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Paris Spring? Social Media And The Spread Of European Solidarity Protests

June marks the fifth month of Nuit Debout (Standing Night) a movement that sprung from earlier protests by young people against the French government’s labor law reform. On March 31, 2016, an informal group of a dozen citizens from Fakir, a left-wing activist magazine, used the #mars40 Twitter hashtag to launch a public demonstration in and subsequent occupation of Place de la République in Paris. Since its debut, a crowd has gathered every evening on the square. Participants and activists come together to share their discontents, proposals, and ideals for a new society. Nuit Debout has now become an international movement, with gatherings in more than 266 cities in France and 130 other cities in Europe.

Focusing on this movement, our aim here is twofold: first, to explain the historical context for the ongoing labor struggle of young people in France and, second, to examine movement-making from the viewpoint of actors linked to street protests and to social media networks on Facebook and Twitter. In The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy (Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2006), Manuel Castells and Gustavo Cardoso assert, “what is new is the microelectronics-based, networking technologies that provide new capacities to an old form of social organization networks” (p. 4). Thus, we find the use of social media networks to mobilize others toward activism online and/or on the ground is illustrated in Nuit Debout’s practices integrating social media platforms into its organizing structure. To situate the field of current protests, we must begin by analyzing the power relations between student unions and the French government led by François Hollande.

Despite this movement’s rapid growth, its rise in France was not without precedence. Since late February, all the elements have been at play for the emergence of a movement similar to that of the Spanish indignados and the 2011 US Occupy movement. The right-wing labor reform presented by the French government in February would be the spark that set fire to the outrages accumulated by progressive citizens toward neoliberal reforms conducted by the ruling Socialist Party. Then, on March 9, 2016, tens of thousands of students and young people demonstrated against President Hollande’s endorsement of the law commonly known as El Khomri to set limits on the 35-hour workweek. Following these demonstrations, the French government modified its labor laws, but not sufficiently to end the students’ dissatisfaction. As the National Union of Students of France (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, UNEF) argued, the proposed law reforms still fail to consider young people’s needs. UNEF president William Martinet expressed students’ continued dissent against El Khomri and called for another mobilization for March 17.

Responding to the succession of neoliberal reforms conducted by the Socialist Party government, French progressives have denounced the party. However, recent proposals to reform labor rights were only another episode in a series that has included a wide set of laws proposed by Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron as well as the long debate on the exclusion from French nationality of bi-national citizens associated with countries linked to terrorist attacks. Internal struggles and splits have also devastated the Green Party and the left-wing Left Front Party (Front de Gauche). The nationalist and xenophobic National Front has framed itself as the sole alternative and keeps criticizing both the Socialist Party and the right-wing Republicans (Les Républicains) as fake opponents and part of the same game. This sentiment has been widely echoed among voters, making the Left Front a favorite among French youth. Yet, with issues unresolved, many have felt an absence of real political party alternatives.

Occupying a public square and proposing to change politics from below would become the only options remaining for disappointed progressive citizens. Thus, the main aims of Nuit Debout are to challenge the centrality of representative democracy and to generate local solutions by empowering citizens. Maintaining their distance from all political parties, citizens on the square have strongly denounced the Socialist Party’s “treason.” They have also directly opposed the National Front, notably by welcoming migrants and refugees into the movement. Fundamentally grassroots, Nuit Debout is also essentially a technologically orchestrated network.

Launching Nuit Debout, organizers set up a website, community page on Facebook, a hashtag (#NuitDebout), and a Twitter page. To date, the Nuit Debout Twitter account has 47,700 followers, and their Facebook page has generated 162,493 likes. As the movement progresses, several other hashtags have also been established, and other popular Twitter sites associated with this movement including @Printemps Social and @cieJolieMome have been launched. In addition, Nuit Debout has established a dedicated channel on YouTube and the online radio station RadioDebout.

An historical analysis of tweets posted on Twitter requires first examining how this platform is organized differently from Facebook. As Dhiraj Murthy describes in “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Social Media: Theorizing Twitter,” individuals using Twitter are understood to be participating in their own forms of microblogging. Tweets are aggregated according to hashtags. When a hashtag refers to a particular event, organizers have likely set up a page where all the corresponding tweets (posted messages) will appear for those who run a keyword search on Twitter. Therefore, for users to contribute a post to a hashtag requires access to a personal Twitter account as well as knowledge of the existing hashtag. Generally, in terms of interactions, users viewing an event page participate by re-tweeting messages to their personal page for their followers to read. Alternatively, according to Murthy, users may upload information in the form of links, articles, pictures, or videos composing “user-generated news” for others to share (p. 1,062). Unlike Facebook, however, Twitter’s interface is not set up for prolonged discussion and debate among multiple users. Twitter is better understood in terms of its function as a repository of knowledge based on hashtags originating from diverse social media platforms.

For Nuit Debout, Twitter has been essential in diffusing information to other cities and in sharing details about events held at the movement’s center in Paris. Tweets have represented people’s experiences of events collected in real time and instantly archived. Composed entirely of user-produced information, Twitter provides a rich data source for researchers to learn more about events and study socially generated forms of knowledge.

To conduct an analysis of #nuitdebout, we used the hashtag tracker Keyhole.co (for the period spanning from March 31 to April 8, 2016). Reviewing usage data, we found that Twitter has played a multifunctional role in the Nuit Debout movement. Whereas organizers use Twitter posts to coordinate protests, participant contributions using #nuitdebout serve as photo documentaries of the political work of activists on the square. Furthermore, because Twitter has no geographical boundaries, its use has enabled Nuit Debout to become a European movement. Miguel Urban Crespo, the European Parliament Deputy for Podemos, has endorsed the movement. Spanish activists have also set up apps and software to foster wider participation and enable more secure communications. These efforts have further enabled RadioDebout and TVDebout to gather a large nightly online audience.

Similar to Twitter, interacting with others on Facebook requires that users have an account. Unlike Twitter, however, communication may be limited to closed networks of “friends” who must be granted access to join private Facebook groups and view their webpages. Without admitted access, the general public cannot view or contribute posts to designated Facebook pages (as is the case for Nuit Debout). With an account and access, however, Facebook also enables cross posting to different social media platforms. Thus, messages posted on Facebook using a Twitter hashtag can be published simultaneously on multiple social media sites.

In “From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements,” Lauren Langman notes, “electronic communication media have unique capacities to create democratic, participatory realms in cyberspace devoted to information and debates” (p. 45). Examining the relational and social history of the Nuit Debout protests as captured on Facebook, we find ways in which this movement has incorporated social media to establish and expand its efforts. Organizers have used Facebook to solicit volunteers, provide details on its meetings and events, and schedule daily activities. The movement and the medium were joined for the former’s inception.

To launch the movement, Nuit Debout organizers (Convergences des Luttes) set up a community group page on Facebook on March 31. That evening, participants were shown a satirical film about labor injustice by Francois Ruffin titled Merci patron! Then, the organizational structure was introduced in the form of general assemblies. This was followed by a music concert where HK & les Saltimbanks performed. This Facebook post generated 116 likes and 43 shares, and estimates of the number of people who attended the protest range from hundreds of thousands to 1 million.

The following day, organizers posted another announcement for participants to continue the protest on Place de la République. This post received 112 likes and 27 shares. Initiating a public discussion, a photo of that evening’s protests posted the next day generated 1,000 likes and 52 comments. Via Facebook comments, individuals then began to offer support for the movement and express desire to have it spread to other European cities. New and increasingly diverse voices soon joined the discussion.

International contributions to Nuit Debout are further illustrated by the creation of solidarity movements arising since the movement’s inception. The recent global day of action held on May 15, 2016, provides an example of the movement’s reach. Participants of these international solidarity movements represented more than 300 cities in 28 countries on this planned day of action. Corresponding activities featured on select country’s Facebook pages included the recruitment of followers on social media in London, political rallies in solidarity to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Indignados movement in Spain, working-group debates and votes on proposals in Brussels, as well as public assemblies and debates on feminism and gender/aboriginal discrimination in Montreal. Overall, citizens have been creating meaningful social interactions situated in processes to occupy public spaces in countries spanning the globe from Italy to Brazil.

In the social media posts, some individuals make references to the working class and lost power; others encourage protesters to continue the demonstrations and retain their dream for change. Some have even suggested that perhaps this is the start of the People’s Spring. Although the reasons for mobilizing as well as the actions engaged are various, recognition that something must change unites participants. This follows Cardoso’s description of atomized individuals who collaborate on the “basis of self-defined projects” in a “network of similar subjects” (p. 24). The very process of exchange via social media, he states, can create social meaning for individuals to determine how to rebuild society (p. 24).

Having a public platform has also been used to counteract physical acts aimed at shutting down the protests. On April 2, local French police once again evacuated Place de la République. Pictures of the evacuation posted on Facebook prompted myriad responses. Social media posts expressed concerns regarding a need for unity in the movement, increased work hours, unfair trade deals, and government corruption. Participants and organizers mobilized further. The next day, April 3, people were invited to participate in live coffee talks, and documentation of those activities was then posted on Facebook. The first live broadcast from Place de la République also aired on Facebook that night, with tens of thousands watching online. A post with a picture of that evening’s demonstrations subsequently garnered 3,500 shares and 250 comments.

As Nuit Debout continues, so do the public discussions on social media. These include political critiques, calls to overthrow the government, and comments about how people are waking up to take control of their futures through this movement. Despite the social media platform, participants have also noted the lack of traditional media coverage; yet, they persist in their efforts, expressing a feeling of solidarity and empowerment. On April 4, discussions on Facebook referred to May 1968 and the use of direct democracy strategies. A petition-signing campaign was then announced on Facebook, and organic farmers soon joined the movement. In just a few days, public communication using Facebook seems to have propelled a transformation: discussions have evolved from speaking about issues to motivating changes in people’s perceptions of their capacity to drive social change.

The relational aspect of these interactions also shows how use of Facebook is different from Twitter. Extended discussions on Facebook among large numbers of people show the importance of social media for producing discursive forms of interactions that highlight public issues that are meaningful and can be considered as mobilizing frames. In this movement, there are a plurality of actors and no single frame to explain mobilization. The social movement’s identities are also diverse, ranging from class and ethnicity to education and union affiliation. Via social media, international activists have also been drawn into a shared struggle with French activists. While adopting repertoires from past movements, Nuit Debout has also employed innovate methods to contribute to other solidarity movements. Nuit Debout activists are performing direct democratic practices while sharing a public space that is virtual and online yet also very physical and based at a tangible public square. Such protest tactics were and are seen in other movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s Indignados/15M, all of which attempt to unite a diverse citizenry in a struggle against economic injustice imposed by neoliberalism.

The articulation of everyday life and political activism are at the core of activism and the social movements of our times. Social media networks have come to be seen as privileged spaces of mobilization, diffusion of information, and exchanges of experiences. Nuit Debout has inspired many recent protest movements that have multiplied via online connections. It has also (re)connected numerous “online activists” to local spaces, meetings, and initiatives in their neighbourhoods and towns. At Place de la République, as in many Occupy camps, social networks have also forged experiences both on-site and online. In Paris, as in many cities before, citizens have occupied public spaces to reaffirm their public and political character, re-deploying the meaning and repertoire of “temporary autonomous zones” (a term coined by Hakim Bey in his eponymously titled TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism), alter-globalization activists’ camps, and spaces of democratic experimentation. These physical connections have been so essential that different movements have come to be identified with the spaces they occupied: Tahrir in Cairo, Plaza del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma in Athens, Gezi Park in Istanbul, Zuccotti Park in New York, Chistye Prudy in Moscow. Mobilizations on the streets and in public squares have often been strengthened, not replaced, by online activism.

The false disconnection between activism on and offline points to another questionable disconnection: between everyday life and politics. Political participation is often considered from an analytical angle that disconnects public space from everyday life (which nowadays includes the Internet), as if only those actions reflecting political institutions and reiterated in the mass media mattered. By contrast, todays’ movements mark the beginning of a return: this decade demonstrates a profoundly amalgamated private life and public involvement. Friendship, social ties, and commitments are linked amidst a viral diffusion of alternative information, militant experiences, and Occupy camps. To express oneself and to live a strong personal experience are an integral part of a form of activism that, as Dominique Cardon argues in La démocratie Internet (Seuil, 2010), “does not expect a ‘coming out’ as was the case with the militant figure that was ready to sacrifice her private life so as to devote herself to the general wellbeing” (p. 72). More than any other medium, social media such as Twitter and Facebook mix private life and public involvement, yielding platforms for individual expression and collective action.

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Christine Emeran

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