Success for second European Social Forum

by Murray Smith.

Murray Smith is an international officer of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and a leader of the International Socialist Movement (ISM), a Marxist current within it.

The second European Social Forum (ESF) took place in the Paris region 12-15 November. One year on from the highly successful first ESF in Florence in November 2002, the first challenge was to maintain the momentum. The challenge was met. Over three days, more than 50,000 people took part in fifty-six general assemblies and more than 250 seminars, a figure comparable to the 60,000 in Florence last year. There was no possibility of repeating the million-strong anti-war demonstration that closed the ESF in Florence, but the highly colourful and internationalist demonstration of 100,000 in Paris on November 15 can be counted as a success.

The forum was spread over three communes of the Parisian "Red Belt" suburbs—Saint-Denis, Bobigny and Ivry—and the La Villette neighbourhood of north-east Paris. Compared to Florence, this gave it a much more dispersed character, and it was difficult for participants to get an overall picture of the scale of the event as it unfolded. However, the other side of the picture was that this dispersion facilitated the participation of the inhabitants of these working-class areas, which might not have been so easy had the forum been held, for example, in central Paris.

Besides the French participants, who were obviously the majority, sizeable delegations came from other European countries, particularly Britain, Italy and Spain, many of them very young. And in a welcome development, for the first time there were significant delegations from central and eastern Europe—1000 from Hungary, 200 unemployed workers from Poland, several dozen Chechens. Delegations also came from further afield, from the United States, Latin America and North Africa.

On the eve of the ESF itself, the European Assembly for the Rights of Women took place . For a whole day, 2500 women from forty-three countries (and 500 men) took part in a program that covered such themes as violence against women, the right to work and reproductive rights. The day finished with a demonstration of 5000 through the streets of Bobigny. The success of the assembly had repercussions in the way the dimension of women's oppression was incorporated into the debates of the forum. It also encouraged the involvement of working-class women from the Parisian suburbs. And the participation of women as platform speakers in the forum's assemblies and seminars was reinforced.

An extremely positive aspect of the forum was the involvement of trade unions. Some of the more radical unions in Europe were of course in on the ground floor of the altermondialisation movement1—from France, the G10 Solidaires regroupment of independent unions and the main teachers' union, FSU, from Italy the COBAS independent unions and the FIOM (metalworkers' federation of the main union confederation, the CGIL). But others came on board this year, in particular the French CGT, the German IGMetall, the Belgian CSC (Christian Workers' Confederation) and the CGIL as a whole. Even the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) was represented by its general secretary, John Monks.2

Several themes emerged from the forum. The most important was certainly the question of the relationship between the altermondialisation movement and social movements in general on the one hand and political parties on the other. Since its beginnings, the movement has always been wary of the direct involvement of political parties. Nevertheless, parties have always been indirectly present. No-one could ignore the role played by the Brazilian Workers' Party in the three World Social Forums that have been held at Porto Alegre. In France the relationship between political parties on the one hand and trade unions and social movements on the other is particularly delicate. Historically the trade union and political wings of the workers' movement grew up independently of each other. But subsequently unions and other mass organisations were subordinated and manipulated by the Communist and Socialist parties. This was particularly the case under the governments of the left over the last twenty years, and it has led to deep mistrust by trade unionists of all political parties and to strict independence from them. For example, the radical G10 Solidaires grouping politely declined an invitation to the recent congress of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionaire [LCR] on the basis that the union made a principle of attending no political party congresses, while indicating its willingness to meet a delegation of the Ligue after the congress.

Nevertheless, this opposition between parties and social movements is beginning to break down. On an international level, this is a consequence of the very success of the altermondialisation movement. Opposition to neo-liberal globalisation and imperialist war has mobilised millions of people across the globe in forums and mass demonstrations. And yet the economic and political structures that perpetuate them remain in place. The awareness that at some point political action is necessary to tackle them is gradually making its way. In France the political crisis revealed by the presidential elections of 2002 and the massive strike movement of May-June 2003 have sharply posed the necessity of a political alternative. In the anti-globalisation movement ATTAC, for example, discussions now take place that were unimaginable even a year ago—should ATTAC become a political party, or should it help to form one?

The question began to be posed at Florence and was much more at the centre of this year's debates. And once the question is brought out into the open, it quickly becomes clear that the real dividing line is not between political parties and social movements. It is, as LCR leader François Duval wrote during the forum, between "those parties or movements who limit their action to a more or less social accompaniment of globalised capitalism and those, movements or parties, who are fighting for a radical transformation of society. The real choice is not between a political left and a social left. It is between a social-liberal left and a radical anti-capitalist left."3

This choice is now much more clearly perceived by many participants in the movement, who tend, furthermore, to sympathise with the radical anti-capitalist left. This was evident in a debate in which Olivier Besancenot of the LCR took part alongside Marie-George Buffet of the French Communist Party and Elio di Rupo of the Belgian Socialist Party, among others. Di Rupo's appeal to the movement to build a broad alliance "as Lula has known how to do" was greeted with boos and catcalls. Buffet had a better reception, but her verbal anti-capitalism didn't go very far, and when she was asked, "Will you soon be in alliance with Fabius?" (a leader of the right wing of the Socialist Party and presidential hopeful) she had no answer. Besancenot hammered home that there was "no convergence possible between the ESF and Giscard's Convention [on the proposed European Union Constitution], no convergence possible between the WSF of Porto Alegre and Davos". Another platform speaker, Piero Bernocchi of the Italian COBAS unions, argued, "The anti-capitalist left should not serve as a prop for the liberal left. On this point, I salute what the French far left is doing."4

The climate is not, therefore, very favourable for attempts to divert the movement into safe political channels. But such attempts are being made. The French Socialist Party and its co-thinkers elsewhere are trying to present themselves as the only "realistic" way for the movement to find a political expression. The major problem they have, and the reason the Socialist Party has difficulty even getting a hearing in the movement, is that when they get into power they carry out precisely the neo-liberal policies that the movement is committed to fighting.

Some people within the movement are aware of this problem, but are nevertheless seeking to defuse the potential anti-capitalist dynamic. A representative of this trend is Bernard Cassen, honorary president of ATTAC and an influential figure within the altermondialisation movement. Cassen has recently published a book whose aim is clearly to circumscribe the movement within limits that are radical (including demands such as the cancellation of Third World debts) but which remain within the system. He wants in particular to disconnect the forums from the social movements and to "separate in time and even if possible in space the forums and the assemblies of social movements". Cassen and his successor as president of ATTAC, Jacques Nikonoff (a member of the French Communist Party), have been conducting an ongoing campaign of denunciation of the gauchistes ("leftists" or "ultralefts"), by which they mean the anti-capitalist wing of the movement in general and the LCR in particular as the main organised anti-capitalist political force within it.5

During the forum, Cassen posed the question of a political alternative quite clearly: "Is this movement capable of becoming the relay of the political forms inherited from the movements of social emancipation of the nineteenth [sic] century but which have run out of steam today?", adding, "We have never seen a great social force that did not at some point transform itself into a political force".6 Cassen is keeping his options open. It would suit him if sectors of the official left, with whom he maintains friendly relations, were capable of providing this political relay, but he is obviously envisaging taking some kind of initiative himself. In any case, the debate over the need for a new political force, and what kind, is now well and truly launched. ATTAC has written to a series of political figures—mainly from the left of the Socialist Party and the Greens, but including Alain Krivine of the LCR—asking for their opinions on the question.

Many more themes were debated than can be dealt with here. One debate that will continue concerns Islam in European societies and in particular in France, where the government, with Socialist Party support, is now envisaging a law that would ban female school students from wearing the Islamic head scarf—an issue that gives rise to a considerable degree of confusion and discord on the left and among teachers. One of the proponents in this debate is the Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, whose presence at the forum was contested by supporters of Israel on the grounds of his supposed anti-Semitism. Ramadan had written an article in which he criticised "Jewish intellectuals" who under cover of defending universal values simply covered up for the policies of the Israeli state. His article certainly contained some unfortunate formulations, and he followed it up with a more balanced contribution, but Ramadan cannot be described as anti-Semitic. He received the support of the LCR and the Greens in particular, not for his ideas but for his right to express them. The organisers of the forum judged that Ramadan had not infringed the values of the movement and he participated in the forum.

As is customary, the forum did not propose any concrete initiatives, precisely in order to maintain its character as a broad forum for discussion. But as is now also customary, although it may not please Bernard Cassen, on November 16 the General Assembly of Social Movements, which can propose concrete initiatives, met. In addition to the multitude of social movements, the principal unions which had taken part in the ESF were present. A year ago the general assembly in Florence launched the initiative for an international day of action against the looming war in Iraq. The result was the massive demonstrations which brought together millions of people on February 15, 2003, certainly the largest coordinated international mobilisation in history. This year the assembly took two initiatives.

The first was to back the call made by the US anti-war movement for an international day of action on March 20. Three demands were put forward as the basis for this international day of action: for an end to the occupation of Iraq, for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories and for an end to the Russian occupation of Chechnya.

The second proposal reflected a subject that had been widely debated within the Forum: the European Union and in particular the projected constitution which is currently under discussion and which enshrines neo-liberalism and militarism. The fight against this constitution, and for referendums to be called in each country to approve or reject it, has been and will continue to be a major theme of the movement in Europe. A call was therefore made for demonstrations across Europe on May 9, the day the Constitution is due to be ratified by the newly enlarged eu.

The next major rendezvous of the movement is the fourth World Social Forum, which will take place in Mumbai in January 2004. And the next ESF is already in the pipeline, to be held in a year's time, probably in London. But beyond such important moments in the building of the "movement of movements", the altermondialisation movement is becoming more and more involved in social and political struggles in different countries. In Germany, for example, the first major mobilisation against the Schröder government's neo-liberal offensive was the 100,000-strong demonstration called by ATTAC-Germany on November 1 in Berlin. In France, local social forums were set up all over the country to prepare the ESF, and they will continue to exist, helping to better base the movement in the communities. In May-June the themes of the altermondialisation movement were very much present in the multitude of debates that were organised.

Four years after Seattle, three years after the first WSF in Porto Alegre, the altermondialisation movement shows no sign of declining in strength and is increasing in political maturity. The second ESF reflected both this vitality and the more and more clearly political debates and choices the movement is faced with. The role of conscious anti-capitalist forces will be key to taking these debates forward and helping to find the articulation between parties and movements in the struggle to prove that "another world is possible".


1. In France the anti-globalisation movement now calls itself the "altermondialisation" movement, in order to stress that it does not refuse globalisation on narrow nationalist grounds, but is for another kind of globalisation. The word is rather unwieldy, but the possible English translation "otherglobalisation" seems even more so.

2. The etuc can hardly be described as in sympathy with the altermondialisation movement. Representing practically all the big union confederations in Europe, it generally goes along with the eu's neo-liberal agenda; Monks appealed for support for the proposed new European Constitution. Nevertheless, the fact that he felt it necessary to be present is indicative of the forum's importance.

3. François Duval, "Un front social et politique", Rouge Quotidien 4, November 16, 2003. The LCR, which played a very active part in the ESF, brought out its newspaper Rouge as a daily for the four days of the forum. Unfortunately the other main far-left organisation in France, Lutte Ouvrière, maintained its attitude of standing aloof from the movement, which it considers as a diversion from the "real" class struggle.

4. The debate was reported in Le Monde, November 16-17, 2003, and Rouge Quotidien 3, November 15, 2003.

5. Bernard Cassen, Tout a commencé B Porto Alegre, Mille forums sociaux, Paris, 2003.

6. Le Monde, November 14, 2003.