In France they call the movement the “altermondialisation movement.” The term has taken on such currency in the French media that the protesters are referred to as the “alters.” No one has yet managed to think of an English translation for this wonderful term. It means people struggling for an alternative type of globalization and, as such, is much more accurate than anti-globalization and much sexier than global social justice movement.

In fact, there was a large plenary at the European Social Forum (ESF) held in Paris last week dedicated to the issue of how to translate the various terms used by the movement.

The Social Forum was mostly white but its language was incredibly diverse. Coming from a country where we seem to find it hard to translate into French and English, it was impressive to see translation in every session into five languages and often more. This is the only way a European movement can develop. To meet the need, interpreters have organized themselves into a network called Babels. It was created during the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 to allow for a real linguistic diversity. Babels is an international network of engaged interpreters and translators, professionals and volunteers who all volunteer for the ESF.

The ESF held meetings in four different locations in and around Paris. It was impossible to take in even a fraction of what was happening. As other delegates did, I spent hours a day on the Paris Metro and walking to the spread-out locations. Even though there were 55,000 delegates here compared to 65,000 last year in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the World Social Forum, the European meeting seemed much larger, perhaps because it covered such a large geographic area.

Plenary sessions had between 1,000 and 2,000 people in the audience with up to 15 speakers on the panels to reflect the diversity of countries in Europe — in most cases, including Eastern Europe.

For anyone who sees the social forum movement as doing politics differently, the ESF was a disappointment. Except for the singular absence of sectarian squabbling, many of the speakers represented a pretty old-left approach. There was no discussion from the floor and almost no discussion among panellists in most plenaries. While the smaller seminars were more participatory, there was still an abundance of talking heads.

The themes of the plenaries were:

  • Against war: for a Europe of peace and justice open to the world
  • Against neo-liberalism and patriarchy: for a social and democratic Europe of rights
  • Against the singular pursuit of profit: for an ecologically sustainable society of social justice and for food sovereignty
  • Against commercialism: for a Europe of democratic information, culture and education
  • Against racism, xenophobia and exclusion: for the equality of rights; dialogue between cultures; a Europe open to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

There were also numerous sessions on Palestinian rights and Latin American issues. In addition to the sessions on women’s rights, I attended sessions on the anti-war movement and the World Social Forum, as well as meetings on Palestine and Latin America.

The largest plenary was on the war. Famed Italian philosopher Antonio Negri and several firebrand anti-war women activists seemed to be the draw. Ignacio Ramonet of Le Monde diplomatique kicked off the massive session with the analysis that, “September 11 opened a third way for globalization by armed force. The military has become an instrument of neo-liberal globalization.” All the speakers who followed continued on the theme of deepening the analysis of the anti-war movement to include the roots of war — neo-liberal globalization.

Antonio Negri explained: “This is not an old imperial war; this is a global capital war not to expand territory but to expand capital.” He went on to say that politics based on old nationalism was not only passé but dangerous. “We are internationalists. We can only be that to the extent that we fight against this global military power.”

Negri was refreshing in that he remarked upon the new movement and the importance of building a new kind of left. “We shall not repeat the characteristics of power through our own powerâe¦we have to transform our fight for peace into a social war. We have to be a new left wing and rebuild a democratic society for everybody.”

Rosa Canadell of the Plataforma Aturem la Guerre-Catalogne, Spain, said at a time when left-wing parties have been duped by neo-liberal ideas, “it is the grass roots movements that are able to challenge the system.” She talked about new forms of struggle emerging in Spain and the importance of deepening our ideas as well as our actions. “Not only is a new world possible,” she said to thunderous applause, “it is necessary.”

The other key point raised by speakers was the need to re-launch the anti-war movement to oppose the occupation of Iraq. The first step, everyone agreed, is the anti-Bush movement on the streets of downtown London.

While the speakers in the anti-war forum seemed pretty much in agreement, the speakers in the session on the World Social Forum had quite different perspectives. Everyone agreed that the Social Forum movement had, in an important part, been responsible for the massive global anti-war mobilization last February, which had been called by the ESF and globalized by the WSF in Porto Alegre. As one speaker said, “Without the enthusiasm of those who returned from Porto Alegre, the anti-war movement would not have been possible.” However, while some speakers were positively boosterish calling the World Social Forum the real opposition to Bush, others were more critical and modest in their assessment.

There were concerns that the social forums were getting much too big and too far from everyday life. Others were critical that not enough energy was devoted to developing alternatives. Paul Nicholson of Via Campesina pointed out, “We succeeded in mobilizing against the war but not in linking economic and military issues.” He was also concerned about the frequency of social forums and the energy and resources they take.

Guatam Mody of the Indian organizing committee for the World Social Forum explained that the WSF in Mumbai in January would have a different focus from the ESF. In India the question of caste is central. “Communalism — violence against those of a different religion or language — will be a central theme as will women’s rights.”

The person perhaps most critical of what the WSF has achieved was the representative of the Brazilian WSF organizing committee whose name was not included on the program. “We are against neo-liberalism but we have a lack of globalization in our own movement. Going to Asia will overcome part of that problem but we are still missing other regions, especially Africa.” He added that the two regions most involved are Europe and Latin America. He also pointed out that while youth were the majority of the mobilization, they were in little evidence on the panels of the WSF. Finally he pointed out that he didn’t see the people of colour in the ESF that he saw on the streets of Paris.

Unfortunately, as in other plenaries, there was no opportunity to discuss the issues raised by the panel. This was supposed to be done in seminars and workshops where there was not room for most people and where speakers from the front still tended to dominate. It was only in the plenary on participatory budgets that speakers were kept to three minutes and people from the floor had ample time to participate.

The European Social Forum (ESF) ended with a massive demonstration with the liveliest contingents from Italy and Germany, a huge participation of kick-ass youth and a noticeable lack of large trade union contingents.

The liveliest and the largest contingent in the march was from the Refounded Communist Party of Italy. They had a DJ on a sound truck playing great music and hundreds of young people dancing behind a banner that shouted “Disobienti.” It was more like a Caribana contingent than a left-wing party. The demonstration was the only indication of creativity and fun throughout the social forum. If another world is possible I hope it will be more colourful and entertaining than the European Social Forum.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of , wrote our advice column and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....