Speakers cause controversy

Part two of European Social Forum summary: Tina Becker reports

Discussion on the final timetable for the ESF understandably took up a great deal of time. With 55 plenary sessions and 50 seminars, as well as an anticipated 400 workshops, there was much to debate.

Particular emphasis was put on the big plenary sessions, which are the main meetings with the ‘star’ speakers. Readers will remember that all participating countries were given a quota of speakers - in the end largely determined on the basis of the bargaining power of the national mobilising committees (see Weekly Worker August 21). We warned that this would lead to a bureaucratic and nationalistic approach to the important debates in Paris. Unfortunately what we said turned out to be correct.

Most of the discussion centred around the fact that a number of countries had exceeded their quotas. There was a great deal of horse-trading to adjust the numbers - with some accepting less and others like the Italians increasing their quota significantly. There was a particular problem with Greece, as it has three rival ESF committees who are apparently completely unable to work together. Because so many national delegations fought tooth and nail to get as many of their speakers through as possible, plenary sessions will again be overstuffed with top table contributors: there are at least three plenaries with nine or more speakers. One can imagine how much time that leaves for questions or contributions from the floor.

There was little information about the actual views of speakers or their relevance politically to a European-wide debate. There were, however, some exceptions. In particular there was a strong objection to George Galloway speaking at the ESF. Antoine Bernard from the International Fellowship for Human Rights (FIDH) argued that Galloway had a dubious record on Saddam Hussein. In particular he has apparently signed a petition for the release of former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, with whom Galloway has admitted spending Christmas Day 1999. “This petition is also supported by some very rightwing forces in France,” Antoine argued. This was vigorously countered by Jonathan Neale (SWP), who declared that Galloway had been framed in Britain for his opposition to the war. He accepted no criticism of Galloway’s softness on Arab nationalism and said that his support for Tariq Aziz would have been based simply on opposition to detention without trial. Unfortunately, nobody was actually in possession of this petition or knew more details about it.

Eventually this problem was resolved after a discussion outside the meeting, where Bernard agreed to withdraw his opposition so long as Galloway gives no support to Saddam Hussein and co when he speaks in Paris. CPGB members argued that we adopt a critical approach to Galloway, while, of course, allowing him to speak - although Vicki Morris of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty unsurprisingly seemed to be in favour of a ban.

The other argument was over a speaker from Cuba. Again Bernard opposed the selection of an official representative of the Cuban regime as speaker and suggested that an unnamed Cuban dissident be invited instead. There was opposition from the Communist Party of Greece comrades, who argued they did not want any “so-called dissidents”. In the end it was agreed that both the official Cuban speaker and the dissident be invited. In the likely event that the dissident be denied the right to leave Cuba a letter from him would be read out at the same meeting. Our question as to what kind of dissident comrades were talking about was left unanswered. Surely, there is a difference between a rightwing pro-American and a partisan of working class democracy.

Another key factor in the discussion on speakers was the question of gender. The French mobilising committee was adamant that there be at least one woman speaker at each of the plenary debates. Positive discrimination is important - last year’s social forum was certainly dominated by middle-aged white men. However, the danger is tokenism - as with allocating speakers on the basis of nationality.

The programme working group, which is composed of 21 comrades from the different participating countries, will meet again on October 11 and 12 to finalise the timetable. Comrades Jonathan Neale of the SWP and Liz Hutchins from CND have previously been elected to represent the English ESF mobilisation committee on this body.