Democracy and transparency needed

Tina Becker and Anne McShane report from the latest preparatory assembly of the European Social Forum, which gathered in Paris over September 29-30

The last assembly before the November European Social Forum was called to finalise the timetable for this year’s gathering in Paris, discuss whether the ESF should become a bi-annual event and decide where the ESF 2004 should take place. Discussion on the last two points proved - predictably - by far the most interesting. It is a shame that the organisers only put aside two hours for both items.

The assembly was attended by only 150 or so people, including some 12 from Britain. In previous meetings, the attendance has varied from 250 to 400. The low turnout was mainly down to the fact that the main meetings took place on Monday and Tuesday, making it difficult for many apart from full-timers and officials to be present. The French organising committee had unilaterally overturned a decision of the previous assembly to meet the weekend before (September 20-21), which would have allowed people to attend the anti-war demonstrations of September 27. The French argued against this all the way through the last assembly in Genoa: they complained that the earlier date would leave too little time between the deadline for proposals for speakers and seminars and this, our last assembly, which would have to ratify the timetable. So they simply changed the date to September 29 and 30 - a Monday and Tuesday. A compromise, they insisted. People could attend the demos and still make it to the assembly.

This was unfortunately not the only time the French committee behaved in a rather undemocratic and overbearing way. One of those present, a Parisian comrade whose first ESF attendance this was, told me that she actually started to make a list of the times the French chair overruled people: “It’s unbelievable. People make a suggestion and the chair just declares them invalid with a dismissive gesture,” she said. Comrade Sophie Zafari in particular has a rather unique, emotional style of chairing and even people in the back row can tell by her expression what she thinks about whoever is speaking. Not much, most of the time.

Surely, a chair bears particular responsibility for trying to bring out all serious suggestions, put them in some manageable order and re-present them - especially in these big meetings, where sometimes inaccurate or slow translation by the interpreters may make it hard to understand proposals or follow procedural points. Yet Sophie and other French comrades in the chair hardly ever take notes, often preferring to chat amongst themselves.

Comrades from the SWP and its International Socialist Tendency have therefore resorted to a technique that is becoming pretty torturous for the rest of us: they repeat certain points over and over again. Different people from different countries are sent to the front to go over the same point as the previous speaker. Whenever Petros from Greece or Christina from Germany get up, you know that they will repeat - often word for word - what Philip from Poland and Chris from England have just said. As by now even the most inattentive delegate knows about those comrades’ party affiliation, the tactic is wearing a bit thin and a lot of eyes in the hall turn skywards when an IST member comes to the microphone. This tactic only works anyway if the IST gets support from one of the bigger beasts: namely the Italian or French delegation. Sometimes not even then.

The SWP has always made it one of their main tasks to fight for “a massive demonstration” on the last day of the event - just like last year in Florence. Or, as comrade Philip from the Polish section put it, “This demonstration is bloody important, because we have to show that we do not just sit around in talking shops and boring conferences, but that we do things, that we can make a real impact.” Although the comrade slightly misrepresented the SWP line, he obviously repeated what he thought he heard at one of the IST’s briefing meetings (which tend to look like a group hug) - ie, that the main ESF is “boring”. His comrade, Jonathan Neale, put it a bit more eloquently: “We can make history again. We need not just our conference, but also the biggest demonstration we can possibly build,” he said, as comrade Sophie Zafari was pulling faces behind his back.

Although comrade Luciano Muhlbauer, the main Italian delegate, a member of Rifondazione Comunista, also supported the idea of one big and overtly political demonstration on the final day, the French seem to have got their way with their idea of two smaller, carnival-like marches, which will merge at some point. To ‘win’ a point, you need of course to chair a particular discussion and then declare that your favoured view is the “consensus”.

It is hard to understand why the main people in the French organising committee behave in the way they do. They proposed prolonging the period between ESFs and making them “less gigantic”; they argued against one big, political demonstration; they had previously opposed the formation of the anti-war network that built the worldwide demonstrations on February 15 and ruled against taking a decision on the venue for the next ESF. They seem increasingly intent on holding things back. Many delegates believe that the trade union bureaucracy in France is behind this drive to slow down the ESF process.

Like most of the leading French comrades, Sophie is officially a delegate of her trade union and the soft lobby group, Attac. But just like the other top French comrade, Pierre Khalfa, she also happens to be a member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. The comrades are in leading positions, because the LCR was the main motivator behind the formation of Attac, which now has over 60,000 members. Since then, the Communist Party of France (PCF) has also thrown its lot in with Attac and the ESF, but the LCR and its allies still hold key leadership positions. Of course, political parties are officially banned from taking part in both Attac and the ESF - a situation that is becoming more and more ludicrous, as comrades get to know each other … and each other’s affiliation. There were maybe 20 people out of 150 at the assembly who did not belong to one political party or another.

The proceedings have once again highlighted some of the serious shortcomings of the ESF and the steps needed to overcome them:
- For democracy and transparency. All discussion items and detailed agendas to be published in advance.
- For an elected and accountable leadership. All meetings to be open to observers. Agendas and minutes to be made public.
- No bans on political parties. For the open clash of ideas in front of the whole movement.
- An end to the ‘consensus’ principle. It is undemocratic, inflexible and holds us back. For the right of the majority to decide.

International demo

A meeting of the ‘network of social movements’ discussed the possibility of once again organising simultaneous demonstrations, on March 20 2004 - precisely one year after the invasion of Iraq. This action looks certain to go ahead, although discussions are still underway as to the precise slogans of the demo and whether it should be merged with the so-called ‘social demonstrations’ called for February 15 to protest against attacks on pensions in France and elsewhere.