Snapshots from the Front Line

Turning up to volunteer at the European Social Forum office on the eve of the Forum, three floors up in an inconspicuous building next to the Stock exchange in central Paris was a journey into the unknown.

January 1, 2004
6 min read

I started off making my personal contribution to cutting 70km of string into one metre lengths for the accreditation badges. By the afternoon I’d moved onto stationary logistics and as the evening approached I was answering the phones as the rest of the staff went out to the sites to organise “sur place”. You can imagine the joy of trying to explain to the President of Ile de France that there wasn’t a VIP service and if he wanted to get into the Forum he was going to have to queue up just like everybody else.

I was one of over 1000 volunteers gathered at the eleventh hour to work alongside the seven permanent staff who were near the end of their nine month work contracts. Between us we managed to help realise the Forum’s 55 plenaries, 250 seminars, and nearly 200 workshops over four days. Just getting the 30,000 interpretation headsets to Paris from around the world was a feat in itself, never mind the 40,000 meals served under the Confederation Paysanne marquees. But the figures don’t do the Forum justice. This was less about quantity and more about a new form of organisation. Sure there were tensions between some of the organising committee and the staff, but that’s to be expected. The voluntary effort involved was staggering, especially when you think of the “traditional” political party conferences and all the financial and political resources they can call on. And soon reports of every seminar, workshop, and plenary attended by Attac rapporteurs will be available. God only knows how many tomes these will run to when finished, but perhaps it will help to bury the myth that this is just a movement of ‘antis’ with no alternatives.

By the second day of the Forum, it was clear that most of the UK press and the BBC hadn’t showed so I put my journalist hat on and began ringing round to see what was happening. The response was depressing. A promised World Service interview was never transmitted and Radio 4’s Today Programme told me I was being aggressive when I asked them why they weren’t here. If the Forum could make the front pages of most of the quality European press with the French equivalent of the Financial times – Les Echos – even running a 24 page supplement on the ‘alter’-globalisation movement, then something is going wrong in British journalism.

That doesn’t mean that the European coverage was any good. A journalist from Le Point (France’s Forbes magazine) rang the press center looking for a story from the ESF. “We’re a business magazine so would like to cover a business that maybe was set up after Florence or Porto Alegre last year”. I suggested Babels, the non-hierarchical, volunteer-based translator organisation with members from all over the world providing all the interpreting and translating services in Paris and Mumbai for the next World Social Forum. He was less enthused. “Yes, but aren’t they a voluntary association? I’m looking for a social enterprise business”. I was baffled. “But they employ loads of people, have a big budget…”. My efforts were cut short by the limited vision of the reporter. “No, an association’s no good”.

French philosopher Patrick Viveret says that this movement has gone from being a Western reaction to the economics of the madhouse to one verging on the truly global equipped with strong political and cultural analyses. Culture is a word that often strikes fear and can seem to mean so many things. I wasn’t sure about the cultural offerings at the forum, they never really got off the ground. This said, there were nearly a hundred events over the four days, although a lot of it took place in the city away from the Forum’s main venues. Documentary cinema and music seemed to have the upper hand but there were also some interesting offerings from Theatre groups, and of course musical artists.

Different political cultures, however, were in abundance. Global, Lutte (struggle), Action, and Disobedience, these the defining words of GLAD – an autonomous, cooperatively organised space existing under two enormous marquees. Cheap vegetarian food, wash your own dishes, organic bar, actions during the day, music and dancing in the evening. This was where the more radical, grassroots networks hung out and planned their next moves. Like the new No Vox (voiceless) collective made up of direct action movements organising against unemployment, for social housing and the rights of the Sans Papiers – the undocumented migrant workers. Paris Indymedia was also based here, having exhausted all possibilities of collaborating elsewhere.

This is just part of my story. There are more than 50 000 other stories to tell and I hope they’re being told. It’s natural to make comparisons, and the European Social Forum in Florence last year is the obvious one. Florence was happy, but angry and firmly in ‘anti’ mode, besieged in the Fortress conference centre and under attack from all sides especially the Berlusconi media. Paris was different. Positive, looking outwards, building and going way beyond happiness to a state which can only be described as bordering on euphoria. It was a changed way of looking at the world, confident in our criticisms, more definite in our propositions. A paradigm shift, a jump in consciousness, call it what you like.

Coming down after an experience like the Forum is not easy, the real world just appears too weird for words as my British friends found on their re-entry into CCTV land and the obligatory passport swipe, photo opportunity and interview with Special Branch at Waterloo station.

Luckily for me, the Paris metro had been the scene of some active ‘subvertising’ political graffiti campaign and the next day I started up a conversation with Jean Baptiste as he replaced the damaged billboards imploring us to take out “cheap” expensive loans and buy other useless goods and services. “Must be a pain to have to replace all these posters”. He returned an ironic smile. “No I think it’s good, and funny, only takes a marker pen and a bit of wit and you’ve turned the adverts message round. Dead simple. That’s got to be too good for words”. I told him he was very well placed to buy his own a marker pen and do a bit himself. He laughed. “I think that would be going a bit too far, I do my bit though, elsewhere”.

If politics can really be as fun as being a 12 year old at Butlins in the seventies when you’ve just discovered girls (or boys) then I’m all for this reenchantment process. Let’s keep it going to London next year.

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