France’s bosses, and the politicians that back them, have been trying to ram through such neo-liberal “reforms” for over a decade, but have faced continuous resistance from workers and the left.
In December 1995 Tory prime minister Alain Juppé tried to push through a number of neo?liberal reforms. These included attacks on public sector pensions, increased health service charges, cuts to benefits, a public sector wage freeze and plans for partial privatisation of the telephone service.
Juppé boasted that his predecessors for the past 30 years had wanted to push through such reforms, but had been scared to take on the unions. But Juppé had miscalculated, making the mistake of taking on the entire public sector working class all at once.
A month of strikes by two million public sector workers forced the government to drop most of its plans, though it did not directly bring the government down. It limped on for two more years before being defeated by the Socialists in 1997.
Villepin, at the centre of today’s battle, was Juppé’s chief of staff (directeur de cabinet) and urged him not to back down even when all his other advisers were calling for retreat.
The ruling class regrouped and returned to the offensive with different tactics. Tory prime minister Jean-Pierre Rafarrin was far more calculating than Juppé, avoiding confrontations with key groups of militant workers such as those on the railways.
But he would not have succeeded if the union leaders had delivered sufficient united action.
In May and June 2003 a huge workers’ movement took to the streets to oppose Raffarin’s plans. There was a very high level of rank and file organisation.
But the leaderships of the main trade union confederations in France preached demoralisation and defeatism because the Tories had won both the general election and presidential election in 2002.
The strategy of one-day general strikes called at weekly intervals failed. Different trade union federations cut deals with Raffarin, weakening the movement and eventually leading to its defeat.
Last May the French ruling class tried to secure an even broader victory by passing the European Union (EU) constitution. This document, which would have institutionalised neo-liberalism in France, was backed by both the Tory parties and the centre left Socialists.
But the constitution was defeated in a referendum by a grassroots movement that brought together anti-globalisation activists, trade unionists and militants from most of France’s left wing parties.
That no vote sent both the Tories and the Socialists into crisis. President Jacques Chirac was forced to sack his prime minister Rafarrin and install Villepin. The Socialist Party was consumed by arguments over what went wrong.
The most significant difference between today’s protest and those of 2003 is the political spirit brought in by the students. The understanding that the CPE labour laws are a concern for all French workers, not just the young, has been strongest among them.
The student movement has also displayed a much better understanding of last November’s banlieue uprising than much of the traditional French far left.
That political spirit displayed by the student movement has created real links between them and the banlieue youth. It has also prevented Villepin’s attempts to divide the movement by playing off allegedly “privileged” university students against the young people of the suburbs.
The question is whether that political spirit generalises into the working class and energises the anti-CPE movement to push for stronger action.
Today there is a chance for the local organisations thrown up during the EU constitution campaign to join with the student and youth movement and the developing rank and file union networks. This will strengthen the movement against the CPE and neo-liberalism.
This can both defeat the CPE and open a new chapter of French politics, with a powerful left alternative to the main parties.