Inside France's New Kind of Nightly Protests

Jun 07, 2016

It started as a protest against proposed reforms that would loosen France’s complex labor regulations. On March 31, thousands of people — most of them young — converged on Paris’ Republique Square. Their goal: to stay up all night in a new form of demonstration that would force the government to take notice.

Called Nuit Debout — "Standing Up All Night" — the movement has spread to more than 80 cities in France and abroad, attracting people from different backgrounds and with different demands. For French photographer Stephane Lagoutte, Nuit Debout echoes other protest movements across the globe, from “The Indignant” on Syntagma Square in Athens to Occupy Wall Street in New York. “I wasn’t there for those, so if something was going to happen here, I wanted to witness it,” he says.

At first, the movement purposely lacked leadership. Anyone could address the crowd as dozens of speakers succeeded each other all night long. But, as the weeks passed, a sort of central governance took form; stands were set up and tents were installed. “People started helping each other,” says Lagoutte. “The crowd included families, people in need, people looking to speak up and some who wanted a drink or to party.”

Some nights turned violent as marginal groups infiltrated the movement to face off with police forces. But overall, the movement has remained peaceful and continues unabated, despite the French government’s steadfast resolve in pushing forward with its reforms.

Now, after almost three months, Lagoutte feels that Nuit Debout needs to become more mature if protesters want to truly make a difference. “The fervor comes from a sense of disenchantment against politicians,” he says. “The leftist government has failed to prove it was independent from powerful financial institutions. This led to the feeling that if true change is to come in this world, it had to come from citizens themselves. But this movement needs to mutate if it wants to lead to something concrete.”

Stephane Lagoutte is a French photographer represented by the MYOP photo agency.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

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