Cantona sparks viral campaign to ‘cripple’ banking system
Power of social media to be put to the test on December 7
The potential of social media to rapidly escalate a controversial issue has been graphically illustrated by comments from former soccer star Eric Cantona.
The ex-Manchester United player has called for people in France to withdraw all the funds from their bank accounts to cripple the banking system.
Cantona made the remarks in a filmed interview with French newspaper Presse Océan, when asked what he thought about the wave of protests taking place in France over government cuts. He said that street demonstrations are “passé” and ineffective and called for non-violent direct action against the banks. Whether he intended it or not, the campaign has now gone viral and international after the video of the interview was posted on internet site You Tube.
In the wake of his comments, a website called bankrun2010.com has been launched by Belgian screenwriter Géraldine Feuillien and French actor Yann Sarfati to coordinate the action and make it a global mass cash withdrawal on December 7.
Cantona’s remarks (see video below) might be dismissed as potentially dangerous rabble-rousing but it will be interesting to see how much weight it carries.
If the masses support his idea it could severely damage the banking system.
Cantona has retained his cult hero status among legions of Manchester United fans, where he was perhaps even more famous for his cryptic comments about “seagulls” and “trawlers” and for kung fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan than he was for his skills on the pitch. It remains to be seen whether this stature can be translated into a take-up of his call for direct action in Britain as well as in France.
The legality of his remarks might also become an issue, with the question of whether his call for financial revolution is contravening any French laws.
The practicality of the protest is also debatable. Banks only keep around 5-10% of people’s savings as cash deposits in tills with the rest either being invested or lent out. If people started queuing at ATMs or tills to withdraw their money, branches would swiftly run out of cash.
Richard Wellings, deputy editorial director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the situation would be very different from the market panic caused by a conventional run on a bank. Depositors would know it was caused by a protest and not an underlying problem with the bank, so confidence would not be damaged in the same way.
Wellings added that a Cantona-style protest would cause temporary inconvenience to people wanting to withdraw their money, but he doubted it would lead to the collapse of the banking system.
Despite this view there is little doubt that a collective mass withdrawal of money at banks could be devastating.
The 2001 crisis in Argentina showed the possible effects of a bank run. People’s concerns over the state of the country’s economy saw them withdrawing large amounts of money from their accounts, exchanging their pesos into US dollars and sending them abroad.
In response the Argentine government effectively froze all bank accounts for one year, allowing only small sums of money to be withdrawn. This move led to violent protests and attacks causing major damage on banks and other businesses.
In 2007, the UK saw its first bank run in 150 years when investors queued up to withdraw their funds from Northern Rock after it sought support from the Bank of England due to the effects of the credit crisis. The bank subsequently had to be taken into public ownership in 2008.
The campaign in France has won support from activists around the world on social networking sites including Facebook, and it is claimed that 14,000 French people have promised to withdraw their money on December 7.
There is the possibility, of course, that the whole thing could just turn out to be damp squib. So far over 116,000 people have viewed the YouTube clip of Cantona’s interview – still well short of Lady Gaga’s 300 million hits for her ‘Bad Romance’ video, and an indication that the campaign is some way short of critical mass.
However, the potential damage that even a partially successful campaign could cause means it is something banks cannot afford to take lightly.
Cantona says that a run on bank deposits would make bankers sit up and listen to ordinary people.
France comes is experiencing a spate of national strikes and street protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to increase the pension age to help alleviate the country’s economic problems. Cantona called for non-violent direct action, adding: “The revolution is really easy to do nowadays.”
Regarding his mass cash withdrawal plan, Cantona said: “In this case there would be a real revolution. It’s not complicated. You simply go to the bank in your country and withdraw your money. If there are enough people withdrawing their money, the system collapses. No weapon, no blood, or anything like that.”
His comments were branded “idiotic” and a charter for thieves and money-launderers by the French Banking Federation. The French government has so far not commented.
Sarfati told The Observer newspaper that the original intention of his campaign was to make Cantona’s comments available to more people via You Tube. However, he and his friends had been amazed that it had snowballed into a global “citizens’ movement”.
“We were surprised by the interest and the buzz it created on the internet. It has really spread; there are now Facebook events in Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and even Korea,” he said.
“We’re not anarchists, nor linked to any political party or trade union; we’re not even an organisation. We just thought this was another way of protesting.”
Cantona has not clarified what people should do with their cash once they have withdrawn it but with interest rates so low, perhaps he might suggest putting it under their mattress.
The campaign is far from the first to use the potential of social networking to challenge the established order. Oxford graduate Thom Costello is leading an anti-capitalist movement called UK Uncut that is targeting allegedly tax dodging retailers. The campaign uses Twitter and Facebook to mobilise activists.
He has already orchestrated a protest against Vodafone, temporarily shutting down around 30 (10%) of its stores over claims the telco avoided a £6bn tax bill, and is now planning for a mass day of action in December targeting major retailers such as Boots over tax avoidance.
Having been alerted via his private Twitter account protestors gather at the intended target the next day, and stage sit-in protests or blocking doorways to force stores to close.
Costello, who started his campaign in October after Chancellor George Osborne revealed his plans for massive cuts in public expenditure, said: “This shows the power of Twitter and also the anger out there at the cuts.”
In 2007, HSBC was forced into a humiliating climbdown over the bank’s decision to scrap interest-free overdrafts for UK university graduates after a viral campaign spiralled on Facebook. Nearly 5,000 university graduates signed up to a Facebook group “Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off!”
Another more current viral protest campaign in the US centres on the use of full body scanners and has called for minor civil disobedience at airports on November 24, the busiest travel day of the year. One man’s refusal to submit to a pat-down search earlier this month has gone viral on YouTube.
Brian Sodegren has set up the website OptOutDay.com calling for air passengers to protest the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) widespread deployment of full body scanners, which critics call a “virtual strip search”.
So far the authorities are refusing to back down. Speaking on November 21 John Pistole, head of the TSA, acknowledged the uproar but insisted the new security measures would not be scrapped.
“Do I understand the sensitivities of people? Yes. If you’re asking, am I going to change the policies? No,” he told CNN.
The wave of social media-based campaigns has come in for criticism from some more traditional campaigners, with their organisers being labelled ineffective “clicktivists.”
Micah White, a contributing editor at the Adbusters campaign co-ordinating website, said social campaigns were no replacement for direct action
“Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links,” said White. “In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal.”
He added: “Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes (clicktivists) damage every genuine political movement they touch.”
If Eric Cantona can persuade substantial numbers of people to withdraw their cash on December 7 and engineer a bank run, White may yet have to change his opinion.