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The first day of spring had special meaning in Grenoble in 2000. After a decade of struggle, the water of this French town returned to public hands, following a long winter of discontent with water privateer Lyonnaise des Eaux (now known as Suez).

On March 20, the municipal council voted to bring Grenoble’s water services back under public control. More than ten years ago water services were privatized to Lyonnaise des Eaux – despite strong opposition – in a corrupt deal hatched over a high-powered lunch.

After the now-infamous lunch, the campaign swung into high gear. Lyonnaise bailed out a floundering newspaper that backed the candidate they’d bought for mayor. The candidate, Alain Carignon – a former minister in the Chirac government – accepted millions of dollars in bribes.

Propped up by Lyonnaise funds, Carignon won the election and held up his end of the bargain by promptly turning over Grenoble’s water system to Lyonnaise. Massive price hikes soon followed, as did the birth of a citizens’ movement that just wouldn’t go away.

Grenoble citizens used every tool possible to expose the corruption and bribery at the root of the water scheme. And their digging paid off. In 1996 Carignon was tried and found guilty of accepting bribes. Both he and an executive of the Lyonnaise subsidiary received prison terms.

In 1995, activists fought and won several council seats on a platform of returning water to public hands. However, the new council responded to public complaints about private water by creating a new body to manage the water – and then contracting the management out to Lyonnaise de Eaux. Activists won a series of court rulings that overturned the price hikes and nullified both the original 1989 privatization decision and the subsequent contracting-out. But these court victories remained hollow until they were backed up by local political action. That action finally came on March 20.

The timing of the Grenoble council’s rejection of privatization was impeccable.

It’s a delicious irony that water returned to public hands in Grenoble during the World Water Forum, where Lyonnaise des Eaux was trying to consolidate its hold on the world’s water,” said Hans Engelberts, General Secretary of Public Services International, the global public sector trade union confederation which counts CUPE as a member.

The victory in Grenoble shows privatization is reversible,” said Engelberts. “Faced with a rich and powerful multinational that bribed its way into their community, Grenoble citizens didn’t give up. They built coalitions. They influenced local elections. They used the courts. They fought for ten long years, and they finally won.”