European Social Forum: Paris on My Mind

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The ESF focused activists' attention on building for another world.

Over 50,000 people came to this year's European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris last month and around 150,000 marched on the demonstration that was held on the last day. They were there to participate in the 55 enormous plenary sessions, 250 seminars and hundreds of workshops. They crammed into meetings to talk about genetically modified crops, women's rights, the European Union and so on, which were being translated into seven different languages. Although people spoke in different tongues the language was the same - it was a language that spoke clearly against war and against neoliberalism. They were there to fight for a 'different Europe' and a 'different world'.

A Women's Assembly was organised the day before the ESF opened. It surpassed the expectations of the French organisers, with over 3,000 women attending. A whole number of issues were discussed including prostitution, low pay, abortion, women and power, childcare, violence, immigration and war. On many occasions the audience was far more radical than the speakers on the platform. For instance, when one of the speakers repeated the tired old feminist mantra that 'all men are the enemy' she was loudly heckled.

However, several women in the audience were frustrated by the lack of debate during the Women's Assembly. In France the government is set to pass a law banning the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in schools - yet this was hardly touched upon throughout the day. Some people in France are against the right of women to wear the headscarf because they perceive it as a symbol of women's oppression. They make the mistake of categorising all Muslims as 'Islamic fundamentalists' and assume that the Koran is more sexist than the Bible. Others quite rightly claim that our movement should defend Muslim women's right to wear the headscarf just as we would defend their right not to wear it. Imagine if we had not welcomed Muslim women who wore the headscarf into our anti-war movement in Britain. We would not have had a united movement and we would have failed a generation of British Muslims.

Meetings on the war and occupation of Iraq were jam-packed. Lindsey German, convenor of the British Stop the War Coalition, received loud applause when she demanded that the troops get out of Iraq. She said that the troops could leave now or they could be forced out like Vietnam. In another meeting there was a debate over whether the United Nations should step in and take control of Iraq. George Galloway was cheered when he said that the people of Iraq would never accept the UN because it had imposed sanctions for 12 years, killing up to a million people.

At the Assembly of the Social Movements, which was held the day after the ESF, 2,000 people agreed an international day of action against war on 20 March, the first anniversary of when the US started its war on Iraq.

This year's ESF was significant because the working class had shown its potential and actual power. France witnessed mass strikes in the public sector; Germany had seen a huge demonstration led by rank and file workers and Greece had seen massive strikes.

One of the most electric debates at the ESF was a meeting between Toni Negri, co-author of Empire, and Alex Callinicos, author of An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. The meeting was held outside because over 1,200 people could not get into the room. People stood on the metal bridge, sat on the concrete floor and perched in trees to engage in a very passionate debate. Toni Negri argued that the nature of production had changed so that the working class no longer played a central role in challenging the system. For him this meant that the 'multitude', comprising a range of different movements with their own agendas and logic, would bring down capitalism. Alex Callinicos argued that the working class was still central to bringing down capitalism and pointed to the way in which the Bolivian miners had drawn the rest of the oppressed behind them in the recent rising. The meeting was successful because it showed how our movement could engage in hard debate within the spirit of a common struggle against a common enemy.

People were thirsty for genuine debate about what our movement should do in order to stop war and stop the imposition of neoliberalism. Bernard Cassen from France, who is a leading figure in the Attac organisation, suggested that our movement should try to influence existing governments. Similarly, others wanted to see more political lobbying and fewer meetings of the ESF. Fortunately this did not strike a chord with the majority of people. Maria Styllou from Greece argued that now was not the time to slow the movement down: 'Look how far we have come in one year. 15 February was bigger than anything that happened during the Vietnam War. It's had such an impact. In Greece it means that during the big strikes at the moment one slogan is "Money for salaries, not for war".' We decided that the ESF should meet next year, in London. The fact that there was general consensus that our movement should continue to organise is a reflection of the success of revolutionaries in the movement who had won others to a strategy that places mass demonstrations and mass strikes at the heart of any challenge to capitalism.

The task for our movement is to consolidate the fusion between the social, economic and political battles that lie ahead. The ESF in Paris hardened our resolve to fight for a better world, but it gave us much more than that. It gave us a strategy for winning. We will continue to build the anti-war movement against US imperialism. We will build the trade union movement to strike against a European Constitution, a charter for attacks on workers' rights and welfare, and we will unite radical parties so that we are given political representation.