PARIS — The word they use is “agora,” the Greek term for a city’s social and political heart.
Since March 31, hundreds of thousands of predominantly young protesters have transformed city squares across the country into spaces where a growing social movement known as “Nuit Debout,” or “Stand Up at Night,” hopes to establish a new agora for France.
Most of these young people have taken to the streets in response to the French government’s proposed labor reforms, which would make it easier for employers to fire employees and challenge France’s famous 35-hour workweek.
But Nuit Debout — rivaling the French student riots of 1968 in numbers, if not fervor — is not a response to a particular policy, even if it may have been inspired by one. It is more general, a sprawling, impromptu, mostly nonviolent grass-roots movement without a clearly articulated program.
In a sense, the demonstrations are France’s version of Occupy Wall Street, an inchoate, amorphous rejection of what members call an unacceptable status quo.
But if Nuit Debout is an initiative fundamentally concerned with French politics and society, it has also welcomed those who take issue with similar themes in their own countries. This week, for instance, thousands applauded as Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, spoke to protesters in Paris.
For Galatée de Larminat, 17, a high school student who lives in the area, the point is “to found a real democracy.”
“Not a representative democracy,” she said Monday, “but a direct democracy that relies on citizen assemblies — a popular assembly, in fact.” In the last two weeks, she says she has come 10 times to Paris’s Place de la République, the unofficial epicenter of the movement. She usually stays for hours at a time.
More specifically, there is also the sense among many protesters that the French government, under François Hollande, a Socialist, has betrayed the leftist cause in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in January and November 2015.
For many in this camp, the proposed labor reforms and the “déchéance de nationalité” — a proposal to strip French nationality from dual citizens convicted of terrorism — were flagrant violations of party values. For others, the state of emergency that Hollande declared after the attacks has merely increased the powers of police to surveil the population.
“It’s not at all a leftist government,” said Maxime Tant, 27, who works in an art museum in Paris. “This is not the socialism of Jean Jaurès.”
“What we have right now is not a democracy but a representative system that’s just aristocratic. A representative system is just that: representation. But a real democracy is power of the people by the people.”
“The Socialist Party right now,” said de Larminat, “is basically a party of the right.”
The movement’s leftist orientation has at times overshadowed its identity as a democratic, universal conversation. Last Saturday night, for instance, Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent French philosopher with conservative views, was heckled and harassed by some protesters as he entered the Place de la République.
For most of those gathered in Paris, the square is a profound symbol because of its nominal connection to the idea of French revolution, the lifeblood of French history — and, to some extent, French public life — after 1789. In the center of the square, a 19th-century statue of Marianne towers over passersby: The avatar of the French Republic, she is the secular patron saint of a state that knows no god.
But the large square is ultimately where Parisians have chosen to express solidarity. It was here that they marched after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and created a de facto memorial after the attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 dead across the city. If it is still a site of public grief, the square is also now where nearly 3,000 people gather every night to discuss, debate and drink.
Every night, there are speeches, demonstrations and sit-ins. There is an area designated for drafting a new French constitution, but there is also a Nuit Debout bookstore and even a Nuit Debout falafel stand.
For Bernard Vatrican, 70, a sociologist, this is the difference between the agora of 2016 and the riots of 1968.
A student in Nice in 1968, Vatrican said he took part in the protests in that year, in which fellow students stormed their universities and caused a general strike that essentially shut down the country for an entire month.
“The revolt then was a revolt against a mode of life, and a revolt of innumerable ideologies. There was the conflict between the Marxists and the Communists, the Trotskyists and the Maoists, the anarchists, et cetera,” he said Monday in the Place de la République.
“What strikes me today is that even though there’s a little bit of that, the majority of people I’ve heard in the last few days are much more tolerant. They listen, they discuss, and what they try to do is construct rather than destruct.”
Nuit Debout began on March 31 and, at least in Paris, has continued even after authorities tore down some temporary structures that protesters built last week.