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Report from the European Social Forum
A Europe of rights, a world without war

November 21, 2003 | Page 8

SHERRY WOLF, AHMED SHAWKI and PAUL D'AMATO of the International Socialist Review attended the European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris last week. They gave Socialist Worker this account of the inspiring event.

TENS OF thousands of people converged on Paris November 12-15 for the European Social Forum. The conference brought together more than 50,000 representatives of left-wing organizations, unions and social movements to discuss today's--and tomorrow's--struggles.

The days were filled with political meetings--with as many as three dozen three-hour seminars going on at the same time at four sites across Paris, in 40 different venues. And after the meetings, the discussions continued at parties and cultural events. The biggest plenary sessions took place in huge tents, the size of aircraft hangers. Some of the seminars were held in movie cinemas.

The ESF is modeled on the World Social Forum (WSF), held for the last three years in Brazil. At its founding in January 2001, the WSF brought together an incredible range of activists from the anti-globalization movement--or as it is now known in France, "altermondialisation," or alternative globalization.

But ever since the Bush administration launched its worldwide "war on terror," the issue of economic justice has been joined by opposition to war and militarism. Last year's ESF, held in Florence, Italy, featured a 1 million-strong antiwar demonstration that set the stage for the unprecedented international movement that swept the globe in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

This year, the U.S. war on Iraq was again a defining issue. At one meeting with an overflow crowd of 3,500 people, Lou Plummer of Military Families Speak Out described how his son, who is currently stationed aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, spoke out against the war while still at home in North Carolina earlier this year--and was charged by the Navy with making "disloyal statements."

"We're supposed to be fighting for free speech and democracy, but there is none for U.S. soldiers," he said. Plummer's call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops--because "there is no right way to do the wrong thing"--drew a charged response. "Lou's brief comment was amazing to me," said Bruno, a member of the League for the Rights of Man, based in France. "We don't hear about the opposition to the war among military families in the United States.

At the same time, says Eric Toussaint, a leading global justice activist and author of the widely read book Your Money or Your Life: The Tyranny of Global Finance, this year's ESF laid greater stress on confronting the free-market agenda--known as neoliberalism--within the European Union (EU) itself. "There was some delay in the camp of progressive organizations, including revolutionary organizations, to take on the question of the European Union," Toussaint said.

"We are very internationalist on the question of the world situation, but we didn't sufficiently answer the question of the strategy of our bourgeoisie. With this second European Social Forum, I think we made big progress in coordinating the social movements to give opposition to this offensive."

The ESF culminated in a huge demonstration of at least 100,000 people marching through the streets of Paris last weekend. The festive atmosphere of spirited chanting and colorful banners showed the determination of marchers to keep fighting for a better world.

"I first went on a demonstration last year against [the French fascist politician Jean-Marie] Le Pen," said Monique, a 24-year-old activist. "That's how I got involved in the movement for an alternative globalization. Now I'm committed to a fight for another world."

Among those at the march were strikers from a Paris McDonald's restaurant, where workers won a four-month walkout two years ago to gain the right to join a union. The strikers wore red t-shirts with the familiar golden arches logo--and the slogan: "McMerde [McShit]."

"It's like everywhere else they exist--the global giant of disposable food is treating its workers like disposable people," said a young striker named Lionel. "We won't take it, so we unionize and fight."

A number of political themes and questions ran through the ESF. One was the importance of the connection between the anti-globalization movement and the antiwar movement. To a greater extent than has been true so far in the U.S., global justice activists in countries like Britain and Italy were at the center of organizing an opposition to the U.S. war. The result was immense antiwar demonstrations earlier this year in Spain, Britain and Italy. But the antiwar struggle was relatively smaller in France, a question that emerged in Paris last week.

"This has not come so easy here," says Gilbert Achcar, an author and veteran of the socialist movement in France. "There were debates by some of the people in the movements, and there was a reluctance by some forces against establishing this link. They argued that the fight was about economic issues and against neoliberalism, and we shouldn't politicize it. The idea of building a mass movement around a single issue makes sense. But when you apply it to the social forum, to pretend that bringing in the war would have a negative effect on the movement makes no sense."

One positive outcome of this year's ESF was a proposal, first suggested by antiwar groups in the U.S., to make March 20--the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq--an international day of action against the occupations of Iraq and Palestine. The ESF officially joined the call last weekend.

Other ESF meetings centered more directly on globalization issues. One discussion revolved around the collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Cancún, Mexico, in September. This was a victory for opponents of corporate globalization--in part the result of pressure that global justice activism has mobilized since the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle that scuttled the WTO summit.

But for some, the emergence of the "Group of 20 Plus" countries--a collection of developing nations, led by Brazil, China and India, which walked out of the Cancún negotiations over U.S. and European Union agricultural subsidies--represents a new alternative that can challenge a global system run by Washington. Other activists pointed out that countries like Brazil have ruling classes that are also committed to the neoliberal agenda, even if they stand up to the U.S. or Europe around specific trade issues.

João Machado, a leader of the Socialist Democracy Tendency in Brazil's Workers Party (PT), pointed out in the French left-wing newspaper Rouge how Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva--a former union leader who was swept into the president's office last year--has turned on his working-class supporters. "Lula's government has not responded to the hopes that he has aroused," Machado said. "The malaise inside the PT is growing; more and more militants are open to the arguments of the left."

The crucial backdrop to the ESF is the imposition of anti-worker neoliberal policies by governments across the continent--whether controlled by parties associated with the left or the right. From the restructuring of pension systems to employer attempts to undermine the power of unions, attacks on workers have had a real impact on living standards in societies that once had well-developed social welfare systems, which are now being chipped away, if not dismantled wholesale.

This has led to a sharp political polarization across Europe. On the one hand, the attacks on working people have pulled many people to the left--as illustrated by the size of the massive antiwar demonstrations earlier this year, for example, or the big turnout for far-left parties in French elections last year.

What was once true mainly in the developing world is now increasingly true in industrialized countries--that working-class people, especially youth, see no sign that the existing system will deliver a decent life for them. The scale of the crisis has led some to question the very assumptions of the capitalist system. As Christian Tirefort, a union organizer in Switzerland, put it in the mainstream French newspaper Le Monde, "It's not possible to finance the social system and at the same time assure profits for capital."

At the same time, Europe's far right has gained a wider hearing for their appeal that shifts the blame for unemployment and deteriorating living standards onto scapegoated minorities, especially immigrants. Organizationally, the far right is still relatively weak in many--though not all--European countries, unable to put fascist forces on the street in large numbers.

But Nazi politicians like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen have been increasingly successful in putting a "respectable" face on their politics of despair and hate. French activists said they feared that Le Pen could win as much as 25 percent of the vote in next year's regional elections--and that his Nazi National Front is rumored to be in the initial stages of organizing alternative unions to try to win working-class support.

All this presents new challenges at the very time when the traditional moderate parties of the left--such as France's Socialist Party or the British Labour Party of Tony Blair--have betrayed the hopes of their working-class supporters. Until the last few years, parties that claimed to stand for workers' interests controlled the vast majority of governments in Europe--and they proved in practice that they are as enthusiastic about imposing neoliberalism as their conservative, business-backed rivals.

The embrace of neoliberalism by the electoral left has created a political vacuum among their working-class base of voters--and the potential for a more radical alternative to step in. But how far left organizations and social movements should react to the situation is a topic of debate. In effect, says Gilbert Achcar, "there are differences about whether and how to challenge neoliberalism."

"One of the thorniest issues of the social forum," Achcar said, "is the tension between reformers and revolutionaries. Some want to channel the social movements into more traditional institutions of social democracy in the name of being constitutionally elected."

Meanwhile, leaders of organizations like ATTAC, the French-based global justice organization that played a central role in founding the WSF, reject the idea that the movement should become more radical. "Our objective is to widen the movement, not to radicalize it," ATTAC's President Bernard Cassen told Libération. "There exists a sort of vague criticism of different Trotskyist groups that want to radicalize the movement. This is an absurdity. The movement will radicalize itself, or it will not radicalize at all."

Yet accepting this would mean abandoning any effort to provide an alternative to the electoral left parties that have embraced neoliberalism--and accepting that the global justice struggle should limit itself to efforts to win piecemeal reforms, which have so far failed to produce any real results.

France's Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), whose members played a central role in organizing the ESF, challenged this thinking in a statement from a party conference held in early November. "[W]e refuse to let our struggles and our hopes be subordinated to a new governmental alliance with the social-liberal left or to any perspective that means just managing the capitalist economy and institutions," read the statement. The LCR has put forward a perspective of "regrouping" left wing organizations and individuals in a "radically anti-capitalist and resolutely democratic" new party.

As one step in this direction, the LCR announced last month that it would join with the other major revolutionary socialist organization in France, Workers Fight (LO) in a joint slate to run in French elections for regional offices and the European parliament. "The neoliberal politics of the traditional left are being contested," said the LCR's Daniel Bensaid. "I think we're really succeeding in opening up the system, and proving that there is real life outside the traditional left."

A left-wing election challenge

THE FACT that the ESF took place in France this year meant that discussions were inevitably "wrapped up in French politics and debates," as Gilbert Achcar put it. Above all, hanging over the forum was the recent decision of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and Workers Fight (LO) to field a joint slate for the first round of next year's regional and European Union elections.

These two parties shocked French politics in the April 2002 presidential election by winning 3 million votes between them--more than 10 percent of the total, and not far off the 16.2 percent for the candidate of the moderate Socialist Party, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. In an aftermath that will sound familiar to U.S. supporters of Ralph Nader in 2000, the two groups were blamed for "stealing" votes from Jospin--and allowing fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen to qualify for the second round of the presidential vote against conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac.

In reality, Jospin had only himself to blame. As prime minister, his government did honor a campaign promise to implement a 35-hour workweek, but otherwise, it carried out the same program of privatization and tax cuts for big business as its conservative predecessors.

Then, during the presidential campaign, Jospin refused to talk about real issues like unemployment--focusing instead on trying to outdo Chirac on law-and-order, immigrant-bashing policies. The vote for the far left represents disillusionment with the status quo politics of Jospin's Socialists.

That sentiment remains strong. Recent opinion polls found that 31 percent of French voters would consider voting for the LCR-LO slate--and nearly half said the far left plays a "positive role" in French politics.

Michel Löwy, the Brazilian-born author and well-known Marxist intellectual, says that the 31 percent "aren't supporting a Trotskyist program, but they're sympathetic to a radical left attitude and critique of neoliberalism and capitalism. Because of the failure of the so-called 'plural left,' which endorsed neoliberal policies when they were in government, the people who voted for them are deeply disappointed," Löwy said. "This is the explanation for why there is such a huge sympathy for a radical, anti-capitalist position."

The uproar over Tariq Ramadan

FOR FRANCE'S mainstream media, the ESF was reduced to a single controversy--over Swiss philosophy professor Tariq Ramadan. A respected scholar of the Islamic religion, Ramadan came under fire from the French media for an article that he submitted to several mainstream newspapers--and which was circulated on the Internet when it was turned down--in which he attacked a number of "Jewish intellectuals" for supporting the U.S. war on Iraq.

With Ramadan set to speak at the ESF, the press launched a campaign about his supposed anti-Semitism. Even within the organizing committee for the forum, there were calls to exclude Ramadan from speaking.

Ramadan did use the term "Jewish" when it would have been more accurate--and less deliberately provocative--to talk about pro-Israel or Zionist intellectuals. But people on the left in France who are familiar with his numerous books and writings say that Ramadan is not an anti-Semite. What he has done is defend Islam as a religion, including its very conservative aspects--and that has made him a target in a country where anti-Arab racism runs deep.

As in the U.S., one favorite smear against anyone who speaks out against Israel is to label them an anti-Semite. In the event, Ramadan's ESF meetings didn't focus so much on his controversial essay, but rather on a longstanding political controversy in France--whether Muslim women should have the right to wear a veil, in particular, while at school.

The veil is obviously a symbol of how Muslim women are treated as second-class citizens under the conservative religious doctrine of Islam. But it should not be up to any authority, but to women themselves whether they will wear a veil.

Unfortunately, some groups on the French left have not only ignored how this issue has been exploited by bigots, but have led the fight to ban the veil from schools. This is done under the guise of a defense of women's rights or France's "democratic" traditions. But in a society where anti-Arab bigotry is rampant--and with a recent history of colonial barbarism in the Arab world--this can only serve as a cover for racism and anti-Islam propaganda.

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