BY SUSAN AUSTIN
PARIS — The second European Social Forum, held in Paris from November 12-15, attracted around 50,000 people, mainly from the countries of the Europe Union. The ESF is modeled on the World Social Forum (WSF), held for the last three years in Brazil, and seeks to provide a venue for discussions between activists within the various movements fighting against neo-liberal globalisation.
The ESF consisted of 625 plenaries, seminars and workshops.
Additional events included the European Assembly on Women's Rights on November 12 at the Bobigny site, where 3000 people met to discuss themes of "women and war", "migrant women", "work, poverty and employment insecurity", "violence against women", "sexual and reproductive rights" and "women and political power". Among other initiatives to come out of the conference, a European network for abortion rights was set up.
European forums of trade unions, MPs, local social forums, children, civil disobedience activists, independent media, migration, peace activists, and artistic and cultural resistances were also held throughout the week.
The first ESF, held in Florence last November, attracted 60,000 participants and featured a one-million-strong march against the impending US war on Iraq.
From 'reservoir of discontent'
Although the mainstream English-language media largely ignored the event, George Monbiot, commented in the November 18 British Guardian daily: "The delegates were, [mainly young and] on the whole, far better informed about the big issues than most of our MPs and journalists." He noted that its participants were "drawn from a bottomless reservoir of discontent in Europe".
Indeed, throughout the forum, many participants reflected on the massive mobilisations that have occurred within the EU over the previous year. These include protests and strikes in France at the beginning of northern summer against pension cuts, the huge upsurge of anti-war protests earlier this year across Europe, 100,000 people demonstrating in Berlin on November 1 against welfare cuts — just to mention a few.
A major theme to emerge during the ESF was "What kind of Europe?" Discussions about how to relate to the EU's institutions and its draft constitution flourished.
In a seminar on "Europe: a rival power or an alternative to American hegemony", Jean-Paul Hebert from the Red-Green Alliance in France stated: "Europe has been pushed into the arms race (including nuclear weapons), in competition with the US, and this is completely against any peaceful vision of the world."
A speaker from the Irish Socialist Workers Party and the Irish anti-war movement, pointed out that EU countries — most of which are militarily alliance with the US through NATO — a imperialist role in the world similar to that of the United States. "It is not necessary to build up the institutions of the EU in order to bring the people together", he argued. The chairperson concluded by stating that "We need to oppose the power of America on a political, not a military level".
In a well-attended plenary on "Europe within liberal globalisation", held on November 15, Susan George from ATTAC France, accused Britain of being Washington's Trojan horse in the EU. She claimed that the responsibility lies with "Europe" to propose a "universal model" that attracts other countries and rivals the US. This would involve taxing the financial market, building a solidarity fund with the Third World, environmental protection, supporting public services, etc.
In the same plenary, Monbiot argued for a world parliament, for replacing the International Monetary Fund and World Bank with an international clearing union, and for a "fair trade" organisation with global rules to "reign in" multinational corporations. He stated that "without global democracy, local and national democracy is impossible", giving Brazil as an example of the failure of national democracy to oppose international capitalist forces like the IMF.
Throughout the ESF, the draft EU constitution was condemned for making competition policy primary, for giving a role to NATO on foreign policy and European defence and for pushing Europe towards further militarisation.
Also high on the agenda were discussions on the anti-war movement. Rahul Mahjane from United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition in the United States spoke at a plenary on November 13 on "Iraq: neo-liberal globalisation, occupation and the new colonialism". He argued that it would be difficult to achieve self-determination for the Iraqi people without a carefully controlled UN peacekeeping force using non-US troops.
In opposition to this view, George Galloway from Stop the War Coalition in Britain said: "Iraqi people have every moral, legal and political right to confront their occupiers. Iraqi people will not accept peacekeepers — they want the international community to get out of their country without delay." He added: "We have to stop thinking like imperialists".
A huge demonstration of up to 200,000 people marched through the streets of Paris on November 15, united under the theme: "For a Europe of rights in a world without war". Beginning at the Place de la Republique, the march took over five hours before the last contingents reached the Nation metro station. It was lively, spirited, colourful and diverse, with big percussion, rock and pop music floats, a brass band or two, a couple of huge puppets and a contingent of queer cheerleaders. Banner, stickers, badges, flags, newspapers and leaflets abounded in many different languages.
It was the first time that the Paris ESF participants were able to come together and appreciate their numbers and their strength. Most people reported it to be very empowering — a young Austrian woman I spoke to said she would return to Austria feeling much less alone in her convictions.
Calls for action
Following the WSF model, there was no space for democratic decision making within the ESF program. However, a separate Assembly of Social Movements and Activists was held on the morning of November 16 in order to make concrete plans for action for the coming period. About 3000 people attended. They listened to many speakers summarising the main sessions and issued calls to action.
A declaration, written by representatives from different organisations who met the night before, was well received when it was read out. This outlined two priorities. The first was the campaign calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq, and of Israeli troops from the occupied Palestinian territories. Russia's war on Chechnya was highlighted as Europe's forgotten war.
The assembly took up the call by the US ANSWER anti-war coalition and adopted March 20 as the date for the next big international day of action against the occupations of Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya.
Throughout the conference, speakers from Britain's Stop the War Coalition and others encouraged everyone to go to London for the big "Welcome Bush" anti-war demonstrations on and around November 20.
The second stated priority was to campaign against "neoliberal Europe" and its proposed constitution.
The EU constitution is due to be ratified on May 9. The assembly called for national mobilisations in the next few weeks and months, leading up to EU-wide demonstrations on that day, possibly converging in Rome, to demand the scrapping or postponement of the constitution. As one Italian speaker said: "People we talk to say the constitution is 'shit'. We cannot accept 'shit' for our future".
A call was made for further solidarity actions for the seven activists still under arrest after joining an anti-globalisation protest at the EU summit in June in Saloniki, Greece. Five are currently on a hunger strike to protest against their imprisonment, one of whom is also protesting against his threatened deportation to Syria, where he faces life imprisonment for refusing to perform military service. The Greek government is attempting to use them as scapegoats for the introduction of a new "anti-terrorist" law.
Other initiatives that were announced included a "Caravan for peace and justice" involving hundreds of European solidarity activists visiting Palestine, Iraq, Israel, Kurdistan and Iran, beginning March 22 next year. Many organisations and individuals are supporting the formation of a one-year independent international tribunal that would hold war crimes hearings in Brussels, Istanbul and other places. This will commence on April 14.
A common complaint of participants was that dividing the ESF between four different suburbs and districts around Paris (Paris, Bobigny, Saint Denis and Ivry), weakened the forum. Participants often spent hours on the metro getting between sessions, and it was difficult to gain a sense of unity and numbers. Many found that the Paris ESF compared poorly to Florence, where the whole forum was held in one central area, food was cheap, there were no private security guards having a say about who entered venues and the atmosphere was more vibrant and cohesive.
Many participants remarked that speakers on the panels, sitting at the front tables, were more conservative than the audience, and did not represent the fresh, youthful, radical movements on the ground. Some complained that it was the Paris ESF was "too academic" and "formal" and that the discussions were sometimes unfocused, with a lack of sharp debate.
Prior to the Paris ESF, ATTAC France argued to slow the process down to bi-annual meetings, but at an ESF organising assembly in Paris on November 10, a sense of urgency prevailed. It was decided to hold the next ESF in November 2004 in London. However, there were debates between British groups about the process that was used in putting forward the bid, with many feeling as though it was done in secret.
An Italian-French delegation will visit London on December 13-14 in order to assist the setting up of open and transparent structures. Athens was proposed to host ESF in 2005.
The fourth World Social Forum will be held in Mumbai, India, next January.
From Green Left Weekly, November 26, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.