European Social Forum 2003


attended the second European Social Forum from November 12-16, 2003
held in France at four venues: Saint Denis, Paris, Ivry- sur-Seine,
and Bobigny. It was a huge affair—according to information
on the World Social Forum website, a total of 625 activities were
held, involving 900 guest speakers, and some 50,000 participants
from 60 countries. 

newspaper-size program listed some 55 plenaries, 252 seminars, and
285 workshops, plus numerous cultural events as well as other forums
and initiatives. The plenaries, seminars, and workshops were set
up by various activists, NGOs, and left institutions and organizations.
These presentations were held in a variety of rooms ranging from
an upscale cinema to a large classroom in a building still under
construction to a series of tents erected for the occasion to buildings
connected to a huge, incredibly expensive science and technology
park that made, say, the Boston Museum of Science (no slouch of
a building) look like a shack. 

from one venue to another was an activist challenge in itself. St.
Denis was an hour’s Metro ride from Ivry-Sur-Seine. Sessions
within the Ivry site were a 30 minute walk from each other, sometimes
even a bus ride. But participants we passed seemed cheerful as they
clambered over construction sites and through large parks to their
chosen session. We seemed to be among the few annoyed at the distances
because, besides the exhaustion invovled in getting to anything,
there was no central gathering point where you could absorb the
size and be inspired by the unity of the ESF. It made you want to
find familiar faces and grab on for dear life. 

always, an important part of the ESF/WSF was the youth camp of thousands.
At first, it was intended as a place where people who couldn’t
afford room and board (or who didn’t want to stay in “fancy”
hotels) could stay cheaply, but it has become an activist entity
in itself, with a village atmosphere and its own workshops and cultural

this was a European organized affair, there were only a handful
of presenters from the U.S. (Michael Albert from ZNet being one
of them, Rahul Mahajan, author and contributor to


another). But there has never been much participation from U.S.
activists in the World Social Forum or much knowledge about it either.
When Z first began attending the WSF in 2002 (it’s second year),
we were amazed that over 50,000 progressives had gathered in Brazil
to give testimony, exchange information, share knowledge, etc.,
a figure that grew to 100,000 in 2003. Imagine getting social democrats,
liberals, radicals, labor organizations, NGOs, and every other progressive
permutation in the U.S. together for three to five days of discussions,
presentations, and debates —and have it be a civil, friendly,
and uplifting experience.


those who aren’t familiar with the WSF, according to their
Charter of Principles, the WSF “is an open meeting place for
reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of
proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective
action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed
to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and
any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary
society directed towards fruitful relationships among Mankind [sic]
and between it and the Earth.” (At least they didn’t say
fruitful relationship between Mankind and



The seminars, plenaries,
and workshops each had from three to ten presenters, in most cases,
and ran a wide gamut—from “Sensible methods of production
and consumption” to “Western Sahara: permanency of the
colonial issue in the Africa of today” to “Women and men:
from equality within the law to equality in reality” to (our
favorite) “Can a healthy model of society emerge from a society
mainly made of neurotic people?” 

is impossible to report on these meetings in detail. There were
too many of them. Often, they started at least 30 minutes to an
hour late, making it difficult to “sample” them for this
report. Often only a portion of the scheduled speakers showed up.
(This was true at the WSF in Brazil as well.) We had the sense that
a lot of what went on was people from one country traveling F many
miles to the ES to meet with people from that same country, which
has its pluses and minuses. 

who came to exchange information with others working in the same
area in other countries probably benefited the most from the social
forum experience. For instance, we attended a seminar on “Land
privatization in the global- ized south and the role of European
development policies,” organized by FIAN, an international
organization for human rights. It offered many specific details
as it stemmed from a European Union document purporting to offer
land reform politics that would provide more space for civil society.
Unfortunately it continued to promote “marketing” of land,
rather than redistributing it, and it failed to recognize that “access
to land is a human right.” 

also attended “Life After Capitalism,” with ZNet staffer,
Albert, along with George Monbiot (a ZNet contributor), and Jonathan
Neale ( an activist from the UK), which covered the spectrum from
participatory economics (an economic program based on the values
of equity, self- management, solidarity, and diversity) to a kind
of benevolent capitalism-meets-social democracy. Two out of three
of the presenters focused more on what’s wrong with capitalism
than on a vision/strategy for something else—a continuing problem
for the left. 

plenary on “The World Social Forum from Porto Alegre to Mumbai:
dynamics and ambitions of the social forums movement” was of
particular interest as it suggested tying together the social forum
experience and raised questions about its future. There had been
rumblings at WSF 2003 that it was too big to handle, that some kind
of representative or delegate system might have to occur. The eight
speakers at the above-mentioned plenary tried to lay out the successes,
weaknesses, and tensions in the social forum movement as follows: 


  • Increasing significance
    and strength of movements challenging (U.S.) imperialism 

  • Diversity of
    participants and issues addressed 

  • Shared values 

  • Huge movement
    of movements; without the World Social Forum the February 2003
    antiwar demonstrations and anti-capitalist globalization actions
    would never have happened on such a huge scale 

  • Raised consciousness
    and hope that another world is possible 

  • Raised awareness
    around privatization, immigrant rights, and other pressing issues

  • Global solidarity 

  • Increasing numbers:
    there are social forums in almost all corners of the world 



  • More participation
    needed from Asia and Africa; also from unions/labor organizations
    who could build for global strikes; and from school kids and a
    new generation 

  • Size, a strength,
    is also a weakness, as these meetings are getting to huge and

  • Forum idea important,
    but need to find common themes and visions and move forward from
    “opposition to proposition” and launching initiatives;
    if another world is possible, then what is it? And how would it
    to be implemented? 

  • Tensions between
    World Social Forum and local social forums: is there too much
    emphasis on one over the other? Should locals have priority? Should
    organizing more locals be a priority? 

  • Political tensions
    over direction: reform or revolution? Direct action and/or institutional
    action? Non-violence exclusively? 

To us, the social forum movement is one of the most important progressive
developments in the last 25 years or so. In particular, as media
producers, we feel the task of alternative media is to help publicize
it and also to participate by joining with other media producers
to pressure mainstream media worldwide to cover (accurately) the
various forums. Beyond that, as activists working for social change,
we are concerned with the future of the WSF as well. It seems to
us that it needs to work on four main fronts (in addition to eliminating
the word “Mankind” from its charter/consciousness):  

  1. Continue expanding
    the diversity and range of participants (attending the World Social
    Forum is an incredible experience, but it takes time and costs
    money; what does that say about the class/caste/ location of the

  2. Work to increase
    number of local/regional social forums such that a move to a representative
    structure (should that be desirable) would be truly representative
    rather than 90 percent being from the host country and 10 percent
    from the rest of the world 

  3. Begin discussing/setting
    up a participatory democratic structure for the WSF 

  4. Reconceive the
    format to move from sessions, where 10 presenters speak for 15
    minutes each, to a format that includes single speakers and/or
    local forum representatives, with specific position papers and
    proposals focused around vision and strategy that can then be
    discussed and debated at the various social forums and elsewhere
    as well. 


will continue to be involved as time and finances allow—we
will be at the World Social Forum in Mumbai and at the first Boston
Social Forum in July, so look us up.