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Protesters ousted from Sorbonne; French train strikes resume

April 13, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Paris riot police cleared out students seeking to occupy the Sorbonne university, and strikes shut down the Eiffel Tower and two-thirds of French trains Friday — all part of a season of simmering national discontent.

Much of the anger centers on President Emmanuel Macron, but he went on national TV on Thursday to declare that strikes and protests won’t prevent him from overhauling France’s economy. Rail workers resumed a strike Friday that is set to disrupt travel off-and-on through June. But the number of striking workers is down from previous actions, and international trains were largely maintained.

The Eiffel Tower announced that it is closed to the public Friday because of a strike by security personnel. Their demands were not immediately clear. The Sorbonne announced its iconic Left Bank site is closed Friday for security reasons after the Thursday night police operation. While about 200 students were evacuated, a few hundred others gathered outside, chanting angrily at police, though the incident ended peacefully.

The site was a nucleus of student protests 50 years ago in May 1968, when strikes and university occupations paralyzed France’s economy in a pivotal moment in modern French history. Students at campuses around France are now protesting admissions reforms that they fear threaten access to public university for all high school graduates. Macron on Thursday dismissed the student protesters as “professional agitators” and ridiculed some of their demands.

While the 1968 protesters were seeking to overturn old ways, today’s workers and students are fighting to maintain the status quo — including hard-fought worker rights that Macron says are incompatible with today’s global economy.

The 40-year-old French leader said Thursday he’s determined to push ahead with reforms to the national rail authority SNCF, to prepare it to open up to competition. Commuters squeezed into scarce trains Friday and electronic display boards showed disrupted traffic as SNCF workers kicked off a new two-day strike.

“We have to leave earlier, we arrive late at work. We have no choice. I’ll have to leave earlier this evening to catch a train,” said commuter Sandra Loretti at the Gare Saint-Lazare station in northwest Paris. “We take the car, extra journey, extra time, extra tiredness.”

Hospital staff, retirees, lawyers and magistrates are also holding protests over reforms by Macron’s government. The president will go on national television again Sunday, answering questions for two hours from BFM television and investigative website Mediapart.


New French unrest: Students, medics protest Macron reforms

April 05, 2018

ROUEN, France (AP) — Students and medical workers are facing off against riot police in a protest over reforms by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The protest is taking place Thursday outside a hospital in the Normandy city of Rouen, where Macron is visiting a unit dedicated to children with autism.

Medical workers brandished union flags and banners decrying “Hospital Hell” to express anger over cuts to the public health care system. Local students also joined the protest. Students have been blocking some campuses around France in recent weeks to protest plans to allow selection at public universities, and other changes.

The protest comes after two days of crippling strikes on the state railway network. Macron’s efforts to overhaul the French economy are meeting increasing resistance.

French minister: Fighting gender violence ‘the top priority’

March 14, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Fighting violence against women isn’t just a top priority for French President Emmanuel Macron — it’s the top priority, his gender equality minister said Wednesday. And one of the first targets is street harassment.

In an interview, Marlene Schiappa said legislation that she will present to the Cabinet next week would impose stiff fines for gender-based harassment on the street or in public transport. She said the bill is important in both a practical and a symbolic sense.

“It is symbolic because we have to lead that cultural fight,” Schiappa said at the United Nations, where a day earlier she addressed the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. “We have to say: ‘Young men, you don’t have the right — you’re not allowed to follow women on the streets, to intimidate them.'”

But she also believes the law can be effectively implemented, adding that the country’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, is planning to use 10,000 policemen and policewomen to help in the fight. Fines would start at 200 euros, and could go higher if not paid right away, she said. In some cases there also would be a training session at which a violator “will learn many things about street harassment and why you don’t have the right to do that to a woman.”

The proposed law also includes a provision that anyone under 15 cannot consent to sex with an adult. And it extends the statute of limitations on sex crimes, allowing prosecution for 30 years after a purported victim turns 18, rather than 20.

Schiappa said she hopes there will be “quite a consensus” in support of the law in parliament. “I think it’s an important subject that deserves to (stay) out of the usual fight between political groups,” she said. “But we will see.”

Schiappa has become one of the most outspoken members of Macron’s government. In her speech Tuesday at the commission’s meeting, she declared that 2017 marked “the end of global denial on gender-based and sexual violence.” She said 2018 should not be just the end of an era, but the beginning of another: “Year One after #MeToo.”

She said one of the most important elements of #MeToo — France has its own version called “Balance Ton Porc” — is that people are not only speaking differently about gender violence, but finally listening.

“Women have talked about that for many generations,” Schiappa said. “My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother talked with me about gender-based violence that they experienced or witnessed. They all have stories to tell.”

She said that for a long time, women with such stories would hear a dismissive, “C’est la vie,” or be told they just had to deal with it alone. But now after #MeToo, she said, “no one will be able to say to a woman: ‘You have to deal with it.'”

Schiappa said she disagreed strongly with the much-discussed letter written by actress Catherine Deneuve and some 100 other French artists and academics in January saying that the “legitimate protest against sexual violence” stemming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal had gone too far and advocating against “puritanism.”

“I think it’s not about morality, about puritanism at all,” the minister said. “It is about freedom, about how women can … live peacefully in freedom, to walk on the street, to go to work, to share spaces with men in freedom and (have) a sexual life if they want to — but only if they want to.”

Schiappa also addressed her goal of correcting the gender wage gap in France, noting that the first law aiming to address it was passed in 1983, when she was only 6 months old. “I am now 35 and it is still not being implemented,” she said.

The government is proposing to “name and shame” companies not respecting the law on gender equality in the workplace. “It’s not enough,” Schiappa said, “but in terms of the gender pay gap, nothing is enough … ‘name and shame’ is about that cultural fight. It’s about changing mentalities and saying it’s not acceptable that you pay women less than men.”

The most immediate goal is getting her proposed law passed by parliament, Schiappa said. “We’ve been working for years now to make that law,” she said. “President Macron said gender equality would be his top goal before Weinstein, before #MeToo, before the election … really, that law will be important.”

Macron’s government has chosen to label associations fighting violence against women as a “great national cause” this year, which means they can broadcast messages on TV and radio for free and get help from the state to organize charity campaigns.

Schiappa was also asked about gender parity in the president’s own circle of advisers and staff, which includes significantly more men than women. She said Macron has worked to increase female representation in parliament and has achieved gender parity in his Cabinet.

“In terms of advisers there are more men than women,” she acknowledged. “But he is working on it.”

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

Macron pledges $700 million euros for new solar projects

New Delhi (AFP)

March 11, 2018

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for solar projects in developing countries, as world leaders met in India to promote greater investment in renewable energy.

Macron, who in December warned that the global shift to a green energy future was too slow, said France would extend an extra 700 million euros ($861.5 million) through loans and donations by 2022 for solar projects in emerging economies.

France had already committed $300 million euros to the initiative when it co-founded with India a global alliance in 2015 to unlock new cash for solar projects in sunny yet poor nations.

“We need to remove all obstacles and scale up,” Macron said at the launch of the International Solar Alliance in New Delhi on Sunday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has committed to reducing India’s sizable carbon footprint through a massive scale-up in renewable energy — said it was vital that nations were not priced out.

“We have to make sure that a better and cost effective solar technology is available to all,” Modi told the gathering of investors and world leaders from about 20 mainly African nations.

“We will have to increase solar in our energy mix.”

India, the world’s third-largest polluter, is undergoing spectacular growth in its solar sector and is on track to become one of the world’s largest clean energy markets.

It pledged at the Paris climate summit in 2015 to source at least 40 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, mainly via solar.

The energy-hungry giant of 1.25 billion people is banking on solar to electrify homes for hundreds of millions of its poorest citizens without adding to its considerable emissions output.

Macron and Modi hope the alliance will spur $1 trillion in new solar spending by 2030 in 121 countries lacking investment in the sector.

These countries have “the paradox of being the sunniest in the world while enjoying the least solar energy,” said S?gol?ne Royal, a former French minister in India as a special envoy for the alliance.

Macron told world leaders in Paris in December that “we are losing the battle” against climate change and urged faster action to combat global warming.

The French leader called on private sector attendees in New Delhi to engage more actively because “solar investments are becoming more profitable”.

He and Modi will open a new 100 megawatt solar plant near the holy Indian city of Varanasi on Monday. The French leader will also visit the Taj Mahal in Agra later Sunday.

Source: Solar Daily.


EU’s Juncker warns of possible return to war in Balkans

April 17, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is warning that the volatile Balkans could face a return to war if countries in the region have no hope of joining the European Union.

Juncker told EU lawmakers Tuesday: “I don’t want a return to war in the Western Balkans.” He said: “If we remove from these countries, in this extremely complicated region, I should say tragically, a European perspective, we are going to live what we already went through in the 1990s.”

EU and Balkan leaders meet in Bulgaria next month, but the EU is unlikely to invite any country to join soon. The prospect of EU membership has proved a driving force for reform in the Balkans, which was torn apart by war as former Yugoslavia broke up.

EU recalls Moscow envoy after blaming Russia over spy attack

March 23, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is recalling its ambassador from Moscow for consultations over the nerve gas attack against a former spy in Britain earlier this month, reinforcing a united stand with Prime Minister Theresa May against Russia.

After the EU firmly sided with May in the escalating conflict reminiscent of the Cold War and said it was “highly likely Russia is responsible” for the attack on Sergei Skripal, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU envoy “is being recalled for consultations to Brussels.”

May won the backing of 27 other EU leaders at a summit Thursday and the bloc called the attack a “grave challenge to our shared security.” The EU states said they would “coordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities.”

May was delighted with the support early Friday. “This is about us standing together to uphold our values against the Russian threat,” she said. Rutte said no sanctions were actually discussed at the summit even though rumors swirled of more drastic diplomatic measures. President Dalia Grybauskaite of former Soviet state Lithuania said she was considering expelling Russian diplomats in the wake of the March 4 attack.

Rutte said over the coming days or weeks, “we and our partners must see what the logical next steps are.” He insisted that any measure “must have an added value to this extremely strong political declaration.”

The unanimity was a victory for May. She had been striving at a summit in Brussels to persuade her EU colleagues to unite in condemning Moscow over the attack on Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter, Yulia.

Russia strongly denies responsibility and has slammed Britain’s investigation. During a summit dinner, May laid out the reasons Britain is convinced Moscow was behind the attack, including the type of poison used — a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok — and intelligence that Russia has produced it within the last decade.

Britain argues the attack is part of a pattern of behavior by an increasingly assertive Russia whose muscle-flexing, cyber-meddling and law-breaking on foreign soil pose a threat to the international rule of law.

May said Thursday that “it is clear that the Russian threat doesn’t respect borders.” She said “the incident in Salisbury was part of a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbors, from the western Balkans to the Middle East.”

But European politicians and leaders varied in how far they were willing to go in blaming the Kremlin. Russia President Vladimir Putin’s office said Thursday that Greek leader Alexis Tsipras had called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election and discuss issues, including the Salisbury poisoning.

Britain and Russia have expelled 23 of each other’s diplomats in a dispute showing no sign of easing. Russia’s ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, accused the U.K. Thursday of having a “bad record of violating international law and misleading the international community.”

“History shows that British statements must be verified,” he told reporters in London, demanding “full transparency of the investigation and full cooperation with Russia” and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Danica Kirka and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.

Queen tips Prince Charles to follow her as Commonwealth head

April 19, 2018

LONDON (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II opened a summit of the 53-nation Commonwealth on Thursday, and backed her son Prince Charles to be the next leader of the association of Britain and its former colonies.

In a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, the queen said she hoped Charles would “carry on the important work” of leading the Commonwealth, a loose alliance of countries large and small that has struggled to carve out a firm place on the world stage.

For decades, the queen has been the driving force behind the Commonwealth but she has no designated successor as chief. Some have suggested that Charles should not take over the helm of the group, which takes in 2.4 billion people on five continents.

“It is my sincere wish that the Commonwealth will continue to offer stability and continuity for future generations and will decide that one day the Prince of Wales should carry on the important work started by my father in 1949,” the queen said.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who hosted the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2015, signaled that leaders were likely to confirm Charles as successor to his mother, who turns 92 on Saturday.

Muscat said he was sure that Charles, a long-time advocate for environmental issues, “will provide solid and passionate leadership for our Commonwealth” when called upon to do so. Commonwealth leaders are to discuss who will succeed the queen when they meet Friday at Windsor Castle, west of London.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, James Slack, said Britain supported Charles becoming leader of the group, but added that “succession is a matter for the Commonwealth as a whole to determine.”

The survival of the Commonwealth owes much to the commitment of the queen, who has visited almost every member country — often multiple times — over her 66-year-reign. May praised the monarch for being “the Commonwealth’s most steadfast and fervent champion.”

Leaders from countries ranging from vast India to tiny Tuvalu will spend two days meeting in London and at Windsor Castle. Their agenda includes protecting the world’s oceans and helping small states boost their cybersecurity.

Britain also hopes to use the meeting as a launch pad for stronger trade ties with Commonwealth countries after the U.K. leaves the European Union next year. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said this week that Brexit could revitalize the Commonwealth and “usher in a new era, harnessing the movement of expertise, talent, goods and capital between our nations in a way that we have not done for a generation or more.”

Others are skeptical that increased Commonwealth trade can make up for reduced access to Britain’s biggest market, the EU. In 2017, 44 percent of British exports went to the EU and just 9 percent to Commonwealth countries.

Still, some say the Commonwealth could present a platform for British diplomatic and cultural clout after it leaves the EU. Michael Lake, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society charity, said the Commonwealth could be a “useful and productive stepping stone for the development of a new soft-power agenda.”

But Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth has been clouded by diplomatic missteps and the legacy of empire. May had to apologize this week after it emerged that some people who came to the U.K. from the Caribbean decades ago had been refused medical care in Britain or threatened with deportation because they could not produce paperwork to show their rights to residence.

Gay-rights activists are also protesting the summit, urging the repeal of laws against homosexuality that are in effect in more than 30 Commonwealth countries — in many cases, introduced under British rule.

May says Britain deeply regrets its role in passing the anti-gay laws. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said. “They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”

The Commonwealth is officially committed to democracy and human rights, but its rights record is mixed. Many look with pride on the organization’s role in the 1970s and ’80s in trying to end apartheid in South Africa.

But many Commonwealth nations have been plagued by corruption or destabilized by coups. Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, pulled his country out of the group in 2003 after it was suspended for widespread human rights abuses. Gambia quit in 2013, calling the Commonwealth a “neocolonial institution.” It rejoined earlier this year.

Still, the Commonwealth provides support for democracy and corruption-fighting, and gives its smaller members a chance to be heard as part of an international network. Attempts to expand the club beyond former British colonies have had modest success, with Mozambique and Rwanda joining in recent years.

Philip Murphy, who heads the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said the Commonwealth was held together by “a kind of inertia, the fact that it’s probably more trouble to wind it up than to keep going.”

But he said he wouldn’t write it off just yet. “It’s sort of like the Holy Roman Empire — international organizations can survive long beyond their natural expiry date,” Murphy said.

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