Glasnost | 13.11.2003 00:39 | European Social Forum
After the first two days of intense political discussions and maneuvering within the ESF European Assembly, today was strangely a non-event in many ways, despite it being the official opening ceremony. However, it proved the most intellectually and emotionally challenging for many reasons.
The first two days had centred around Bobigny where the Assembly met. Yesterday and today, the European Trade Union Forum took place, a parallel event to the ESF, not at all part of the programme and in many ways a problematic event. The event was organised by the European Trade Union Confederation with the main French trade unions. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the ESF, just an opportunistic space the ESF has created for the trade unions to meet and actually completely ignore the ESF itself. The ETUC and the French unions will of course participate in the ESF, but the fact that they see a parallel trade union forum as somehow both necessary and distincty from the ESF shows how far these bureaucracies are detached from the social movements. This is not to romanticise the ESF, in fact, it merely shows that a fairly mainstream event like the ESF is still too far down the alternative route for the unions to join wholeheartedly and without exception.
What was striking about today was the frantic efforts to build the ESF infrastructure. At La Villette in Paris, one of the 4 centres of the ESF and a place with enormous exhibitions, music, art, science centres, they were still putting the book and group stalls together at 4PM this afternoon with no end in sight. The press centre was closed until the afternoon.
Most people spent the day arriving, registering, finding they had no accommodation, then being found somewhere, or arriving to set up their stalls only to find their books and leaflets had arrived but they still had nothing to put them on. Those who have been here for a few days spent the day talking with as many people as possible, trying to get as much information about what was going on, and also their impressions of the Forum, both here and in its political role. During these conversations, I spoke to a young activist or 'militant' of ATTAC France who gave a really insightful glimpse into the political structure of ATTAC which basically showed it up as a complex and contested arena, with two wings, one close to the Socialist Party, one to the hard left, with a militant activist base of some 30,000 people all frustrated by a lack of information from the centre.
The decentralisation the ESF meant that each of the four venues had its own opening ceremony, speakers, music and other cultural events.
I decided to head to Saint-Denis, which is where José Bové and Chico Whitaker (on of the originators of the first WSF in Porto Alegre) were due to open the forum there. Saint-Denis is a fascinating place. It is where the local social forums of France are holding their seminars, it is where a huge immigrant population live of North African origin, it is where the M.I.B are based, which is the suburban immigrant movement, and where the 'sans-papiers' (undocumented workers, or 'illegal workers') have launched an occupation today.
The opening ceremony began at 7pm, and was a mixture of very boring speeches and great Brazilian speeches. As the temperatures dropped, we went for a drink and some food and spoke to some of the local Algerian and Tunisian people. What came out of this was a very clear message: the local Arab population feel that the ESF has very little to do with them; there is no information, they don't think it will change anything, but they also see it as about the EU, and they say that Algerians in France are struggling for citizenship rights within the state, and don't see the ESF as relevant. When I explained that there were many seminars on such issues, they replied that they were at work from dawn till dusk all week - how could they go to a forum that ran from Wednesday to Saturday.
Other information that came out of these discussions: the ESF in Paris has cost 7 million euros, 3 million of which has been donated in resources by the local government, and a further 1 million has been donated by the French Socialist Party, and 500,000 from the local government. Money has also come from the Ford Foundation.
Tomorrow the plenaries, seminars and workshops begin.