As financial crisis swept across Asia in 1997, an editor at the prestigious French monthly magazine Le Monde Diplomatique wrote that the free movement of investment capital around the world was undermining democracy and “causing universal insecurity.” But there was an alternative. As Nobel Prize-winning American economist James Tobin proposed back in the ’70s, a tiny tax on financial transactions could dampen speculation while generating $100 billion to $200 billion a year that could be used to reduce global inequality and promote development. Author Ignacio Ramonet asked, “Why not set up a new worldwide non-governmental organization, Action for a Tobin Tax to Assist the Citizen?”
ATTAC was launched the following June (though the group’s official name now translates as the “Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions to Assist the Citizen”). Since then ATTAC has grown rapidly beyond French borders, giving a new, sharper edge to the European response to globalization. That new movement is closer in spirit to U.S. and Canadian critics of global capitalism than to the Europe-oriented policies of many European unions and social democratic parties.
At a time when many pundits were writing off the left as dead, ATTAC gave new life and novel forms to traditional left ideals. This loose and decentralized network relies heavily on the Internet and several sympathetic publications to link ATTAC chapters, unions and citizen groups. Several of the country’s labor federations have offered support but have kept some distance to avoid dominating the group. ATTAC also assiduously avoids alignment with political parties. Now claiming 30,000 members in 190 local groups in France plus offshoots in roughly two dozen other countries, ATTAC is becoming a global network. The group was instrumental in creating the World Social Forum that met in Porto Alegre, Brazil in late January (see “How To Confront Globalization,” March 19).
ATTAC was formed primarily in reaction to what it calls the “dictatorship of the market” imposed by “financial globalization.” The group argues not only for more regulation of the market, but preservation of a realm free from market values. “People feel there’s a public sphere, a social sphere – something outside the market, where there is the republican principle of equality of opportunity,” says ATTAC co-chairwoman Susan George.
Although it continues to push for the Tobin tax, which is gaining substantial support even among moderate politicians in much of Europe and Canada, ATTAC also campaigns against the World Trade Organization (especially new rules on trade in services that could threaten the public sector), tax havens, privatized pensions and genetically modified food. Resisting the easy label of being “anti-globalization,” ATTAC leaders insist they favor greater global integration, but in a quite different way from that promoted by the International Monetary Fund, WTO and most European governments.
The growth of ATTAC reflects and encourages a growing disquiet with the new global economy among parts of the French labor movement as well as the broader public. In many ways, European unions have been less critical of corporate or financial globalization than American unions and workers, who face more aggressive anti-unionism and have fewer legal protections or safety nets. “A speech about globalization that goes over well in North America comes across as a Trotskyist speech here,” says John Evans, general secretary of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In general, European labor, including most of the French unions, held out hopes for a “social Europe” as the answer to the new global economy. They thought a unified Europe would strengthen European corporations as global competitors, while the European Union would guarantee workers rights, social welfare, redistribution of wealth and a “social partnership” that included labor across the continent. That strategy, combined with existing national legislation, has partly succeeded, saving European workers from some of the insecurity and inequality generated in the United States.
This has led many unions to focus on defending what they have, rather than attacking the new regime of corporate globalization. “Politically I’m concerned about globalization, but in practice we still have real protective legislation,” argues Rafael Nedzynski, general secretary of the Food Workers of the Force Ouvriere (FO), one of the smaller labor federations. “We want to keep it. We benefit from it. U.S. labor may see more clear effects of globalization.”
Nevertheless, Anne-Marie Perret, an FO colleague who is federal secretary of the civil servants union, notes that the pressures to privatize and deregulate, which threaten many public services and workers, come mainly from the common European market itself. “The challenge is to protect ourselves, to preserve the social conquests of our former leaders and members,” she says. “We are not against the opening of markets, but states have to check what happens and not delegate the private sector to operate in its place.”
But rather than a bulwark against globalization and free market fundamentalism, the European Union has become a stalking horse for privatization and “neoliberalism” in Europe as well as in global trade negotiations. In December, more than 50,000 union members and sympathizers marched on the E.U. meeting in Nice on behalf of a new social charter of workers rights. While the charter was adopted, it was quite weak and, because of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, almost did not recognize the right to strike. “For us Europe is not what we can dream about,” Perret acknowledges. “This is not Europe for citizens, not Europe for social programs. It is more focused on financial and industrial challenges.”
Widespread strikes in 1995 against cutbacks in the French welfare state first signified the growing public dissatisfaction with the free market policies of the French right and the European Union. Since then, the French public has showed greater concern about inequality, job insecurity, unemployment, threats to health care, education and French culture, and the safety and quality of food – from worries about genetic engineering or hormones in U.S. beef to multinational control of agriculture. “In this country, you touch the food, it’s a revolution,” says Christophe Aguiton, international affairs director of ATTAC and a leader in a new, more rank-and-file oriented labor federation, called SUD (Solidarity, Unity, Democracy – which also plays on the French word for “south” and images of leisure).
The fight against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment raised new worries about corporate power, and the collapse of the MAI in 1998 raised hopes that financial globalization could be checked. In November 1999, there were more protesters against the WTO in the streets of France than there were in Seattle. “European unionism has not really been engaged in the fight against globalization,” Aguiton contends. He sees the CFDT, a large labor federation that was once Catholic and later socialist, as having embraced much of the new free market policies in Europe. But the new, more critical stance toward globalization is changing labor groups like SUD and the CGT, a labor federation historically linked to the declining French Communist Party. Both federations were founders of ATTAC. “We are out of the working-class paradigm,” says Pierre Tartakowsky, an editor of a CGT magazine and general secretary of ATTAC, who argues that unions now have to work with a wide variety of non-governmental organizations, the unemployed, small farmers and environmentalists. Leaders of SUD – which was expelled from the CFDT in 1989 for being “too left” – see the U.S. labor movement of the last few years and its coalition work as representing what SUD is trying to do in fighting globalization, Aguiton adds.
Although some of the French critics of globalization, such as the small farmers, are often portrayed as nationalist or protectionist, ATTAC and the labor movement are ardently internationalist. Both want to protect French social gains and still hope to create a Europe that is more attuned to social needs and less an advocate of large corporations. European works councils mandated by the European Union for large companies so far have provided limited gains, but unions see a need for more Europe-wide and transnational bargaining, building on agreements recognizing core labor rights negotiated with a few European multinationals like Ikea and Statoil. “We refute the idea that it is possible for us and the working class to defend ourselves by invoking national rights and traditions,” Tartakowsky says. “Now we need to globalize the resistance and the gains. We cannot gain any more in one country. We have to transnationalize rights and the building of wages, which doesn’t mean we have to have the same wage everywhere for everyone.”
Although still relatively small and institutionally weak, ATTAC represents a creative new force within European politics that is outside both political parties and the official labor movement. It is reinforcing trends within the European labor movement to take a more critical view of financial and corporate globalization and the limited gains that average citizens have made through the European Union. Most of all ATTAC has begun to counter what Susan George identifies as the main barrier to organizing, the “sense of inevitability” about contemporary capitalist globalization, by raising realistic hopes that “another world is possible.”
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.