On the ATTAC
A new European alternative to globalization
by David Moberg
In These Times magazine, May 2001
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 Intemet
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
ATTAC was formed primarily in reaction to what it calls the
"dictatorship of the market" imposed by "financial
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
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. Iabor 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
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
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. Iabor 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
Senior editor David Moberg is a fellow of The Nation Institute,
which supported research for this article. His e-mail address
is dmoberg@igc. org.