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Seattle with a French accent

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Issue 1704

Up to 100,000 join protest as anti-capitalism hits Europe

Seattle with a French accent

PAUL McGARR reports from Millau, southern France

“SEATTLE ON the Tarn.” That was how the remote French town of Millau was renamed, by protesters and press alike, last weekend. Seattle to echo the spirit of the great revolt against global capitalism in that US city last year, and Tarn for the river that Millau stands on. Millau has a population of around 20,000 in normal times. But last Friday and Saturday were anything but normal.

The town’s streets and parks were transformed into the scene of a giant and inspirational festival against capitalism. Over 60,000 people from across France and beyond joined this marvellous protest. They were there to support the ten local farmers in court last Friday, facing possible jail sentences for dismantling the town’s McDonald’s last year. Revulsion at what global capitalism is doing to the world brought people to Millau.

“We are here to protest against the logic of a world in which money rules and the market dictates,” Jos Bov, the left wing farmers’ leader told cheering crowds. Florent, from Grenoble, said, “Globalisation is the whole system in which a single model, a single mechanism-the market, money and the multinationals-decide everything in the world and then impose it on everyone with their institutions. It means a world in which growth, their growth, comes first, and everything to do with the quality of people’s lives and the environment is forgotten. This is such an important fight. It might take years, but today has given that fight a new dynamic. It’s just the start.”

Isabelle and her husband, Charles, had travelled from Limoges. Globalisation for her “sums up a world in which the rich exploit the poor, and the law is designed to help the rich and make the poor suffer. “We need to fight for justice.”

Pascale is a teacher in the FSU trade union. She said, “Globalisation is the imposition of an economic system where people are sacrificed to the interests of the giant companies. It means freedom is destroyed. Liberty is smothered in the interests of money. You see it in agriculture, you see it in the way the environment is threatened, and you see it too in public services like education and health which are threatened with privatisation.”

Jean Pierre is an electrician in the CGT union. He said, “Big business is pillaging the world. Today is in defence of peasants. But whether you are a peasant or a worker, it’s the same big business interests behind the globalisation that threatens us all.”

Charlotte and Virginie are local school students. They had come mainly to hear the concert. But they added, “It’s right what Jos Bov is saying. The people with money and power want to control everything, what we eat, what happens to our lives. To do something to stop that is important.”

The thrust of the protests was opposition to global capitalism, and for a different kind of internationalism.

But there were other notes too. Some protesters spoke of “national sovereignty” and defending “French” culture and institutions-forgetting that France and its institutions are as much part of global capitalism as the US state and bodies like the WTO.

But most people were clear that fighting what they termed globalisation did not mean a retreat into a narrow nationalism. Fabien from Paris had travelled to Millau with her husband and young children. She said, “Their globalisation means the impoverishment of the Third World and crushing all diversity, all culture. Not everything in this world can be bought and sold. We need something global, but it must be based on solidarity, on free movement and exchanges between people, on equality.”

Next stop Prague

A THEATRICAL, pageant-like atmosphere marked the weekend. The ten accused peasants arrived in a tumbril, the cart used to carry condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution. But the mood was anything but sombre. Bov has become a focus in France for a wide and deep-rooted hatred of capitalism.

“Free Bov. Justice lies in the streets,” chanted a joyful crowd. The debate and the festival raged while the court case proceeded. Stalls from a huge variety of organisations packed the town centre. The trade unions, left wing parties, groups fighting for the rights of immigrants, people organising against genetically modified foods, and many, many more had stands. There was lively discussion at all of them. The police kept a low profile, so the mood was peaceful. On every corner it seemed groups were performing street theatre or reading poetry or playing music-all with a message against global capitalism. Thousands flocked to a series of debates in halls and open air forums.

Over 2,000 people crammed into the sports hall on Friday to hear an intense discussion on what could be done to challenge institutions of global capitalism such as the International Monetary Fund. Others listened to speakers such as the left wing sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discuss the impact of capitalism on culture.

A lively debate on the role of trade unions in the struggle took place in a square. A park was the scene for a debate on immigration. The next morning perhaps 2,000 people debated whether new forms of organisation and struggle were needed to carry on the fight.

There were countless street corner meetings outside these forums. The organisation thrown up to accommodate the huge numbers was impressive, and all done by local activists.

Over 60,000 people attended an open air concert on Friday night. Some of France’s best known bands played through the night, interspersed with political speeches. Millau marks a new step in the development of the global spirit of revolt against capitalism.

Marie from Lille said, “It shows we can mobilise huge numbers. It’s like Seattle and Washington. There are so many people who want to change the world.” She added the next stage in the revolt will be in September in Prague, when people from across Europe will protest at a meeting of the IMF and World Bank.

Bov: ‘We chose resistance’

THE FOCUS for the Millau protest was the trial of ten local peasants who dismantled the town’s McDonald’s last August. They took action because the US, backed by the World Trade Organisation, had tried to restrict the import of the cheese made near Millau in a trade dispute with the European Union.

The peasants’ leader, Jos Bov, has a long history of militant left wing activity. He was briefly jailed after last year’s protest and released pending last weekend’s trial. He summed up the choice he and his fellow peasants face: “With bodies like the World Trade Organisation it is either passivity and resignation or action and resistance. We chose the second path.”

The accused decided “to put the WTO and globalisation on trial”. They called witnesses to describe the crimes of global capitalism, including campaigners Susan George and Vandana Shiva. A “citizens tribunal” was set up in the main square. The real trial ended with the prosecutor demanding a prison sentence for Bov-though under the French legal system the judgement was deferred until September. Bov insisted, “There are things happening in the world that are unacceptable. Faced with that you have to take action outside the law.”

Pull down borders

A THEME in many discussions was the contrast between the freedom of movement for money and trade, and the denial of that freedom to immigrants. Leon Schwarzenberg is a well known doctor and leading figure in the fight against homelessness in France.

He won huge cheers when he addressed a crowd in the main town square and argued, “Today in this world money is the passport to cross any border. The multinationals are the real power. They govern with the help of the financial institutions in the interests of the profits of a few.”

And he won even bigger cheers when he then went on to denounce as shameful “governments, some of them calling themselves socialist, which deny such freedom to move people”. He also attacked the lack of any “words of sympathy” from politicians for the “58 human beings who died at Dover”.

He demanded the French government legalises the thousands of “sans papiers”, people turned into illegal immigrants because of a racist change in the law several years ago. Olivier from Lille put it simply: “Money and goods have complete mobility in this system. People should have the same mobility across borders.”

Echo of 1995 revolt

THERE WERE stalls from many trade unions. Union flags, stickers and banners were prominent in every gathering. Even the farmers at the heart of the protest are proud to be called trade unionists, and have their own radical union, the Confderation Paysanne. Millau was also shaped by the mood that has swept France since the great 1995 public sector workers’ strike. There was a feeling that if you organise and fight, you can win. That feeling is spreading.

Joan and his friends had travelled from Toulouse. He argued, “We don’t have to accept the way the world is. Social movements can change things. We have had a lot of social movements in France in the last few years, and many have won things. It’s a rejection of the mentality of the 1980s when people seemed to accept that everything was subordinate to those at the top.”

Jos Bov and Millau led the papers and the news bulletins on Friday, despite the frenzy over the French football team’s progress in the Euro 2000 tournament. ‘Together!’ That was followed by news of strikes-airport and airline workers in several companies were out, rail workers in some parts of the country too. And in the streets and squares of Millau you could hear the insistent beat of the slogan of 1995: “All together! All together!”

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