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Archive for September, 2017

In final push, Merkel seeks to reach undecided German voters

September 23, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her supporters to keep up the momentum in the final hours before Sunday’s national election, urging a last push to try to sway undecided voters. Merkel is seeking a fourth term in office and her conservative bloc of the Christian Democratic Party and Bavarian-only Christian Social union has a healthy lead in the polls. Surveys in the last week show it leading with between 34 to 37 percent support, followed by the Social Democrats with 21 to 22 percent.

Still, the support has been gradually eroding over the past week. Merkel told supporters in Berlin on Saturday that they needed to keep up their efforts to sway undecided voters, saying “many make their decision in the final hours.”

After handing out coffee and chatting with the campaign workers in Berlin, Merkel headed north to her own riding, walking through the streets of the city of Stralsund shaking hands, posing for photos and signing autographs.

She also campaigned in the northern city of Greifswald and planned a stop as well on the island of Ruegen in the Baltic. Her main challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, was in western Germany at a rally in the city of Aachen.

At a rally Friday night in Berlin, Schulz urged Germans not to vote for the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials AfD, which appears assured of gaining seats in the national parliament for the first time. The nationalist party has 10 to 13 percent support in the polls.

Calling the AfD a “party of agitators” and “the enemies,” Schulz said his Social Democrats were the best option to fight them. “We will defend democracy in Germany,” he said. In addition to the AfD, the Greens, the Free Democratic Party and the Left Party were all poised to enter parliament with poll numbers between 8 and 11 percent.

With the numbers so close, several different coalition government combinations could be possible. Merkel on Friday night told supporters in Munich not to be complacent with her bloc’s lead. “We don’t have a single vote to give away,” she said. “We can’t use any experiments — we need stability and security.”

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After humdrum German campaign, Merkel hopes for fourth term

September 22, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel appears all but certain to win a fourth term when Germans vote Sunday after a humdrum campaign produced few divisive issues but saw smaller parties gain support — including the nationalist, anti-migration Alternative for Germany, which is set to become the most right-wing party in parliament for 60 years.

Merkel, already chancellor for 12 years, has run a low-key campaign emphasizing the country’s sinking unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and overall stability in a volatile world. Pre-election polls give her conservative Union bloc a lead of 13 to 17 points over the center-left Social Democrats of her challenger, Martin Schulz. The two are traditional rivals but have governed together in a “grand coalition” of the biggest parties for the past four years.

Schulz returned to German politics in January after years as the European Parliament’s president. He has struggled to gain traction with a campaign that centered on righting perceived economic injustices for Germany’s have-nots. It’s also been difficult for him to carve out clear differences with the conservatives.

Merkel offered Germans “a combination of the experience of recent years, in which we have achieved plenty, and curiosity for the new” during the pair’s only head-to-head debate of the campaign. Merkel is pledging to get from Germany’s current 5.7 percent unemployment rate — down from 11 percent when she took office in 2005 — to “full employment” by 2025. She pledges limited tax cuts and to keep Germany’s borrowing at zero.

And she offers a steady hand internationally, with long experience of European Union negotiating marathons, tough talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and now of engaging cautiously with President Donald Trump.

Polls suggest that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and their Bavaria-only allies, the Christian Social Union, will come in a few points short of the 41.5 percent support they had in 2013 — Merkel’s best result yet. They put Schulz’s Social Democrats around or below the 23 percent they won in their worst showing yet in post-World War II Germany, in 2009.

Hans Kundnani, an expert at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said it’s a “foregone conclusion” that Merkel will be the next chancellor. The difficult part may be forming a new government. Merkel can hope for a narrow majority for a center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, with whom she ran Germany from 2009 to 2013, or the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

More likely is a result that leaves her either seeking an untried coalition with both those parties, or another “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats. The latter party has pledged to ballot its membership on any coalition deal, which could be tricky if it performs very badly.

A government with the Free Democrats aboard might take a tougher stance on efforts to reform the eurozone and bail out strugglers. The Greens want a faster transition away from gas and diesel cars and a wealth tax on the rich — neither of which the conservatives are likely to swallow.

The junior partners, whoever they are, will have “limited influence over the overall direction of policy,” Kundnani wrote in an analysis. He added that “in so far as differences exist between the four parties that could become part of the government, they are a matter of details and nuances.”

Polls show four parties competing for third place, with support between 7 and 12 percent: the Free Democrats, who look set to return to parliament after a four-year absence; the Greens, the Left Party and Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

AfD has swung right since it narrowly missed entering parliament in 2013. It has been helped by shrill opposition to Merkel’s decision to allow in large numbers of refugees and other migrants in 2015.

Many of Merkel’s campaign appearances have been marked by loud heckling from pro-nationalist demonstrators. “This is a kind of intolerance that is very, very difficult,” Merkel said recently. It remains to be seen just how strong AfD’s appeal to protest voters dissatisfied with other parties is. If there’s another “grand coalition,” a third-place finish would make it the opposition leader in the next parliament — a prospect many in Germany view with distaste.

Merkel has regained ground over the past year after gradually shifting to a more restrictive stance on migrants, stressing the need to deport those who have no right to stay and to prevent so-called “economic migrants” from Africa and the Balkans from coming.

But she has kept her focus firmly on the center ground, long a secret of her success. Over the years, she has dropped military conscription, accelerated Germany’s exit from nuclear power, embraced the Social Democrats’ demand for a national minimum wage and, in June, cleared the way for parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. That deprived liberal rivals of one awkward issue before campaigning even began.

Schulz says he still hopes to win over undecided voters, arguing that Merkel has no vision for the future. “There is someone who wants to administer the past. She is called Angela Merkel,” he said recently. “And there is someone who wants to shape the future. He is called Martin Schulz.”

Election may reflect Germany’s management of migrant influx

September 20, 2017

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a mantra when citizens questioned her decision to open the country to refugees fleeing wars: “We’ll manage.” She kept repeating it as the lines at immigration offices circled city blocks, school gyms turned into temporary housing and the questions devolved into angry criticism.

But as Merkel campaigns for a fourth term, the German obsession with “Ordnung”— order — looks to have been assuaged. Most of the 890,000 asylum-seekers who entered Germany two years ago are in language and job training courses. Students are again playing sports in the gyms. Rejected asylum applicants are being deported.

A national election on Sunday could show how well voters think Merkel’s government managed the refugee influx. For the chancellor and her Christian Democrats, the signs are promising. The far-right Alternative for Germany party has struggled to make immigration a major election issue. While the party is expected to win seats in parliament for the first time, the support it drew when thousands of newcomers were arriving daily has fallen along with the number of migrants trying to enter the country.

At the same time, Merkel has changed her rhetoric. Along with working to streamline and improve services for new arrivals, she now emphasizes that migrants not deserving of asylum will be sent home and that other European nations need to share the work of assisting eligible refugees.

“Merkel’s government started a highly risky maneuver with its policy of the absolute opening of the borders,” University of Heidelberg political scientist Manfred Schmidt said. “It led to a loss of control which was interpreted as a big, big problem by the people. However, the politicians realized themselves that they had a huge problem and started facing the issues.”

German opinion has been divided since large numbers of job-seeking migrants from economically depressed countries and refugees from Middle East nations wracked by civil wars and extremist groups poured into Europe in 2015.

Tens of thousands of Germans pitched in to help the refugees, bringing food and water to train stations, waving welcome signs and volunteering at shelters. Tens of thousands more took to the streets in the nationalist Pegida demonstrations, a German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.”

The friction between the two sides came to a head in October 2015 in Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city. Henriette Reker, a mayoral candidate who oversaw municipal services for the refugees who sometimes arrived at a rate of 500 per week, was stabbed and nearly killed by a far-right extremist at a campaign event.

Reker, an independent who went on to win the election while still in a coma, concedes Germany was not prepared to take in so many desperate foreigners, yet defends Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees.

“The chancellor did the only right thing: she didn’t close the borders for purely humanitarian reasons,” Reker, 60, a career civil servant, said in an interview. “If she had closed it, and this is really not being mentioned enough, than hundreds of thousands of people would have languished.”

Two months after Reker’s stabbing, Cologne again became a flash point in the immigration debate. Hundreds of women reported being groped and sexually assaulted by migrants during the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration, causing attitudes toward young men from the Middle East and Africa in particular to harden into hostility.

The New Year’s Eve assaults marked a low point in Merkel’s popularity, they also served as a catalyst for reforms that seem to have brought the country back on track The German parliament quickly passed a number of bills making it easier for victims of sex crimes to file complaints, enforcing the deportation of criminal foreigners and toughening asylum standards.

Merkel also benefited from an EU deal with Turkey to prevent migrants from setting out for Europe. In addition, the German government is working to slow the flow of migrants from Africa by initiating partnerships to address the conditions that cause people to leave their homelands.

Today in Cologne, most people say that while they haven’t forgotten the nearly 1 million new arrivals, their initial concerns that Germany would be overwhelmed have been allayed now that the country is running smoothly.

Not everyone was convinced, however. “I think not everything is under control as planned,” Moritz Bertram, 20, who is from a small village northeast of Cologne, said. “Everything is overcrowded, also for the people who, of course, need the help, but don’t get it because it’s all too much.”

Reker conceded that getting people through the asylum process, out of shelters and into more permanent housing has been slow going and more needs to be done, but said progress has been steady. Before school started in Cologne this fall, the city was able to return to local schools the last final gyms that had been serving as temporary refugee shelters.

“We’ve fulfilled all the basic requirements,” Reker said. “Now, it’s all about getting these people really integrated into our society.”

Macron: Europe is too slow, blind to dangers of nationalism

September 26, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Calling Europe slow, weak and ineffective, French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday said the EU should embrace a joint budget, shared military force and harmonized taxes to stay globally relevant.

With Brexit looming, Macron warned the rest of Europe against the dangers of anti-immigrant nationalism and fragmentation, saying it goes against the principles of a shared Europe born from the tragedy of world wars.

“We thought the past would not come back … we thought we had learned the lessons,” Macron told a crowd of European students at the Sorbonne university Tuesday. After a far-right party entered the German parliament for the first time in 60 years, Macron said this isolationist attitude has resurfaced “because of blindness … because we forgot to defend Europe.”

“The Europe that we know is too slow, too weak, too ineffective,” he said. To change that, he proposed a joint budget for European countries sharing the euro currency that would allow investment in European projects and help stabilize the eurozone in case of economic crisis. This budget would at some point need to come from national budgets of countries sharing the euro currency, for instance using domestic taxes on businesses.

Macron said the only way to make Europe strong in a globalized world is to reshape “a sovereign, united and democratic Europe.” While re-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled openness to some of Macron’s ideas, one potential ally in her new government is deeply skeptical about a eurozone budget. Macron’s office says he wants his Europe strategy to play a role in Germany’s coalition-building talks.

To reduce inequalities across the EU, Macron also suggested greater harmonization of EU tax policies — notably on corporate taxes, and taxing internet giants where they make money and not where they are registered.

Macron is also proposing that every EU country guarantee a minimum wage and payroll charges. Macron said, “I believe deeply in this innovation economy,” but insisted that “we must have this debate” about making taxation more fair.

Macron also proposed a shared European military intervention force and defense budget. He suggested the creation of a European intelligence academy to better fight terrorism, and a joint civil protection force.

He wants to open the French military to European soldiers and proposed other EU member states do the same on a voluntary basis. To deal with Europe’s migration flux, Macron wants a European asylum agency and standard EU identity documents.

Macron’s policies have met resistance at home, and riot police held back a few dozen protesters outside the Sorbonne. Macron doesn’t want to wait for Britain to leave the EU in 2019 to tie European economies closer together.

He’s well-placed to kickstart those efforts: at just 39, he came of age under the EU, and won a strong electoral mandate this year. And he’s already held one-on-one meetings with 22 of the union’s 27 other leaders to market his EU strategy.

Macron recalled he won the presidential election on a pro-European platform, against anti-European, anti-immigration far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. His biggest challenge may be the German political calendar. The outgoing government there goes into caretaker status in a few weeks and is not going to be taking any major decisions on the future of Europe, and it may take months for Merkel to form a viable coalition.

The pro-business Free Democrats, a key potential partner for Merkel, is against a joint budget because the party says that would result in automatic, uncontrolled money transfers from Germany to struggling eurozone partners.

Answering a question about Germany’s potential reluctance to a joint budget, Macron said he is open to discussion and insisted this budget would not be based on an automatic, uncontrolled transfer of money, but rather on common projects that would be democratically approved and financed.

Merkel herself said Monday she wouldn’t rule anything out and that she is in touch with Macron about his plans. “What is important to me above all is that we could use more Europe, but that must lead to more competitiveness, more jobs, simply more clout for the European Union,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Macron plans to discuss his proposals with all leaders of EU member states that are interested in the integration process by the end of the year. He then wants “transparent, free” debates involving all citizens to be organized in all EU countries early next year, with the aim of combating euroskepticism by giving a voice to Europeans, instead of imposing decisions.

He said EU leaders should be ready to propose a detailed, agreed roadmap to reform Europe by 2019, when elections for the European parliament are to be held.

Angela Charlton in Paris and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

French truck drivers block roads, reject labor reforms

September 25, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French truck drivers have organized road blockades on highways and near fuel depots across the country to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s changes to labor laws. Two major unions, CGT and FO, have called on a nationwide protest action Monday.

Protesters fear the new rules Macron formally signed last week will lead to a deterioration in working conditions and ease the firing of workers. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner called on French drivers not to rush to gas stations, to avoid fuel shortages.

The government has started unblocking roads through police intervention in order to allow access to fuel depots. Macron says labor reforms are essential to reviving the French and European economies.

France: Macron’s party faces likely blow in Senate elections

September 24, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron’s unconventional political party is fighting to make its mark on the Senate in elections Sunday for half the seats in the upper house — but the results are likely to reflect mounting disenchantment with Macron’s leadership.

His centrist Republic on the Move! party, created just last year, won a large majority in the lower house of parliament in June elections, but is unlikely to do the same in the Senate. Polls suggest the conservative Republicans party will consolidate its dominance of the chamber’s 348 seats instead. Macron’s party is likely to seek alliances in the Senate with other centrists and moderate Republicans and Socialists to approve his business-friendly economic reforms.

The senators are not chosen by the public but by some 75,000 elected officials — mayors, legislators, regional and local councilors — casting ballots in town halls across the country. Results are expected Sunday night. Nearly 2,000 candidates are running for 171 Senate seats.

It’s the first time Macron’s party is competing in Senate elections since he created it to shake up French politics and attract voters tired of the status quo. The party is hoping to win 50 seats. The Senate voting system tends to give an advantage to locally rooted politicians from traditional parties, instead of candidates of Macron’s party, many of whom are political newcomers. Also, many local elected officials are upset by Macron’s plan to slash budgets of local authorities, and that could see the president’s allies getting fewer votes than might have been the case a few months ago.

The election also comes as Macron’s popularity is on the wane, just four months into his presidency. Tens of thousands of people massed in Paris on Saturday to protest changes to labor law that they fear are dismantling the French way of life — and more protests and strikes are ahead. Truckers plan blockades of streets and fuel blockades Monday.

Macron insists the changes — which reduce union powers and hand companies more freedom to lay off workers — are need to create jobs and compete globally. The lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, has the final say in French lawmaking, but Macron also needs broad support in the Senate to follow through on other major changes he has promised, notably to unemployment benefits, the pension system and the French Constitution.

French marchers fill Paris streets to protest new work rules

September 23, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon urged protesters Saturday to take to the streets and mount strikes to force President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw the labor law changes that are key to his business-friendly economic vision.

Speaking to tens of thousands in Paris, Melenchon assailed the president’s new labor decrees as a gift to greedy corporations and the financial markets that have both fueled income inequality. Macron, for his part, says the decrees are crucial to creating jobs and tackling France’s chronic high unemployment.

“The battle isn’t over — it is beginning,” Melenchon told the crowd packed onto the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris. Earlier, marchers stretched along Paris boulevards waving French tricolor flags, union banners and signs reading “Macron, Resign!”

“It’s the street that brought down the kings. It’s the street that brought down the Nazis,” said Melenchon, who is trying to position himself as France’s main opposition figure. The labor decrees that Macron signed Friday reduce French unions’ influence over workplace rules and make it easier for companies to fire workers — but Saturday’s demonstration reflected wider frustration with the new French president’s leadership.

“Everything that’s done in terms of fiscal policies is in favor of the rich, the wealthy and big companies,” complained marcher Cedric Moulinier, 26. “We’re asking for things to start going the right way, a more social, humanist and environmentalist way.”

Many were angry at a reference Macron made to the “lazy” people who opposed the changes. While the president has already signed the decrees and they are expected to be ratified by parliament soon, Melenchon still insisted it is not too late to overturn them.

He said he would reach out to unions to join forces against the labor decrees, which he said threaten the French way of life. “All of Europe is watching us. …. What is happening is the battle for France,” he said.

The crowd, which police estimated at 30,000 and organizers estimated at 150,000, repeatedly broke into chants of “Resistance!” or “Get out!” The protesters are also angry that Macron used a special procedure allowing the government to change labor law by executive order instead going through a lengthy debate to pass a bill in parliament.

Macron lauded the “unprecedented wave of changes” to France’s social model, along with changes to unemployment benefits and a training plan for jobless people that will be set up next year. While Macron shone at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last week and has made a strong mark on the international stage, he has struggled with myriad critics at home. Farmers, riot police and carnival workers have held protests in recent weeks over work policy changes under Macron, and truckers plan road blockades on Monday.

Among Melenchon’s suggestions to pressure the government to withdraw the reforms is a “pots and pans party.” “Grab your pots next Saturday to make as much noise as possible,” he said. “This is what our message will be: You make our lives miserable. You prevent us from dreaming so we will prevent you from sleeping.”

Alex Turnbull and Oleg Cetinic contributed in Paris.

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