night-time) cityscape.
Nuit Debout has adopted Jean Racine’s line that “nos nuits sont plus belles que vos jours” (our nights are more beautiful than your days). But I was also interested in the ways in which members of Nuit Debout felt that night was holding their protests back somewhat. Activists were becoming tired, and those with families and jobs were struggling to join the movement. The night brings its own problems too, and Nuit Debout had struggled with men coming to the site in order to sexually assault women: a ‘serenity commission’ and bounded ‘safe space’ (pictured) had been set up to try and combat this, but clearly the fluidity and absence of organisation of the night was both resource and obstacle for Nuit Debout.
Nuit Debout might be understood as what Danish urbanist Jan Lilliendahl Larsen calls a ‘vague space‘, in which new forms of urban and social organisation are imagined in sites that are easily set up, and easily dismantled (an aside: the nightly reproduction of Nuit Debout’s infrastructure was a very interesting phenomenon to observe). As a vague space, the power of Nuit Debout may begin to fade. Indeed, on my final day visiting, hundreds of activists from France and beyond had gathered at la République to explore how to take the spirit and energy of Nuit Debout and push this forward for future projects. This seemed like the beginning of the next phase of this movement, in which the initial event begins to resonate into new movements, new networks, and new spaces. As Judith Butler argues in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assemblage:
[Socio-political] experiments are invariably transitory when they remain extraparliamentary.
Nuit Debout has built this transitory characteristic into itself through its nightly growth, existence, and decline, but it is also likely to lose its current physical form at some stage. As it moves on, I hope that it keeps the fluidity, alterity, playfulness and openness to difference that comes with night. To quote one of the activists:
At night, the organisation goes out.