New Internationalist

Mass Attac

Issue 320

new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000

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The nostrums of economic orthodoxy have been swallowed by most of the world's major media. But not all. Sputnik Kilambi looks at how one French newspaper launched a leading citizens' movement against globalization.

'There is an enormous demand for
action and for acting together'

The lively working-class suburb of Saint Denis just north of Paris is home to the brand-new Stade de France football stadium as well as the last resting-place of former kings of France. But the more than 2,000 people who’ve converged on the lawns of Saint Denis University today are neither football fans nor history buffs.

They are here from across France and dozens of other countries to affirm their belief that the dictatorship of the markets need not be eternal. There are landless peasants from Latin America, trade unionists and farmers from Europe, non-governmental organizations from Asia, ecological groups and co-operatives from Africa, women’s rights campaigners and unregistered immigrants from France.

They’re all here in response to a call from Attac, a French citizens’ association determined to make the world of business everybody’s business. To globalize the movement against globalization.

Attac is the French acronym for the ‘Association for Taxation of Financial Transactions in Order to Aid Citizens’. The words are taken from the concluding sentence of an editorial published in the December 1997 edition of the prestigious monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. Ignacio Ramonet’s article, ‘Disarming the markets’, was a call to arms against the seemingly uncontrollable power of international financial institutions.

It triggered an unprecedented response. Le Monde Diplomatique received thousands of letters in support of a global citizens’ movement to push for an international tax on financial speculation – the Tobin Tax. ‘It quickly found tremendous resonance,’ says Pierre Rousset, a member of Attac’s international working group.

A year later Attac was 5,000 strong and ready to launch a national petition – there are now more than 130 local committees in 28 municipalities across France, while the Tobin Tax petition has nearly a million signatures.

Le Monde Diplomatique’s international reach was a powerful catalyst in the rapid spread of Attac to several European countries as well as Quebec, Brazil and Senegal.

‘In the past, campaigns against IMF policies and Third World debt were mostly launched from the South,’ notes Pierre Rousset. ‘But now the social fabric is being torn away in the North and we are all being hit by similar policies imposed by the same institutions. This has laid the ground for international solidarity links of a new type.’

Attac’s strength is that it acts as a meeting point for social movements and the concerns of individual citizens but trade unions and the movement of the unemployed also play an important role.

‘Trade unions work together in Attac,’ says Agnes Bertrand of the Observatory on Globalization, a key group in the successful mobilization against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. ‘This is what gives it a plural character, allowing people to get involved in a collective campaign, but on an individual basis.’

Attac’s campaign has strengthened since America’s retaliation against Europe’s ban on beef-with-hormones and, more recently, the spectacular singling out of McDonald’s by radical French farmers. The huge outcry against the French tyre-maker Michelin’s decision to scrap 7,500 jobs after posting record profits is another indication of how far public opinion has come. ‘What’s happening is a tremendous exercise in public education,’ stresses Agnes Bertrand. ‘There is an enormous demand for action and for acting together.’

Despite growing mainstream support, Attac is aware that official French economic policy is very much part of the dominant consensus. Says Attac General Secretary Christophe Agiton: ‘Yes, the Government expresses concern over certain social or environmental problems and has taken a strong position on the beef-with-hormones issue, but on the whole they agree with the US. Only mass mobilization can change this situation.’

The majority of Attac members are not from activist backgrounds and for many this is the first time they’ve had any kind of involvement. Despite this there is both momentum and creativity. After a recent meeting in Paris a group of office workers in La Defence (the Manhattan look-alike business district west of the city) spontaneously decided to distribute 15,000 leaflets at their workplaces.

For the recent trade talks in Seattle organizers put together a nationwide education campaign taking their message to the streets and into the schools. High-school kids and university students set up their own Attac groups and plans are underway to introduce the campaign to the classroom by producing alternative primers on economic and global issues. There is also a weekly internet newsletter with analysis and commentary on developments as well as updates on actions inside France.

The Swiss financial magazine Cash has dismissed Attac’s arguments as tired remakes of debates from the 1970s. But this ignores the fact that Attac has become a crucial relay point for citizens’ campaigns from around the world. The movement is global in principle and in scope. Should the petition for the Tobin Tax fall on deaf ears, Attac plans to intensify its campaign with a mass demonstration in Brussels or Luxembourg this spring. Cash may yet have to eat its words.

Sputnik Kilambi is an Indian journalist based in Paris who works for Radio France International.

Attac website: http://attac.org/france
Belgium E-mail: belgium@attac.org ;
Brazil E-mail: rio@attac.org ;
Quebec E-mail: quebec@attac.org ;
Ireland E-mail: ireland@attac.org ;
Portugal E-mail: portugal@attac.org ;
Senegal E-mail: senegal@attac.org ;
Switzerland E-mail: geneve@attac.org

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