This year on March 31, a citizen movement, ‘Nuit Debout’ began in Paris. Similar to ‘Occupy’ in the USA or London and to the ‘Indignados’ in Spain, this movement had a tumultuous beginning. At its origin: a thought-provoking film and a good amount of media censorship.
On 24 February 2016, journalist François Ruffin released his first film, ‘Merci Patron’ (Thanks Boss). A refreshing documentary in which he takes on the challenge to bring financial reparation to a couple of factory workers from North of France. Both were dismissed after the textile factory they were working for got relocated to Poland, in order to find cheap labour. His plan is to get the CEO of the group, the billionaire Bernard Arnault, who owns the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy textile company, to compensate them. The film takes a comic tone to a sadly common issue of exploited and easily replaceable under-qualified low-paid labour. After numerous upheaval, the couple wins. The company agrees to give them 40,000 euros and a permanent contract is even offered at a supermarket to the man of the couple. However, there is a special condition to it that they have to remain silent about the money and the job offer. Indeed, if there is one thing the billionaire doesn’t want, it is to inspire the other 200 workers that got unjustly dismissed from their job to also ask for financial compensation from the textile company.
Once the film was completed, another battle started for the director Ruffin, promoting it on mainstream media. Indeed, Bernard Arnault, the billionaire in the film, does not only own a clothing business, he also owns nationally read French newspapers Le Parisien and Les Echos, who serve him mostly as promotion platform for his luxury textile industry business. Despite the fact that the documentary attracted a significant number of viewers the first week it was released, Le Parisien, one of the most read daily paper in France, was not inclined to publish any article about it. Unfortunately for Arnault, the French journalist union from the newspaper got hold of the case and denounced the censorship from the direction of the newspaper:
‘Order was given to the colleagues from the culture department of the newspaper, who had watched the film, to not write anything about it, even ten lines. Similarly, a proposal from the political department about the media hype that the movie generated was also rejected on the pretext that it was a ‘militant subject’ and that there were other priorities that day.’
To that, the chief editor of Le Parisien simply answered: “It’s my choice, I have to take such decisions all the time.” Expected, the newspaper did not mention the film in its pages. Only on 14 March, an article was published in the newspaper. A short brief of 83 words, simply giving a very narrow synopsis of the documentary. Why did Le Parisien ended up writing something about it? Because the hype around the censorship of film was too big to be ignored.
The word got out
What really revealed this to the public eye was the cancellation of an invitation of Ruffin on a nationally broadcasted radio, Europe 1. The radio station does not even belong to the billionaire we see in the film. So, why was the invitation canceled? Simply, the radio is owned by another billionaire, Arnaud Lagardère, who is a major advertiser for Bernard Arnault’s companies. Therefore, as billionaire friends, they certainly could not to give bad press to one another. That is why Ruffin’s invitation was cancelled.
In an online interview, Ruffin told that he was managed to talk to the anchor in charge of doing the interview, who confirmed that the decision came from ‘above’. From there, it was known that a media censorship against the documentary existed. This could be greatly affecting the credibility of the these French media.
Therefore, a couple of days after the invitation was cancelled, the radio resent an invitation to the director of the film, as if nothing had happened before. Another political interviewer, known to be rough, was picked to face Ruffin. However, both Ruffin and the new interviewer were hostile. Therefore, nothing interesting came out from the interview. Ruffin left after 7 minutes instead of the originally planned 10 minutes. However, as a last gesture, he insisted to give a plastic bone to the interviewer, in order to symbolise that the journalist was a good ‘watchdog’ for the media company and his owner.
The trigger for something bigger
Like in the film, in the end it all worked out. All these failed attempts of censorship acted as great promotion for the film, which ended up having a significant viewers turn up for such a light budget documentary, which could not profit from the usual distribution circuit. Even more significant regarding the success of the film: ‘Merci Patron’ acted as a catalyst for the gathering of thousands of French people in République Square in Paris.
On 31 March, ’Nuit Debout’ was born. At the beginning the major focus of the movement was to block the new coming labor law which significantly diminished the workers’ rights and increase the precariousness of their conditions. But quickly, other movements joined the protest: some fighting against homelessness, some focusing on migrants’ rights, some focusing on ecological issues. That is the strength of the movement: it manages to converge different struggles.
Once again, the media played their part (especially television channels) and did not significantly cover the movement for a few days. But as weeks passed, it became impossible to ignore the movement. Despite the media efforts to diminish and marginalise the protests, everyday, thousands are still gathering in République Square. Furthermore, new gatherings labeled as Nuit Debout are spreading in Western Europe cities such as Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Germany and more.
Freedom of what?
However, one significant issue remains. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the world (or at least the West) was asking for the right to mock or parody everything without distinction and without fearing repercussions, violent or not. The case of the documentary film ‘Merci Patron’ proves that such demands are unrealistic and partial.
Indeed, it seems that when media mocks the poor, the minorities or the socially excluded, the content that can be harmful to these populations is widely promoted and protected but when certain productions come close to hurting the image of the power institutions or its gate keepers, freedom of expression is not the topic anymore. Everything that could threaten the established order is eliminated from our screens, our papers, or our radio. That is what happened to ‘Merci Patron.’
Exceptionally, it managed to pull through the noisy censorship, which made more good than harm to the film. But this is a exceptional case, and in a neo-liberal society where media are managed as banks or insurance companies, it is hard to be sure that other journalistic initiatives similar to ‘Merci Patron’ will also manage to get pass the media barriers. Fortunately, this time, the public wasn’t fooled, and reacted with the ‘Nuit Debout’ movement.