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,"
In December, more than 50,
union members and sympathizers
marched on behalf of workers
rights at an E. U. meeting in Nice.
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
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,
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."
Senior editor David Moberg is a fellow of The
Nation Institute, which supported research for this article. His
e-mail address is email@example.com.