Staking a Place for Speech #NuitDebout

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“Thou shalt not kill” on the base of the Marianne statue in Place de la Republique.

Armed police smiled and looked mildly bored, leaning up against their van at the edge of the square; but then this night was fairly quiet. Included amongst the various tents, stalls and ‘commissions’ set up across the Place de la Republique was a commission for the victims of police violence; a too-frequent occurrence during the last several months of gatherings and demonstrations.

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Ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and throughout the aftermath of the November terrorist attacks, Place de la Republique has been a focal point for commemoration, solidarity and political discussion. Now, every night, people gather to listen to speakers on a great variety of issues. In spite of the relative quiet, in around 15 minutes we had heard speakers in their different sections talking about organic ecology, the EU, Afro-French identity and racism.

There was a relaxed, collectivist atmosphere accompanying the proceedings. Music played from various quarters; the main concern in the marquee marked “Logistique” was which direction the blunt was to be passed; you could stand and observe the live radio broadcast in production no more than ten feet away from the guy speaking about the importance of organic farming. In some ways it felt more like a miniature village, albeit one constantly in festival mode.

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The Marianne figure on the statue is the embodiment of the French Republic. She holds aloft an olive branch, and in her other hand clutches the Rights of Man, a landmark document for human rights as well as in French political history. To graffiti such a monument might seem like a profane act, but it comes from a spirit of defiance to any and all oppression. These are adornments absolutely in keeping with the symbolic meaning of the statue, not disrespectful scrawls.

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Nuit Debout attracts people from across the political landscape, but in some sense it seems that the point is not really what is being said. Ultimately, these are people staking out a claim to their city; people who wish to gather and discuss freely, who have grievances and opinions and will not stop coming here to air them whether terrorism or policing seeks to prevent them from doing so.

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