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Archive for the ‘Land of the French Oppression’ Category

France turns to speedy trains to catch up in virus response

April 05, 2020

PARIS (AP) — The high-speed train whooshing past historic World War I battle sites and through the chateau-speckled Loire Valley carried a delicate cargo: 20 critically ill COVID-19 patients and the breathing machines helping keep them alive.

The TGV-turned-mobile-intensive-care-unit is just one piece of France’s nationwide mobilization of trains, helicopters, jets and even a warship, deployed to relieve congested hospitals and shuffle hundreds of patients and medical personnel in and out of coronavirus hotspots.

“We are at war,” President Emmanuel Macron tells his compatriots, again and again. But as the 42-year-old leader casts himself as a warrior and harnesses the might of the armed forces, critics charge that he waited far too long to act against this foe. France, one of the world’s wealthiest countries with one of the best health care systems, they say, should never have found itself so deep in crisis.

Macron had just emerged from weeks of damaging retirement strikes and a year of violent “yellow vest” protests over economic injustice when the pandemic hit. Now he is struggling to keep the house running in one of the world’s hardest-hit countries.

The Rungis food market south of Paris, Europe’s biggest, is transforming into a morgue as France’s death count races past 7,500. Nearly 7,000 patients are in intensive care, pushing French hospitals to their limit and beyond. Doctors are rationing painkillers and re-using masks.

France’s centralized state and powerful presidency make it easier to coordinate the exceptional patient-moving efforts, which have crisscrossed the country and even extended to overseas territories. But the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the world-renowned state hospital system after decades of cost cuts. When the president visited a Paris hospital on the front lines of the virus battle, an angry neurologist challenged him to reinvest massively.

“When it was about saving Notre Dame, many were moved,” Dr. Francois Salachas said, a reference to the Paris cathedral that was severely damaged by fire a year ago, prompting immediate, massive pledges of public and private funds for reconstruction. “This time it’s about saving public hospitals, which are going up in smoke at the same speed as Notre Dame almost did.”

Many think Macron did not anticipate the severity with which the virus could hit and set a bad personal example. Similar criticisms have been leveled at other world leaders including the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and the United States.

In February, Macron made a point of repeatedly kissing Italy’s premier on a visit to Naples to show there was nothing to fear. At the time the virus was already spreading fast across France, but limited testing meant health authorities didn’t yet know.

In early March, he toured a retirement home even as he announced that families should no longer visit elderly relatives. That same day he went with his wife to a Paris theater where the owner tweeted that the president wanted to show that “life goes on.” By then the official virus infection numbers in France were doubling every two days.

In mid-March, as COVID-19 was ravaging neighboring Italy, France went ahead with the first round of nationwide municipal elections. First lady Brigitte Macron strolled the banks of the Seine, which were crowded with Parisians enjoying a sunny day despite recommendations of social distancing.

It wasn’t until March 16 that Macron abruptly changed his tune, declaring war on the virus and announcing nationwide confinement measures. A week later he appeared wearing a face mask for the first time at a field hospital set up by troops outside Mulhouse, the eastern city that saw an eruption of cases stemming from a five-day evangelical gathering.

The armed forces took on a key role, as military and hospital authorities worked out the system to shuttle patients to less-strained hospitals and medics to virus zones in need. The first “medicalized” TGV made its inaugural trip on March 26. Doctors in protective gear pushed gurneys along the nearly empty platform of the train station in the eastern city of Strasbourg as safety warnings echoed from loudspeakers. Inside the double-decker cars, patients and webs of tubes and wires were squeezed past luggage racks and rows of seats. Once they were secured, the train sped off toward less impacted hospitals in the west.

While the militarized mobilizations are broadly popular, public debate mushroomed over issues such as the relatively low numbers of people being tested for the virus in France and shortages of medical equipment. Macron ordered all face masks requisitioned for medical personnel after it became evident France entered the crisis well short of the necessary supply.

“The question of masks is now the priority question for the French,” said Jean-Daniel Levy of polling agency Harris Interactive, adding that the public feels the government “didn’t take enough responsibility” for it at the outset.

France has had to send some patients for treatment to neighboring Germany, which has conducted massive nationwide testing and confirmed more cases than France while recording a death toll about one-fifth as high so far.

Macron, a centrist, has taken fire from both ends of the political spectrum. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen told France 2 television that “the government lied about the preparedness of the country,” while far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron, a former investment banker, “used to think that the free market would meet the country’s needs, so his mental framework collapsed.”

Among the broader public, Macron “is seen as relatively authoritarian,” Levy said. That hurt him during the protest movements but helps his popularity now because “we want to have a strong authority figure” to manage the crisis.

In the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, a fact-finding mission is scrutinizing the government’s handling of the emergency. Macron, however, said while visiting a mask manufacturing company that it’s not yet time to focus on what went wrong.

“When we’re fighting a battle, we must all be united to win it,” the president said. “And I think those who seek to send people to trial when we have not yet won the war are irresponsible.”

With high schools closed, France’s key ‘Bac’ exam canceled

April 03, 2020

PARIS (AP) — For the first time in France’s history, students won’t take the national end-of-high-school exam known as the Baccalaureat this year, amid school closures due to the coronavirus crisis. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer made the announcement Friday. Many other countries in Europe have already decided to postpone exams.

The move upends everything for hundreds of thousands of French teenagers at a pivotal time in their lives. Students spend their scholastic careers preparing for the rigorous exams in June of their final year. They’re such a defining part of Frenchness that many adults list their “bac” results on their resumes.

Instead, this year students in the last year of high school will be able to get the qualification based on school grades before and possibly after the confinement period. French schools have been closed since March 16 and students and teachers had to shift to online learning. They won’t be able to reopen before May, if not later, Blanquer said.

A jury will examine their academic transcript to ensure fair conditions for all 740,000 students involved. The issue is sensitive in France, where the exam is a symbol of egalitarianism. Born in 1808 under Napoleon’s rule, the Baccalaureat is the main qualification required to pursue studies at university.

Even in wartime it was maintained, even though authorities sometimes had to reorganize or postpone it. It is also an important rite of passage: Results are released simultaneously for everyone, and national television spends the day capturing the tears of joy and disappointment as teens discover their results.

Unlike in the United States, many European systems have traditionally focused heavily on the end-of-school exam, while grades throughout the year have less meaning. Schools around the U.S. have canceled graduation ceremonies, depriving young people of all the memories associated with the caps, gowns, speeches and celebration.

Britain has canceled both the GCSE exams students take at 16 and the A-Levels that determine university admission. Schools have been asked to come up with predictions of what grades students would have got, based on past performance, classroom work and other factors. This has led to accusations of unfairness.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Serbia have all postponed end-of-high-school exams. In Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country, the government has not reached a final decision on the issue yet. In Germany, the Abitur exam is being maintained so far.

Eiffel Tower says “Merci” to health workers fighting virus

March 27, 2020

PARIS (AP) — Health workers racing to save lives as France contends with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks have received a huge show of gratitude with the help of the Eiffel Tower. The Paris landmark also had a message for the broader French public: Stay home.

Lights spelled out “Merci,” French for ‘Thank you,” and “Stay at home” in English on Friday night along with the tower’s famous sparkling illuminations. The display of solidarity that started at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) coincided with the moment when citizens in lockdown across France have been cheering and applauding from their windows and balconies in support of doctors and nurses.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the light show will take place every evening on the 324-meter-tall tower. French hospitals recorded nearly 2,000 virus-related deaths as of Friday, a figure that doesn’t include COVID-19 cases elsewhere. Health workers are straining to treat an ever-increasing number of patients, including nearly 3,800 in intensive care.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

In neighboring Switzerland, authorities also are lighting up one of the nation’s landmarks, the Matterhorn. Nightly from sundown until 11 p.m., light artist Gerry Hofstetter is splashing the Alpine peak with words and images of encouragement and inspiration.

Images on the snow-capped summit have shown a heart, the Swiss flag, “Hope” and “#stayhome.”

French president says 33 jihadists killed in central Mali

December 21, 2019

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — French forces have killed 33 Islamic extremists in central Mali, French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday. He made the announcement on the second day of his three-day trip to West Africa that has been dominated by the growing threat posed by jihadist groups.

In a tweet, Macron said he was “proud of our soldiers who protect us.” Two Malian gendarmes also were rescued in the operation, he said. France has some 4,500 military personnel in West and Central Africa, much of which was ruled by France during colonialism. The French led a military operation in 2013 to dislodge Islamic extremists from power in several major towns across Mali’s north.

In the ensuing years the militants have regrouped and pushed further into central Mali, where Saturday morning’s operation was carried out. On Friday evening, Macron met with French military personnel stationed in Ivory Coast, which shares a long border with volatile Mali and Burkina Faso. Later in the day Saturday he is to highlight a new effort being launched: The International Academy to Fight Terrorism will focus on regional strategies and training those involved in the fight against extremism, according to the French presidency.

France: Military helicopters in Mali crash not under fire

November 29, 2019

PARIS (AP) — France’s army chief of staff is dismissing an Islamic State group affiliate’s claim that it caused a helicopter collision in Mali that killed 13 soldiers. Gen. Francois Lecointre on Friday told French radio RFI that no shots were fired at the helicopters. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has claimed responsibility but offered no evidence.

Lecointre said complex coordination during a combat operation was the cause of Monday night’s accident in the West African nation. He said the helicopters’ flight data recorders will provide more details, saying the soldiers’ families are owed the truth about what happened.

It was France’s highest military death toll in nearly four decades. The crash drew global attention to an emerging front for IS-linked groups as IS loses strength in Syria and Iraq.

Virus rebels from France to Florida flout lockdown practices

March 22, 2020

PARIS (AP) — Young German adults hold “corona parties” and cough toward older people. A Spanish man leashes a goat to go for a walk to skirt confinement orders. From France to Florida to Australia, kitesurfers, college students and others crowd the beaches.

Their defiance of lockdown mandates and scientific advice to fight the coronavirus pandemic has prompted crackdowns by authorities on people trying to escape cabin fever brought on by virus restrictions. In some cases, the virus rebels resist — threatening police as officials express outrage over public gatherings that could spread the virus.

“Some consider they’re little heroes when they break the rules,” said French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. “Well, no. You’re an imbecile, and especially a threat to yourself.” After days of noncompliance by people refusing to stay home and venture out only for essential tasks, France on Friday sent security forces into train stations to prevent people from traveling to their vacation homes, potentially carrying the virus to the countryside or beaches where medical facilities are less robust. The popular Paris walkway along the Seine River was closed and a nightly curfew was imposed in the French Mediterranean city of Nice by Mayor Christian Estrosi, who is infected with the virus.

Florida’s governor closed all of the state’s beaches after images of rowdy spring break college crowds appeared on TV for days amid the rising global death toll, which surpassed 13,000 on Sunday. Australia closed Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach after police were outraged at pictures of the crowds.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday that people from 18-to-49 account for more than half of the state’s coronavirus cases, warning them “you’re not Superman, and you’re not Superwoman.” Many people were not complying with social distancing recommendations to stay away from each other in New York City’s vast city park network ahead of a ban on congregating in groups that goes into effect Sunday night, Cuomo said.

“You can wind up hurting someone who you love, or hurting someone wholly inadvertently. Social distancing works, and you need social distancing everywhere,” Cuomo warned. As new coronavirus cases in China dropped to zero several days in a row, the chief medical officer for the International Clinic of Wuhan was alarmed at those elsewhere refusing to follow rules to contain the virus. Dr. Philippe Klein said people should look to China’s confinement of tens of millions as an example to emulate “with courage, with patience, with solidarity.”

“I exhort you, the French, to apply the rules in our way,” said Klein, who is French. Worldwide, over 307,000 people have been infected. For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. But it can cause more severe illness in others, especially older adults and people with existing health conditions. Some 92,000 people have recovered, mostly in China, where the virus first struck late last year.

The virus rebels tend to range from restless teens to wealthy adults who can travel to their getaway homes. Even in Italy, where the virus death toll soared beyond China’s last week, authorities are still trying to rein in people from going outside for fresh air, sun and visits with friends to escape walled-in lives.

French farmers’ markets where people congregate to shop for food have posed a special challenge for police trying to keep people apart from each other at the recommended 2 meters (6 feet), along with neglected urban housing projects where distrust and disobedience of authorities runs deep.

In Clichy-Sous-Bois, a Paris suburb where nationwide riots triggered by police harassment allegations erupted in 2005, a person bit a police officer trying to enforce confinement rules, said Linda Kebbab, a police union spokesperson. And a large crowd threatened to spit on officers who had planned to disperse them in the southeastern city of Lyon but left instead, she said.

In the southern German state of Bavaria, Gov. Markus Soeder lamented that “there are still corona parties, there are young people who cough at older people and shout corona for fun and, above all, there are an incredible number of groups being formed.”

National police in Spain, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus infections in Europe after Italy, are using helicopters to spot groups of people meeting up outdoors. Then agents are sent in to break up the gatherings.

Spanish police have also taken to highlighting examples on social media of what people should not do in public during the country’s state of emergency. In the southeastern Murcia region, they posted video of police stopping a person waddling outside in a full-body dinosaur costume and tweeted that pets can be taken for brief walks by owners but that “having a Tyrannosaurus Rex complex is not” allowed.

And in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia, police posted a picture of a man walking a goat on a leash, apparently trying to take advantage of the pet walking exception. France now has 100,000 security personnel on the streets who are issuing fines amid a new national “Stay Home” mantra and warnings by officials that the country’s two-week lockdown could be extended if the country’s infection rate keeps rising. France on Sunday had nearly 15,000 infections.

In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos tried to convince people to say home, warning citizens that future virus prevention measures depend “on our behavior.” But after Florida’s governor shut down the state’s famed beaches, some businesses were still trying to draw in tourists, including Clearwater Mega Bite Shark Boat, a 40-foot (12-meter) vessel with a bow shaped like a shark’s snout that cruises the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s western coast.

The boat can carry 50 passengers but the owner was limiting trips to 10 to comply with federal advice. Only four people signed up for a Saturday trip, said an employee named Chase who answered the phone but declined to give his last name.

“Normally we’d be packed this weekend,” he said.

Associated Press writers contributing to this report: Frances d’Emilio in Rome; Joe Wilson in Barcelona; Elena Becatoros in Greece,; Geir Moulson and David Rising in Berlin; Michael Hill in Albany, New York; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Florida; and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

French defense minister visits Mali after 13 soldiers killed

November 27, 2019

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France’s defense minister Florence Parly arrived in northern Mali on Wednesday after a helicopter collision killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists, while some in the West African country debated France’s military presence.

The Monday crash on a moonless night led to France’s highest military death toll in nearly four decades. An investigation has begun into the cause. The military has said the helicopters were flying very low while supporting French commandos on the ground near the border with Niger.

Some in Mali in recent weeks have loudly criticized the French military’s presence as the extremist threat grows and spreads into neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year, with well over 100 Malian troops killed in the past two months alone.

Some in Mali even questioned whether the helicopter collision was an accident. In the capital, Bamako, resident Mamadou Fofana mused that it could have been a way to calm the protests and revive “compassion” for the country’s former colonizer.

Others disagreed. “France is a serious state with a reputation in the aeronautic world,” said another Bamako resident, Seydou Touré. And Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a statement that “Mali knows what this is costing the country to send its children to the Sahel in defense of this cause, the cause of peace.”

France’s operation in West and Central Africa is its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. The deaths draw new attention to a worrying front in the global fight against extremism, one in which France and local countries have pleaded for more support.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the military operation during Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting. Macron stressed that it aims at “enhancing our own security” and providing “important support” to African countries, Ndiaye said.

A national tribute ceremony will take place Monday at the Invalides monument in Paris. Residents were bringing flowers, lighting candles and writing condolences notes at the town halls of Gap, Pau, Varces and Saint-Christol, where the soldiers were based.

French centrist senator Jean-Marie Bockel’s son was among those killed. Bockel told French news broadcaster BFM TV that his son, Pierre-Emmanuel Bockel, was on his fourth tour to Mali. He was “proud of his mission because he knew that … if the French military leaves (Mali) tomorrow, this is chaos.”

Most French politicians have praised France’s military operation in the Sahel as key in the global fight against extremism. U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said in a tweet that he is saddened at the news and that the U.S. sends its condolences to France and the families of those who died.

Corbet reported from Paris.

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