The European Social Forum

Recently this site has picked up some new fans, showing a particular interest in things French and offering kind words of encouragement (on their “Links” page). This reminded me that it had been a while since I had turned to the French press to see what was going on there.

(Same with the Czech press, it looks like. Hey, if you feel I’m neglecting something I claim to cover, just let me know and I’ll get right on it. This does work – it’s worked in the past.)

That turned out to be good timing, because this week there was something going on in Paris that attracted wide attention from French newspapers but little outside the country, namely the Forum Social Européen (FSE), or “European Social Forum.” Then again, there’s the problem that, even after reading about it from the various on-line journals, I’m still rather at a loss about what to make of it, or even to give a twenty-words-or-less summary description. (You can take your own look if you want, at the Forum’s own English-language website.) “An anti-globalization summit of left-wing political and non-governmental organizations” is what you could call it, a successor to the “World Social Forum” of January, 2001, which convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and was meant to be the explicit counterpart to the “World Economic Forum” meetings in Davos, Switzerland, of the rich-and-famous which occur regularly during that time of year. (The first European Social Forum happened in November of last year, in Florence, Italy.)

So perhaps it can just be dismissed as a get-together of the usual left-wing lunatics? Well, it’s true that one prominent participant was José Bové, just out of jail and famous for physically taking his frustrations at globalization out on the local French McDonalds. But maybe the participants managed to come up with some ideas worth considering anyway.


One key indicator that the FSE deserves more than just being dismissed out of hand is the attention paid to it by Les Échos, the leading French business newspaper. Indeed, Les Échos is a good first place to go to get a handle on what FSE was all about, as starting here it furnishes a long list of the organizations taking part, handily divided into seven catégories de contestation, basically areas of protest. I think it would be useful to list these (together with some representative organizations Les Échos lists under each) to give a picture about just what was going on here, and only then go searching for some clues in the newspapers as to whether any particular mission was accomplished.

Financial Matters: Transparency International (that’s the NGO, based in Berlin, that compiles yearly country corruption indices), Bretton Woods Project (an organization based in London campaigning for the reform of international financial instutions – i.e. IMF, World Bank), Fifty Years Is Enough (“US Network for Global Economic Justice,” based in Washington, same as the previous but even more radical – calls for the cancellation of third world debt, among other things).

Environmental Matters: Friends of the Earth (hey, it’s based in Amsterdam!), Greenpeace (of course), the Sierra Club, and the WWF. Also listed here is the Ruckus Society, whose name Les Échos misspells and whose category-placement the newspaper has botched: it may have been originally founded by two environmental activists (as the French text cites), but from the blurb on its website (“Ruckus is committed to non-violent social change. Stay in touch with us while we stay in trouble with the Man!”) it’s clear that this Oakland (CA)-based organization resists easy categorization, or else it simply belongs in the last category below, “No Specific Focus.”

Agricultural Matters: The Confédéraion paysanne, or “Farmers’ Confederation,” based in Bagnolet, France (Here he is, folks! This is the organization José Bové runs.), FoodFirst: Institute for Food and Development Policy (the American entry, based in Oakland, CA – again!), and Via Campesina (based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; a world-wide farmers’ federation).

Anti-Consumerism: AdBusters (of course; they’re the one’s behind, among other things “Buy Nothing Day” – coming up on Saturday, Nov. 28!), Sweatshop Watch (pretty obvious what this one does; based in Oakland – again! – and Los Angeles, CA), and the Clean Clothes Campaign (“clean” in the political sense, as in “We aim to improve working conditions in the worldwide garment industry”).

Human Rights: Amnesty International (but of course!), Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, but also Project Underground (headquartered in Berkeley, CA – that’s next-door to Oakland, by the way – and “supporting the human rights of communities resisting mining and oil exploitation”).

Humanitarian Matters: Oxfam (yes, of course), Caritas Internationalis [sic] (a confederation of 162 Catholic aid organizations, headquartered at the Vatican), and both Médecins Sans Frontières (“Doctors Without Borders,” the famous medical-aid organization originally founded by Bernard Kouchner) and Médecins du Monde (“Doctors of the World,” the similar organization that Kouchner now heads).

Labor Unions: The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (headquartered in Brussels, basically an international umbrella organization), European Marches Against Unemployment, Job Insecurity, and Exclusions (headquarters in Paris; specializes in public demonstrations), and Jobs With Justice (the American entry, based in Miami; sorry, the AFL-CIO isn’t here).

Finally, No Specific Focus: Oh, how about the Independent Media Center (“Our passion for freedom is stronger then [sic, sad to say] your prisons”), or – now, this is interesting – Babels (“an international network of volunteer interpreters and translators whose main objective it is [sic] to cover the interpreting needs of the Social Forums and of other international events”).

By the way, none of the URLs (i.e. Internet addresses) that stand behind the clickable links to the organizations given above ends in “.com”. Really, I think none of these organizations would even be caught dead with “.com” (most are “.org”), and that small fact itself tells you volumes about the ideological tone that dominated this edition of the FSE.

That list should give you some idea of what was going on, based on the attendees. Actually, the short answer is “quite a lot,” what with all those different topical areas addressed. Fifty-five plenary sessions, it turns out, and 270 seminars. Are there any trends, any overriding themes that stick out and which might possibly tell us whether this get-together was of interest of anyone to the right of Che Guevara? Let’s go to the press coverage.


First L’Humanité, the French Communist Party’s paper. Clearly, our plan is to start with the sympathetic portion of the French press spectrum and go from there. Or how about even “ecstatic”? – L’Humanité, it seems, can’t say enough about the FSE. Oh, so many articles . . . Well, the main one that sums the week up, of last Friday, is this one entitled Two Worlds Meet. Even if you don’t know French, go check this one out. (Don’t worry, L’Humanité asks for no registration from any brother or sister in leftist solidarity, real or potential.) See all those links to other articles to the right, all the ones that begin with “FSE”!

“Two worlds”? Well, there’s an interesting point here: The FSE’s organizers chose deliberately to stage most of the conference’s events in places like Bobigny, Saint-Denis, and Ivry – parts of the greater Paris metropolitan areas which are decidedly working-class (or “non-working-class,” as the case may be), filled with immigrants and the unemployed. So the “two worlds” are, one the one hand, what you could call the “professional activists” who have converged to attend this conference, from all parts of the world, and the local downtrodden and oppressed who are among those who the former are supposed to be assisting. But this decision is really somewhat of a gamble, for how can the organizers really be sure that some sort of moral connection will really result, i.e. that the inhabitants of these neighborhoods will ultimately even care what is taking place in their midst? As it turns out, quite a few do seem to care; there does occur mixing on the Parisian streets between the “badged” (i.e. conference attendees, their badges hanging from their necks) and the “unbadged.” Ultimately, though, those “unbadged” will be left with their old lives once the FSE departs; it can only offer them a beginning in the betterment of their condition, a brief enlightenment as to the possibility of another, better world.

What about this article: The Anti-War FSE: Everyone United Against Bush. Frankly, it’s nothing more than a recitation of various anti-war témoignages (“witnessings”). From the father of an American soldier: “My son suffered disciplinary measures for saying what the whole world knows, which is that this war was waged for oil and not for liberty.” From a woman from Bosnia, a human-rights worker from Colombia; from Lindsay German, of the British organization Stop the War, exulting over the more than two million who filled London’s streets last 15 February in protest, and in coordination with many similar protests happening elsewhere on that date. And so on. Plenty of rhetoric against American “hegemony.”

Time to skip to another article. Maybe to this one: The New American Quagmire. (Yup, that’s “quagmire” in French: l’embourbement.) It’s an interview with political scientist Gilbert Achcar, lecturer at the University of Paris VIII (Saint-Denis), and there at the FSE to take part in the anti-war plenary session. The US is doing more than just stumbling in Iraq; every day’s new attacks remind us how badly Washington calculated what would happen after the war. The Vietnam analogy was not valid for the war itself – and I was loudly against the use of that analogy, Achcar proudly notes – but it now is valid for the present situation, in the sense of the political problems the Americans are now facing there. The US is now acting in Iraq as more of a colonial power than Great Britain ever did during its “mandate” there after the First World War. And similarly. No escape here either, it seems.


So much for L’Humanité. But we’re still in search of some “big picture” of the Forum Social Européen that would enable us to get some idea of what it really was all about (presuming it was “all about” more than just some left-wing ranting). Let’s go to Le Monde, which also has plenty of FSE coverage. This article (From the Debates and Seminars, These Ideas Which Sketch an “Alternative World”) looks to provide the forest-wide view of what was going on that we’re looking for, as it neatly lists, and summarizes, several of the concepts put forth.

Again, the general idea is to present an “alternative platform” to the world’s status quo and to the political and economic concepts of the Right. Consider: “We’ve got to take the market out of social protection.” FSE participants spent a lot of energy attacking cutbacks in welfare protection happening in many countries due to pressures on government budgets. Christian Tirefort, of the Swiss trade unions: “You can’t finance social systems and a the same time assure Capital its profits.” A related idea was that of a “minimum European income,” i.e. that each adult citizen would be guaranteed by the government whether he/she was in employment or not, calculated from each country’s GDP (one proposal: set it at half of the country’s per-capita GDP). How to finance something like that? Maybe with another FSE idea: an Internet tax, on each megabit of data. Bruno Jetin, of an organization called Attac France, even alleged that the European Commission had considered such an Internet tax but been dissuaded by Big Business trying to shield its profitable electronic commerce operations. Speaking of European institutions, another FSE seminar focused on the problem of how to impose more “citizens’ control” on the European Central Bank. Suggestions on how to do that included returning some powers to the national central banks, which nowadays simply execute the policies and orders that the ECB gives them, make ECB top officers elected by the European Parliament, and broadening its mandate to include not just price stability but also employment and economic growth (which would bring it in line with the US Federal Reserve).

“Attac,” by the way, stands for an acronym in French that translates to “Association for the taxation of financial transactions to aid citizens.” Consider this further statement at the FSE from Attac’s president, Jacques Nikonoff: Unemployment is not just something inevitable from the laws of economics. Rather, it’s a weapon being used to discipline employees to moderate their wage demands. Reconfiguring the who-gets-what balance within the economy, away from Capital and towards the workers, will make it disappear.

How about a quick look at “Babel,” listed above, that “international network of volunteer interpreters and translators”? Le Monde provides that here. They even had their own seminar at the FSE, Thursday at the “House of Culture” in Bobigny, on “the words of altermondialisation,” which was the neologism used throughout the conference to stand for the “alternative globalization” that it was the main mission to present. OK, but the article’s main focus is rather on the impressive service Babel provided during the week, bringing a thousand interpreters to Paris to contribute to the FSE with their language skills, translating between the conference’s five principal languages and many others as well, being housed and fed, and reimbursed only for travel expenses. But their work isn’t yet done, just because the event has drawn to a close: they’re now at work compiling a “vast glossary of [that word again!] altermondialisation.”


And then an article on the strong showing in Paris this week by the anarchists: Anarchists and “Alteraltermondialistes”. (OK, again: altermondialisation, or “other-globalization” – that’s what this FSE conference wanted to promote, so those participating would be called altermondialistes. Put another alter (meaning, roughly, “other” or “alternative”) in front of that and you have “other other mondialistes – i.e. the anarchists. Get it?) But let’s make one thing clear: the anarchists may have been in Paris, but they definitely didn’t consider themselves part of the FSE conference – no, there’s no corralling that wild bunch into anything like that. Instead, the article reports, they organized their own parallel conference, the “Libertarian Social Forum” (in French, FSL), and blasted the FSE. As Wally Rosell of the Fédération anarchiste explained, “The FSE works for the formation of a new social democracy, while we advocate an alternative and revolutionary project. They want to re-arrange society so that the poor become a bit less poor. We want social equality, within the framework of a federalist society of self-management.”

Naturally, at the anarchist conference débat libre was the order of the day – no agenda, people could speak about anything they wanted. And there was no cost for admission, whereas for the FSE you had to pay (to get that aforementioned badge to hang around your neck, bien sûr. No badges for anarchists!). And at the end they even had their own parade through Paris’ streets (as indeed had the FSE) – although this brings up the old joke of just how is it that you organize a bunch of anarchists to hold a parade. It must be a lot like trying to herd cats.


Finally, let’s head to the other end of the spectrum and get comment from Le Figaro, the title of whose article neatly incorporates a couple of elements we’ve spoken about already here: The Tower of Babel of the Altermondialistes. “The European Social Forum? Imagine the Tower of Babel launched in attack against a sky of globalization, add your memories – if you have any – of the Sorbonne in May, 1968,” writes Guy Baret. “You’ll find there, first of all, articles whose sell-by date passed half a century ago and, with them, their advocates, engaging in a rough competition: diverse marxists, rheumatic leninists, heroic castro-ists, seventy-year-old guevara-ists . . . trotsky-ists and a handful of old-order unionists.” Baret find that the “alternative world” they present bears a close resemblance to the world of Eastern Europe – as it used to be, before 1989, that is – and of the world of Cuba today. Baret visited various FSE events, of course, and he was not impressed; his general impression is of venues built for thousands of people containing but a couple tens for most of the “plenaries” and “seminars,” with titles like “Sustainable Decline” (i.e. as opposed to “Sustainable Growth”), “The Movement that Works on Itself,” “Uncertain Harvest,” “Video Surveillance and Biometrics,” “What is our Aim?”, “Parceling out Alphabets,” and “The Wall.”

They’ve all come, he writes, to fight against “evil”: capitalist globalization. But, in reality, what they do above all is analyze – “because the Forum is above all a profusion [débauche] of words, tangled up in one hundred tongues that an army of translators, both professional and improvised, can hardly keep up with. They chat for the cause [but it sounds much more clever in French: ils causent pour la cause], it’s their voice that carries those ‘with no voice’, as is proclaimed on the insignia they wear.”

Baret provides a dose of hard-headed, even cynical reality – for another thing, as an antidote to L’Humanité, he reminds us that all that mixing on the streets between the attending activists and the local proletariat may be fine, but none of those proletariat could actually be found at the real FSE debates; you have to pay to get in, you know! Those who can read French should really check out his article for the rest of the plentiful satire he provides. (And those who can read German should look at Die Zeit’s treatment, which centers around the idea of the FSE’s hostility to the new European Constitution and to the European Union in general.) Nonetheless, the concept of an “alternative” movement and body of ideas to that represented in governments, corporate board rooms, and of course the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos I think is a good one. It’s a shame that this European Social Forum hasn’t been reported more widely, but perhaps this will improve with its future editions.

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