It is difficult to describe, let alone explain, an event like the European Social Forum (ESF), whose second assembly came together in France from 12-15 November 2003. It is a gathering of what are called, in French, altermondialistes. How to translate this word, now common in France to describe the movement? Alter globalist may not quite work. But even if the translation is hard the meaning is clear: the movement is not anti- but alter-, not against a global organisation of the world but for another.
The difficulty in describing the ESF continues with its sheer scale. The event took place in 130 different locations in Paris and in urban communities on its periphery: Saint Denis, Bobigny and Ivry. But this is just the official ESF; around the formal programme (before, during, and after it) gathered dozens of unofficial events the Local Authorities Forum, the Trade Unions Forum, the Children Forum, the Womens Assembly, the Greens la bourse ou la vie (market or life) meeting, the Anarchists Forum Social Libertaire, the international solidarity week (after the Forum). There were also dozens of local Social Forums across France before the ESF itself.
A third difficulty about the European Social Forum is the amazing diversity of topics addressed there. Just a few examples: sustainable and fair agriculture in Europe, housing rights and municipal rights, the altermondialiste movement questions itself on its words, symbols and use of languages, forgotten conflicts in the Balkans, Caucasus and Africa, Islamophobia and Judeophobia.
This proliferation of events was reflected in the huge variety of participants. More than 50,000 people registered with the forum, and 100,000 took part in the closing demonstration on 15 November. And all these men and women were meeting and discussing all the time: French and British feminists arguing about women and the Islamic veil; Caucasian and Brazilian activists exchanging experiences about street children in their countries; trade unions, NGO and political party activists discussing the future constitution of Europe; anarchists having a row with social democrats
Altogether, this mosaic was a big success, and the media (mainly press) coverage was impressive. Top political leaders, including the right-wing Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) leader Alain Juppé and his Socialist opposite number François Hollande claimed that they were themselves altermondialistes of a kind!
A rainbow coalition
The forum was in essence a really diverse and open space for all tendencies of the French activist scene. The No Vox coalition combining the homeless movement, sans papiers illegal migrants, and young people from the socially marginalised districts hosted its own village with strong participation. The NGO coalition CRID organised dozens of seminars, most of them following the work already started in Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum or in Florence during the first ESF in November 2002.
Inside CRID, Catholics, Socialists, and other groups work together among them IPAM (Initiatives for Another World, a coalition that includes the French branch of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly). ATTAC, the famous altermondialiste movement, was also an active participant; as was the small farmers union Confédération Paysanne with its spokesperson José Bové.
Thus the forum was definitely much more than a red gathering, even if the dynamic French Trotskyist Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was very active (as were the French Greens and the Communists). Participants from other countries also displayed various colours of the political rainbow, although in some cases less diversely than the French (the strongly-represented British coalition, Global Resistance for instance, is monochromatically red in the Socialist Workers Party shade).
The tests of practice
It is also very important to look at the limits and the contradictions of the ESF. The debate on European policy (and the European constitution) should currently be the main one in any European Social Forum. And this question was indeed much more discussed than in Florence a year ago. But the debates on the issue were sometimes (not always) schematic, and positions often ideologically and politically simplistic. The same was true of the war in Iraq, where, beyond the natural condemnation of George W. Bush, the interpretation of what is really going on in the region was rather poor (from this viewpoint, the debates on the Palestinian-Israeli question were much better).
Media attention was concentrated on the case of Tariq Ramadan. Tariq Ramadan is a Swiss Muslim intellectual who defends a civic approach to religion and has a real influence on Muslim young people in France and other European countries. His presence at the ESF was strongly and bitterly attacked by many people, on the grounds that he is an Islamist. Even if Ramadan is not an Islamist of the radical variety, some of these critics deserve attention.
The most active of the recent opponents of the ESF have in fact been right-wing social democrats, who participated in a vicious campaign attempting to discredit the movement by accusing it of anti-Semitism and fundamentalism. But, fortunately, the seminar planned with Tariq Ramadan took place at the forum without incident; it is vital that the debate about Islams place in Europe continues in such normal conditions.
After the success of the closing march on Saturday 15 November, the European Social Movements Assembly the next morning called for two main mobilisations: oppose the occupation of Iraq and support the American peace movement (on 20 March 2004) and for another Europe (on 9 May 2004 the closing day of the inter-governmental conference on the European Constitution).
It was the Social Movements Assembly in Florence which called for the global demonstration of 15 Feburary 2003, the success of which was present in everyones minds when these two dates were proposed. There are hopes that once again the alter globalist movement will show its strength and truly achieve the changes necessary to build another Europe in another world.