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Florence Besieged by Army of Freethinkers
Published on Friday, November 8, 2002 by the Guardian/UK
Florence Besieged by Army of Freethinkers
by John Vidal in Florence
 

Florence was yesterday under siege, not from hordes of violent anti-capitalists intent on destroying the city's artworks, as the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, predicted earlier this week, but from legions of emerging political and social ideas which many believe could refresh global democracy and the traditional European left.

Jose' Bove
French farmer Jose' Bove' speaks during an anti-globalization meeting organized by the European Social Forum in Florence, Italy, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002. Over 100,000 anti-war activists are expected to join the meeting in this historical Italian town and will take the streets for a massive demonstration Saturday. (AP Photo/Alberto Pellaschiar)
While the authorities have played up a possible repeat of the Genoa G8 clashes last year that saw one man killed, tear gas, running battles and deep embarrassment for the Italian government, the 25,000 people who have gathered for the first European social forum are mostly locked in a bewildering variety of debates and discussions at an old fort.

No one denies that obscure fringe elements may seek to settle scores with the police at tomorrow's anti-war march, which is expected to attract 100,000 people, but yesterday's emphasis was firmly on peaceful change and the evolution of political ideas rather than revolution.

The forum, set up as a pro-democracy organization to bring together broad social movements, says it has no intention beyond stimulating debate and giving a voice to people who are marginalized, or who seek political change. Its agenda is set by the participants and it expects to issue no formal statement of aspirations - or indeed, to reach any conclusions.

Six thousand armed police are on standby, but a demonstration by 5,000 people against a nearby US air force base outside Florence passed off peacefully.

Despite this, all McDonald's restaurants in the city, Shell petrol stations, many exclusive shops and small traders barricaded their premises or closed up. But many locals were appalled that the authorities and press had, they alleged, deliberately misrepresented the four-day conference. "Red Tuscany welcomes you," said one defiant shopkeeper.

One of the participants at the forum, Dr Tony Caravas from Athens, said: "This is a coming of age for the anti-globalization movement. For the first time people have gathered from across Europe and other continents, not to oppose an organization or world leaders, but to come up with ideas for change. There are people here from very many political traditions and cultures who want to find new ways to resist what is happening in the world. Now the problem is to describe the world that we want."

Michelle Roberts, a teacher from Bordeaux, added: "This is the new politics. People are excited. Everyone has come for the same thing - to understand what is happening, question the present system of politics and propose changes."

The 25,000 people of all ages, from 475 groups and more than 100 countries, are meeting in halls and many smaller workshops around the city. The more than 400 debates range from anti-militarism to vegetarianism, world debt and social control, to African development, industrial food, religions, European responsibilities, migrants, human rights and energy.

Yesterday dissidents and high profile authors and politicians spoke, including the Italian Nobel literature prizewinner Dario Fo, the French farm leader José Bové, US activists Ralph Nader and Naomi Klein, Tariq Ali and Vandana Shiva.

"In four days here I can learn more about what is happening in the world than I could in four years watching TV," said a local student. "This is my education. We are not told what is happening in the press, we are spoon-fed what the authorities want us to hear."

High on the agenda are the perceived erosion of democracy, the role of political parties, alternatives to privatization and the threat of multinationals. "The background to all debates is the growing worldwide opposition to the 'neoliberal' politics espoused by G8 countries," one conference organizer said.

The name and form of the meetings is borrowed from the influential world social forum held annually in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This adopted the slogan "another world is possible" and was set up to counter the world economic forum held in Davos, Switzerland, each year, which attracts leading financiers, politicians and establishment thinkers.

"What is being attempted is a loose organizational form to the anti capitalist movement," a forum spokesman said. "The sheer volume and diversity of ideas means we'll never get point by point consensus, but there are key things like war, racism and neoliberalism that we can agree on."

Trade unions, communist groups, socialists, environmentalists, anarchists and greens are all represented. Most say they have put aside their traditional rivalries, at least for the duration of the meeting. "Out of this chaos of ideas and experiences, we can all learn and and change our views," a French socialist said.

"It's an incredible symbol of hope," said Caroline Lucas, Britain's only Green MEP. "It shows there is a great deal of common ground between disparate groups and people."

Nevertheless, the intellectual and political fault lines are apparent after just one day of talks. Many people at the meeting reject capitalism entirely, others seek to reform it. Some were yesterday trying to discount the idea of working classes, others were calling for more union rights.

"This is like a supermarket of ideas. You can pick and choose. But at least you have real debate and choice," said Rinadini, a jobless Italian who is staying with thousands of others in a sports hall.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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