A democratic forum is possible

Oscar Reyes and Stuart Hodkinson were in Paris in November 2003 for the European Social Forum, where they found 60,000 delegates, plenty of controversy and a common feeling among the grassroots that the forum must undergo radical change

January 1, 2004
7 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes

You could hardly move for anti-imperialists on Boulevard Lenine in November, and Boulevard de la Commune was a commuter route for anti-capitalists. The reason being that Paris was hosting this year’s European Social Forum (ESF). The city’s suburban ‘red belt’ did its best to live up to its name. And, with a series of distinctly old-style rallies, it sometimes felt a long way from the promised ‘new’ politics of the social forum movement.

First impressions are often deceptive. Bobigny’s pre-1989 street names may speak of another era, but the Communist-controlled suburb’s promotional material boasted of ‘participatory’ budgeting and town-planning. Visiting the three-day programme of the French ‘local social forum’ space in Saint-Denis (strangely marginalised by the Forum’s organisers), you learned how some 150 social forums now regularly meet across France, bringing campaigning groups, immigrant movements and local citizens disillusioned with the ‘old politics’ together to debate practical but radical alternatives to privatisation, environmental decay and racist immigration policies.

This fascinating mix of the innovative and the archaic is symbolic of the ESF as a whole. A regional offshoot of the annual World Social Forum (WSF), the ESF was dreamt up as a non-party, open meeting place for “reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism & and are committed to building a society centred on the human person”. The words come from the WSF Charter of Principles.

Some 300 French social movements, NGOs and trade unions and an assortment of political parties spent more than a year organising the Paris forum. An open, monthly French assembly endorsed the work of a day-to-day organising committee run by roughly 30 volunteers or seconded staff from whichever political organisations had the resources. This was done in conjunction with the European assembly of the ESF – an informal decision-making structure made up of delegates and representatives from social forces across the Continent.

The process was largely dominated by a few powerful left organisations like the French Communist Party and Attac, the international campaign for reform of global financial markets and institutions. This created some distrust and hostility among grassroots groups who felt excluded – particularly from the ‘official programme’. But the powerful could generally be checked through the ESF’s golden rule of consensus decision-making.

The single biggest complaint about Paris from both the volunteers and delegates on the ground, through to the translators and organisers was the venue. Florence was organised in and around a single site, which created ease for mobility and emergency problem-solving, as well as the feeling that we were at a ‘Forum’. But for a number of practical reasons as well as apparent political manoeuvrings from the Socialist Mayor of Paris, the Forum soon spread from its intended single hub at Saint-Denis to four different and geographically dispersed venues.

But this also had advantages. For Elizabeth Gautier, one of the organisers and director of Espaces Marx, a Marxist research network funded by the French Communist Party, “staging the Forum in four different local authorities enabled us to spread the financial risks and costs, as well as giving us more political bargaining power to extract more resources from the state. But we couldn’t have put the ESF on without local authority help”.

What Gautier surely means is this kind of ESF, for the dependence of an alternative political space and event on the very political structures it critiques – the vast majority of the 4 million euros it cost came from the state as well as a hefty donation from the French Socialist Party – seriously questions what and who the ESF is for. At least the political noose around the Greater London Authority means next year’s ESF will not have this problem when it comes to the UK.

In theory, the ESF opens to consideration a plethora of progressive civil society initiatives and encourages the planning of new ones. According to Laurent Vannini, one of the French organizers, “The ESF aims to create international networks among civil society organizations, find ways for them to reinforce one another’s work, and enrich the common assessment against neo-liberalism.”

Yet the sheer scale of this year’s ESF – 60,000 delegates attending over 600 meetings – suggests a rich diversity irreducible to a common assessment or programme. This may be a limitation when viewed from the rigid perspective of party politics, but shows that the ESF should not and cannot be closed to the emergence of new political issues, demands, or agencies of change.

There was certainly greater evidence of pluralism at this year’s ESF than at the Florence event in 2002. While Iraq was a recurring theme in many of the 55 plenaries, 250 seminars and 200-plus workshops, it certainly wasn’t dominant. Elizabeth Gautier explains: ‘We wanted to widen the themes and broaden the participation, particularly around trade unionism, the European Constitution, women, immigration and the Maghreb.’

A European assembly for women’s rights was organised a day prior to the ESF’s official opening. And in contrast to Florence, the gender balance of the largest plenaries was significantly improved in Paris. But this pattern wasn’t sustained through most of the smaller seminars and workshops.

The experience of migrant and Muslim activists was similarly variable. Naima Bouteldja of Just Peace said: ‘Immigrant and Muslim groups had a real input into the decision-making process and this was reflected in us, for the first time, being both seen and heard within the social forum. But for Muslims our intended dialogue with others never got beyond the deep suspicion, bordering on racism, of our faith and politics that is institutionalised in French society and much of the French left.’

And then there were the appalling facilities for disabled people.

Such disappointments have understandably fed into a critical grassroots evaluation of this year’s forum. But its achievements mustn’t be downplayed. Pascale Ader from the French small farmers’ group Confederation Paysanne, which served 40,000 meals under its many marquees in Paris, explained that while his organisation was already well connected globally to other peasant movements through the international network the Via Campesina, the ESF was “helpful in reaching out beyond the politics of interest to forge alliances with consumers and more traditional unions in the fight for food sovereignty”. Ader pinpoints one of the forum’s most valuable features: delegates are able to forge connections without the mediation of leaders and experts.

But networking opportunities for ordinary delegates were severely limited within the formal spaces in Paris. Masha, a Swiss environmentalist, expressed her disappointment at the retreat from some of the movement’s more innovative organisational practices. “‘Networking should mean the creation of ‘dis’organisations linked together through participatory debates and decentralised actions rather than through self-appointed leaderships talking to each other.”

It is impossible to gauge the overall impact of the ESF. In practical terms, the most immediate result is to let 1,000 email lists bloom. But these discussions will inspire new international campaigning networks and consolidate existing ones. This is what it means for the ESF to be a space and not a ‘locus of power’. It is socially horizontal, and incapable of ever being fully controlled.

With the ESF coming to London in 2004, the democratic energy and creativity generated in Paris and since will ensure that no one will be corralled down any Boulevard Lenine. The novelty of the ESF, and the global justice movement from which it arose, is its deep-rooted pluralism – the idea that the monoculture of global capitalism can only be overcome by recognising the specificity and autonomy of particular struggles. ‘Another world is possible’, as the Zapatistas say, but it is their less famous dictum ‘one no, many yeses’ to which we should aspire in London next year.


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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