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1In France, spring 2016 was marked by a wave of strikes and protests against a proposed bill to reform the Labor Code. It was in this context that protesters, on Thursday, 31 March 2016, once again filled the streets throughout France and especially in Paris, with the CRS riot police lining the protests, and trade unionists brandishing smoke bombs. That night, however, after the protest, a crowd gathered on the Place de la République and began “Nuit Debout” (“Up All Night”): a stand for the housing rights association Droit au logement (DAL) was set up, a general assembly was held, and speeches and round tables took place over the following days. Every evening until June, crowds continued to gather on the Place de la République, with long general assemblies, concerts, and the establishment of various labor “commissions”. Nuit Debout also spread outside the capital, but unless otherwise indicated, our focus will be the movement centered on Place de la République in Paris.

2This gathering of “converging struggles”—according to the call to arms of some initiators—brought with it a plethora of slogans (such as “we are the missing people”, “general strike”, and “they have billions, we are millions”) and demands, in the form of at least sixty “commissions” (covering areas such as feminism, environmentalism, the constitution, and animal liberation), along with speeches at the general assembly that was held each evening and during which a variety of causes were raised. Amid this tumult, one of the rallying cries of Nuit Debout was précarité (precarity): “NO to precarity”. This term was a clear vehicle to express anger (Image 1). The term précarité, which in French literally means “that of which the future is not assured” (Petit Robert), is difficult to define precisely, [2] because it covers situations and living conditions that are manifestly very diverse: in this way, it is like an “empty signifier”, to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s term, which makes it politically useful. [3] Along the same lines, some external commentaries spoke of déclassement (declassing), once again without giving a precise definition. Others saw it as a protest of “gutter punks”, or conversely as “privileged white males engaging in interactions without the immigrants, banlieues, and the true proletariat” and therefore “made by Whites for Whites, made by the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie, made by bohos for bohos”. [4]

Image 1. Expressing a Divide in the Political Representation of Precarity

Figure 2

Image 1. Expressing a Divide in the Political Representation of Precarity

Photo: Pierre Blavier, Place de la République, Sunday, 10 April 2016. (The sign reads: “The precariat bothers the Socialist Party - Why? - How?”)

3Under these conditions, this article aims to provide empirical documentation of the social characteristics of those present at Nuit Debout Place de la République, and the extent to which a notion like “declassing”, which is supported by a vast literature in the social sciences, constitutes one of the keys to understanding it, among other possibilities and among a multitude of modes of presence: observers, activists, angry precariat, pick-up artists, and others.

4Our hypothesis is that Nuit Debout Place de la République partly reflected the growing difficulty that French young people face finding job opportunities despite their increasing number of academic qualifications, which is a consequence of the 2008 recession, but more broadly part of a deeper trend over several decades. [5] This phenomenon of declassing was present in Nuit Debout but took on a very sectorial dimension: despite being from the more privileged classes of French society, a large proportion of those present were “cultural creators” working in areas of employment in crisis, i.e. where the conditions of access and job performance have changed as a result of public policy reforms on both the right and the left since the 1990s and because of the impact of digital technologies. The relative concentration but also limitation of recruitment pools to the Île-de-France region is one of the explanations, among others, for the sudden and time-limited nature of Nuit Debout as a public gathering in a square. [6] The characteristics of those present also help us understand how this protest took the new form of a friendly and sociable occupation of Place de la République. [7]

5In support of this hypothesis, in this article we have undertaken a sociography of the “nuit-deboutistes”, borrowing from Georges Rudé’s classic work on the French Revolution the idea that it is important to produce material on who the people present in public gatherings are, in particular with regards to their social properties. [8]

6First, we will show that they had paradoxical sociological characteristics. On the one hand, several traits connected them to the more privileged classes, with a limited but non-negligible presence from the working classes (blue-collar workers and, in particular, employees). On the other hand, several indications suggested the comingling of different levels and forms of declassing, beyond the presence of the homeless.

7This observation led us to remark that many of these individuals were in a position of socio-professional declassing, as evidenced by the gap between their qualifications and their situation in the job market. Their presence reflects an apparent devaluing of academic degrees and the prospects associated with them for young French graduates, a trend that has developed since the expansion of higher education at the end of the 1980s. Describing their profiles in reference to their questionnaires suggests that attention should be paid to the sectorial aspect of declassing, which is often overlooked in debates on this topic.

8In the case of Nuit Debout, in fact, this declassing was strongly linked to particular areas of study and employment: the professional worlds of culture, the university, and in particular the humanities, the media, and to a lesser degree, computer and non-profit work. These main sectors share the paradox of being connected to cultural production and having a competent and therefore uninhibited relationship to politics, but with no visible forms of mobilization such as strikes or mass demonstrations. This situation may explain their inclination for this type of “happening”: the occupation of a public square, its media exposure, and the friendly and professional social interactions associated with it. These aspects help us understand the sociable activities that developed on the square as well as the limited spread of this mobilization to other social milieux and its relative restriction to the Paris region.

Presentation of the Survey Conducted Using On-Site Questionnaires

9Our work is based on the large body of media and editorial coverage that has appeared on Nuit Debout since it began on 31 March 2016, but in particular on a collective survey carried out on site from Friday, 8 April 2016, exactly one week after the first evening of occupation (Thursday, 31 March 2016). Conducting research during the movement created temporal pressure but had the advantage of avoiding the bias of a retrospective survey. [9] A survey group with no dedicated funding was formed from two main sources: teacher-researchers in the human sciences and students at the École normale supérieure of Cachan. [10] As a result, n = 511 questionnaires were conducted face-to-face by a dozen researchers at a time, who split up to cover the entire site on six different days (8-11 May 2016) and at different times, between 5 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. The questionnaire asked about previous community involvement and involvement in the movement as well as the sociodemographic characteristics of the respondents, who were selected randomly (one in ten). The rate of refusal [11] of 14% was in the normal range for this type of face-to-face survey at the site of a political protest, especially as it included persons outside the frame of reference (persons present on the Place de la République but without a connection to Nuit Debout). [12] Even participants from an anarchist or libertarian background had a positive reaction to the questionnaire. The time spent on the questionnaire, between 15 and 45 minutes, was closer to the technique of a standing interview: the use of three open-ended questions and the associated follow-ups often led researchers to fill the margins of the questionnaire with notes and pursue the interaction further.

10This type of questionnaire survey was similar to those first conducted at the G8 counter-summits during the late 1990s, [13] and then for other movements occupying public spaces after the Arab Spring in 2011, to which we will refer below to provide elements of comparison. [14]

The Over-Representation of Privileged Fringes of French Society

11As we have seen, Nuit Debout was criticized for being a movement of privileged people “with strong social homogeneity”.

12In fact, the people present came mostly from central Paris: 53% of those present compared to 40% from the banlieue (7% from outside Île-de-France), whereas on the scale of the conurbation, the latter are in the majority (ten million in the suburbs compared to two million in central Paris). This result relates in part to the ease of transportation to Place de la République. Two-thirds were men, a ratio that we found reflected in various surveys and observations of other Nuit Debout locations. It was a highly educated crowd: two-thirds of those present had pursued studies in higher education, while the rate is closer to 32% for the French population as a whole. [15] These observations are similar to those made for other occupy movements, where the levels of qualification are consistently much higher than those of the national population. This trait is no doubt related in part to the expansion of education that has taken place in recent decades. It is therefore no surprise that white-collar workers (cadres) were largely over-represented in Nuit Debout: 41% of the active population present fell into this category as opposed to 15% in the active population in France (30% in Île-de-France—Graph 1), and a high proportion had parents in management (41% of those present had a father in management as opposed to 13% in the active population in France, 12% had two parents in management as opposed to 1.8% in France—Table 1). [16] All of these characteristics appear to describe a population from the upper levels of French society.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for the Persons Present at Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Active population aged 21-65
Nuit Debout
Active population aged 21-65
France as a whole
(FQP, 2014)
Active population aged 21-65
(FQP, 2014)
Active population aged 21-65
France as a whole
(Emploi survey, 2014)
Indicators of activity and socio-professional situation
Unemployment rate20%9%10%10%
Rate of unemployed graduates9%1%2%2%
Rate of unemployed with degrees*47%24%28%24%
Rate of professional declassing31%21%22%22%
Rate of intergenerational declassing19%14%16%14%
Rate of upward social mobility17%17%20%17%
Social background
Father in management42%14%23%13%
Two parents in management16.6%2%5%2%
Level of education
No diploma or certificate9%21%20%18%
Higher education degree72%34%46%37%
Tableau 1

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for the Persons Present at Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Sources: Nuit Debout survey, 2016; Formation et qualification professionnelle (FQP) survey, Insee, 2014-2015; Emploi survey, Insee, 2014. The scope is limited to the active population between the ages of 21 and 65. With these controls, the results naturally appear very close to these two public sector surveys, to which we will refer alternatively below. All of these percentages were rounded up to the nearest unit.

Box 1. Classification of Professions and Socio-Professional Categories (professions et catégories socio-professionnelles or PCS)

Classifying the PCS of the people surveyed required us to take a certain number of decisions. [17] First, some jobs were statutorily difficult to classify. We were for example inclined to classify doctoral candidates, artists, and people working in the non-profit sector, who were indeed well-represented in the Place de la République, as “management”. However, their working conditions are so heterogeneous that the category would have lost its meaning, as shown by these examples from our questionnaire: what does an agrégation-holding student of the École Normale doing a doctorate at Sciences Po have in common with an unfunded doctoral candidate in sociology who self-defines as “living in precarity”? What does a “musician on public assistance” have in common with a part-time director of a television program on a major public channel? Their social origins are not the same, nor their careers, nor their life prospects. For non-profit workers, the problem has already been well-established by the work of Mathieu Hély. [18] Finally, for some professions, it was difficult to account for internal statutory distinctions, for example between doctors working in hospitals (code 34 in the PCS nomenclature) or in private practice (31), [19] secondary school teachers (management, 341a) or primary school teachers (intermediate professions, 42), or for manual professions (plumber”, “landscaper”, “courier”) performed as a salaried employee (blue-collar worker, code 63), independent contractor (code 21), or self-employed. These differences determine even the most aggregate levels of the PCS. The catering professions were equally difficult to classify precisely, which reflects in part the reality on the ground.

13These data show that the distribution by PCS of the Nuit Debout participants did not entirely correspond to that of France as a whole, or the Île-de-France region (Graph 1). Managerial staff were over-represented while blue-collar workers and in particular employees were under-represented. Drilling down to the two-digit PCS [20] (Graph 2) shows that corporate management (37), qualified industrial workers (62, operators, assembly-line workers, maintenance technicians, etc.), public sector employees (52, postal or telecommunications agents, administrative personnel, or the medical and social care services), and commercial employees (55, in other words, salespeople, cashiers, etc.) had little representation in Nuit Debout.

Indications of a Certain Social Vulnerability

14Looking more closely, however, the sociography of Nuit Debout was not so clear. One surprise finding from the first evening of assessment (conducted Saturday, 9 April 2016 across the 103 questionnaires gathered the night before) was in fact a very high rate of unemployment: 21%, more than twice the national average in spring 2016 (around 10%). [21] As a result, the researchers were asked to record as much information as possible on the education and professional situation of the people surveyed, and to introduce questions related to precarity. The result, while partly reflective of availability due to personal circumstances, is doubly striking because it contrasts with the sociological characteristics presented above and because it goes against the portrayal of the unemployed as more removed from civic life and less likely to mobilize. [22] While this observation may hold true for the unemployed as a whole, the situation is more nuanced here, as a large number of unemployed people were present in the Nuit Debout movement. Who were they? Many of them held university degrees (45%, compared to 18% of unemployed people in Île-de-France). If we look at our entire sample, we can see that 6% of the people in our sample were unemployed graduates, which is both a small proportion and much greater than the 1% that they represent in the French population. Nevertheless, the Place de la République was marked by preexisting

Graph 1. Numerical Distribution by PCS among the Active Population at Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Figure 3

Graph 1. Numerical Distribution by PCS among the Active Population at Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Scope: * active population aged 21-65 (limits set by the FQP survey), not including undocumented workers, homeless persons, unemployed without PCS, and doctoral candidates. N = 279.
Interpretation: Among this population, 7% were artisans, business owners, and company heads, a rate equivalent to that of the population of France or Île-de-France.
From a strictly technical perspective, concerning the statistical significance of the differences observed in these small groups, we should note that it is problematic to speak of random sampling with a reference population as poorly defined as that present at Nuit Debout and that it is difficult to provide the significance level of each difference because this depends on the value of the percentages. To give a sense of the numbers involved, a difference of at least five percentage points is statistically significant at the threshold of 90%.
Source: Nuit Debout survey (2016, link to data) and FQP survey (2015).

15hierarchies. [23] As in the French population as a whole, there was a lower level of unemployment among the active graduates present (n = 252) (11%) compared to the non-graduates (n = 94, including 38 unemployed individuals, or a rate of 40%).

16Our sample also included seventeen homeless persons, five squatters, four living in housing for migrant or young workers, four undocumented workers, and a dozen persons for whom the questionnaire did not allow us to provide a clear answer. These individuals made it difficult to compare our data with that from the major public statistical surveys, which do not include them. However, they were present and represent 7.5% of our sample, almost equivalent to the unemployed graduates and a much greater percentage than in the French population as a whole. They were particularly present on the western side of the Place de la République, but we also encountered them around the general assembly, near which the “nomads” commission was held. Several of them told us that they had come for the association Droit au logement, a housing rights group, which was one of the initiators of the movement (see Box 2 below).  [24] Serious poverty was therefore also present, just as it was in Occupy Wall Street. [25] In Spain, the mayor of Madrid at the time, Esperanza Aguirre (from the right-wing Partido Popular) had called the Indignados “gutter punks” (“perroflautas” in Spanish). This method of disqualification is part of a long tradition of hostility to social movements, which have been seen historically as fomenting disorder and violence. [26]

17The fact that almost 40% of the people surveyed declared that they had difficulty making ends meet, an order of magnitude equivalent to France as a whole, [27] supports this finding; similarly, 45% declared that they had “had a hard time in recent years” and others expressed their “fear of tough times in the years to come”. [28] When we asked them to explain why, in the context of an open question, more than half mentioned the difficulty of finding a job. Finally, the working classes were more present than was often stated in ballpark estimates, albeit apparently under-represented in relation to the French population as a whole: groups of blue-collar workers and employees each represented about 10% of the active population of our sample, which is less than their proportion in Île-de-France (respectively 13.5% and 24.5%) where they are already under-represented in comparison with other regions (respectively 21.2% and 27.8% in France as a whole—Table 1).

18All of these elements suggest that the Nuit Debout participants were not as privileged as some of their representations in the media implied, and that varying degrees of “hard times were not unknown to many of the people present. Several forms of precarity were indeed present on Place de la République, with a high unemployment rate, a non-negligible number of homeless people and their equivalent, and involvement from the working classes, despite their under-representation.

Graph 2. Distribution by Two-Digit PCS of the Active Population of Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Figure 4

Graph 2. Distribution by Two-Digit PCS of the Active Population of Nuit Debout Place de la République Compared to French Society

Scope: * active population aged 21-65 (limits set by the FQP survey), not including undocumented workers, homeless persons, unemployed without PCS, and doctoral candidates. N = 279.€
Interpretation: Among this population, a little more than 4% were teacher-researchers in higher education, while this group makes up less than 1% of the population of France or Île-de-France.€
Technical note: **under “artistic professions”, we grouped together the following professions and socio-professional categories (PCS): “fine artists” (354a), “music and song artists” (354b), “dramatic artists” (354c), “dance, circus, and various performance artists” (354d), “art professors (outside school establishments)” (354g), as well as “artistic and technical-artistic managers of audiovisual and performance production” (PCS 353c). “Journalists” included the PCS categories “journalists (including editors-in-chief)” (352a) and “newspaper editors, managing editors, and publishing directors (literary, musical, audiovisual)” (PCS 353a).
Source: Nuit Debout survey (2016) and FQP survey (2015).

Image 2. Example of Spontaneous Demands: The Problem of Living Conditions

Figure 5

Image 2. Example of Spontaneous Demands: The Problem of Living Conditions

Photo: Pierre Blavier, Place de la République, Sunday, 10 April 2016.

Nuit Debout, a Movement of the Declassed?

19In this context, these elements of sociography led us to introduce the perspective of declassing as a way to explain, at least in part, this paradoxical sociological composition. This concept forms part of a long tradition of research on the propensity of the declassed [29] to protest in relation to the precarization of the job market, particularly among young graduates in France but also in other countries that have experienced a major expansion of education. [30] It relates to the Anglo-American notion of “overeducation”, or the increase in the number of people with “too many qualifications” compared to the job openings available after graduating, and brews a sense of frustration that may lead to revolt. [31] Thus, revolutions like those in England in the seventeenth century [32] or more recently in Tunisia (2011) took place in situations characterized by a strong imbalance between qualifications and the job market. [33] The collision between a context of recession and several decades of academic expansion may therefore have contributed to Nuit Debout.

20To operationalize this concept, we can define the declassed as blue-collar workers and employees who hold a post-baccalaureate degree, based on the idea that this degree should have led to a different professional career. [34] As such, the individuals defined here as professionally declassed are those people with a higher education degree who are blue-collar workers, employees, or unemployed. They were over-represented in Nuit Debout, representing 31% of the active population aged 21 to 65 participating in the movement, as opposed to 22% in French society as a whole. However, this gap reflects an effect of grouping by age: if we limit ourselves to the active population aged 21 to 35, the professional declassed accounted for 33% of the total, or a rate almost identical to the national rate (31%). [35] To put it another way, this phenomenon was widely present in Nuit Debout, especially for those under 35, and corresponds in fact to a contemporary sociological reality: the relative devaluation of higher education degrees on the job market, at least in the early career years, which has reached historic levels greatly surpassing what Pierre Bourdieu was referring to when talking about “monnaie de singe” (funny money). [36]

21Our argument is not to make this a causal factor on an individual scale but simply to keep in mind that Nuit Debout took place in this social context. These graduates experience lower levels of unemployment than non-graduates but many, at least in the beginning of their careers, have become employees, blue-collar workers, or unemployed. This social fact, which is both simple and strongly evident here, is part of a long-term trend that stretches back to the 1980s (Graph 3), hence the temptation to see it as one of the consequences of academic democratization that was launched under the Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s famous slogan: “80% of a generation at the baccalaureate level”. [37] The 2008 recession did not show a particular increase; it is more a question of a deeper trend reflected in Nuit Debout. Recessions in 1993 and 2008 merely played the role of temporary accelerants.

Graph 3. Incidence of Professional Declassing Among Active French Youth (aged 21-35), 1982-2014

Figure 6

Graph 3. Incidence of Professional Declassing Among Active French Youth (aged 21-35), 1982-2014

Scope: Active population, aged 21-35. The professional declassed are defined as higher education graduates who are blue-collar workers, employees, or unemployed.
Interpretation: In 1988, 10% of the active population aged 21 to 35 were blue-collar workers, employees, or unemployed people with a higher education degree, compared to 30% in 2014.
Notes: This aggregate evolution masks the potential effect of (re)composition of higher education diplomas, in particular due to the rise in short degree paths (BTS, for example), but gives a sense of the trend. [38]
Source: Employment surveys, 1982-2014.

22It was difficult, however, to identify the profiles that corresponded concretely to this category. Inductively, returning to the questionnaires allowed us to identify that the declassed, in the professional sense of the term (n = 122), were mainly divided into three significant categories.  [39] Above all, it is striking to note that they came mainly from associate professions: there were few blue-collar workers or employees, a sign that the declassed of Nuit Debout were not equivalent to the “drops” in the social space studied by Camille Peugny. [40]

23The first group (n = 40) corresponded to the “left hand of the state”, i.e. associate professionals from the public, health, and social work sectors (of which n = 20 were civil servants): primarily youth workers and specialized educators (n = 12), nurses (n = 5), and teachers up to the middle school level (n = 10). [41] They were statutorily declassed, since an increasing number of competitive teaching examinations require the baccalaureate plus five years of study despite no change in their career prospects and pay. Many were union members (n = 19) and more militant, like the French teacher from a middle school in the Paris suburbs encountered in mid-May, with whom an informal “Debout interview” was conducted.


Wearing red glasses and short leather boots, this single 35-year-old is a certified teacher of German in a middle school in the Paris suburbs and union representative with the FSU (thanks to which her schedule has been adjusted). Her mother is a philosophy professor and activist for the political party Les Verts, and her father is an engineer for a public agency and activist for Amnesty International. She participates in a self-managed middle school project for alternative teaching methods due to be implemented in 2022, quotes Dario Fo (“Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!”) as a cultural reference with whom she connects politically, and voted for the Front de gauche in 2012. She took part in the establishment of a local Nuit Debout in the banlieue, created after an interprofessional and intersyndical general assembly held prior to 31 March in a community center, and which mostly involved other teachers who met during previous protests along with CGT representatives and some high school students from high schools where protests were immediately suppressed by police.
The local and weekly Nuit Debout continued for several weeks, supported in part by the mayor’s office, which, in her opinion, prevented the expansion of the movement. Yet the majority of participants were teachers from local schools, CGT representatives known for being the parents of students and who brought materials, a few part-time theater workers from the nearby theater, and some undocumented squatters assisted by Droit au logement as well as other people that she identified (a labor inspector, a doctoral candidate in sociology, and a lecturer in math). Following this local involvement, she and some of her colleagues began going to Nuit Debout République on 31 March. Since that time, she has returned “every two or three days after work or on Sunday”, in particular to organize the “Education Debout” and “Democracy” commissions to which she has “the most to contribute”. She is enthusiastic but exhausted by these months of activity.

25The Nuit Debout participants often had parents with activist experience, especially in May ’68, the Communist Party, or the non-profit sector. Those who came to Nuit Debout were more from the activist fringes of these professions, for example to organize the Education Debout commission. This category was already present in the alter-globalization protests. [42]

26The second identifiable group (n = 26) of declassed was the group most closely corresponding to the representation of declassing according to the reasoning described above: the young unemployed graduates whom we saw as over-represented on the Place de la République. Three had returned to school, two had stopped studying, five had just graduated and not yet started work, six mentioned part-time jobs, three their aspirations relating to the arts or journalism, and three were immigrants with a higher education degree from abroad. This population, with no union or party affiliation, did not take much part in the protests against the labor law (n = 8) but had a high level of involvement with charitable associations (n = 19). They were also involved in Nuit Debout; all said they knew people on the Place de la République (mostly friends), a third came every day, and half had brought materials or participated in a commission, at markedly higher rates compared to the rest of the sample. They were the spearheads of the movement, with which they were familiar. Their presence can also be explained by their apparent availability due to personal circumstances, and close relationship to politics due to their degrees, which were almost all in the humanities.

27Finally, the last group (n = 34) included the “members of art worlds” described by Howard Becker, i.e. technicians working behind the scenes and to a lesser extent in the media; audiovisual assistants, photographers, translators, and proofreaders. [43] They were partially connected to the previous group through intermittent unemployment, for example an assistant film editor unemployed between two contracts. Some had very operational roles (IT technician, usher) but shared their presence in the sector of culture and information (for example, publishing houses, theater, press, and TV). Moreover, many of them had received artistic training (n = 14, including five in the audiovisual sector) or in the humanities (five in sociology, four in history, and three in literature). Like the former group, they were neither trade unionists nor partisans but very involved in the non-profit sector. All of these traits reflect those of the petite bourgeoisie studied by Anaïs Collet in Montreuil and on the slopes of the Croix-Rouge in Lyon in the context of gentrification, with Collet noting their higher level of activity in the non-profit sector rather than in politics. [44] Of course, not all of them aspired to become artists or authors, but that is the frame of reference in relation to which they were structurally in a position of relative subordination. Some were independent contractors, some had the status of casual performing arts workers, and the majority were on a salaried contract. This latter group was useful as it sent us in search of a declassing that was no longer generalized but sectorial, restricted to particular sectors of employment that we will now analyze.

The Sectorial Dimension of Mobilization

28To operationalize the hypothesis of sectorial declassing, we coded a synthetic variable focused on the employment sector, i.e. the professional sphere of practice rather than the conditions of employment (status and PCS among other conditions). This allowed us to see that some sectors of employment were highly represented at Nuit Debout (Graph 4), bringing together almost half of those present under the category of what we have called “cultural creators”: the worlds of the arts, teaching and in particular higher education, and to a lesser extent the media and non-profit associations were omnipresent in Nuit Debout. The first two groups, in terms of their absolute representation on the Place de la République, accounted for a quarter of those present. The media was less sizeable in absolute terms, but with 6% of those present, it was well represented compared to its proportion in France or even Paris. We did not expect this sectorial composition, which is closer to that of the G8 counter-summits of the 2000s, [45] albeit less militant and international, or to the “new classes” that supported the new social movements of the 1980s. [46] Indeed, this sectorial dimension went relatively unnoticed, both in the media and in the responses to our questionnaire when we asked “who was on the square”. Finally, related sectors—the non-profit sector and the digital sector—were present, albeit to a much smaller degree. How should the large-scale mobilization of these professional fields be understood?

29First, the three main sectors share the fact of having been in deep crisis for two decades, faced with fundamental changes even as their respective sizes have greatly increased: reforms of the status of casual workers and the university, challenges to the business model of the media, and growing numbers of students in higher education. [47] These three sectors have been affected by the expansion of education, which has increased the number of candidates,

Graph 4. Division by Professional Sector

Figure 7

Graph 4. Division by Professional Sector

Scope: All individuals, n = 511.
Interpretation: “care” corresponds to the “medical and social care professions”, the unemployed were those whose profession we were not able to determine, and management relates to persons from the private sector who did not belong to any of the other sectors indicated here. The percentage corresponds to the entire sample (n = 511). Where we were unable to determine a precise sector of employment or when it was in a very small minority, we left the PCS (for example, “employee”).
Source: Nuit Debout survey, 2016.

Image 3. The Presence of University Workers Living in Precarity

Figure 8

Image 3. The Presence of University Workers Living in Precarity

Photo: Pierre Blavier, Place de la République, Paris, Sunday, 10 April 2016.

30intensified competition, and indirectly eroded working conditions. [48] There have therefore been substantial modifications in professional conditions of practice, the spaces available, and the conditions for entry. [49] These professions were the ones that were mentioned most often when we asked people what their ideal profession would be, with some working in them responding with humor: “Mine!

31These changes have created a much larger breeding ground for protest and increased political defiance due to the fact that these sectors depend in large part on public funding. This funding has been the object of periodical reform over two decades, under governments on both the right and the social-democratic left, which have tended to receive more of their support, leading to feelings of defiance and a lack of political representation among these “dominated dominators”. [50] These sectors therefore imported their sectorial struggles and militant networks to the Place de la République, as suggested by the clear correspondence between this representation of the public on the square and the network of individuals initiating Nuit Debout as we describe it below (Box 2). Casual performing arts workers were fully mobilized (occupying the Théâtre de l’Odéon in conjunction with Nuit Debout on 25 April 2016) against a new reform of their status [51] and university workers had come from a series of protests against various reforms. [52]

32These spheres had recently experienced political shocks due to the attacks of November 2015 and the Manif pour tous (a protest movement against same-sex marriage) since 2012. In terms of the November 2015 attacks, an analysis of the 130 victims who were killed reveals that they corresponded in part to the groups present in Nuit Debout: young people (albeit a little older) and several arts professionals (although a little more “trendy” than those in Nuit Debout), as well as theater and media professionals, but with more music-loving engineers (probably in relation to the metal concert playing that evening) and more non-Parisians and some foreigners (perhaps in relation to tourist interest in a night at the Bataclan?), fewer teachers and public sector employees than at Nuit Debout, and of course no homeless people. [53] As for the Manif pour tous, it broke with the values currently defended by these professional sectors: defending secularism, the environment, refugees, and against homophobia and racism.

33Secondly, these employment sectors correspond to those of the initiators of Nuit Debout. It is possible that they called on their networks of activists but also their professional and social networks. Even if they only made up a portion of those present, it is striking to note a certain congruence between these professional fields and those of the initiators of this public gathering—which does not mean that the meaning given to this protest was decided or determined in advance by this initial group.

Box 2. The Initiators of Nuit Debout

The declaration of a “static protest” addressed to the Prefect of Paris on 29 March 2016 provides some initial information about the movement’s instigators. It was signed by nine people, including the journalist François Ruffin and the former Parti de Gauche (PG) activist Leila Chaibi, but also by three associations (legal entities): Droit au logement, represented by its president Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, the union federation SUD-PTT, and Attac, represented by its co-president Thomas Coutrot. This declaration to the prefecture followed the “Leur faire peur (Scare them)” meeting organized by Fakir at the labor exchange on 23 February 2016 for the showing of the film Merci patron! (Thank you, boss!) (François Ruffin, 2016, 84 minutes). According to what we have been able to reconstruct from a body of journalistic sources, available in particular on the site Fakir, there were “close to a thousand people” present, including some who spoke: François Ruffin and Johanna Silva (from Fakir), employees of Air France (Karine Monségu, CGT trade unionist), Sephora, and Goodyear, a national secretary of the Confédération paysanne, teachers opposed to the middle school reform, Romain of the FSU, a representative of the NDDL collective in Nantes, several CGT trade unionists, Hervé Kempf (Reporterre), Serge Halimi (Monde diplomatique), Loïc Canitrot (Jolie Môme company), the filmmakers Marianna Otero and Gérard Mordillat, a member of the citizen collective Les Engraineurs, the Attac economist and Insee administrator Thomas Coutrot, and Nicolas Galepides from SUD-PTT. Frédéric Lordon was invited but due to gastroenteritis, he had to cancel at the last minute and sent his apologies. Finally, music was played by the group La Fanfare Invisible. Without going into a detailed analysis of those assembled, it is clear that Nuit Debout began with a coalition of experienced activists and their networks, disproving the idea of a spontaneous movement. This “inner core” of founders brought together left-wing media personalities (Halimi, Kempf, Ruffin), public and private trade unionists involved in recent struggles, a few artist-activists (Jolie Môme, Mordiallat), and two economists outside the university (Coutrot, Lordon). There was also overlap with the alter-globalist network as reconstituted by Olivier Fillieule, Philippe Blanchard, Eric Agrikoliansky, Marko Bandler, Florence Passy, and Isabelle Sommier. They were joined by the “Zadiste” (Zone à défendre) network of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, also known as “Appeliste” in reference to the writings of the Invisible Committee.

34Thirdly, Nuit Debout Place de la République became a place of professional socializing, in other words, an occasion to see colleagues, talk, and get news, which was particularly useful if they belonged to other institutions with no opportunity to “run into” them otherwise. Take, for example, the political science professor who told us he had come “to see what was going on” but also because he knew that he would see a colleague, the person who was accompanying him at the time. As many of the respondents to our questionnaire stated, “by coming here, I knew I would see people I know”, people that they had met either at the Place de la République or before. Others told us that they came with colleagues after work around six in the evening. Observing the square one evening, we noted that only a quarter of those present were alone, while everyone else was in groups of at least two people. [54] The fact that more than 60% stated that they “knew someone on the square”, including colleagues, follows along the same lines. The same logic applies for high school and university students who described their presence in the context of a protest organized by their high school or university—for example, those from University of Paris VIII and Nanterre, two universities that had a high level of mobilization judging by their representation on the square, and were partially shut down due to protest in spring 2016. It is not impossible that the logic of professional pressure was also involved, to the point that it was detrimental not to show up at least once “to see what was going on”. In the case of journalists or university specialists in social movements, this interest was combined with direct professional interests, and the opportunity to “have a subject” only a metro ride away. [55] It also explains the media’s general enthusiasm for Nuit Debout.

35Moreover, this sociability was testament to the attraction of a new, friendly, and even festive form of protest in these social circles and beyond: a manner of “doing politics another way”, one that allowed for intermittent commitment, a certain openness, and that broke with the more traditional methods of action (for example, protest marches or involvement in a political party). A variety of activities took place on the Place de la République, of which we can only give a glimpse here, but that should be the subject of a “thick description”: impromptu gardens, building objects such as chairs from palette wood, singing and dancing, talks by university and non-university intellectuals, and setting up “stands” that would require their own description (“standing cantina”, book stalls, representation for other social movements, and more). Most importantly, major space was given to debating ideas and discussing democratic issues in “commissions” and at the daily general assembly held in the early evening, which could gather several hundred persons. In some respects, this public gathering offered a “market of ideas” that corresponded to the skills and aspirations of the social groups we have described.

36* * *

37The notion of professional declassing is pertinent to the analysis of Nuit Debout, but only if both the profiles it covers and its sectorial dimension are considered. The remote yet powerful effects of the expansion of education in recent decades were undoubtedly expressed in the movement. Behind their composite characteristics, Nuit Debout participants were recruited mainly from the artistic, media, and academic fields, all three of which are in crisis. From this point of view, the movement brought together a group that was broader than often claimed, but in the end somewhat limited socially. They were of course accompanied, to a lesser extent, by the homeless and by professionals from what Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”. [56]

38This sociological composition does not invalidate Patrice Maniglier’s explanation but nuances his interpretation of Nuit Debout in terms of hegemony and generalized defiance and adds to his explanation of the movement’s exhaustion due to poor organization of the general assembly. [57] In fact, we saw that the social space of those present was largely structured by particular professional spheres and that they naturally imprinted their agenda but also their appetite for “doing politics another way”. This was reflected by a friendly and active occupation with major space dedicated to debate. The mobilization was highly sectorial but also very geographically concentrated, which may be one explanation for the apparent failure of Nuit Debout to spread, given the concentration of these sectors in Paris, explaining the sudden but brief nature of this occupation of the square. [58]


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    Encountered for the most part in the seminar “Sens du juste et sens de la réalité sociale” by Alain Cottereau and Stéphane Baciocchi; for some there was a connection through similar survey practices, in particular in the context of the seminar “Ethnographie des engagements” led by Alexandra Bidet, Manuel Boutet, Frédérique Chave, Carole Gayet-Viaud, and Erwan Le Méner.
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    Matthieu Hély, Les métamorphoses du monde associatif, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2009, 2. The FQP survey makes it possible to pinpoint non-profit workers through the status of their employer.
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    We have taken this information from what is available in the list established by Mediapart: <>
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    Several practical observational indicators allowed us to identify groups: posture (for example, proximity, holding hands, being in a circle) or exchanges of words or objects (for example, clothing, bottles, pens). The only time when these criteria were no use for observing interactions was during the general assembly, which was not included in this observation.
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    One of the rare reasons for refusing to participate in the questionnaire was given by working journalists.
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    Bourdieu, On the State.
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    Maniglier, “Nuit Debout: une experience de pensée”.
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    This work benefitted from the discussions resulting from its presentation in the seminars “Transformations radicales des mondes contemporains” (TRAM, EHESS, June 2016) and “Les collectifs d’enquête, XIXe-XXe siècle” (EHESS, November 2016), study days with students in political science at the University Lille II (September 2016), the conference “Usages et représentations politiques de la nuit à l’époque contemporaine” (University of Poitiers, November 2016), the study day “Qualifier la contestation: insurrection, violence politique, manifestations en 2016” (Paris, CRESPPA, EHESS, December 2016), and the conference “Les expérimentations démocratiques aujourd’hui: convergences, fragmentations, portées politiques” (MSH Paris Nord, 26-28 January 2017).

This article investigates empirically what were the social features of the people gathering at Nuit Debout place de la République in Paris in spring 2016, by resting on a questionnaire survey realized in situ. This allows testing the hypothesis that Nuit Debout is linked with the socio-professional difficulties endured by the French youth, in a context of strong rising level of education. Although most of the presents come from the upper class of French Society, they are cultural creatives experiencing deteriorating labor conditions. The concentration of these milieus in the Parisian region may explain why this mobilization has remained sudden and limited, as well as its novelty: a convivial and sociable meeting in a public square.


  • Nuit Debout
  • Sociography
  • Precarity
  • Downward Mobility
  • Public Gathering
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