frontline 12

European Social Forum - A New Generation Enters the Struggle

November 2003 saw tens of thousands of activists come together in Paris for the European Social Forum. Eamonn Coyle of Scottish Socialist Youth reports on events in France and looks forward to this years ESF in London.

Undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated and important events on any European international socialists calendar, the European Social Forum, took place in Paris on the 12-16 November 2003.

Of course, given the SSP’s remarkable breakthrough in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, a success which gained Europe-wide coverage and increased recognition of the party, it was imperative for us to be well represented, both in terms of grassroots activists and MSPs. This representation came in the shape of no fewer than 60 Scottish comrades present at the event, and MSPs Rosie Kane and Frances Curran, who spoke at plenaries on European asylum policy and the proposed EU Constitution respectively.

There can be no doubt that this strong delegation from Scotland, allied to the above contributions made by the MSPs present, certainly helped to further raise our profile on the European left. It is also important to acknowledge the key role played by comrades representing Scottish Socialist Youth in assessing the overall impact made by the SSP at the recent ESF.

As a member of SSY, and as one of the comrades who attended the Forum, I felt that our presence represented much more than merely a group of young socialists on a left-wing holiday to Paris. We seemed to be part of a much greater political, social, cultural and above all, international movement. The ESF is part of the drive towards a better world. Young people must be central to this task. We must be political activists, not the passive spectators the mainstream political establishment wants us to be.


Unfortunately, given the mainly plenary and large workshop-based nature of the ESF and the distance between venues (both problems we will discuss later) it was very difficult for us to make regular interventions at meetings. However, a positive and challenging political impact was made when we attended a meeting addressing youth rights. SSY National Organiser Donnie Nicolson, made a contribution urging comrades to address issues more directly affecting the everyday lives of ordinary young people, like poverty and low pay, as opposed to relatively abstract issues such as the proposal of a Youth International.

However, beyond this relatively small political impression made at plenaries and workshops, it is fair to say that SSY made a much greater impact at the Forum through other means, such as cultural and social interaction with other young activists from across the Continent. This helped create the comradely atmosphere which, for me, epitomised the spirit of the ESF.

A fine example of this came as we found ourselves staying in a large gymnasium with Italian comrades from Giovanni Communista, the youth wing of Rifondazione, although we were only granted entry after some prolonged and staggered negotiations with the French security guards.

The incident occurred as myself and other SSY comrades joined our new found Italian friends for a small night cap. As we sat enjoying the finest array of intoxicants France and its tourists had to offer, completely undeterred by the swathes of occupied sleeping bags around us, our evening of cultural enlightenment was almost cut short after the bourgeois establishment of the gymnasium suddenly turned the lights out on us.

However, this draconian decision was met with an outstanding display of defiance as we arose from our slumbers, led by our inspirational leader Donnie Nicolson, to give a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Sadly, this only lasted for around 30 seconds when the lights were turned back on, leaving several singing Scots standing proudly with fists in the air, and several more weary Italians, totally bemused at such a ludicrous sight. This was a tuneful, if eccentric, display of international solidarity!

And now, back to the real world. In my opinion, the three-hour plenaries, which were held three times daily throughout the Forum, were by no means the most important aspect of the ESF.While they were interesting, they did not, for me, genuinely advance the anti-capitalist movement on the ground. It seemed that such progressive activity generally took place outside of these meetings as activists of all ages and from all walks of life met informally, and amiably discussed their own experiences from their respective countries, while exchanging ideas and opinions on building a better world.

Personally, it gave me a great sense of pride when selling, or even just displaying, the Scottish Socialist Voice to people who would otherwise probably never have had the chance to read it. Selling the newspaper, amongst other party merchandise, was a great way of communicating with overseas comrades.It was often the case that, on offering them a copy of the Voice, they would respond in kind by offering us one of their publications. Most inspiringly, this happened at several stalls, including Jeunesses Comunistes Revolutionaires, the youth section of the LCR, as well as the Red-Green Alliance of Denmark, two European left groups with which the SSP has worked as part of the European Anti-Capitalist Left project.


Naturally, the high point of the event came on the Saturday as 100,000 people marched through the streets of Paris in a colourful and good-natured display of anti-capitalist and anti-war sentiment. However, this demonstration was not just about what we are against but, more importantly, what we are in favour of. This demo was above all, pro-change, pro-peace, pro-democracy and, for most of us, pro-socialism.

The march was scheduled to move off at 2.00 pm, but didn’t actually leave Place de la Republique, the point of departure, until around 4.00pm. You might have expected the crowds to start melting away, but there was no danger of this happening here, thanks to the carnival atmosphere generated by a vibrant combination of various flags, banners and music, including a repeated techno-style version of Bandierra Rossa, eagerly lapped up by all present. Add to this the deafening and constant chants of “solidarité avec les sans-papiers!”(1) from some enthusiastic French comrades with a PA and, of course the SSP, with our own colourful range of songs, chants and impromptu dances, and you are left the perfect setting for one almighty left-wing party. Could you hear the bourgeois sing? No! No!


However, beyond the very jovial nature of this demo lie some much more important political points. This was a hugely impressive display of cultural and international unity, which proved once again the highly enthusiastic and energetic nature of the broad European left movement. It could not have been a pretty sight for those who still cling to hopes that the anti-capitalist movement fizzled out long ago. Indeed, from this and other such demonstrations of late, most notably the massive international anti-war movement witnessed last year, it is somewhat apparent that the opposite is now the case.

The march brought the important discussions of the ESF out of the debating halls and into the streets. Such a display shows that the movement for an alternative to capitalist globalisation, and our own socialist ideas, is not simply about talking. Rather, it is also about grassroots activism, and the struggle for progressive change in the communities, workplaces and, in this case, on the streets.


It was immediately apparent on arrival in Paris that travel between venues would create some irritating practical difficulties. While many of the main events, such as plenaries and the final decision-making forum held on the Sunday, were held in various venues in Saint Denis, there was still a great deal of travel involved on the cityís vast Metro system to get us from one venue to another.

Indeed, it did seem appropriate for the Forum to be held in such suburban areas given that an assortment of left groups, most notably the French Communist Party, hold strong influences on their councils and were therefore able to provide substantial funding for the event.

However, while accepting that organising such a monumental event is far from straightforward, it is important for planners to realise that such practical difficulties could well result in a gradual decrease in attendance at future ESFs. If events are not held relatively close to each other, especially given the typically high travel expenses and the highly time-consuming nature that such journeys dictate, I feel that people could be put off from attending plenaries that they would have otherwise attended .

In a more profound political sense, however, there are other potential hazards faced by future Forums, the next of which will be held in London this year. Of course, this venue is far more convenient for Scottish comrades given the sizeable reduction in traveling time to the event, compared to the previous trips to Paris, and Florence in 2002.

A welcome boost to the London ESF was the support of the city Mayor Ken Livingstone. Ken has recently re-joined New Labour, much to the disappointment of many who saw him as a potential focus for an alternative to Blair. The Forum is of course a place to debate alternatives, and to discuss questions like the nature of parties like New Labour, who have embraced neo-liberalism. It also provides an arena to contrast the reformist ideas of the likes of Ken Livingstone, with the alternative vision that Marxists put forward. At the same time the ESF needs to be cautious and avoid being co-opted by the agenda that some politicians may have. It is important that in its planning and execution the ESF is transparent, democratic and open to the grassroots of the movement.

The ESF also has to avoid the danger of being turned into a vast talking shop; an event for intellectual discussion as opposed to a great opportunity for international left unity and serious grassroots activism and fraternal debate. Many of the meetings I attended, while often interesting, seemed to lend at least some credence to this possibility. In the majority of cases, they tended to be based far too heavily around a model of four established intellectuals addressing a workshop or plenary of several thousand people, who would sit for around two-and-a-half hours in a large room before being allowed to make limited contributions and put questions to the panel.

While fully acknowledging that these meetings are an important part of our political education, I believe that for them to be fully effective they have to be based much more around conversation and comradely discussion, as opposed to the often abstract and stilted style of debate that was, more often than not, on display here.

The success of the ESF lies in its radicalism, and in the connection between the essential debates and discussions, and the actions that they produce. For example, the hugely successful worldwide anti-war demos of February 2003 were launched from the Florence ESF of November 2002.


These problems aside, provided they are fully acknowledged and challenged by all those committed to retaining the ESF solely for the advancement of this new movement in Europe, it is unquestionable that this event can become both a great beacon of hope, and a hub of political activity in which socialists can play a leading role.

As the movement grows, events like the ESF will become increasingly important. Given this, it is imperative that the SSP, as an organisation currently leading the Scottish and, arguably, the British left, plays a key role in these events, ensuring that we are very much at the heart of this international crusade, and not standing on the fringes of it.

As regards young working class people in Scotland, we of course have a crucial role to play in the future success of the ESF. At the moment, our collective voice is being ignored by the establishment in this country. Therefore, it is our job to find new avenues and opportunities, such as the European Social Forum, in order to express our political will for the better world we wish to see develop. As Lenin famously said when criticised because two thirds of his revolutionary Bolshevik party were under the age of 25: “He who has the youth, has the future.”

My thanks to Donnie Nicolson for the very helpful information he gave me in writing this article


1. This literally means: ‘solidarity with those without papers’ i.e. solidarity with asylum seekers and immigrants