rfi 2024-03-23 10:05:55


France condemns ‘heinous’ gun attack on Moscow concert hall

France joined other Western countries in condemning a gun attack on a concert hall in the Russian capital on Friday night, which killed more than 90 people and injured over 100. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility.

French President Emmanuel Macron “strongly condemns the terrorist attack” on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, said a statement from the presidential palace. 

“France expresses its solidarity with the victims, their loved ones and all the Russian people.”

Hundreds of fans were at the hall in a northern suburb of Moscow for a rock concert when, minutes before the music was due to start, armed attackers opened fire.

They also set the hall alight, starting a blaze that spread throughout the building. 

Panicked spectators rushed for the exits, with some escaping into the basement or onto the roof. 

“The images from Moscow tonight are horrifying,” France’s foreign ministry wrote in a social media post as the attack unfolded.

“All effort has to be made to determine the causes of these heinous acts.”

Eleven arrested

A statement released by the Islamic State group claimed responsibility, but Russia did not immediately identify who it believes is to blame.

The Kremlin said on Saturday that it had arrested 11 people over the attack, including four suspected gunmen.

It did not name them. Russia’s FSB security service said that the perpetrators had “contacts” in Ukraine and were trying to flee there, according to reports by state news agencies.

The European Union and United Nations condemned the attack, along with the United States and other Western countries that – like France – have sided with Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion.

The White House deplored the “horrible” events, but said there was no sign of Ukrainian involvement.

  • France’s Macron says ground operations in Ukraine possible ‘at some point’
  • Paris rejects Russian accusations of French mercenaries in Ukraine

Rising death toll

The US embassy had said two weeks before the attack that there was a risk of “extremists” targeting mass gatherings in Moscow, including concerts.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities announced that six suspected Islamic State fighters had been killed in an operation in Ingushetia, a small Muslim-majority republic in the Caucasus region.

Russia has been the target of past attacks by Islamic militants, but also mass killings with no clear political link.

Russian authorities on Saturday raised the death toll from the Moscow shooting several times. First estimated around 40, it climbed to 60 and then to 93 – making the attack the deadliest in Russia in two decades.

Authorities said another 115 people were in hospital, more than half of them in serious condition. At least five children are reported to be among the wounded.

(with AFP)


UN weather agency marks anniversary with dire warning about heating planet

Stark climate warnings come ahead of this year’s World Meteorological Day, observed on Saturday, with the UN’s weather agency confirming that global temperatures had “smashed” heat records in 2023 – raising ocean temperatures and melting glaciers faster than before. Even hotter conditions are expected for the year ahead.

An annual event, World Meteorological Day seeks to raise awareness about the importance of weather and climate-related issues. It commemorates the establishment of the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation in 1950.

This year the WMO’s State of the Climate report confirmed preliminary data showing that 2023 was by far the hottest year ever recorded. It also caps off the warmest 10-year period on record.

WMO climate monitoring chief Omar Baddour said there was a high probability that 2024 would in turn break the record set in 2023.

The report showed “a planet on the brink”, said UN chief Antonio Guterres.

“Earth is issuing a distress call,” he said in a video message, warning that “fossil fuel pollution is sending climate chaos off the charts” and “changes are speeding up”.

The WMO said that last year the average near-surface temperature was 1.45C above pre-industrial levels – dangerously close to the critical 1.5C threshold that countries agreed to avoid crossing in the 2015 Paris climate accords.

‘Red alert’

“I am now sounding the red alert about the state of the climate,” stressed Celeste Saulo, WMO secretary-general. “2023 set new records for every single climate indicator.”

The organisation said many of the records were “smashed” and that the numbers “gave ominous new significance to the phrase ‘off the charts'”.

“What we witnessed in 2023, especially with the unprecedented ocean warmth, glacier retreat and Antarctic sea ice loss, is cause for particular concern,” Saulo said.

One especially worrying finding was that marine heatwaves gripped nearly a third of the global ocean on an average day last year.

By the end of 2023, more than 90 percent of the ocean had experienced heatwave conditions at some point during the year.

  • Europe unprepared for ‘catastrophic’ climate risks: EU agency

Impacts on oceans

More frequent and intense marine heatwaves will have “profound negative repercussions for marine ecosystems and coral reefs”, it warned. 

Meanwhile key glaciers worldwide suffered the largest loss of ice since records began in 1950, “driven by extreme melt in both western North America and Europe”.

In Switzerland, where the WMO is based, Alpine glaciers lost 10 percent of their remaining volume in the past two years alone, it said.

Antarctic sea was also “by far the lowest on record”.

  • Almost zero snowfall in February a record low for French Alps

Rising sea levels

Ocean warming and the rapidly melting glaciers and ice sheets have raised sea levels to their highest point since satellite records began in 1993.

The global mean sea level rise over the past decade is more than double the rate in the first decade of satellite records. 

The dramatic climate shifts are taking a heavy toll worldwide, fuelling extreme weather events, flooding and drought, which trigger displacement and drive up biodiversity loss and food insecurity.

“The climate crisis is the defining challenge that humanity faces and is closely intertwined with the inequality crisis,” Saulo said.

  • Hottest January on record as 1.5C limit breached for 12 months straight

‘Glimmer of hope’

The WMO did highlight one “glimmer of hope”: surging renewable energy generation.

Last year renewable energy generation capacity, mainly from solar, wind and hydropower, increased by nearly 50 percent over 2022.

The report sparked a flood of reactions and calls for urgent action.

And while the cost of climate action might seem high, Saulo said the cost of climate inaction was much higher.

“The worst thing would be to do nothing,” she said.

Guterres also emphasised that there was still time to avoid the worst of climate chaos. But he warned: “Leaders must step up and act – now.”

(with newswires)


Four years on, what has France learned from its first Covid lockdown?

In spring 2020, France shut down schools and businesses as the world faced a mysterious new illness – Covid-19. The first of three lockdowns was imposed – but why did people accept strict limits on movement in a country that is so used to protests and debates?

Starting 17 March 2020, people in France were not allowed outside for 55 days. 

After shuttering schools, restaurants and other businesses, the French government imposed its first strict lockdown to contain the spread of Covid.

The population was required to present certificates whenever they left home. They were permitted a maximum of one hour outside for shopping or exercising, and only those working “essential” jobs could travel further than a kilometre.

And for the most part, people followed the rules.

Nicolas Moriot, a historian who has co-written a book about the lockdown, describes it as an “act of mass obedience”.

Listen to this story on the Spotlight on France podcast

Based on a survey of 16,000 people, he found that 80 percent of people stuck to lockdown rules – not necessarily to avoid Covid, but because they were put off by the potential for run-ins with the police and a €135 fine for off-limits outings.

A quarter of those surveyed said they followed restrictions on movement but not health recommendations, like staying a metre apart and washing hands.

“So you cannot say their fear of the virus was very high,” Moriot concludes.

Lack of public debate

He compares France with northern European countries, which closed businesses but did not impose full lockdowns. France’s reaction, he says, comes from its history of reacting to societal issues with security measures.

“You can say that it’s a question of habit for the government to put in place things like certificates and restrictions on public freedom,” he said.

While debate in France emerged over health passes, vaccines and later lockdown measures, very few people protested initial restrictions in the spring of 2020 – which Mariot attributes to the fact that there was little opportunity to organise, or even exchange.

“Associations, unions and political parties were shut down, as well as social and athletic gatherings. All that was completely cancelled. And this is the way French people shape their political opposition,” he explains.

“As a result, individual citizens found themselves alone. We were in a direct relationship with the state, and I think that played a fundamental role in the fact that there was not much opposition.”

Worrying precedent? 

Four years later, it is clear that lockdowns impacted mental health, notably for young people and students. Studies showed an increase in depression and anxiety during the first lockdown, growing with subsequent lockdowns and restrictions.

But there has been little reflection about lockdowns and their longer-term impacts on society, with relatively few questions about the measures themselves and the powers they gave to the state.

Police carried out 21 million checks during the first lockdown and issued 1.1 million fines.

Moriot is surprised that no one has questioned these penalties.

“What happened to them? Did people pay them? We know nothing,” he said.

In May 2023, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that their Covid lockdown was unconstitutional and annulled the 1.2 million fines handed out.

Though France’s constitutional court ruled on the vaccine passes used to access public venues later in the pandemic – judging that they were constitutional so long as it was temporary – they were never asked to pronounce on the lockdown and the fines.

French lawmakers questioned ministers in parliamentary committees, but focused more on mask availability than the lockdown itself.

“There was no public discussion or debate or questioning,” said Moriot. “It’s surprising and quite worrying for the future.”

More on this story on the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 108.

Senegal elections

Senegal’s economy ‘in hands of women’ warns female presidential hopeful

With promises of boosting the economy and gender equality, business leader Anta Babacar Ngom is the only woman vying for the Senegalese presidency in this Sunday’s polls. She told RFI that while hard-working women play a vital role in all sectors of the workforce, they’re given little opportunity to thrive.

Six women were originally among the 93 presidential hopefuls in the West African nation’s 2024 presidential election.

But only two made the final list approved by the Constitutional Council: Ngom and Rose Wardini, whose candidacy was later dropped because she has French citizenship.

A successful businesswoman in her own right, Ngom is the daughter of Senegalese businessman Babacar Ngom. From 2016, she’s been the CEO of Sedima, a major poultry company in Senegal.

But since she decided to run for office, the 40-year-old has also become a voice for women and young people – two demographics hit hard by the country’s economic crisis, high unemployment and inflation.

Ngom’s main promises are to create five million jobs in a multitude of sectors including agriculture, farming, tourism, healthcare and the arts.

She also wants to establish a bank to support women’s financial independence.

As a mother, healthcare – and especially birthcare – is a top priority for Ngom.

The health sector “definitely needs reforms” she says, adding: “I dream of a form of ‘Obamacare‘ for Senegalese people and I think it’s doable.”

Her experience throughout the campaign has been far from easy, having been arrested during protests. But activists reckon her presence is already helping to advance the fight for gender equality.

Empowering women

“As the only female presidential candidate, I represent Senegalese women,” she has said on numerous occasions.

Senegal has a higher level of women MPs than most African and even some Western countries: 46 percent according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That compares with 36 percent in France

Yet, for Ngom, the representation of women in politics is below that of their real role in society. They are accepted “as long as they limit themselves to the position of prime minister”.

In 1963 Caroline Faye Diop became the first woman MP, before going on to become the first woman minister in 1978. 

Aminata Touré was the second woman to serve as prime minister – from September 2013 to July 2014.

Although in Senegal, prime ministers have a significantly smaller role than presidents.

In the 2019 presidential election, there were no female candidates, Ngom recalls.

  • Former PMs and a lone woman among contenders in Senegal’s crisis-hit vote
  • Changing the mentality of abuse towards pregnant women in health car

“And that didn’t bother anybody,” she says – adding that the two women who contested the 2012 polls took “zero-something” percent of the vote.

“In Senegal, this is the first time a woman is actually being taken seriously. It’s a shock to me.”

Senegalese women work hard in every sector, Ngom says, adding: “The economy is in the hands of women. They work hard and are very courageous. Their only problem is that they are very limited.”  

She hopes that her candidacy will mark a change, and that more women will be encouraged to get into politics.

“No matter the result, I want to give hope to them and to show the way.” The main question, she adds, is: “Can a woman be president in Senegal?”

Ngom is confident she’ll reach the second round, set for 31 March.


Flamboyant former culture minister and bad boy Frédéric Mitterrand dies age 76

Former culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, a high-profile and sometimes controversial figure on France’s arts scene, died on Thursday in Paris at the age of 76 after several months battling cancer. 

Mitterrand was the nephew of former Socialist president François Mitterrand, but his own foray into politics was short and not so sweet.

He served as culture minister from 2019 to 2012 under Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government, having come to Sarkozy’s attention while head of the Villa Medici – the French Academy in Rome – in 2008.

During his time in office Mitterrand defended a contested law on controlling the downloading of cultural works on the internet, and he laid the first stones of the Mucem museum of civilisation in Marseille as well as the Philharmonie in Paris.

Fragments of a wall painting from the tomb of an Egyptian prince kept in Le Louvre museum were returned to Egypt under his watch, while he also supported the return of Maori skulls to New Zealand.

  • France gives Maori heads back to New Zealand

Sarkozy was among the first to pay tribute to a “profoundly cultivated and sensitive man, singular, endearing, unclassifiable”.

Sarkozy wrote on X: “He was an enthusiastic and passionate minister for culture, carrying out his functions with panache and talent.”

Mitterrand’s films, books and programmes would remain “as testimonies for his love of art and culture”, Sarkozy added.

Mitterrand wrote about his three years in office in the diary-based La Récreation (The Recreation), published 2013, in which his sexual impulses were every bit as important as cultural events.

Stars and Screens

Born in Paris on 21 August, 1947 into a well-to-do family, Mitterrand studied political science at university. But his passion for the arts and cinema in particular took him on another path.

In 1971, aged just 22, he managed to find the funding to take over the L’Olympic movie theatre in Paris. Devoted largely to arthouse cinema, the venue became renowned for showing the works of major filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.

For more than a decade it became a go-to place for cinephiles, drag queens and the occasional film star or director. But financial mismanagement put an end to the adventure in 1986.

As a director, Mitterrand made his debut film From Somalia With Love in 1981, and in 1995 he won acclaim adapting the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly into a musical.

He later moved over to television and developed an inimitable style as host and producer of a number of cinema-themed shows such as Etoiles et Toiles (Stars and Screens) and the cult Du Côté de Chez Fred (Fred’s Way).

A Bad Life

Mitterrand was one of France’s first openly gay public figures and ministers, referring to himself as the “faggot nephew”.

He made a very public coming out in his 2005 loosely autobiographical novel La Mauvaise Vie (A Bad Life) in which the narrator referred to paying for sex with boys in the brothels of Bangkok.

The book sold more than 200,000 copies and caused little debate at the time, but a few months after joining the government in 2009 the far right seized on it.

Despite calls for his resignation, Mitterrand hung on to his post. He made a public statement admitting to paying for sex with men, but denied they were underage. He also dismissed claims that the book justified sex tourism.

Mitterrand had also come under criticism for his unwavering support for filmmaker Roman Polanski, who was found guilty by the US courts of raping a minor in 1977.

A number of social media posts on Friday were critical of tributes to Mitterrand, citing the passage in his book where he refers to feeling excited over “the ready availability of so many attractive young boys”. 

“Paying tribute to a man of culture who has marked our era should not make us blind, or make us forget, what he admitted to in his book A Bad Life: his abuse of children,” wrote #MeTooMedia on X. 

Ukraine crisis

French military chief backs Macron over possibility of sending troops to Ukraine

Russia should not expect the West to limit its support for Ukraine to supplying arms, says the chief of staff of France’s armed forces, General Thierry Burkhard. His words echo President Emmanuel Macron’s recent controversial suggestion that a military intervention could not be ruled out.

“The war will end when Russia stops attacking,” Burkhard told reporters on Thursday following talks in Paris with General Micael Byden – the armed forces chief of new NATO member Sweden.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had built his operation, he added, on the idea that the West would never go into Ukraine but simply supply arms.

“We have to show him that he will not be able to use this logic to go all the way, because this idea is not right,” Burkhard said as he urged Europe to be prepared to take risks.

“The war in Ukraine affects us because we are impacted by its consequences. Europeans must therefore be capable of taking risks to ensure the security of Europe in the decade to come.”

Smashing taboos

Burkhard’s comments come after Macron recently smashed a major taboo by floating the possibility of sending Western troops to Ukraine.

While a number of EU states flatly rejected the idea, Macron has refused to back down, insisting his words were well thought through, and stressing that France would not follow the “logic of escalation” with Moscow.

“The president’s intention is to make Vladimir Putin understand that we are aware of what is at stake in Ukraine,” Burkhard said.

  • EU leaders reject Macron’s suggestion that sending troops to Ukraine is possible
  • EU must defend Ukraine, Macron says during state visit to Sweden

‘Prepare for war’

While Germany and central European countries say they will not send forces to Ukraine, France has found an ally in Sweden.

Faced with an increasingly belligerent Russia, Sweden’s army chief Byden in January urged his country to “mentally prepare for war”.

Sweden’s military has been boosting its preparedness since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The country reintroduced limited conscription in 2017, and dropped two centuries of military non-alignment to join NATO in March.

“We have a war raging in Europe; we cannot let this become a normality,” Byden said. “Sweden is ready to shoulder its responsibilities, deterrence and defence.”

France and Sweden regularly conduct joint military exercises, while the Nordic nation also took part in the French-led Takuba task force of EU special forces in Mali.

Following Macron’s visit to Sweden in January, the two countries reportedly plan to ramp up military cooperation, including in the Arctic region.

(with newswires)


Tiger mosquitoes now everywhere in France after spreading to Normandy

Health authorities in the northern region of Normandy have recorded the presence of tiger mosquitoes – an invasive species that is now ubiquitous in mainland France. The biting insects, native to Asia, can carry viruses including dengue, Zika and chikungunya.

The discovery comes from the results of fieldwork conducted in the Seine-Maritime department in September 2023, which shows the northward progression of the mosquito in France.

“Normandy had until now been the last mainland French region in which the mosquito had not settled,” Normandy’s regional health agency said on Tuesday.

The presence of Aedes albopictus was first recorded in France in 2004, and has since spread throughout the country. The mosquitoes were present in 71 of the country’s 101 departments as of 1 January 2023, according to the French health ministry.

Originally from tropical rainforests in south-east Asia, tiger mosquitoes have been able to survive in France and northern Europe as temperatures have warmed, with winters no longer cold enough to kill them off.

The Normandy health agency advised taking practical steps to stop the mosquitoes breeding, notably removing anything that could contain stagnant water, where the insects lay eggs, and clearing out gutters and pipes.

While there have been no recorded cases of anyone getting ill from a tiger mosquito bite in Normandy, authorities urge people to see a doctor if they have symptoms such as muscle or joint pain, headaches or a rash after visiting the region.


After a lull during Covid, France sees rise in tuberculosis cases

A report published by France’s health body shows that tuberculosis – although at a low level – saw a rebound in cases in 2023. The uptick coincides with the arrival of refugees from Ukraine in 2022.

According to a study published Tuesday by Public Health France (Santé Publique France), there were 5,114 cases of tuberculosis recorded in 2019 – the year before the Covid pandemic.

The findings were published in the agency’s weekly bulletin ahead of World Tuberculosis Day on 24 March.

The study said there was a “sharp decrease” in cases from 2020 and in the subsequent two years. Then 2023 saw “a change in trend”, with the number of cases rising.

There were 4,728 cases declared, probably linked to “a catch-up in diagnosed cases”, the authors of the study said.

Transmitted by air, tuberculosis (TB) is a highly contagious bacterial infection most often affecting the lungs. It can also spread to the brain.

Recently surpassed by Covid-19 as the leading cause of death from infection in the world, tuberculosis continues to be problematic despite vaccines and antibiotics.

The vaccine is recommended in France, but not mandatory, with fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Refugee screening

Although there has been a regular decline in declared cases (a decline of around 5 percent per year for the last 50 years), there can be sudden spikes in numbers linked to external events, the study points out.

The war in Ukraine, for example, caused a significant movement of refugees towards western Europe, contributing to a rise in tuberculosis.

France has implemented active tuberculosis screening for certain refugees coming from Ukraine, one of the countries with the highest number of cases in Europe.

  • Unicef says 67 million children missed routine vaccinations because of Covid

However, the public health agency reported that fewer than 10 percent of the 118,000 displaced people in France were screened by anti-tuberculosis centers in 2022.

Public Health France estimates the prevalence of cases among displaced people is at 197 per 100,000.

In 2022, doctors also noted an increase in cases of tuberculosis that resisted treatment by antibiotics after the arrival of cases from Ukraine and Georgia.

According to the World Health Organization, a total of 1.3 million people died from TB in 2022 (including 167,000 people with HIV).

Ending the TB epidemic by 2030 is among the health targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Spotlight on Africa

The long path to Senegal’s troubled presidential elections

Issued on:

This is a big election year for Africa, with 16 countries heading to the polls. Close attention is being paid to the delayed presidential vote in Senegal – a West African beacon of democracy that’s been facing increasing instability. RFI spoke to author and economist Ndongo Samba Sylla in the capital Dakar. 

RFI is renewing its Spotlight on Africa podcast, and the first episode zeroes in on one of the continent’s biggest news stories.

Senegal was plunged into political crisis when President Macky Sall unexpectedly postponed elections that had been due to take place by the end of February.

Protests erupted from those supporting opposition candidates, as well as from all corners of civil society. The polls were finally rescheduled for 24 March.

Voters say they’re worried about unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people – many of whom are quitting the country in search of a better life elsewhere.

Ndongo Samba Sylla helps us to better understand where the unrest has taken the heaviest toll – and what’s really at stake in Sunday’s election.

Also read:

  • Senegal sets March date for delayed presidential election
  • Senegal president calls off February 25 election



Episode mixed by Guillaume Buffet. 

Spotlight on Africa is a podcast from Radio France Internationale. 

Cannes Film Festival 2024

Cannes Film Festival promises fiery premiere for latest Mad Max

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, the latest instalment of the post-apocalyptic franchise by Australian director George Miller, will get its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on 15 May, organisers have said.  

The fifth film in the series stars Anya Taylor-Joy (of Netflix The Queen’s Gambit fame) as Furiosa – a character played by Charlize Theron in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which also premiered at Cannes that year.

It returns to the origins of Furiosa, trying to return home, despite numerous hostile armed gangs.

She stars alongside Chris Hemsworth as the villain, Warlord Dementus, and Tom Burke.

“The idea of this prequel has been with me for over a decade,” said George Miller of the film, which is playing out-of-competition at Cannes.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled to return to the Festival de Cannes – along with Anya, Chris and Tom – to share Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga. There is no better place than La Croisette to experience this film with audiences on the world stage.”

It all began with an ultra-low-budget action film in 1979 that also launched the career of Mel Gibson, about a near-future Australia facing societal collapse and oil shortages.

There were two sequels starring Gibson in the 1980s, before the franchise returned in 2015 with Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy that won six Academy Awards.

Throughout his career, Miller has constantly experimented with a variety of genres and was president of the Cannes jury in 2016 when Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake won the Palme d’or.

In 1983, along with John Landis, Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante, he directed the final segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Then came The Witches of Eastwick in 1987 and the intimate drama Lorenzo’s Oil in 1992, starring Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte.

Miller has also directed children’s hits like Babe and Happy Feet, as well as the mythological tale Three Thousand Years of Longing, with Tilda Swinton and Idriss Elba, which debuted at Cannes in 2022.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from 14-25 May, with Greta Gerwig as the head of its jury.

The full line-up is due to be announced on 11 April.

(with AFP)


EU leaders agree to open membership talks with Bosnia

Brussels (AFP) – Brussels, Belgium, March 21, 2024 (AFP) – EU leaders on Thursday agreed to open talks with Bosnia on joining the bloc, though negotiations will only begin in earnest once the Balkan country has passed more key reforms.

“Congratulations! Your place is in our European family. Today’s decision is a key step forward on your EU path,” European Council head Charles Michel wrote on X, as leaders met at a Brussels summit.

“Now the hard work needs to continue so Bosnia and Herzegovina steadily advances, as your people want.”

Bosnia has been an official candidate for membership since 2022 but needed to implement a string of reforms before getting the green light on progressing to the next stage.

Brussels last week said the country had completed some of the steps required, but outstanding judicial and electoral reforms remain.

  • EU leaders to consider using profits from Russian assets to arm Ukraine

War a catalyst

Russia’s war on Ukraine has reinvigorated the EU’s drive to enlarge in eastern and central Europe, with its current member states agreeing in December to start talks on joining with Ukraine and Moldova.

The drive for new members is part of an effort to push back against Russian and Chinese influence in the EU’s backyard.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz posted his congratulations for Bosnia on X and said it was “a clear sign in favour of a strong Europe”.

Italy’s government also hailed the “historic decision” and said it sent a clear signal to the Balkan nations looking to join the bloc. 

Launching negotiations only puts Bosnia at the start of a long process of further painstaking reforms that usually last for many years before a country finally joins the EU. 

Bosnia’s regional neighbours North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania are already ahead in their efforts to join, but all remain far from membership. 

  • The €136bn price tag on Ukraine’s path to joining the EU

‘Fully aligned’

Von der Leyen said Bosnia was now “fully aligned” with the EU’s foreign and security policy, was improving its management of migration flows, and adopting laws to combat both money laundering and terrorist financing.

She welcomed its agreement to include in domestic criminal records the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

And she noted further steps towards dialogue and reconciliation in the wake of the country’s 1992-1995 war, with the creation of a new peace-building committee.

At the same time as they gave the thumbs up to Bosnia, the EU leaders urged Brussels to move ahead “swiftly” towards the next step of starting talks with Ukraine and Moldova. 


French Senate rejects EU-Canada free trade agreement

French senators have voted by a large majority against the ratification of the free trade deal between the European Union and Canada known as Ceta. In a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron, the rejection follows weeks of protests by farmers opposed to such liberal trade policies.

In a closely watched ballot on Thursday, 211 senators opposed the ratification of the free-trade deal while 44 voted in favour.

The no vote came after left and right-wing opposition parties teamed up in an unusual alliance to scupper the deal.

Free-trade deals, a symbol of the EU’s will to open up markets and boost competition, have become the target of fierce criticism across the political spectrum since farmers in France and other EU countries protested against what they see as unfair competition from abroad.

French farmers, who have pressured the government to obtain more aid, have been spearheading the fight against international free-trade deals and Ceta in particular, saying it favours Canadian rivals whose environmental standards are less stringent.

Interbev, the lobby of French cattle farmers and meat processors, welcomed the vote.

“Interbev now counts on the National Assembly to definitely reject this harmful deal for the industry of cattle and meat and the consumers,” it said in a statement sent after the vote.

The leftist Confederation Paysanne farmers’ union described the vote as a victory, saying the agreement “accentuates the race for volumes, with no tangible return to producers”.

But the federation of exporters of French wines and spirits (FEVS) expressed dismay.

The “totally surrealist” vote was a “real blow to all of the wine and spirits sector” said FEVS’ delegate general.  

  • Trudeau, Macron defend Ceta free-trade deal in Paris

  • French parliament approves EU-Canada trade deal despite opposition

A ‘bad signal’

Macron is an advocate of free trade policies and his centrist parliamentary allies managed to get Ceta approved by a slim margin in the National Assembly lower house in 2019, but it needed the backing of the Senate upper house for ratification.

The rejection by the Senate – where the government no longer has an absolute majority – means the bill now goes back to the National Assembly.

The trade deal, sealed in 2014, ratified in 2017 by the European Parliament is aimed at suppressing tariffs on 98 percent of goods between the EU and Canada.

While it has been in force provisionally since 2017, it requires ratification in all EU member states to take full effect. Ten countries have not yet ratified it.

French Trade Minister Franck Riester said farmers like wine and cheese producers – France’s top export productions – would benefit from the deal.

“Today is a very bad day for our economy, for our business, for our exporters, for our farmers,” Reister told senators after the vote.

“You are sending a very bad signal to our exporters, to our farmers and to Canada,” he said.


Stamping out misinformation in France’s fight against HIV-Aids

The French non-profit Sidaction on Friday launches its three-day annual fundraiser for HIV-Aids research – warning that although treatments have progressed in France, the “fight must go on”. A key challenge is stamping out misconceived ideas of the disease among young people.

Thanks to continuous treatments, people can live with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (Aids) even though a cure still hasn’t been found.

Sidaction president Françoise Barré-Sinoussi – who co-discovered the HIV virus in the early 1980s and won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008 – said a collective effort was needed so that ultimate goal remains clear.

Co-founded in 1994 by Pierre Bergé and Line Renaud, Sidaction has been raising money for scientific research in France, and supports around 35 organisations abroad.

Some 200,000 people live with HIV in France, where 5,000 new HIV positive cases were diagnosed in 2022. Fourteen percent were in people aged under 25, while 22 percent were people aged over 50.

Of the total cases, 28 percent were at an advanced stage of the disease.

“Progress still needs to be made for prevention, screening or access to treatments – even in France,” Barré-Sinoussi told French news agency AFP.

Complications for older patients

Although triple therapy treatments make the virus undetectable and prevent its transmission, scientists still don’t know how to eliminate it from the body, she added.

Scientists are working on treatments to allow a long-term remission of virus carriers and to avoid medical complications such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer in people ageing with HIV.

Informing the population also remains crucial to fight recurring misconceptions, Sidaction said.

According to an Ifop survey published at the end of November, prejudice and discrimination are on the rise in France.

For example, 30 percent of people aged 15-24 believe the virus can be transmitted by kissing someone with HIV. That’s 15 percent more than in 2015.

  • Paris prepares for Olympic romance with 220,000 free condoms

“Sexual education in schools does not live up to what the law provides,” Barré-Fitoussi said, referring to a 2001 law that critics say needs to be better implemented.

According to the law, schools are required to organise three annual education sessions on sexuality from primary to high school.

But a report published in July 2021 by the General Inspectorate of Education, Sport and Research (IGESR) revealed that only 20 percent of primary school students and 14 percent of high school students had completed the course.

Sidaction, alongside other non-profit groups, filed a joint legal complaint in 2023, saying the state had failed to meet its obligations.

Tackling sexual violence

For Valérie Bourdin, director of an Aids awareness organisation in Lyon, the fight against sexual violence is a crucial issue and goes hand in hand with the goal of eradicating HIV-Aids.

In 2021 sexual violence increased by 33 percent, Sidaction found, while in 2022 one in five women aged 18 to 24 said they had been raped or sexually assaulted.

Whether it is linked to gender or sexual identity, the more society allows discrimination, the harder the fight against HIV becomes, Bourdin said.

  • Tale of how French experts became the first to discover HIV virus

The number of young people admitting to having unprotected sex has gone up, she added.

“That’s why testing for the disease is also extremely important.”

Forty years after its discovery, Aids still scares people – something that can discourage screening.

According to the Ifop survey, 31 percent of 15-24 year olds said they would refuse to talk to those around them about their HIV status. Of those, 41 percent would refuse to do so out of shame.

More than a quarter of young people think that an HIV-positive person on treatment could represent a danger to others.

Fragile progress

The rise of social networks further fuels misinformation Bourdin said, adding that reinforcing education programmes in schools would vastly improve the situation.

While progress has been made in many countries in Africa over the past three decades, the biggest rise in cases has been reported in eastern Europe and central Asia – which have seen a 49 percent spike since 2010.

Barré-Sinoussi said developed countries such as Canada had also seen a rise in HIV infections.

“We must remain vigilant because progress is fragile,” she added.

EU – China

China’s president to visit France in attempt to repair trust with EU

Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit France and Italy in May in a bid to improve faltering relations with the European Union, which are impacting EU trade with the world’s second-largest economy. Analysts say European companies in China are facing more uncertain business conditions, forcing them to devote more resources to managing ballooning risks.

Trade will be high on the agenda when French President Emmanuel Macron meets his Chinese counterpart in Paris in May, diplomatic sources say.

It will be Xi’s first Europe trip in five years amid mounting EU-China tensions. It comes after Macron visited China in April last year.

During that trip, Macron took a softer line with Beijing compared to his EU partners, suggesting in one controversial interview that Brussels should interfere less in Chinese policy.

France is increasingly wary of Beijing’s growing assertiveness, especially in the Pacific, where Paris has its own interests in the shape of its overseas territories New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia. Its 2023 Indo-Pacific Strategy warns against “China’s increasing power and territorial claims” in the region.

But Macron’s remarks diverged from the general EU line that China is a “systemic rival“.

Impact on business

In recent years, the relationship with the EU has worsened over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, its imposition of the draconic national security law in Hong Kong, and growing EU criticism of Beijing’s human rights record, especially on minorities like Tibetans and Uyghurs.

They are the most visible targets of an omnipresent surveillance state that infringes on the privacy of virtually everybody residing within Chinese borders.

Foreign businesses are feeling the effects too. In a report released this week, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China urged the country’s leaders to address risks that have “grown exponentially” in recent years.

“This report comes at a time when the global business environment is becoming increasingly politicised, and companies are having to make some very tough decisions about how, or in some cases if, they can continue to engage with the Chinese market,” it says.

The study echoes concerns raised by European and US companies operating in China. Foreign investment fell 8 percent last year as companies recalibrated their commitments in the world’s second-largest economy.

EU business chamber officials said China’s changing business environment partly reflects moves by Beijing to minimise risks due to trade barriers and dependence on imports of key commodities or industrial products.

That’s especially the case given trade friction with Washington and discussions about “decoupling” supply chains from China after the disruptions that occurred during the Covid pandemic.

But they said European companies also must manage their own risks.

  • China and the EU in tense stand-off on human rights and sanctions
  • EU puts massive China investment deal on hold

Hope for common ground?

China has sought to emphasise its openness to foreign companies and investment.

Its cabinet, the State Council, on Tuesday issued an action plan to promote foreign investment – especially in high-tech areas favoured for growth, such as computer chips, biopharmaceuticals and advanced equipment.

It promised tariff exemptions and called for an end to discriminatory practices against foreign companies.

But other actions have run counter to that spirit of openness. Raids on foreign businesses in China, unclear state secrets laws and tightening rules for data handling have generated unease among many foreign businesspeople in the country.

“The number and severity of risks companies find themselves having to navigate has grown exponentially in recent years,” Jens Eskelund, president of the EU business chamber in China, told reporters in a briefing before the report’s release.

At the same time, Beijing has not addressed many of the issues raised by foreign businesses, among them access to government procurement contracts, which are vital given the role of state-owned companies in the economy.

Eskelund called on China to restore predictability to the regulatory environment.

“Predictability was one of the main things that made China so enormously attractive,” he said. “We might not like everything we saw but we knew what we got.”

He said the report’s purpose was to bring the debate over de-risking and national security down to specific industries and commodities, so that the various sides weren’t just arguing over abstract concepts.

“We want to find common ground,” he said. “We want to work with China on these issues. We want to work with Europe on these issues.”

Xi’s visit to France in two months’ time may help break the ice.

It comes as China and France celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations – often rocky – and both parties have indicated that they want to steer into less turbulent waters.

(with AP)


French schools sent threatening messages and beheading videos, says ministry

Paris (AFP) – At least 30 schools in the Paris region have this week received threatening messages accompanied by “shocking” footage of beheadings, the education ministry said on Thursday.

The establishments – mainly secondary schools – have received “serious threats” containing “justification of and incitement to terrorism”, a representative of the education ministry told AFP.

The messages came through the ENT digital platform that serves as a link between teachers, pupils and parents; internal emails; or the Pronote software used by the education ministry. 

‘Shocking videos’

Investigators were working to “identify the perpetrators”, said the ministry, adding that psychological support had been offered to children or adults who had watched the “shocking videos”. 

According to a police source, at least five high schools in the department of Yvelines, in the west of the greater Paris region, received bomb threats between Wednesday and Thursday. 

Perpetrators “hacked a student’s email address” in order to distribute the message and a beheading video, the source said.

  • ‘Best weapon’ against terrorism is education, says French PM
  • French town tests controversial school uniforms

In the department of Seine-et-Marne, to the east of the French capital, a secondary school received a message saying that explosives had been hidden throughout the establishment “in the name of Allah”, a police source said. 

The latest threats follow a flurry of false bomb alerts targeted schools, airport and tourist sites in autumn 2023.

In October, a radicalised Islamist stabbed a former teacher to death in the northern town of Arras.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal was set to chair a meeting on school security on Thursday.



Former PMs and a lone woman among contenders in Senegal’s crisis-hit vote

Following a hurried two weeks of campaigning, Senegal’s delayed presidential election is set for this Sunday – with more than 7 million people registered to vote for a record 20 then 17 candidates.

Voters will head out to more than 16,000 polling stations across the West African country and its diaspora. Ballots will be counted after voting ends at 6pm. 

Vote tallies will be sent to the Constitutional Council, and then the National Election Commission will announce provisional results by the evening or early Monday morning.

Majority and opposition

Election coverage has highlighted polarisation between two main camps – the first led by the former prime minister Amadou Ba.

Born in Dakar in 1961, Ba studied in Paris and the US and returned to Senegal to work in higher administration. Named economy minister by President Macky Sall in 2013, the wealthy individual was prime minister until the campaign was launched earlier this month.

The second dominant camp is a coalition brought together by Ousmane Sonko – former mayor of Ziguinchor in Casamance – and his official candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye.


Seventeen other candidates have also been running, two leaving the race in recent weeks.

Habib Sy and Cheikh Tidiane Dieye have been defending Bassirou’s programme, with the latter even abandoning the race on Wednesday to support Faye fully. Sy did the same on Thursday.

  • Senegal’s Sonko takes election campaign to the south

Fifteen other are now left in the race.

Among these other candidates, more than three were previously in charge of a government, many close to the former prime minister. Only one candidate is a woman.

Observers believe that Senegal is heading towards a second round, as it will be hard for any contenders to achieve 51 percent on 24 March.

Three former prime ministers 

Veteran politician Idrissa Seck, 64, served as prime minister from 2002 to 2004 in the Senegalese Democratic Party under former President Abdoulaye Wade.

He was sacked over embezzlement allegations in 2005 and spent some months in jail before his case was dismissed.

In 2006, he founded his own party and challenged Wade in 2007, finishing second. He ran again in 2012 but did not make it to the second round.

He placed second in the 2019 presidential race with 21 percent of the vote, after which his Rewmi party joined the ruling United in Hope (BBY) coalition with Sall. He served as head of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council from November 2020 until April 2023.

Aly Ngouille Ndiaye, 59, is a former close ally of Sall and was a top BBY member.

He left the coalition, resigned as minister and launched his own bid after Ba was selected as the BBY candidate.

Ndiaye is the mayor of Linguere, a town in north Senegal. A civil engineer and former bank executive, he served as energy and interior minister before taking over the agriculture portfolio.

Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, 64, was Sall’s third prime minister from 2014 to 2019. He was seen as one of the frontrunners in the race to succeed Sall within the BBY coalition.

An early supporter and ally of Sall before he became president, Dionne held several positions during Sall’s two terms in office, including chief of staff at the president’s office.

He announced his candidacy in September 2023 and launched his own coalition days after Sall selected Ba as the candidate for the ruling coalition.

Former Dakar mayor 

Sall, 68, served as mayor of Dakar from 2009 to 2018.

Unrelated to President Sall, he is, on the contrary, one of his chief political rivals.

Arrested in March 2017 on suspicion of stealing about $3 million in public funds, he was sentenced to five years in 2018, preventing him from contesting the February 2019 presidential election.

Sall pardoned him in September that year, opening the way for him to run again in an election.

According to analysts, he stands a high chance among voters who want to get rid of the current majority but have no faith in Sonko’s opposition coalition. 

One woman only

Entrepreneur and political newcomer Anta Babacar Ngom, 39, launched the Alternative for the Next Generation of Citizens political movement in August 2023.

Daughter of the founding president of Sedima, a leading poultry production group in the West and Central Africa region which operates Senegal’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, Ngom was, until recently, executive director of the company.

At least one outsider

Papa Djibril Fall is also running in the presidential election for the first time as an independent candidate.

Originally from Thiadiaye, a journalist and communications consultant, he graduated from the leading journalism school of Dakar, the Center for the Study of Information Sciences and Techniques, in 2014.

He has worked as a former columnist on 2sTV and Radio TFM, then was elected member of The National Assembly during the parliamentary elections of July 2022 in Senegal.

(with newswires)

The Sound Kitchen

There’s Music in the Kitchen, No 34

Issued on:

This week on The Sound Kitchen, a special treat: RFI English listeners’ musical requests. Just click on the “Play” button above and enjoy!

Hello everyone! Welcome to The Sound Kitchen weekly podcast, published every Saturday. This week, you’ll hear musical requests from your fellow listeners Bidhan Chandra Sanyal from West Bengal, India, Helmut Matt from Herbolzheim, Germany, and Jayanta Chakrabarty from New Delhi, India.

Be sure you send in your music requests! Write to me at  thesoundkitchen@rfi.fr

Here’s the music you heard on this week’s program: “Aaj Na Chhodenge” by Rahul Dev Burman, sung by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar; Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer, and “Sun is Shining” by Bob Marley, performed by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

The quiz will be back next Saturday, 30 March. Be sure and tune in! 

EU – Ukraine

EU leaders to consider using profits from Russian assets to arm Ukraine

European Union gathered in Brussels for a two-day summit that will consider proposals to use profits from frozen Russian financial assets to buy arms for Ukraine.

Ukraine will top the agenda of the meeting of the leaders of the 27 EU member states, who will debate on how Europe can boost its arms industry and increase support as the United States has cut military aid.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has proposed transferring profits from Russian assets that were frozen in Europe into an EU-run fund used to finance arms for Kyiv.

The commission estimates the profits could be between €2.5 billion and €3 billion euros per year.

All eyes on Hungary

Russia has said the plan is theft, though it has broad support among EU governments – even if some countries find it problematic.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who maintains closer ties to Moscow than other EU leaders, opposes sending arms to Ukraine.

The proposal also raises questions for countries that have remained neutral or militarily non-aligned, like Malta, Austria and Ireland.

No final decision is expected this week, but leaders will indicate how the EU should proceed.

  • Zelensky warns ammunition shortfall damaging Ukraine’s defence

Ukraine military support

A draft summit declaration said leaders “reviewed progress” on using the revenues “for the benefit of Ukraine, including possibly for funding military support” and asks EU bodies to “take work forward”.

It also says the EU “is committed to increasing its overall defence readiness” amid “rising threats and security challenges”.

It invites officials to asses a Commission plan to boost Europe’s arms industry by giving incentives to EU countries to buy European, and work together on joint projects.

Funding increased defence spending is a complex question. Beyond the proposal of using frozen Russian assets, there is a proposal to issue European defence bonds, proposed by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas

French President Emmanuel Macron and others support the idea, but other countries, including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, are sceptical.

Gaza diplomacy

The summit will also address the war in Gaza, with leaders needing to navigate the diplomatic interests of allies of Israel, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria, with strong advocates of Palestinians, including Spain, Ireland and Belgium.

Leaders will also discuss the prospect of opening EU membership talks with Bosnia, as well as address farmers’ protests that have swept many European countries.

(with Reuters)


Kenya to release bodies of cult victims found in mass forest graves

The Kenyan government will be releasing some of the bodies discovered in mass graves in the Shakahola forest last year, connected to a religious cult, after they were identified using DNA. More bodies are to be exhumed in the coming weeks.

Thirty four of the hundreds of bodies discovered in mass graves in the Shakahola forest are set to be released to their families next Tuesday week for burial.

Government pathologist Johansen Oduor told media on Wednesday that the bodies had been identified using DNA analysis, and that the process has been slowed because “people are not coming to claim their loved ones”.

He urged people who suspect family members to be among the victims to come forward.

Death toll could rise

So far 429 bodies have been uncovered during months of exhumations across tens of thousands of acres of the Shakahola forest, near the Indian Ocean.

The bodies, which autopsies revealed to have been strangled, beaten or suffocated, are those of people connected to cult leader cult leader Paul Mackenzie, who instructed members of his Good News International Church to starve themselves to “meet Jesus”.

Oduor said about 35 mass graves have been identified and that further exhumations could drive up the death toll.

He said unclaimed bodies will be buried in a way that they can be traced, if someone comes forward in the future.

Cult leader remains in custody

Mackenzie, who has been in custody since his arrest in April 2023, has been charged with murder, manslaughter and radicalisation. He has denied all charges.

He and 38 others, who are also in detention, have been charged with torturing children as well as denying their rights to education.

Last week a judge in Mombasa refused to release them on bail, for the “best interests of the children who are witnesses in this matter”.

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for 23 April.


Global fertility rate to plunge by end of century, study says

The population of almost every country will be shrinking by the end of the century, according to a major study that attempts to forecast the future for the world’s populations and warns of the impacts on economies and geopolitics.

The fertility rate in half of all countries is already too low to maintain their population size, according to a study by an international team of hundreds of researchers published Wednesday in The Lancet.

By 2050, the population of three-quarters of all countries will be shrinking, according to the study by the US-based Institute For Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that is based on a massive amount of data on births, deaths and fertility around the world.

Researchers projected that by the end of the century, 198 out of 204 countries – 97 percent – will have shrinking populations, with fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

Baby boom, baby bust

France is among the handful of countries in Western Europe predicted to have the highest birth rates at the end of the century, though the region as a whole is expected to see its fertility rates drop to 1.44 births per woman in 2050 and 1.37 in 2100.

Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa’s fertility rates are going down at a much slower pace, and the region will account for over half of the world’s births by 2100.

Only six countries are expected to have fertility rates above the replacement level in 2100: Chad, Niger, Samoa, Somalia, Tajikistan and Tonga.

  • France’s ageing population is having fewer babies and living longer than ever

Social change

“The world will be simultaneously tackling a ‘baby boom’ in some countries and a ‘baby bust’ in others,” senior study author Stein Emil Vollset of the IHME said in a statement.

The shifts in birthrates will bring about “staggering social change through the 21st century,” he said, with economic as well as geopolitical implications.

Nearly all countries will become dependent on immigration to sustain economic growth.

“Once nearly every country’s population is shrinking, reliance on open immigration will become necessary to sustain economic growth,” observed co-lead author and IHME lead researcher Natalia V. Bhattacharjee.

“Sub-Saharan African countries have a vital resource that aging societies are losing—a youthful population.”

Benefits of smaller populations

Experts with the World Health Organization experts say the projections could be overstated.

Writing in the Lancet in response to the IHME study, they pointed to several limitations of the models, particularly a lack of data from many developing nations.

Communication about the figures “should not be sensationalised, but nuanced, balancing between gloom and optimism,” they wrote.

And they pointed to benefits having a smaller population, such as for the environment and food security, while recognising the disadvantages for labour supply, social security and “nationalistic geopolitics”.

(with AFP)


France faces tense vote on EU-Canada free trade deal

French senators are getting ready to vote on a controversial trade deal between the European Union and Canada, and an unlikely alliance between left and right hopes to torpedo the pact. 

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) has been in force provisionally since 2017 but requires ratification in all European Union member countries to take full effect.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist parliamentary allies managed to get the deal approved in the National Assembly in 2019 by a slim margin, but backing by the upper house – where they are in a clear minority – is needed for ratification.

The French Communist party placed the treaty on Thursday’s Senate agenda, with the stated aim of getting it defeated.

Accusing the government of treating parliament “like a doormat”, Communist senator Fabien Gay announced “a political thunderclap” for Thursday.

In a rare temporary alliance, the leadership of the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party, which has a majority in the Senate, has also signalled its opposition to the trade pact.

Cyprus rejection

“We need free-trade agreements, but not at the expense of our sovereignty, especially for food,” said Bruno Retailleau, LR’s leader in the Senate.

Like all EU trade deals, Ceta was negotiated by the EU Commission, but also needs approval from each EU member.

Seventeen of them have ratified the deal, and the the process in 10 countries, including France, still ongoing. Britain ratified the deal when it was still in the EU.

Cyprus’s parliament is the only one to have rejected the agreement outright, over a controversy about a geographical indication for halloumi cheese.

  • Shaping the future: What’s at stake in the 2024 EU elections?

But under EU rules, such a vote only impacts Ceta’s application if a government officially notifies the EU of the rejection, which Cyprus has not done. Instead, it plans to re-submit the proposal to a later vote.

If Ceta is rejected in the French Senate, Macron would be expected to do the same.

The government has, meanwhile, accused the opposition of weaponising Ceta ahead of June’s European elections seen as a key test of Macron’s popularity.

“Let’s not be naive,” quipped Macron’s minister for foreign trade, Franck Riester, saying the trade deal was being “instrumentalised in the middle of the European election campaign”.

Food safety concerns

While the French government defends Ceta, there is also plenty of opposition, notably around food safety, with critics pointing to Canada’s laxer approach to genetically-modified organisms, hormones, pesticides and herbicides, and lower standards on animal welfare compared to the EU.

There have been angry demonstrations in several EU countries against the deal, including by climate activists.

Criticism has also come from farmers and industrial sectors, notably over access to the Canadian market, and regulations.

  • France moves to block EU-Mercosur deal as farmers continue protest

“Farming in central Canada is completely industrial and operates without any rules,” said LR senator and professional farmer Laurent Duplomb, saying he hoped to “fire a warning shot” in the direction of the EU.

Meanwhile, senators have reported receiving an unusual amount of attention from companies, associations, the government and the Canadian embassy all hoping to sway them.

“I have never seen this much lobbying before a Senate vote,” said one member of the upper house who declined to be identified.

Wine and cheese big winners

Although a no-vote would not in itself kill Ceta, the French government worries about the impact of any rejection.

“We have to be careful not to send a negative signal concerning an agreement that produces benefits,” said a government source, on condition of anonymity.

  • EU, Kenya sign landmark trade deal hailed as beginning of ‘historic partnership’

The trade deal’s backers say French exports to Canada increased by 33 percent between 2017 and 2023, while imports rose 35 percent, thanks to the agreement.

Wine and dairy producers are among the main beneficiaries, the government says.

(with AFP)

The Sound Kitchen

There’s Music in the Kitchen, No 34

Issued on:

This week on The Sound Kitchen, a special treat: RFI English listeners’ musical requests. Just click on the “Play” button above and enjoy!

Hello everyone! Welcome to The Sound Kitchen weekly podcast, published every Saturday. This week, you’ll hear musical requests from your fellow listeners Bidhan Chandra Sanyal from West Bengal, India, Helmut Matt from Herbolzheim, Germany, and Jayanta Chakrabarty from New Delhi, India.

Be sure you send in your music requests! Write to me at  thesoundkitchen@rfi.fr

Here’s the music you heard on this week’s program: “Aaj Na Chhodenge” by Rahul Dev Burman, sung by Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar; Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer, and “Sun is Shining” by Bob Marley, performed by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

The quiz will be back next Saturday, 30 March. Be sure and tune in! 

Spotlight on Africa

The long path to Senegal’s troubled presidential elections

Issued on:

This is a big election year for Africa, with 16 countries heading to the polls. Close attention is being paid to the delayed presidential vote in Senegal – a West African beacon of democracy that’s been facing increasing instability. RFI spoke to author and economist Ndongo Samba Sylla in the capital Dakar. 

RFI is renewing its Spotlight on Africa podcast, and the first episode zeroes in on one of the continent’s biggest news stories.

Senegal was plunged into political crisis when President Macky Sall unexpectedly postponed elections that had been due to take place by the end of February.

Protests erupted from those supporting opposition candidates, as well as from all corners of civil society. The polls were finally rescheduled for 24 March.

Voters say they’re worried about unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people – many of whom are quitting the country in search of a better life elsewhere.

Ndongo Samba Sylla helps us to better understand where the unrest has taken the heaviest toll – and what’s really at stake in Sunday’s election.

Also read:

  • Senegal sets March date for delayed presidential election
  • Senegal president calls off February 25 election



Episode mixed by Guillaume Buffet. 

Spotlight on Africa is a podcast from Radio France Internationale. 

International report

Deepfake videos used in local elections in Turkey as Erdogan battles for Istanbul

Issued on:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading a battle to regain control of Istanbul in hotly contested local elections this month. However, opposition media is warning about deepfake videos in campaign ads, while international rights groups are voicing alarm over social media companies’ willingness to comply with Turkish censorship ahead of the critical polls.

Polls show the elections are going to be a tight contest. But as Erdogan’s AK Party steps up efforts to regain control of Istanbul, an artificial intelligence-generated video of incumbent mayor Ekrem Imamoglu praising Erdogan for his achievements in Istanbul has been circulating on social media. 

Independent media warn of the threat of fake news, as mainstream media, which is mostly under government control, are not verifying the authenticity of the videos.

Deepfake videos

“Deepfake videos are usually not posted on news sites, but they reach millions of people as advertisements. These stick to the candidate.” explains Hikmet Adal , social media editor at Bianet, an independent news portal.

“The voting segment in Turkey is 40 million. When you ask people if Ekrem Imamoglu actually said this, they will say ‘he did’ because they only follow the mainstream media,” added Adal.

During last year’s presidential elections, Erdogan used a video falsely showing his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu with leaders of the Kurdish separatist group the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish government.

Yaman Akdeniz of Turkey’s Freedom of Expression Association fears more fake news videos will appear as election day draws closer.

“We will witness more of these leading into the local elections, which is of course a major concern,” warns Akdeniz,

“And there were some examples of that prior to the May 2023 general elections. A photo of the opposition leader came out with PKK leaders. Even the president of Turkey commented , saying that he knows that it is fake, but they still used it.”

Turkey’s small independent media sector, which is crucial to the exposing of fake news is facing increasing pressure from Turkish authorities. Much of their news is blocked on social media.

“What we’ve seen is that very, very often material, mainly news on social media, is removed and blocked online,” explains Emma Sinclair-Webb senior Turkey researcher of Human Rights Watch

Call for action

Human Rights Watch was among 22 international rights groups calling on social media companies to stand up to Turkish authorities’ demands for removal of postings.

“It’s very concerning to see that authorities are willing to clamp down on free speech, but social media companies themselves are not robust enough to stand up to this pressure,” added Sinclair-Webb,

“We want them to be more transparent and to work together in raising concerns about requests by Turkey to block content that is clearly within the boundaries of freedom of expression and also to contest others in court in Turkey. “

  • Turkey’s presidential challenger faces uphill battle to unite opposition
  • Volunteer army of election monitors prepare to protect Turkey’s vote

A growing number of prosecutions of independent media under a new disinformation law adds to the pressures they face. Many Turks are now turning to international news platforms.

But Turkish authorities are blocking internet access to foreign news sources which broadcast in Turkish like Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.

These portals are only accessible by a virtual private network, or VPN, which circumvents the ban. But now, some of the most widely used VPNs also face restrictions. 

  • Attack on football referee exposes anti-elite resentment in divided Turkey

 “Restricting access to the internet has become a sort of playbook for regimes and authoritarian governments. And so we see across the world an increase in VPN usage, especially in countries like this, like Turkey,” said Antonio Cesarano of Proton, a VPN provider.

 “It’s a cat-and-mouse game. We will try our best to keep fighting and to keep investing in technology that can bring people back online.”

Turkish based independent news providers  warn they are facing a losing battle in verifying fake news.

“As  alternative media, it is not possible for us to fight against this,” said Bianet, social media editor Adal.

“Our teams are very limited to 20 people, maybe 15 people, at maximum. But there is an army behind this.

With opinion polls indicating the Istanbul election too close to call, analysts warn the danger of fake news is likely to grow along with pressure on independent news.

The Sound Kitchen

Senegal’s presidential poll moves forward

Issued on:

This week on The Sound Kitchen you’ll hear the answer to the question about the delayed presidential election in Senegal. There’s a history lesson about Lithuanian’s love of books (and their language), there are your answers to the bonus question on “The Listener’s Corner”, and of course, a delicious dessert from Erwan Rome on “Music from Erwan”. All that and the new quiz question too, so click on the “Play” button above and enjoy! 

Hello everyone! Welcome to The Sound Kitchen weekly podcast, published every Saturday – here on our website, or wherever you get your podcasts. You’ll hear the winner’s names announced and the week’s quiz question, along with all the other ingredients you’ve grown accustomed to: your letters and essays, “On This Day”, quirky facts and news, interviews, and great music… so be sure and listen every week.

Erwan and I are busy cooking up special shows with your music requests, so get them in! Send your music requests to thesoundkitchen@rfi.fr  Tell us why you like the piece of music, too – it makes it more interesting for us all!

Facebook News: There’s a “new and improved” Facebook page for you, the RFI English Listeners Forum. 

It’s for everyone who reads and listens to us and wants to connect with others, so ask to join, and I’ll sign you up!

The RFI Listeners Club page and the RFI English Clubs page no longer exist; if you belonged to the RFI English Clubs page and not the RFI Listeners Club page, you’ll need to ask to join. I promise I won’t click “Decline” 😊 

Here’s your job: send me your photos for the banner! Send them to thesoundkitchen@rfi.fr

More tech news: Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Just go to YouTube and write RFI English in the search bar, and there we are! Be sure and subscribe to see all our videos, and Erwan has even made a weekly Sound Kitchen promo for you to hear. Don’t miss out!

Would you like to learn French? RFI is here to help you!

Our website “Le Français facile avec RFI”  has news broadcasts in slow, simple French, as well as bi-lingual radio dramas (with real actors!) and exercises to practice what you have heard.

Go to our website and get started! At the top of the page, click on “Test level”. According to your score, you’ll be counselled to the best-suited activities for your level.

Do not give up! As Lidwien van Dixhoorn, the head of “Le Français facile” service told me: “Bathe your ears in the sound of the language, and eventually, you’ll get it”. She should know – Lidwien is Dutch and came to France hardly able to say “bonjour” and now she heads this key RFI department – so stick with it!

Be sure you check out our wonderful podcasts!

In addition to the breaking news articles on our site, with in-depth analysis of current affairs in France and across the globe, we have several podcasts that will leave you hungry for more.

There’s Paris Perspective, Spotlight on France, and of course, The Sound Kitchen. We have an award-winning bilingual series – an old-time radio show, with actors (!) to help you learn French, called Les voisins du 12 bis. And there is the excellent International Report, too.

As you see, sound is still quite present in the RFI English service. Keep checking our website for updates on the latest from our team of journalists. You never know what we’ll surprise you with!

To listen to our podcasts from your PC, go to our website; you’ll see “Podcasts” at the top of the page. You can either listen directly or subscribe and receive them directly on your mobile phone.

To listen to our podcasts from your mobile phone, slide through the tabs just under the lead article (the first tab is “Headline News”) until you see “Podcasts”, and choose your show. 

Teachers, take note! I save postcards and stamps from all over the world to send to you for your students. If you would like stamps and postcards for your students, just write and let me know. The address is english.service@rfi.fr  If you would like to donate stamps and postcards, feel free! Our address is listed below. 

Another idea for your students: Br. Gerald Muller, my beloved music teacher from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, has been writing books for young adults in his retirement – and they are free! There is a volume of biographies of painters and musicians called Gentle Giants, and an excellent biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., too. They are also a good way to help you improve your English – that’s how I worked on my French, reading books which were meant for young readers – and I guarantee you, it’s a good method for improving your language skills. To get Br. Gerald’s free books, click here. 

Independent RFI English Clubs: Be sure to always include Audrey Iattoni (audrey.iattoni@rfi.fr) from our Listener Relations department in all your RFI Club correspondence. Remember to copy me (thesoundkitchen@rfi.fr) when you write to her so that I know what is going on, too. NB: You do not need to send her your quiz answers! Email overload!

We have a new RFI Listeners Club member to welcome: Orlando Teamah from Monrovia, Liberia.

Welcome Orlando! So glad you have joined us!

This week’s quiz: On 10 February, I asked you a question about the presidential poll in Senegal. On 3 February, just hours before official campaigning was to start, the polls were called off by the incumbent president, Macky Sall. Sall cited as the reason an investigation into two Constitutional Council judges whose integrity in the election process has been questioned.

You were to re-read Melissa Chemam’s article “Senegalese lawmakers postpone presidential election to 15 December”, and answer this question: How many candidates are running for president of Senegal?

The answer is, at the time I asked the question: 20

Here’s an update: Senegal’s Constitutional Council ruled that the vote must be held before Sall’s mandate expires on 2 April. The new date for the poll is 24 March, which leaves the 19 candidates very little time to campaign. And yes, there are now 19 candidates instead of the original 20; on 19 February, Rose Wardini renounced her candidacy following controversy over her dual Franco-Senegalese nationality.

In addition to the quiz question, there was the bonus question: “How do you get to sleep?”, which was suggested by Nasyr Muhammad from Katsina State, Nigeria. 

Do you have a bonus question idea? Send it to us! 

The winners are: RFI Listeners Club member Dipita Chakrabarty from New Delhi, India. Dipita is also this week’s bonus question winner. Congratulations Dipita!

Also on the list of lucky winners this week are Sharifun Islam Nitu, who’s a member of the RFI Amour Fan Club in Rajshahi, Bangladesh, and Nafisa Khatun, the president of the RFI Mahila Shrota Sangha Club in West Bengal, India.

There’s also RFI Listeners Club member Anju Regmi from Biratnagar, Nepal, and last but not least, RFI English listener Dilruba Yeasmin Lovely, who’s the general secretary of the Sonali Badhon Female Listeners Club in Naogaon, Bangladesh.

Congratulations winners!

Here’s the music you heard on this week’s programme: “Dance With Waves” by Anouar Brahem, performed by the Anouar Brahem Quartet; “Oriental Dance ” by Juozas Gruodis, performed by Martynas Švėgžda von Bekker and Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdottir; the traditional “Jarabi”, performed by Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté; “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov; “The Cakewalk” from Children’s Corner by Claude Debussy, performed by the composer, and the Piano Trio in a Minor by Maurice Ravel, performed by Louis Kentner, piano, Yehudi Menuhin, violin, and Gaspar Cassadó, cello.   

This week’s question … you must listen to the show to participate. After you’ve listened to the show, re-read Pratap Chakravarty’s article “India picks pilots for space flight that will blast it into cosmic history”, which will help you with the answer.

You have until 15 April to enter this week’s quiz; the winners will be announced on the 20 April podcast. When you enter, be sure you send your postal address with your answer, and if you have one, your RFI Listeners Club membership number.

Send your answers to:



Susan Owensby

RFI – The Sound Kitchen

80, rue Camille Desmoulins

92130 Issy-les-Moulineaux



By text … You can also send your quiz answers to The Sound Kitchen mobile phone. Dial your country’s international access code, or “ + ”, then  33 6 31 12 96 82. Don’t forget to include your mailing address in your text – and if you have one, your RFI Listeners Club membership number.

To find out how you can win a special Sound Kitchen prize, click here.

To find out how you can become a member of the RFI Listeners Club, or form your own official RFI Club, click here

Spotlight on France

Podcast: Covid obedience, vasectomies in France, was Rosa Bonheur a lesbian?

Issued on:

Four years after the start of the first Covid lockdown in France, what has been the impact? What’s stopping more men getting vasectomies in France. And why not everyone wants to accept that Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the 19th century, was a lesbian.

For 55 days, starting 17 March 2020, French citizens were confined to their homes as part of the government’s approach to controlling the then little-understood virus sweeping the planet, which we now know as Covid-19. Historian Nicolas Mariot, co-author of a book about the lockdown, looks into the reasons behind why a majority of people in France accepted the harsh curbs on personal freedom, and asks why there has not been a broader reckoning about the impacts. (Listen @ 2’40) 

Vasectomies are rare in France. The procedure that cuts the tubes in men’s testicles that carry sperm, serving as a permanent form of birth control, was only legalised in 2001. Urologist Vincent Hupertan describes the reservations patients and doctors have about the vasectomies, which have to do with both French culture and how the health system works. And we hear from one man before and after his vasectomy, who was told by his doctor to rethink it in case he ever planned to remarry a younger woman. (Listen @ 17’00)

Rosa Bonheur, born 16 March 1822, was probably the best-known female painter of the 19th century. Writer Anna Polonyi talks about how Bonheur’s paintings of animals are attracting fresh interest from people curious about her personal life, notably her decades-long relationship with a woman. Yet some of the people in charge of guarding her legacy refuse to say that she was lesbian. Polonyi’s web documentary series, The Rosa Bonheur Case, explores Bonheur’s life and how queer artists are represented. (Listen @ 10’15)

Episode mixed by Cecile Pompéani. 

Spotlight on France is a podcast from Radio France International. Find us on rfienglish.com, Apple podcasts (link here), Spotify (link here) or your favourite podcast app (pod.link/1573769878).

International report

Turkey and Italy consider teaming up to seek new influence in Africa

Issued on:

Turkey and Italy are finding common ground as they seek to expand their economic and diplomatic influence in Africa. The two nations are eyeing opportunities to cooperate on security, energy and migration as France’s traditional influence on the continent wanes.

This month, Somalia’s parliament ratified an agreement with Turkey to provide naval protection and assistance in building a Somali navy, another step in Turkey’s efforts to expand its African presence.

“With this pact, Turkey will protect the Somali coast from pirates, terrorists – anyone that violates our maritime borders, like Ethiopia,” declared Abdifatah Kasim, Somalia’s deputy defence minister. 

The defence deal was followed by a bilateral agreement on energy exploration in Somalia.

Ankara’s growing influence in the region was underscored by a strong African presence at Turkey’s annual Antalya Diplomacy Forum, with seven African heads of state, seven prime ministers and 25 foreign ministers in attendance.

In January, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosted African leaders at a summit in Rome, where she unveiled plans to expand Italy’s influence on the continent.

“Our future inevitably depends on the future of the African continent. We are aware of this, and we want to do our part,” Meloni declared.

“That’s why we have decided to launch an ambitious programme of interventions that can help the continent grow and prosper, starting from its immense resources.”

  • Italy targets energy, migration with ‘non-predatory’ plan for Africa

Common ground in Libya

Analysts say both countries are considering cooperating as a means of achieving their Africa goals.

“Italy is trying to fulfil a position that Western countries in some way left over the last decades, while Turkey has already been in Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa,” observes Alessia Chiriatti of the Institute of International Affairs, an Italian think tank.

“The main issues for confrontation or cooperation – we will see – will be migration, energy issues, and, of course, the economic development of these countries,” she says.

Also in January, Meloni met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. The meeting included talks on Africa, with a focus on cooperation in Libya – a country where experts say Ankara has considerable influence, including a military base.

The North African nation is a main transit route for migrants seeking to enter Europe, mainly through Italy.

  • Tunisia brush-off augurs badly for EU push for African migration deals

Italy, France and other European countries see that as a “huge threat”, according to Elem Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu of the African Studies Department at Ankara’s Social Sciences University.

“So there is room to cooperate in this area and to prevent the illegal flow of migrants, and cooperate in the security area as well.”

    On Tuesday, the Italian and Turkish defence ministers held talks in Ankara. Exploiting Libya’s vast energy reserves is also potential common ground.

    France on the outs

    Meanwhile the recent ousting of regimes sympathetic to France in Niger, Mali and Gabon – and with it, the withdrawal of French forces – has severely weakened France’s historical political and economic influence in West Africa.

    That offers an opportunity to Italy and Turkey.

    “Italy could have an important cooperation with Turkey in order to take advantage of the position left aside by some countries like France, like Germany, like the other Western countries in Africa,” says analyst Chiriatti.

    “But it will also depend on the bilateral agenda and bilateral interests expressed by Turkey and Italy,” she adds. “That’s not always the same. So in this sense, we need to see what will happen in the future step by step.”

    • Newly reconciled, Turkey and Egypt could be a force for stability in Africa

    Business opportunities

    Chiriatti warns that cooperation can easily turn into rivalry in business. But Africa’s vast economic potential is seen as offering plenty of room for partnership.

    “There are several areas where Turkey can cooperate with other countries, including European countries, because Turkish companies are trying to increase their investments,” says Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu.

    “They would like to gain new contracts for large projects, et cetra. Africa is in desperate need of infrastructure. There’s a huge energy deficit and infrastructure gap in the whole continent,” she notes.

    With Italy and Turkey lacking the financial muscle of other influential players on the continent – notably China – both countries have powerful incentives to focus on potential partnership in their bid to expand their influence in Africa.

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    Madhya Pradesh: the Heart of beautiful India

    From 20 to 22 September 2022, the IFTM trade show in Paris, connected thousands of tourism professionals across the world. Sheo Shekhar Shukla, director of Madhya Pradesh’s tourism board, talked about the significance of sustainable tourism.

    Madhya Pradesh is often referred to as the Heart of India. Located right in the middle of the country, the Indian region shows everything India has to offer through its abundant diversity. The IFTM trade show, which took place in Paris at the end of September, presented the perfect opportunity for travel enthusiasts to discover the region.

    Sheo Shekhar Shukla, Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh’s tourism board, sat down to explain his approach to sustainable tourism.

    “Post-covid the whole world has known a shift in their approach when it comes to tourism. And all those discerning travelers want to have different kinds of experiences: something offbeat, something new, something which has not been explored before.”

    Through its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Shukla wants to showcase the deep history Madhya Pradesh has to offer.

    “UNESCO is very actively supporting us and three of our sites are already World Heritage Sites. Sanchi is a very famous buddhist spiritual destination, Bhimbetka is a place where prehistoric rock shelters are still preserved, and Khajuraho is home to thousand year old temples with magnificent architecture.”

    All in all, Shukla believes that there’s only one way forward for the industry: “Travelers must take sustainable tourism as a paradigm in order to take tourism to the next level.”

    In partnership with Madhya Pradesh’s tourism board.

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    Exploring Malaysia’s natural and cultural diversity

    The IFTM trade show took place from 20 to 22 September 2022, in Paris, and gathered thousands of travel professionals from all over the world. In an interview, Libra Hanif, director of Tourism Malaysia discussed the importance of sustainable tourism in our fast-changing world.

    Also known as the Land of the Beautiful Islands, Malaysia’s landscape and cultural diversity is almost unmatched on the planet. Those qualities were all put on display at the Malaysian stand during the IFTM trade show.

    Libra Hanif, director of Tourism Malaysia, explained the appeal of the country as well as the importance of promoting sustainable tourism today: “Sustainable travel is a major trend now, with the changes that are happening post-covid. People want to get close to nature, to get close to people. So Malaysia being a multicultural and diverse [country] with a lot of natural environments, we felt that it’s a good thing for us to promote Malaysia.”

    Malaysia has also gained fame in recent years, through its numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which include Kinabalu Park and the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley.

    Green mobility has also become an integral part of tourism in Malaysia, with an increasing number of people using bikes to discover the country: “If you are a little more adventurous, we have the mountain back trails where you can cut across gazetted trails to see the natural attractions and the wildlife that we have in Malaysia,” says Hanif. “If you are not that adventurous, you’ll be looking for relaxing cycling. We also have countryside spots, where you can see all the scenery in a relaxing session.”

    With more than 25,000 visitors at this IFTM trade show this year, Malaysia’s tourism board got to showcase the best the country and its people have to offer.

    In partnership with Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board. For more information about Malaysia, click here.