France's 'Up All Night' protests gather strength - and causes

People raise their hands as they participate in the Nuit debout (Up All Night) movement in Marseille, France, on April 9, 2016.
People raise their hands as they participate in the Nuit debout (Up All Night) movement in Marseille, France, on April 9, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - In the heady new world of "Up All Night" it was March 38 on Saturday (April 9) to the some 2,000 people gathered in a main Paris square to share their aspirations for change.

It is their way of keeping track of a protest movement that has seen people flock to the Place de la Republique to air their grievances, seek strength in numbers and strategise for a better future every night since March 31.

While galvanised by weeks of protests over the Socialist government's labour reforms seen as threatening workers' rights, the separate Up All Night (Nuit Debout) movement is an omnibus of causes.

Participants may be fighting for the environment, against Islamophobia and homophobia, for better housing, against unhealthy food - or all of the above.

In the wake of the November militant attacks in Paris, many are also opposed to the state of emergency that remains in effect.

Up All Night - begun in Paris and now picked up to around 50 other cities across France, as well as to Belgium and Spain - means occupying central city squares overnight and vacating them in the morning.

"Get Indignant!" is painted on a paving stone in the vast Paris square, a nod to Spain's Indignados, who gave rise to the far-left Podemos party.

Up All Night also emulates the anti-capitalist Occupy movement and Greece's anti-austerity 700 Euro Generation.

"We haven't seen this for a long time," said Mr Emeric Degui, 33, an activist with Desobeir (Disobey). The protests against the labour reforms have "awakened awareness".

The atmosphere is festive, with street theatre and music, a variety of food stalls and many people swigging beers.

But the organisation is disciplined, with daily general assemblies and a variety of committees handling practical and political themes.

Speakers take turns at the podium supposedly limited to two minutes, though prominent economist Frederic Lordon, one of the instigators of the movement, took a bit longer, receiving a thunderous welcome.

"Something is arising," he said. "We are doing something. But what? Without political demands, the movement will die out."

Elsewhere in Paris, students have been at the forefront of weeks of sometimes violent protests over the Socialist government's labour reforms, which will make it easier for struggling companies to fire people.

The reforms, which have already been diluted once in a bid to placate critics, are considered unlikely to achieve their stated goal of reining in unemployment, which stands at 25 percent among young people.

The turnout in the latest of the often tumultuous labour reform protests was down on Saturday compared with a peak of hundreds of thousands on March 31.

But Saturday's Up All Night crowd in Paris, at around 2,000 despite rainy whether, was twice as high as a few nights earlier.

The government has taken a benign but dismissive attitude towards the movement, which has seen no violence in contrast to the street protests against the labour reforms.

An exception occurred late on Saturday, when several hundred people headed from the Place de la Republique towards the central Paris home of Prime Minister Manuel Valls but were turned away by riot police using tear gas.

Mr Valls was not home at the time.

"I don't dispute the fact that... people need to ask questions and that should be respected," government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said on Wednesday. "There's no need for concern."

Sociologist Albert Ogien told AFP: "It's a modern form of political action, outside of parties, unions, without leaders, without an agenda that says 'we are discussing among citizens what needs to be done'."

But left-wing activist and filmmaker Francois Ruffin, another architect of Up All Night, said: "It's not a spontaneous movement. There's been a lot of work, meetings... It's a voluntary movement that has tapped a latent desire to overcome resignation (to the status quo)."

The movement is still in its early stages, and "has to mature", said Mr Ruffin, who directed a recent hit film about outsourcing labour. "There are lots of unknowns."