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A NEW BEGINNING FOR ATT AC FRANCE


For many months, people have been asking me about the situation in Attac-France.  I’ve tried to answer their questions individually, but the story is rather a long one and the dawn of 2007 is perhaps a good time to send you news collectively, especially since this news is far better than many of us dared to hope six months ago.  I will begin at the beginning, so if you know the basics concerning Attac-France, you can easily skip the first three pages and tell your machine to find START HERE [top p.4] to start reading.  What follows is of course my personal account–it could hardly be otherwise–others might have a different interpretation of certain events.

Attac-France was founded in 1998.  Almost instantly, it became clear that it fulfilled a political need for an organisation willing and able to criticise economic globalisation and propose alternatives to the neo-liberal system which was, and still is, creating huge inequalities, financial crises, economic dislocation, mass unemployment and a host of other ills.    I was a “founding member” of Attac France.  Most founders are not individuals but rather collective entities–publications, trade unions, feminist, development, solidarity or ecological associations sharing the same broad goals as Attac.  The statutes were drawn up by Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique which in December 1997 had been the first to propose an organisation to fight for the “Tobin Tax” and against financial speculation. 

These statutes gave a pre-eminent not to say disproportionate place to the founders–they were to occupy 18 out of 30 seats on the Board, and the president of Attac had to be chosen among them, thereby limiting considerably the field of possible candidates.  The preponderance of the founders was intended to guarantee stability and prevent political takeovers by any party or interest group.  In addition, these statutes were intentionally made almost impossible to change [we have just made a huge effort to get enough members to vote on changing them, and failed]. No one really foresaw the rapid development of the membership all over France nor the grouping of these members in local committees which quickly came to number more than 200.  The first Attac Board was elected to a three year term with–as prescribed in the statutes–18 founding members and 12 representing the individual membership, called “active” members [a misnomer because everyone is active, but we’re stuck with the term].   Bernard Cassen [from now on BC] was elected president; I was elected one of two vice-presidents.   

Attac’s membership increased steadily, we had some successes and began to be recognised as a political force to be reckoned with in France.  By 2002  we reached our peak of 30.000 members.  In May of that year, BC announced that he would not accept the presidency for another three year term and told the founders that ‘his’ candidate for the presidency would be Jacques Nikonoff, with Michèle Dessenne [from a small feminist organisation] as general secretary.   These are the two most important positions; the vice-presidents are useful for media and representation but are not hands-on executives.  Few of us knew Jacques Nikonoff but he had a convincing CV–a man from a working class background who was admitted to the prestigious Ecole nationale d’Administration and was said to be an expert on employment issues.  Although many people encouraged me to run for the presidency of Attac, I refused and like virtually all the other members of the new Board elected in late 2002, I voted for Nikonoff, with Michèle Dessenne “part of the package”.

Things went reasonably well at first.  Jacques Nikonoff [from now on JN] was more authoritarian in his methods than we were used to and didn’t seem much interested in other peoples’ opinions but he was a hard worker, seemed sincere in his attachment to Attac and most of us gave him the benefit of the doubt.   He put the accent on the “Franco-French” aspects of our work and whenever I tried to point out to him that Attac was founded to criticise and propose alternatives to global neo-liberalism [with campaigns on international taxation, debt, tax havens, WTO, IMF….] he replied that the effects of neoliberal globalisation played out nationally–which was undeniable, but in my view inadequate.   He was also hounding people I thought were valuable militants out of the organisation–doubtless because they were not the type to follow orders.     

The summer of 2003 marked of a turning point although the significance of the moment became clear, at least to me, only later.   In fact, there was a debate, never expressed in so many words, going on between those who, like JN and BC, thought that Attac should “go it alone” rather than participate in collective efforts where it risked losing, or so they claimed, its institutional identity.  They fundamentally distrusted participation in networks and open structures like social forums.  JN balked at having Attac join in organising a huge rally in the Larzac region where the small farmers’ confederation [La  Confederation paysanne whose best known member is José Bové] took the organisational lead.  After this August 2003 rally, attended by about 300.000 people, where JN’s contribution was received with little enthusiasm, he wrote a quite scathing piece about “leftists” in a major national French newspaper giving many of us the impression that he was attacking people we considered our allies.  BC and JN subsequently gave interviews or wrote other pieces in the same vein without any discussion with the Board.  At this point, I asked the other two vice-presidents and a couple of trusted colleagues to join me in an open letter condemning this behaviour.  I was overruled: the others feared we would be seen as “secessionist”, so we wrote to JN privately, with no effect whatsoever.  

The next major incident came in April 2004 before the European Parliamentary elections. BC initiated and overtly encouraged, while JN tacitly supported, an attempt to present a thinly disguised “Attac” list, with well-known Attac members who sided with BC/JN to stand for election at the top of the “100% Altermondialiste” lists in different regions.  For those of us who, like me, refused the idea that Attac should behave like a political party, much less run candidates against other parties basically on our side, this was a huge blow, particularly because BC/JN systematically lied to us. From then on we were mistrustful and on our guard.

The campaign against the proposed European Constitution allowed all of Attac to pull all together, though even in this case JN did not want local Attac committees to join the collectives that were springing up all over France but to act by themselves.  We also learned that JN had made a list of “acceptable” speakers–Attac was receiving requests from all over the country for speakers against the Constitution–which omitted people like me  he perceived as his opposition.  Fortunately, the local committees spontaneously joined the collectives anyway, and we all participated in the anti-constitutional debates, whatever JN’s orders to the contrary.  Attac made an enormous contribution to the victory of the Non; many independent sources saw it as decisive.

START HERE   By the summer of 2005, these and other large and small cumulative events and further displays of sectarianism and authoritarianism finally pushed the three V-Ps to protest publicly.  For me personally, the last straw was JN’s private proposal to me to become “Honorary President” of Attac [BC and Ignacio Ramonet of the Monde Diplomatique already had this title].  Since this was a matter for the Board, not something the President could bestow on his own initiative and since JN had never supported any of my activities or proposals in Attac, I concluded he was trying to “buy” me.

Divisions grew sharper.  Politically, the V-Ps, like many others, saw Attac as a successful “melting pot” of people coming from a great many left political traditions in France still able to work together and to play the role of catalyst in a broad and growing social movement.  We saw Attac bringing a unique intellectual contribution to the movement [thanks largely to our Scientific Council] and committed militant forces throughout France to put our ideas into action.  JN, BC and their followers saw it, rather, as a hierarchical, top-down pyramidal organisation with a strong executive, able to give orders to its troops and eventually to serve their private political ambitions on the French left.  By this time it was also clear they wanted to get rid of the founders and to reduce the work of the Scientific Council to producing speech notes on demand for the President. 

By the time of the new Board elections in June 2006 [postponed for various acrimonious reasons from December 2005] it was virtually open warfare.  JN was clearly prepared to go to any lengths to be re-elected President, aided at every step by BC and MD.  Most of the membership undoubtedly saw the opposition at the summit as a “power struggle” between two warring clans, but this was not the case in so far as those on the other side [like me] did not want power but to save Attac from what we saw as certain destruction if the JN-BC-MD clan prevailed.

A few weeks before the vote took place in June 2006 and over the objections of many people on my own side, I took the initiative of writing an open letter to the membership to explain who was who among the candidates and what they stood for; I further specifically recommended voting for 21 of them [out of a field of 62 candidates].  Some pro-JN/BC local committees’  did not transmit this message to their members but many did.  In the run-up to these elections, JN and his friends campaigned violently against the founders and apparently believed that the superior number of their candidates for the “active” member seats would bring them an easy victory in a national election where no one could possibly know all the candidates personally.

It took a long time to count the ballots of the June 2006 election.  Counting began on Saturday 10 June.  By Tuesday evening it was clear that the candidates I had proposed would win 14 or 15 seats out of 24; and the founders’ list would be approved by 60 percent plus.  On the insistence of JN, the votes counted each day were totalled each evening, so everyone knew the tendency; JN had also insisted that ballots be removed from their envelopes even though they could not all be counted immediately.

I had been at TNI [my institute in Amsterdam] and couldn’t participate in the counting until Wednesday but I had heard about the preliminary results.  On Wednesday, it was clear that something bizarre was happening: the tendency towards “my” candidates was overturned and by Wednesday evening some candidates on JN’s side had jumped an astonishing 9 or 10 places whereas others–my friends–had suffered equally precipitous declines.  Part of Thursday showed the same results; then at the end came a substantial number of unopened ballots which returned to the initial tendency in favour of “my” people.  The final count, however, gave JN’s candidates the majority of the “active” members by a margin of 15 seats to only 9 for my friends. 
  
The following weekend was the Annual General Assembly of Attac and the first meeting of the newly “elected” Board.   On our side, we had serious doubts about the honesty and legitimacy of the elections and were backed by initial statistical evidence.  The discrepancies between the votes counted the first four days, then the next two, then the final lot of ballots which had remained in their sealed envelopes were simply too large to be dismissed as pure chance.  At that point, we did not use the word “fraud” and spoke only of statistical “anomalies”, but we refused to sit on a Board whose first act was to re-elect JN president. 

New elections were clearly imperative; they were set for six months later in December 2006.  Throughout the summer, more and more statistical evidence showing fraud accumulated; an independent commission of inquiry was appointed, three outside statisticians were asked to examine the election results; some, with no knowledge of Attac’s internal affairs, easily identified “my” people and JN’s.  The JN-BC-MD side continued to deny the evidence and JN even suggested that my friends and I had committed electoral fraud in order to blame it on him!   Finally, in late September, the two universally respected heads of the inquiry commission announced their conclusions at a ‘CNCL’ [Conférence nationale des comités locaux] to the representatives of dozens of local Attac committees.  Fraud had clearly been committed; new  elections were imperative.  The two differed only on whether or not the association should make a formal [judicial] complaint [which we have now filed].  

For the last six months of 2006, Attac focused almost entirely on its internal affairs and virtually stopped working on its core issues.  Since the June Board was illegitimate, no one could speak for Attac although some certainly tried.  Divisions became bitter. Although we could not prove who had physically substituted hundreds of fake ballots, rumours were rife and the atmosphere was poisoned.  For an organisation which claimed to be democratic and to “do politics differently”, the situation was suicidal. Meanwhile, BC, JN and their supporters continued their virulent and often false and ugly campaign against the founder Board members–small wonder since at least three quarters opposed them. 

Before the December 2006 elections, I again wrote to the membership to recommend specific “active” candidates.  In these same elections, BC, JN and their small group of founder-supporters withdrew from the founding members’ electoral list, even though we had offered them 7 places out of 18 [or 39%–generous considering they never got more than 25 % support on the previous Board].  

For different reasons, I decided to withdraw from the founders’ list as well.  I’d been on the Board and V-P for 6 years and it was time to leave the seat to younger people.  A record number of members voted in December [7600].  Despite the anti-founder campaign, they voted in favour of the founders’ list, though by a smaller margin [66% in June, 57% in December].   Among the “active” members, the people I supported [on the list called Altermondialisme et Démocratie won the first 20 seats; whereas the last four went to JN’s Avenir d’Attac.   The new Board of 42 people thus has 38 opposed to BC and JN.  The situation has been greatly clarified and the legitimacy of the new Board is indisputable.    

We fear that the people close to JN’s list Avenir d’Attac will choose to secede and start their own dissident organisation.  Their first action, even before the results of the elections were officially announced, was to issue a public press release accusing the winners of being “gauchistes, communautaristes et sectaires”.   When you are accused of being “gauchistes”‘ [‘leftists’] by a former Communist Party Central Committee member like JN, it means you are adventurers and indulge in meaningless political agitation for its own sake. “Communautariste” has a particularly unpleasant connotation in secularist France–it means you don’t support the Republic, the law and ‘laicité’ but rather the interests of particular communities, e.g. Basques or Moslems.  “Sectarian” means the same thing everywhere.   

Their defeated but still highly vocal group is organising a seminar in January, inviting “those who voted for us” and who want to “prolong the impact” of their vote to attend.   It is clear they will not stop sniping at the new Board and do whatever they can to block its action.  Their four members [places 21-24] have already sent round a distorted report on the first full Board meeting.  We have good reason to believe that Avenir d’Attac got hold of the entire membership list [which no one is allowed to use for non-official purposes like elections and which is in the hands of the direct mail firm, not the Attac headquarters].  Some people who have never been on any Attac electronic lists have received messages from Avenir d’Attac–some even thought they were official communiqués. 

We shall see if a secession occurs.  If so, it will not be our fault.  Meanwhile the new Board is immediately getting down to business.  It has far more young people and women than ever before; it is an excellent mix of talents, political experience and capabilities and I am sure it will do great work.  Attac will return to its fundamentals and get back to work on the campaigns we ought never to have abandoned, while naturally adjusting for our present historical moment. We are left with a dire financial situation but hope we can encourage the thousands who have dropped out to return.   We especially want to work more closely with our friends from other Attacs, in Europe and throughout the world.

To say this has been a painful period is an understatement, but the December elections have given a clear mandate to the new Board whose co-presidents are Aurélie Trouvé and Jean-Marie Harribey. We hope that all our friends abroad will support us in this new and hopeful period which we believe will witness the renaissance of Attac France.

Susan George, 28 December 2006 

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