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


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

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


Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself