When it comes to popular demonstrations, the French are the Carly Simons of Europe: nobody does it better. In autumn 2003, I was one of the 50,000 young Europeans who flowed into Paris to take part in the second European Social Forum (ESF). It was more a parade than a demonstration. Onlookers were treated to music all day: samba, French rap, those guys with tin whistles, and a girl on top of a bus shelter who played classical violin to the appreciative crowd gathered below. In short, it was a carnival of good feeling: thousands of people shouting, singing, ambling, debating and flying the flag for social justice on a sunny November afternoon in Paris. I went home, my pockets stuffed with pamphlets, humming Joan Baez and eager to devote my energies to this new, borderless, impassioned collective of like-minded individuals.
A few months later, and by now a little addicted to the high of walking shoulder to shoulder with strangers for a common cause, I cheerfully reported for duty at the Place de la République for a peace march to mark the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Socialist Workers Party: check. Free Palestine supporters: check. Guys playing the tin whistle: check. That, however, was it. It was a left-wing march, but not as I knew it. In fact, it was like all the marches I had ever avoided.
Although only a few days had passed since the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, the only peace being marched for was peace in the Middle East. It is not that I don’t like the idea of peace in the Middle East, but this was of a very particular kind. If it was in Palestine, it seemed that it could only be on Palestinian terms; if it was in Iraq, it was secondary to getting “Troops out!”. Al-Qaeda received a token condemnation, but there were no echoing shouts. Finally, for a peace march, there was an awful lot of violent and bloody imagery (most of it directed against the Coalition of the Willing) and astonishingly aggressive anti-American and anti-Israeli sloganeering. I don’t need to tell you about the Socialist Workers: their homogeneity is matched only by how staggeringly predictable they are.
Popular demonstrations are not especially suited to the grey areas of which politics is made up. No one expects signs saying: “Troops Out – but what then?” However, one might ask why some marches for peace or social justice feel overwhelmingly positive, while others feel as if they have been hijacked by what are, in essence, fringe movements. It is not that I, or other like-minded people, fundamentally disagree with the SWP or the Free Palestine groups (though we might), but rather that I am extremely averse to the views of all being represented by a highly visible minority. It comes down to numbers: the more people marching, the more diverse the cause and, paradoxically, the more likely that the result will be a symphony. Left to the diehard protesters, the outcome can only be a broken record.