European Social Forum: Starting from scratch

Elisabeth Gaultier is a member of the executive committee of the Communist Party of France (PCF).

Elisabeth Gaultier is a member of the executive committee of the Communist Party of France (PCF). In the French ESF organising committee she represents Espaces Marx, an organisation that “explores theoretical and emancipatory questions, inspired by the thoughts of Karl Marx”. When we interviewed her, she made it very clear that she keeps her “membership of the PCF very separate from my participation in the ESF process. I do not want to mix up these two roles”

Who is involved in the French organising committee?

We started to organise for the ESF last year and have been able to build quite a broad alliance in the last 18 months or so. Sometimes this broadness can create difficulties in trying to reach consensus, but it makes the whole process very interesting indeed. The active organisations on our committee include migrant groups, through to trade unions and peace movements, to a few religious organisations and human rights campaigns - a wide range of anti-globalisation groups. Over 200 organisations have signed up to our call to organise the next ESF in France. All these groups meet once a month to discuss the key questions and make the major decisions.

We have set up a number of committees and working groups - all of them open and transparent. The organising committee, which meets once a week, has about 30 members and reflects the broadness of the participation.

Three major trade union organisations are heavily involved: the CGT [the biggest union federation traditionally linked to the PCF]; the relatively new leftwing union, the SUD; and the FSU teachers’ union. There are also members of other unions, but they do not officially represent them. Most organisations which played a part in the recent anti-globalisation movement in France are now involved.

I take it Lutte Ouvrière is still not taking part?

This is correct: they do not accept the ESF as a way to transform society and seem to think it is not militant enough. But you really have to talk to them about their refusal to participate.

A number of other political parties are very much involved in the ESF process. The majority of the organising committee are members of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire or the PCF, but officially parties are still banned. Shouldn’t we try to overturn this ruling, which was imposed by the international secretariat of the World Social Forum?

We in France take the WSF charter very literally. Political parties cannot be organisers of the ESF process - they are not represented as such and have no presence in our various organising committees. Of course, political parties of the left are not totally separate from the movements that are developing in society. Many people who are very active in the anti-globalisation movement often happen to be members of political parties too.

And left parties generally do support the ESF process. For example, we will only be able to organise the ESF 2003 in Paris because local and city governments have agreed to let us use public areas and meeting halls. The mayor of Paris is a member of the Socialist Party, while the other three localities where there will be ESF meetings have Communist Party mayors. We do need their financial and administrative support.

While members of the LCR and the PCF have been involved in the Social Forum for some time now, in recent months members of the Socialist Party who view themselves as members of the socialist family have also begun to attend our meetings. Their leadership has recently decided to take the ESF seriously. But I don’t think that one single organisation is able to directly influence and direct this movement.

Formally, these parties will not take part in the ESF. Of course, there is also a debate in the French movement about this situation, especially about the role of the youth groups that are linked to political parties. But at the moment we can only reach consensus with all other organisations if we bar parties from officially joining. The debate could of course move on and we might find ourselves in a different situation in the future.

Personally speaking, I think the current arrangement is almost a necessity to guarantee the success of the ESF. This autonomy from political parties helps to create a certain dynamic and guarantees that the direct political interests of the parties cannot block the process. I am not sure we would have the same level of self-organisation, autonomy and creativity if parties were directly involved.

Perhaps this reflects a recognition of the fact that young people have been alienated by the existing parties and do not trust the left either.

Of course history, and especially recent history, shows that there are big problems with parties trying to take over social movements for their own purposes. I particularly recall the last World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, where the French Socialist Party organised a big photo-call, but did not participate at all in the forum. As it happened, this was only weeks before the French presidential elections. This was nothing more than a PR stunt.

Then there are those political parties who do take part in the forum, but pretend that they are not a party and do not offer anything new to young people. Everybody can see that this happens - especially with one British organisation, which is really rather small and insignificant and has no impact on wider society. Rather than working for a new joint project with other forces, it is obvious that the group puts its own particular interests at the centre of all its activities.

Of course, there are positive developments to do with the participation of political parties. My own party, for example, has learned a lot from working with the ESF movement. For example, how can we solve problems in a non-hierarchical way? How can we debate and organise confrontations without them leading to explosions? We have also learned a lot about other organisations and discovered that there are often close contact points on a political level of which we were not aware before.

Has the ESF helped to bring the French left closer together?

I would not go quite that far, but certainly some of the fears and prejudices are gone. There are certainly moves to overcome the atomisation of the critical left and anti-capitalist movement, which of course most organisations want. But the reality is not so straightforward and there are real reasons why these different organisations exist. But the joint experience and dialogue helps the communication between our groups.

It all seems rather complex from the outside: LO does not participate in the ESF, but is in talks with the LCR to form a joint challenge in the European elections. Leading members of the LCR and PCF seem very close within the ESF. Then there is of course the link between the PCF and the Socialist Party, government partners who still work together in local and regional councils.

Members of the LCR, the Communist Party and the Green Party work very closely together in the ESF. But, while the Green Party, for example, is split over the role of the anti-globalisation movement, the PCF decided at its last congress that a new relationship with the social movements should be sought. We agreed that alliances and other work should be organised in a far more open, public and democratic way than has happened in the past, when many things were decided in back-room committees. Political ideas should be discussed and alliances should be formed in full view of the people. Our own political methods have become a lot more open and flexible.

Since the LCR and LO are to decide within the next few days if they will again stand together in the European elections, chances are very slim that a new electoral alliance could emerge from the ESF movement.

But in the last few months it has become very clear that the Socialist Party offers no real alternative for most people. It is not enough to portray itself as the opposition. In the recent strikes over pensions, the SP was not distinguishable from the right government. There are no substantial differences.

Does that mean the PCF will no longer support a Socialist Party government?

At the moment, there is no real basis for us to do so. But, at the same time, we should always work towards forming a new broad left if we are serious about beating the right. That would, however, depend on the turn of the movements to such a left. At the moment, the idea of a new, broad left standing together in elections is not very likely.

However, the French electoral system has recently been dramatically ‘reformed’ and is moving towards a two-party-system like that of the United States. This is a very dangerous situation that could lead to a dramatic decline in the left presence in the institutional system. In some areas, there is the danger of letting in Le Pen’s Front National. Obviously, in such cases the left has to overcome its serious divisions. But in general, the danger of the right is not enough to form a permanent left force with the SP.

We are in a very difficult situation: we have seen recent movements in France that are possibly more radical than those in 1995. Despite this, the organised left has not made a breakthrough in these movements. This leads to two questions: how can we strengthen the movement; and how can we influence the political system in a way that leads to real transformations in society? As long as the Socialist Party only offers ‘alternation but no real alternative’, as we call it, we will not support them.

How do you view the emergence of Attac [the anti-capitalist network that emerged from the fight for the Tobin tax on share dealings]?

There is still a debate going inside the PCF about the nature of Attac. Personally I think it is a new, serious organisation that has taken up a lot of questions to do with anti-globalisation. However, a lot of other groups have taken this up as well - which means that Attac is not so special any more.

Therefore Attac has also tried to engage with the political process, without actually fielding candidates in elections. During the presidential elections they attempted to influence the outcome by presenting candidates with a set of demands, rather than opting for one of them. They had hoped to build up a certain dynamic behind their demands, but even in their own judgement this tactic failed. They were not able to influence the process.

There is a big difference really between political parties and Attac. Parties cannot affiliate to it and Attac refuses to call on its members to vote for their candidates. Of course, there are again individual activists in Attac, including communists, who happen to be members of other political parties.

The French comrades have not been very keen on the creation of ESF networks. Doesn’t the success of massive, European-wide demonstrations on February 15 show that we can be far more effective when we are united?

In my opinion, February 15 was not organised by a simple network. Certainly not an ESF network. You will recall that during the various ESF assembly meetings a number of anti-war statements were circulated. They were not signed by the ESF as a whole, but by a number of participating organisations. This was necessary for the widest possible participation. In France, for example, there are organisations who would not have taken part in our protests had we not criticised Saddam Hussein. That was very different from other countries - the British, for example, did not want this in at all. Sure, most organisations who organised the protests are part of the ESF. But a European-wide joint statement, a joint call for demonstrations, would not have been possible.

This debate has been going on for some months now: do we offer a space for discussion and organisation or do we attempt to build an active network? In France all the organisations agree that the forum should simply provide a space and would self-destruct if we moved beyond that.

We necessarily exclude some organisations if we start organising networks from above. If groups come together during the ESF process to form a network, fine. But we cannot prescribe that they have to be part of a network when they join the ESF.

The European Union is becoming ever more centralised, ever more like a state. At the same time, the left is pitifully divided along national lines and sometimes even smaller than that.

This is a problem of the left and the trade unions. No question, the trade unions must seek new methods of militant cooperation across Europe. The political parties of the left also have to develop European-wide structures. The Communist Party, for example, takes responsibility for working towards a new, European-wide organisation that must take the form of a party.

But we cannot mix these things up. Every organisation has to do its own work. The social forum can help the unions and the parties to strengthen their cooperation, but the forum itself will not and cannot become a new political vanguard. There are of course parties in the ESF who still believe in the old ways of organisation. But I would ask for patience. Especially if we look back at the earliest examples of working class and leftwing organisations, it becomes obvious that they were not formed overnight, but developed slowly out of discussion groups and other formations.

We have a huge problem to explain to people our vision of a non-capitalist society in this tremendously changed world. The Soviet Union has gone, the social democratic system in the west has collapsed and has led to an immense atomisation of the working class. For those below, the last few decades have been marked by a tremendous deterioration in social conditions.

We have to radically rethink past strategies and redefine the relationship between those above and those below. The millennium has marked a certain sea change, where for the first time we were able to envisage that we can organise again on a global level. The disappearance of the Soviet bloc means that there are fewer hurdles for us and that events like the World Social Forum have only now become possible. But everything has to be invented again: we have start again from scratch.