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European Social Forum Takes the World by Storm

Arthur Neslen & Gibby Zobel

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From all over Europe and beyond they came, idealists, activists, dreamers and revolutionaries, but their sights were set on events in the Middle East. The streets of Paris were brought to a halt in a blaze of colour, music and optimism as 100,000 people demonstrated against capitalist globalisation at the end of the second European Social Forum (ESF). “The message of our protest is that we want a Europe that has rights for all its citizens, in a world without war,” Pierre Khalfa, a march organiser said on Saturday.

The vast majority of the march through Paris took place in a carnival-like atmosphere. Giant puppets, earth-shaped balloons and a huge inflatable GM corn-on-the-cob cut a swathe through the Parisian boulevards as demonstrators from across Europe vented their anger over a range of issues. One section of the march carried 100ft-high grey polystyrene blocks in a representation of the apartheid wall being built by Israel across the West Bank.
With a hundred thousand people filling the streets, the overwhelmingly peaceful march took on a carnival atmosphere.
The first World Social Forum (WSF) took place in Porto Alegre, where the state was the first in the country to be run by what is now the governmental Worker?s Party. It was born on the wave of anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 1990s, as a civil society response to the grassroots and revolutionary groups who had created the international days of protest, which first came to world attention in Seattle, USA, in November 1999.

The WSF maintains that it is not an organisation, but an open meeting place for the democratic debate of ideas, by groups and movements that are opposed to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and which are committed to building a society centred on the human person.

The ESF Looks East

Iraq and Palestine dominated debate among the delegates at the ESF in Paris, as the gathering spontaneously caught fire on its second day. “This forum is creating a space for the Palestinian narrative that is not available in the mainstream,” the Palestinian civil society spokesman Mustafa Barghouti said. “With the efforts of the ESF to re-energize it, the international solidarity movement will soon regain its momentum.”

The forum, which is fast becoming the global protest movement?s collective think tank, saw hundreds of delegates queuing in the road, unable to get into packed meetings on the Palestinian struggle. In one, Barghouti told a rapt audience that the Intifada was taking on a new urgency because the apartheid wall and settlement expansions were imperilling the possibility of an independent Palestinian state.

“This is not just another year in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a ?lets come back and discuss it next year? situation,” he implored. “This is a crucial moment in our history and we need your presence on every check-point”.

“The apartheid wall is cutting off the lives of Palestinians,” said Haima, a 23-year-old Parisian student, holding up one block representing part of the wall. “To see the reality of the wall has more meaning for people than to read about it in the papers.” Lina Jamol, a 25-year-old researcher of Syrian origin who lives in London, said she was also marching for Palestine. 

“I want our governments to impose sanctions on Israel, enforce the Israel-EU trade agreement, which states that goods from the occupied territories must be labelled, and end the arms embargo against the Palestinians,” she said. “I would also like to think that people in the Arab world will be excited when they see demonstrations like this, because it shows that Western people aren?t turning a blind eye to the Palestinians, even if their governments are.”

The futuristic La Villette conference hall may be a world away from the streets of Ramallah, but it was through the ESF that Barghouti?s proposal for the recent highly successful November 9th international day of action against the Separation Wall was organised. This year?s debates, and the links that activists make here, will almost certainly inspire more such actions, and more campaigners to make the journey to the occupied territories.

What To Do With the Nation State
Some of the thousands who took to the streets to attend the European Social Forum.
Meanwhile, the activists streamed by outside on their way to workshops with titles that ranged from “Muslims, Socialists and the Anti-war Movement: An Unholy Alliance?” to “Sharing Alphabets” to “Can a Healthy Model of Society Emerge From a Society Mainly Made up of Neurotic People?”. Some found the wildly diverse mix of dissent and debate inspiring, others looked bewildered. All were intoxicated by the brew.

Significantly, the gnarly ?reform versus revolution? question that has vexed dissidents for centuries began to emerge from the shadows of past forums into open debate. The issue was posed in terms of ?taking power? or ?becoming a counter-power?. At the ?Perspectives for the anti-globalisation movement? debate, Chris Nineham of Globalise Resistance and the UK?s Socialist Workers Party said the time was right to begin discussing the issue of state power.

“Neo-liberalism is now so discredited that we can start to talk about strikes for nationalisation,” he said, “but we have to go further and begin discussing new and more democratic models of organising the workplace that are rooted in struggle.” However, Pierre Khalfa of the French group ATTAC warned that the ESF had traditionally been a space for debate and abandoning that position could be divisive. “We don?t intend to occupy power and this enables us to have a space in civil society. If we try to take power we will cause a rift within ourselves.”

First Priority: Stop Bush

As the ESF ended thousands were booking their places on coaches to London for a state visit by President Bush. With up to 100,000 protestors expected to jam the capital?s streets, the demonstration is fast becoming a trial of strength for the British ? and European ? anti-war movements.

Inevitably, the ESF is presently concerned mostly with the crisis of USA imperialism in the Middle East.

Inevitably, the ESF is presently concerned mostly with the crisis of USA imperialism in the Middle East.

After initially declaring a London-wide exclusion zone, under pressure from USA security services, the British authorities have now agreed to allow the protest, which includes the toppling of an 18ft high statue of Bush, to take place in Trafalgar Square.  But protestors will still be barred from Westminster Bridge, Parliament Square and Whitehall. 

Stop the War Coalition spokesman John Rees told Al Jazeera.net that demonstrators would not accept such restrictions. “It is in the best interests of public order that an effective demonstration is allowed to take place,” he said. “The current impasse between our groups and the police is the government?s fault.” Rees later told a meeting that the anti-war message would be pressed home to Bush “with enormous force” next Thursday. Anti-war activists may hope London?s notoriously fickle skies stay clear on the day.

To outside observers, the sheer diversity of the ESF can sometimes make it seem unfocussed, but to the protesters in Paris, the issues were straightforward. “The message of the march is peace,” said Anu, a volunteer with a group called Mother Earth who had travelled from Paris. “It feels as if there?s something special in the air”.

Andy, a 35-year-old railway worker from London agreed. “It?s an air of possibility,” he said. When I asked him to be more specific, he paused for thought. “George Bush” he said, “couldn?t have picked a worse time to come to London.”


Published Sunday, November 16th, 2003 - 10:10am GMT

Composed from edited articles courtesy of Al Jazeera

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