The present movement against the CPE labour laws contains elements of all the struggles in France against neo-liberalism of the past decade—and is in some ways a culmination of each of them.
For example, the movement against attacks on pensions in 2003 was defeated when the CFDT union federation did a deal with the government. But this has made it harder for the unions to be played off against each other today.
The CFDT lost over 100,000 members as a result of the stance it took in 2003. Its awareness of the risk it runs in breaking the unity of the movement has been one factor in keeping it on board so far.
The government, and the media, have also tried to split the movement by playing up the role of the so called “casseurs” (rioters).
The worst violence has been perpetrated by the police—one trade unionist, Cyril Ferez, still lies in a coma after being trampled by riot police in Paris on 18 March.
But the scale of the movement means that France’s social crisis is reflected in it too, in all its messy reality.
Mostly anger has been directed against the intimidating presence of riot police. But at times there have been skirmishes between marchers and groups of youths hovering on the fringes of demonstrations.
Demonstrators responded on Tuesday of last week with disciplined and carefully stewarded contingents. In most cities this response led to fewer such skirmishes.
The movement has provided a focus for the discontent of millions whose lives have been put at the mercy of the market. Its ability to overcome obstacles to unity will determine how effective this focus becomes.
High school students, for example, know from their long fight against education reforms last year that they cannot win if they are isolated. Students have therefore been very quick to seize the initiative and build links with workers.
Last Sunday the national coordination of the student movement issued a call for an indefinite general strike from Tuesday of this week.
It acknowledged how hard it can be to build such a general strike, noting that students in Rennes took action against the CPE for a week before others joined them.
“From Wednesday 5 April, we call on university and high school students to join workers and their local unions in a day of action directed towards workplaces—leafleting, blockades, factory and office occupations,” the student declaration reads. “The aim is to support the strikers and to encourage mass meetings to spread the movement.”