Nuit Debout: why French students go sleepless

This article is a publication for the European Students for Liberty Blog, which regularly publishes liberty-related news stories. You can check out my articles on my blog profile here.

The unions in France are protesting François Hollande’s new labour law for several weeks now, despite the fact that it has already passed. Unlike masked protesters who burn down cars and throw incendiary devices at police officers, the appearance of Nuit Debout discussion circles have fostered open but largely anti-capitalist dialogue among young people.

Nuit Debout (translates to staying awake at night) is a protest movement against the labour law that is trying to bring more flexibility to a country that sees very high levels of taxation, enormous debt and very low employment rates. This reform (amongst many detailed changes to the Code du Travail, the French Labour Code) would allow certain companies to increase the working week from 35 to 46 hours, even 60 in specific circumstances; for some workers the 11-hour break between shifts could be massively reduced; and in general terms laying off employees will be made easier for companies, who are now hesitant to hire to begin with, as laws protecting employees from being fired are among the strictest in Europe.

This movement effectively gathers people, mostly students, to discuss social change in the streets of Paris, Rennes, Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon aso. The discussions at Nuit Debout  cover a wide range of topics, ranging from the constitution to issues of modern day feminism, all while being separated into different commissions/discussion circles happening simultaneously. A Nuit Debout meetup is always concluded by a general assembly, in which speakers are granted a monologue on any given topic ranging from policy suggestions to presentations of projects. Organisers do not reject anyone from speaking, it’s an open dialogue and ideas are even encouraged to be controversial.

But make no mistake, even though Nuit Debout is a discussion group, the goal of opposing the labour law remains the initial intend, which makes the tendency of the talks fairly one-sided. Organisers of Nuit Debout all are part of extreme left-wing groups, you almost cannot escape the presence sof hammers and sickles. There is hope nonetheless: Students for Liberty Paris regularly joins the discussions and presents students with a real alternative, all while live streaming their speeches on Facebook. There is common ground and there are libertarian ideas where you would expect them the least. Indeed SFL Paris speakers are being applauded at times for concepts like providing for your own social security.


Former Students for Liberty France National Coordinator and founder of the entrepreneurial group Free Startup Project Christophe Seltzer writes in a Facebook post:

“[…] I just talked to a woman in her fifties. […] She handed me ‘Le Bolchevik’ [communist newspaper, edited by the French trotzkist league]. We agreed on the state of emergency and interventionist policy, as well as #EndTheDrugWar. I told her:

‘I must say though that I do not agree with you on the El Khmori law [the labour law]. Seeing employees and employers as enemies is a ‘has been’ for more and more people. Who’s actually talking about independents, craftspeople and employers and employees of SME’s etc.?’

She understood that. […] I told her: ‘I am a libertarian, I want less government, less institutions, I go further than the bourgeois people of the socialist party’.[1]

Christophe’s latest speech at Nuit Debout (in French) can be seen here.

Nuit Debout is another result of students calling for more government intervention, more rules, more taxes, less freedom. But the policy of open dialogue gives hope, hope that beliefs can be challenged, and that the French left will eventually learn that government is not their ally in the fight for more jobs and better pay, but pretty much the cause for the opposite.

[1] Translated from French by myself.

Pictures are Creative Commons and linked to their authors.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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