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Archive for December, 2018

France: 6th ‘yellow vest’ protester dies in road accident

December 13, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French authorities say a sixth “yellow vest” protester has been killed after being hit by a truck at a road blockade near the southern city of Avignon. Officials in the Vaucluse department said Thursday the driver was arrested and taken into custody after he tried to flee from the scene.

A statement from the Vaucluse prefect’s office said the protester was attended by emergency services but died from his wounds overnight. Five others have been killed in accidents and more than 1,400 injured in the protests against diesel tax hikes since they began last month. Protesters have blocked highways across France, and Paris has erupted in rioting.

The protesters are collectively referred to as the “yellow vest” movement, in reference to the fluorescent safety outfit they sport.

France counts costs of protests, new measures: $11 billion

December 11, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Tax relief and other fiscal measures announced by French President Emmanuel Macron to try to calm nationwide protests will cost 10 billion euros ($11 billion), the government said Tuesday.

In parliament, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe went to bat for Macron’s measures, calling them “massive” and proof that he “has heard the anger.” After weeks of often violent demonstrations by so-called yellow vest protesters, Macron responded Monday with measures to boost the spending power of retirees and workers, including a 100-euro hike in the minimum monthly wage.

Retreating in the face of yellow vest demands is proving to be a costly exercise. The government says the total bill of conciliatory climbdowns so far will be around 10 billion euros ($11 billion). That includes around 6 billion euros for Macron’s new measures announced Monday and the estimated loss of 3.9 billion euros that the government will no longer levy from its now abandoned carbon tax hike on fossil fuels.

In addition, the protests, including blockades of roads, have also caused economic losses to businesses that have lost customers in city and town centers hit by rioting. There have also been five protest-related deaths and 1,407 people injured, 46 of them seriously, according to the government’s count.

More demonstrations are expected Saturday. The prime minister said the government wants to make jobs pay better without hurting business competitiveness. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the government will make savings in the state budget to help finance the measures.

Macron to break silence, address French nation amid protests

December 09, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Pressure mounted on French President Emmanuel Macron to announce concrete measures to calm protests marked by violence when he addresses the nation Monday evening, and breaks a long silence widely seen as aggravating a crisis that has shaken the government and the whole country.

The president will consult in the morning with an array of national and local officials as he tries to get a handle on the ballooning and radicalizing protest movement triggered by anger at his policies, and a growing sense that they favor the rich.

Macron will speak from the presidential Elysee Palace at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT), an Elysee official said. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said earlier on LCI TV station he was “sure (Macron) will know how to find the path to the hearts of the French, speak to their hearts.” But, he added, a “magic wand” won’t solve all the problems of the protesters, known as “yellow vests” for the fluorescent safety vests they often wear.

Last week, Macron withdrew a fuel tax hike — the issue that kicked off protests in mid-November — in an effort to appease the protesters, but the move was seen as too little too late. For many protesters, Macron himself, widely seen as arrogant and disconnected from rank-and-file French, has become the problem. Calls for him to resign were rampant on Saturday, the fourth weekend of large-scale protests.

“Macron is there for the rich, not for all the French,” 68-year-old retiree Jean-Pierre Meunuer said Saturday. Retirees are among the categories to be punished by his policies. Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud dampened any notion that the minimum wage would be raised, telling LCI that “there will be no boost for the Smic (minimum wage),” because “it destroys jobs.”

Paris tourist sites reopened Sunday, while workers cleaned up debris from protests that left widespread damage in the capital and elsewhere. At least 71 were injured in Paris on Saturday. The economy minister, meanwhile, lamented the damage to the economy.

“This is a catastrophe for commerce, it’s a catastrophe for our economy,” Bruno Le Maire said Sunday while visiting merchants around the Saint Lazare train station, among areas hit by vandalism as the pre-Christmas shopping season got underway.

After the fourth Saturday of nationwide protests by the grassroots movement with broadening demands, officials said they understood the depth of the crisis. Le Maire said it was a social and democratic crisis as well as a “crisis of the nation” with “territorial fractures.”

However, the president must also speak to protesters’ pocketbooks. Among myriad demands was increased buying power. French media reported 136,000 protesters nationwide on Saturday, similar to the previous week. However, the number of injured in Paris and nationwide was down. Still, TV footage broadcast around the world of the violence in Paris neighborhoods popular with tourists has tarnished the country’s image.

Several tourists questioned at the Eiffel Tower, which reopened Sunday after closing Saturday, said they were avoiding the Champs-Elysees, Paris’ main avenue that is lined with shops and cafes and normally a magnet for foreign visitors.

“Yes, we’re very concerned with security … but we couldn’t cancel the trip,” Portuguese tourist Elizabet Monteero said. But, she added, “We don’t go to dangerous zones like the Champs-Elysees.” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian politely chastised U.S. President Donald Trump for mocking France in tweets over the 2015 Paris climate accord, which the U.S. is leaving and which Macron has championed worldwide.

“We don’t take part in American debates. Let us live our own national life,” Le Drian said in an interview on the LCI TV station. He said Macron had told Trump the same thing. Trump tweeted twice on the issue over the weekend, saying in one that “the Paris agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris,” referring to Macron’s predicament.

Nearly 1,000 people, almost 100 of them minors and most without police records, were being held in custody after the Saturday protests in the French capital, Paris chief prosecutor Remy Heitz said, adding that most of those in custody were men under 40 from various regions who came to Paris to protest. Most were taken in for carrying weapons, like knives, or objects that could be used to cause injury, including petanque balls or tear gas.

Courts were working overtime to process the cases, he said. France deployed around 89,000 police but still failed to deter the determined protesters. More than 125,000 “yellow vests” took to the streets Saturday around France with a bevy of demands related to high living costs and a sense that Macron favors the elite and is trying to modernize the French economy too fast.

Thierry Paul Valette, who helps coordinate yellow vest protesters who come to Paris, said the president must announce concrete measures to quell the fury. It won’t be enough to announce negotiations, he said in an interview with The Associated Press. People want change and “concrete, immediate, right now” measures.

Even if Macron withdraws his signature slashing of the wealth tax, “half of the yellow vests will go home, the other half will want him to resign and will stay in the streets,” Valette predicted. “Because the movement isn’t controllable.”

There was also damage in other cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Seventeen of the injured were police officers. Jean-Claude Delage of the Alliance police union urged the government on Sunday to come up with responses to France’s “social malaise.” He told BFM television that working class protesters were deliberately targeting high-end shops in Paris that were selling goods they couldn’t afford.

Luxury shops on the posh Avenue Montaigne were totally boarded up on Saturday. In a knock at Macron, graffiti on the wall of one read: “You don’t cross the street, you take it,” mocking the president’s response to a young unemployed gardener that he can “cross the street” to find a job.

Associated Press journalists Angela Charlton, Nicolas Garriga, Florent Bajrami and Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

Paris cleans up after latest riot; pressure builds on Macron

December 09, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Paris tourist sites reopened, workers cleaned up broken glass and shop owners tried to put the city on its feet again Sunday, a day after running battles between yellow-vested protesters and riot police left 71 injured and caused widespread damage to the French capital.

The man who unleashed the anger, President Emmanuel Macron, broke his silence to tweet his appreciation for the police overnight, but pressure mounted on him to propose new solutions to calm the anger dividing France.

The number of injured in Paris and nationwide was down Saturday from protest riots a week ago, and most of the capital remained untouched. Still, TV footage broadcast around the world of the violence in Paris neighborhoods popular with tourists is tarnishing the country’s image.

France deployed some 89,000 police but still failed to deter the determined protesters. Some 125,000 yellow vests took to the streets Saturday around France with a bevy of sometimes contradictory or incoherent demands related to high living costs and a sense that Macron favors the elite and is trying to modernize the French economy too fast.

Some 1,220 people were taken into custody around France, the Interior Ministry said Sunday — a roundup the scale of which the country hasn’t seen in years. French police frisked protesters at train stations around the country, confiscating everything from heavy metal petanque balls to tennis rackets — anything that could remotely be used as a weapon.

The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum reopened Sunday after closing in fear of Saturday’s rioting. Shops assessed the looting damage Sunday and cleared out broken glass, after shutting down on a Saturday at the height of the holiday shopping season.

Fierce winds and rain pummeled Paris overnight, complicating efforts to clean up the debris left after protesters sought any objects they could find to hurl at police or set on fire. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting Parisian store windows and threw flares and other projectiles. French riot police repeatedly repelled them with tear gas and water cannon.

Used tear gas canister lids lay scattered Sunday on the cobblestones of the elegant Champs-Elysees after the hours-long standoff on Saturday between riot police and protesters. Most of the Paris demonstrators were working class white men from elsewhere in France, angry at inequalities and economic stagnation.

Police and protesters also clashed in other French cities, notably Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and in neighboring Belgium. Some protesters took aim at the French border with Italy, creating huge traffic jams on both sides of the border. Some 135 people were injured nationwide, including the 71 in Paris.

Saturday’s protests were a direct blow to Macron, who made a stunning retreat last week and decided to abandon the fuel tax rise that initially prompted the yellow vest protest movement a month ago. His turnaround damaged his credibility with climate defenders and foreign investors and earned derision from U.S. President Donald Trump, an opponent of the 2015 Paris climate change accord that Macron has championed worldwide.

Yet it did nothing to cool tempers of the “gilets jaunes,” the nickname for crowds wearing the fluorescent yellow vests that all French motorists must keep in their cars. The disparate movement now has other demands, from taxing the rich to raising the minimum wage to having the 40-year-old Macron, a former banker and economist, hand in his resignation.

Riot in Paris: Armored trucks, tear gas, smashed glass

December 08, 2018

PARIS (AP) — The rumble of armored police trucks and the hiss of tear gas filled central Paris on Saturday, as French riot police fought to contain thousands of yellow-vested protesters venting their anger against the government in a movement that has grown more violent by the week.

A ring of steel surrounded the president’s Elysee Palace — a key destination for the protesters — as police stationed trucks and reinforced metal barriers throughout the neighborhood. Saturday’s yellow vest crowd was overwhelmingly male, a mix of those bringing their financial grievances to Paris — the center of France’s government, economy and culture — along with groups of apparently experienced vandals, who tore steadily through some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, smashing and burning.

Police and protesters also clashed in the southern French cities of Marseille and Toulouse. The government’s plan was to prevent a repeat of the Dec. 2 rioting that damaged the Arc de Triomphe, injured 130 people and tarnished the country’s global image. But although Saturday’s protest in the French capital started out quietly, by late afternoon at least 551 people had been taken into custody and 60 people had been injured, according to Paris police and hospitals.

Some stores along the city’s elegant Champs-Elysees Avenue had boarded up their windows as though bracing for a hurricane, but the storm struck anyway, this time at the height of the holiday shopping season. Protesters ripped off the plywood protecting the windows and threw flares and other projectiles as they were repeatedly repelled by tear gas and water cannon.

All of the city’s top tourist attractions — including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre museum — shut down for the day, fearing the kind of damage that had hit the Arc de Triomphe. Subway stations in the city center also closed and the U.S. embassy warned its citizens to avoid all protest areas.

Yet in a sign of the financial disconnect that infuriates many of the protesters, within a block of the famed boulevard, people were sitting in Paris cafes, drinking cocktails and chatting. Amid the melee, President Emmanuel Macron remained invisible and silent, as he has for the four weeks of a movement that started as a protest against a gas tax hike and metamorphosed into a rebellion against high taxes, eroding living standards and what many see as his inability to address the concerns of France’s regions and ordinary people.

Before the clashes, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner had urged calm. “I ask the yellow vests that want to bring about a peaceful message to not go with the hooligans. We know that the hooligans are only strong because they hide behind the yellow vests, which hampers the security forces,” he said.

Even as blue armored trucks rumbled over cobblestone streets and police moved yet again against protesters on the Champs-Elysees, an even larger environmental march moved peacefully Saturday toward the city’s distant Republique Plaza.

A scattering of yellow vests, as well as women, children and retirees, were among the 17,000 participants marching to demand action against climate change. One sign read “No climate justice without fiscal and social justice.” The march came in support of U.N. climate talks taking place in Poland.

National police estimated the number of protesters in Paris at 8,000, although the yellow vests said their numbers were far higher and Associated Press reporters saw city streets densely crowded with thousands of people. French authorities deployed 8,000 security officers in the capital alone, among the 89,000 who fanned out around the country

France’s yellow vest protesters include people with views that range from the far right to the far left. The leaderless group is united primarily in its sense that Macron and his government are out of touch.

“We are here to tell (Macron) our discontent. Me, I’m not here to break things because I have four children so I am going to try to be safe for them, because they are afraid,” said protester Myriam Diaz. “But I still want to be here to say ‘Stop, that’s enough, this has to stop.'”

Cyril, a 25-year-old garbage truck driver, came from Normandy with three other demonstrators to Paris. He said he earns 1,430 euros ($1,625) a month despite working 45 hours a week and has decided not to have children because doesn’t feel he can earn enough to raise them.

This was his third weekend of protesting in Paris. “I’ve come to defend myself,” he said, adding that Macron’s mistake was trying to reform the French economy too quickly. “He’s done more in 18 months than the others in 30 years.”

Macron on Wednesday agreed to abandon the fuel tax hike, which aimed to wean France off fossil fuels and uphold the Paris climate agreement. Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to saving the planet from worsening climate change, but that approach hasn’t defused the popular anger.

The renewed violence in Paris gave the impression of a government that is powerless against the uprising. Protesters who came to Paris from Normandy described seeing officers block yellow-vested passengers from boarding public transportation at stops along their route. The national gendarme service posted a video on Twitter of police tackling a protester and confiscating his dangerous material, which appeared to be primarily a tennis racket.

Four people have died in accidents since the unrest began Nov. 17 and Christmas markets, national soccer matches and countless cultural events have been canceled due to the protests. Protesters also blocked roads, roundabouts and tollbooths elsewhere in France and offshoot movements have emerged in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgian police fired tear gas and water cannon Saturday at yellow-vested protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel after they tried to breach a riot barricade. The protesters in Brussels threw paving stones, road signs, fireworks, flares and other objects at police and about 100 were detained, many for carrying dangerous objects.

According the ocean, U.S. President Donald Trump seized the moment to criticize the 2015 Paris climate accord, which he is pulling the United States out of, in a series of tweets Saturday. “People do not want to pay large sums of money … in order to maybe protect the environment,” he tweeted.

Angela Charlton, Lori Hinnant, Srdjan Nedeljkovic, Philippe Marion and Milos Krivokapic in Paris contributed.

Russian teenagers use social media to rebel against teachers

December 28, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — The principal of a prestigious school near St. Petersburg summoned 16-year-old Leonid Shaidurov and 14-year-old Maxim Dautov in for a chat. Then he threatened them with expulsion, a criminal probe and being blacklisted from all Russian universities.

Their crime? Setting up an independent student union. But Shaidurov and Dautov, children of the social media era, did not take the threats lying down. Instead, they went public about their altercation with the principal last month. The student union’s ranks swelled and education authorities in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, came out in support of the teenagers, not the principal.

Many other young Russians have had their first taste of political activism in street protests against corruption and the banning of rap music, protesting the authoritarian status quo that their parents have unhappily gotten used to.

Russian teenagers putting up a social media fight against the rigid, Soviet-like attitudes of some teachers was one of Russia’s political highlights of the year. Shaidurov and Dautov came up with the idea after reading about Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and the U.S. trade union movement. They realized that their own problems — strict and unnecessary testing, dress code restrictions — had resonated elsewhere and would make a rallying cause for a student union.

“At first, everyone was laughing at Leonid and me, because it was just the two of us,” says Dautov, who wears multiple rings and a “Revolutionary Workers Party” badge on his scarf. Two separate groups of the new student union held their first meetings in mid-November at a soccer field near the sprawling concrete school.

Shaidurov, who led both meetings, was summoned to the principal and told he had organized an “unsanctioned rally” that would be investigated by prosecutors. His and Dautov’s parents were later hauled over the coals.

Later on, police officers visited the school to conduct “a preventive discussion” to warn the students about the dangers of staging unsanctioned rallies and extremism, a widely defined term that Russian authorities have used to go after dissenters of all stripes.

At the next parent-teacher meeting, parents were told that their children had joined an “extremist organization” and would be blacklisted from entering college, according to Shaidurov’s mother, Yelena, who teaches history at the school.

To the boys, this was only “pouring the oil onto the flame,” Dautov said. They spread the word on social media about the pressure and their case was taken up by the press. The number of student union members swelled from 70 to 200. Soon the city’s Department for Education said students had the right to set up a union “as long as it doesn’t impede the educational process.”

The principal and the city’s Department for Education would not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Associated Press. Students elsewhere in Russia are standing up, too. A high school student in the Urals city of Perm was turned away from class in December because she dyed her hair pink, and was told not to return until she changed it back. She mounted a social media campaign. Prosecutors went to check the school and found that the girl’s rights were violated. Later, the Perm education department banned schools from strict dress code rules.

In Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia’s Far East, a teacher has been suspended after a video of her pushing a teenager onto the ground and spanking him was posted online. Investigators have opened a criminal case.

Alexander Kondrashev, a teacher from St. Petersburg who belongs to an independent teachers’ union, says the power dynamics between Putin-era teenagers and predominantly Soviet-educated teachers is starkly different from a generation earlier.

“It’s much harder for a teacher to control the situation with children these days,” he said. “First, children have a clearer idea of their rights and they are ready to stand up for them. And second, audio and video recordings have given them a significant information clout.”

The St. Petersburg students claim the student union is not a political organization and are cagey about their own political views, saying “this is where the problems might start.” Like typical teenagers, they are annoyed with age restrictions: a Russian at 14 is not allowed to vote or drive or drink.

“It’s weird, because you can be sent to prison and contract TB at 14, but you can drink and smoke and express yourself fully only when you’re 18,” Dautov says. The system that Shaidurov and Dautov have been fighting against replicates the Russian government power structure in miniature.

The principal is answerable only to superiors in the education ministry while the students do not have much say in decision-making at school. Shaidurov and Dautov’s school has its own student body but it works hand in hand with the administration and lacks any powers.

“We even have a newspaper and a YouTube channel — allegedly for students — which is dead and no one watches it,” Dautov says, scoffing at the fact that instead of discussing real issues that students face, from high workloads to image pressures, the existing body debates “what kind of Christmas tree to put up.”

Likewise, the often-strong reactions of teachers to anyone who undermines the existing power hierarchy mirror Russia’s overall power structure. Teachers, who are paid by regional and federal budgets, are also under constant pressure from authorities, including when they run election precincts.

“It’s a natural reaction of a person who himself is in fear. They’re scared of the state, feel vulnerable and unprotected,” said Kondrashev, speaking of teachers lashing out at students in numerous Russian videos posted online.

Svetlana Agapitova, government-appointed ombudswoman for children’s rights in St. Petersburg, was one of the first officials who sided with the boys. She said adults should be proud that teenagers are taking an interest in political and economic topics.

The conflict also comes from the fact that the average age of a Russian school teacher hovers around 50, meaning that most were educated in the Soviet Union. Today’s schoolchildren, born in Putin’s era with instant access to information, are sincerely baffled by restrictions that have been in place for decades.

“It’s hard for older teachers to change their ways because the authority of a teacher in school used to be indisputable,” Agapitova says. “And to launch a dialogue with a student and discuss something with them — not everyone can do it.”

Dautov, 14, was originally skeptical of his parents’ willingness to speak to reporters about the case. But Dautov’s father Marat voiced support for his son, saying that he and his friends “want to improve our lives. We all want this, too, but it’s just that they are not afraid.”

“Maybe it will work out for them and things will get better in our country,” he mused.

As protests rages in France, Macron remains invisible

December 07, 2018

PARIS (AP) — As anti-government protests rage through France and Paris locks down, fearing new riots, the man whose presidency has unleashed the anger is nowhere to be seen. French President Emmanuel Macron has stayed out of the public eye all week, leaving his unpopular government to try to calm the nation. In response, “Macron, resign!” has become the main slogan of the “yellow vest” demonstrators.

The protesters’ anger has been directed at the French leader, who they feel has been the “president of the rich” and is out-of-touch with ordinary people. Macron’s pro-business reforms have aimed to make the French economy more competitive globally, but French workers see the changes as brutal and weakening their rights.

Macron, whose popularity plummeted in recent months, is also widely seen as arrogant, which comes out when he tells an unemployed man he can find a job if he “crosses the street,” or advising a retiree not to complain.

The 40-year-old leader mostly spent the week holding closed-door meetings in the Elysee presidential palace, which many protesters see as an ivory tower where he is hiding away from the people. The president’s office said he would not speak before Saturday’s anti-government protests.

Normally Macron is a president who likes the limelight, one who has sought a prominent place on the world stage since his surprise election last year. Just a week ago, he was basking in the international limelight at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, challenging U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change and protectionist trade measures.

As he met with other world leaders last weekend, images of burning barricades in Paris and the Arc de Triomphe monument in a cloud of tear gas were all over the television screens. Just back from Argentina, Macron went directly to the Arc de Triomphe to see the damages to the monument but the media was not allowed to ask him questions or come close. On Monday he had a discreet lunch with anti-riot police officers in eastern Paris, again without press.

The next day, he paid a two-hour unannounced visit to Puy-en-Velay, in central France, where protesters earlier had set the provincial government’s headquarters on fire. A few local reporters and other journalists who were there by chance reported that Macron was booed and insulted by a small crowd.

On Friday evening, Macron paid a quick visit to anti-riot security forces that were to be deployed Saturday in the French capital. No media was there. His office said he met with about 60 police officers at a fort east of Paris and thanked them for their service.

Instead, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has been sent to the front lines to face opposition lawmakers at parliament and explain the government’s security measures on television. In France, the president traditionally makes the key policy choices, especially in the fields of defense and foreign policy, while the prime minister is in charge of day-to-day decisions, especially those related to domestic issues.

Macron doesn’t face re-election until 2022 and his party has a strong majority in parliament —yet his ability to pass sweeping reforms may be weakened by the yellow vests movement. Observers have suggested that Philippe’s resignation might ultimately be considered as a way to protect Macron —especially if the mood in France doesn’t calm down. But Philippe on Thursday rejected suggestions that he should quit.

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