Four simultaneous events in Paris and its suburbs on Wednesday night were to kick off the second annual European Social Forum (ESF), a smorgasbord of seminars and workshops expected to attract up to 60,000 participants from more than 60 countries, according to organizers.
Declaring the "heart" of the debates was "the Europe that the citizens want to build and live in," organizers said more than 1,500 European organizations had helped organize the independent forum, which is partially financed by the French government.
Leading the long list of participating non-governmental organizations (NGOs), associations and unions were such high-profile names as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam.
The sheer size of this year's ESF highlights the growing momentum of an alternative left movement, itself bolstered by one of globalization's very own tools: the Internet.
Anti-globalization activists have mustered the Web's lightning organizational powers to mass protests at a series of major international meetings in recent years, ranging from a Group of Eight summit in Italy to a World Trade Organization meeting in Mexico in September.
Arguing that governments and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund put profit and politics ahead of human rights, their powerful lobbying has effected significant global changes.
Their protests have produced a Nobel peace prize-winning global agreement to eradicate landmines and a breakthrough WTO trade deal last summer that allows cheaper generic drugs for the poor.
In recognition of their growing clout, Les Echos, the leading French business newspaper, published Wednesday a 24-page supplement on the anti-globalization movement.
"Its existence has become a reality that the economic world no longer can ignore"... It's very necessary, in a word... to work with it," the influential paper concluded in an editorial.
This year's ESF event is a follow-up to last November's forum in Florence, the first organized gathering of the anti-globalization movement on the continent.
Several hundred thousand people attended last year's event in the Italian city as concerns mounted about an imminent war in Iraq. And on the final day, up to one million demonstrators joined a peaceful rally against war in Iraq.
On Wednesday night the expanded ESF was due to open simultaneously at four sites in downtown Paris and the suburbs of Bobigny, Ivry-sur-Seine and Saint-Denis.
Activists will have a dizzying selection of topics to discuss and debate, and myriad opportunities to network.
Some 55 plenary conferences, 250 seminars and hundreds of workshops have been set up, with topics including the global economy, war, sexual equality, genetically modified (GM) foods, racism and cultural diversity.
High on the agenda will be the future of the European Union as the 15-state bloc incorporates 10 new members next year.
The event winds up Saturday with a protest parade through the French capital under the banner of "For a Europe of rights in a world without war!"
The regional European forums sprang from a world process launched by the Porto Alegre World Social Forum, first held in January 2001 in the Brazilian city as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, a summit of the global business elite.
The next World Social Forum will be held in India on January 16-21, 2004.