rfi 2024-03-31 16:07:49



EASTER SUNDAY

Pope calls for Gaza ceasefire, Ukraine-Russia prisoner exchange in Easter message

Rallying from a winter-long bout of respiratory problems, Pope Francis has led some 30,000 people in Easter celebration, making a strong appeal for a cease-fire in Gaza and a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

Pope Francis presided over Easter Sunday Mass in a flower-decked St. Peter’s Square and then delivered a heartfelt prayer for peace in his annual roundup of global crises delivered from the loggia overlooking the piazza.

In between, he made several loops around the gathering in his popemobile, greeting well-wishers.

“Peace is never made with weapons, but with outstretched hands and open hearts,” Francis said, to applause from the wind-swept crowd below.

Francis appeared in good form, despite having celebrated the 2½-hour nighttime Easter Vigil just hours before.

The pontiff, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter.



‘Urbi et Orbi’ blessing

Easter Mass is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar, celebrating what the faithful believe was Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion.

The Mass precedes the pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” –to the city and the world – blessing, in which the pope traditionally offers list of the threats afflicting humanity.

This year, Francis said his thoughts went particularly to people in Ukraine and Gaza and all those facing war – particularly the children who he said had “forgotten how to smile.”

“In calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all!” he said. 

He called for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on 7 October, an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for humanitarian access to reach Palestinians. 

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” he said in a speech that also touched on the plight of Haitians, the Rohingya in Myanmar and victims of human trafficking. 

  • Pope Francis urges bishops to make Catholic Church ‘open to all’
  • Pope calls for peace in Europe at opening of World Youth Day celebrations

Health concerns

For the past few weeks, Francis has generally avoided delivering long speeches to avoid the strain on his breathing.

He shelved his Palm Sunday homily last week and decided at the last minute to stay home from the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum.

The Vatican said in a brief explanation that the decision was made to “conserve his health.”

The decision clearly paid off, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of the lengthy Saturday night Easter Vigil service, including administering the sacraments of baptism and First Communion to eight new Catholics, and preside over Easter Sunday Mass and deliver his speech.

After a busy Holy Week, Francis should have some time to recover as there are no major foreign trips scheduled for several months.


EASTER – SECURITY

France deploys ‘protection’ to thousands of churches for Easter celebrations

France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said 13,500 police and anti-terror soldiers had been deployed outside 4,530 churches to protect them against any ‘terrorism’ as they celebrate Easter.

“Law enforcement forces are present everywhere nationwide from Good Friday to Easter Monday to protect services in an extremely difficult context in which terrorism could hit,” Darmanin said.

“There are 13,500 police officers, gendarmes and [anti-terror] military personnel at 4,350 Christian places of worship, Catholic and Protestant,” he added.

France has raised its security alert to the highest level after an attack claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group at a concert hall in the Russian capital on 22 March claimed 144 lives.  



  • France raises security alert to highest level after Moscow attack
  • France deploys 4,000 more troops amid security fears in run up to Olympics

Foiled attacks

France has been rocked by a series of deadly jihadist attacks in recent years, with two planned attacks having been foiled since the start of the year. 

One involved “violent action against a Catholic religious building” by a man “clearly committed to jihadist ideology”, according to the national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office. 

The 62-year-old was arrested and remanded in custody in early March, prosecutors said. 

Catholics and Protestants are commemorating the resurrection of Jesus this Sunday, while Orthodox Christians will wait until 6 May. 


TIME – PHYSICS

Timekeepers in a tizzy as climate change alters speed of Earth’s rotation

Struggling to wrap your head around daylight savings time this weekend? Spare a thought for the world’s timekeepers, who are trying to work out how climate change is affecting the Earth’s rotation – and in turn, how we keep track of time.

The Earth’s speeding rotation is threatening to mess with time, clocks and computers in an unprecedented way.

For the first time in history, world timekeepers may have to consider resetting our clocks because the planet is rotating faster than it used to.

Yet a new study suggests that climate change is slowing it down – pushing back the point at which the world’s atomic clocks will have to skip back for what scientists call a “negative leap second”.

  • Why the sun is setting on summer later than usual this year

Out of sync

Throughout history, time has been measured by the rotation of the Earth.

However, in 1967, scientists embraced atomic clocks – which use the frequency of atoms as their tick-tock – ushering in a more precise era of timekeeping.

Nonetheless timekeeping has remained aligned with the Earth’s rotation for historical and navigational reasons.

But our planet is an unreliable clock, and has long been rotating slightly slower than atomic time – meaning the two measurements were out of sync.

So a compromise was struck. Whenever the difference between the two measurements approached 0.9 of a second, a “leap second” was added to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) – the internationally agreed standard by which the world sets its clocks.

Though most people likely have not noticed, 27 leap seconds have been added to UTC since 1972, the last one coming in 2016.

But in recent years a new problem has emerged that few saw coming: Earth’s rotation has been speeding up, overtaking atomic time.

This means that to synchronise the two measurements, timekeepers may have to introduce the first ever negative leap second – a minute with only 59 seconds.



Unpredictable planet

“This has never happened before, and poses a major challenge to making sure that all parts of the global timing infrastructure show the same time,” according to Duncan Agnew, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego.

“Many computer programs for leap seconds assume they are all positive, so these would have to be rewritten,” he told French news agency AFP.

Partly using satellite data, Agnew looked at the rate of the Earth’s rotation for a new study published in the journal Nature.

Complex geophysical processes work to change the time the planet takes to rotate, which has gradually slowed over millennia. But in recent decades, its rotation rate has been accelerating.

Now the study suggests that starting from 1990, melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica has slowed down the Earth’s rotation by redistributing mass from the poles to lower latitudes.

“When the ice melts, the water spreads out over the whole ocean; this increases the moment of inertia, which slows the Earth down,” Agnew said.

This human-induced process has had the knock-on effect of reducing the gap between atomic and standard time, effectively delaying the need for a negative leap second until at least 2029.

“When the ice melts, the water spreads out over the whole ocean; this increases the moment of inertia, which slows the Earth down,” Agnew said.

He determined that if not for climate change, a negative leap second might have needed to be added to UTC as soon as 2026.

  • EU turns back the clock on daylight savings

Scrapping the leap second

Some experts fear that introducing a negative leap second into standard time could wreak havoc on computer systems across the world. Even positive leap seconds have previously caused problems for systems that require precise timekeeping. 

That’s partly why the world’s timekeepers agreed in 2022 to scrap the leap second by 2035. 

From that year, the plan is to allow the difference between atomic time and the Earth’s rotation to grow up to a minute. 

A subsequent leap minute to bring them into sync is not expected to be needed in the next century. 

And “a negative leap minute is very, very unlikely”, Agnew said.

He hopes his research will prompt the world’s timekeepers to consider dropping the leap second sooner than 2035.

(with AFP)


Refugee crisis

CAR refugees face hardship and uncertainty both at home and abroad

Cameroon – Of the 300,000 refugees who have fled to Cameroon from the Central African Republic, most arrived with painful memories of their lives in the CAR. But displacement has added to their trauma, say those living in the Gado-Badgere refugee camp. Rife sexual violence and poor living conditions have left many weighing up whether they should return home. 

Ndoti-Djo Ismail, one refugee in Cameroon, said his four young daughters were raped by armed men in the CAR. 

“When my children finally joined me here, they were frail,” Ismail told RFI. “It was sad, very sad.” 

Following decades of instability, conflict in the CAR exploded once again in 2013 following the overthrow of president Francois Bozize by Muslim Seleka rebels.

Since then, the government has struggled to exercise authority outside of Bangui, the capital, with retaliatory violence between rebels and anti-Balaka, a Christian youth militia

The fighting has forced millions to flee and take refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I was raped and my daughter was raped,” says Rahamadou Bidem, who fled to Cameroon seven years ago after witnessing her husband’s murder. 

“How do you ever forget that?” she said.

Offering a lifeline

Gado-Badgere village chief Martin Azia Sodea has welcomed thousands of refugees.

The retired gendarmerie officer, experienced in UN peacekeeping missions, has provided an area of 60 square kilometres with UNHCR-supplied tents.

The area accommodates almost 10 percent of refugees that fled the CAR to Cameroon – around 26,000 people. 

Sodea has also offered farming spaces to produce food and other structures for social cohesion.

“These are people who might have lost everything, people who are suffering,” Sodea told RFI.

“We even have a football team made up of refugees and our youths. They play together, and that has given us a sense that we are one big family.” 

Saoudatou Bah Mansare, head of UNHCR in Bertoua, says Sodea’s approach is “salutary”.

“We would love to see it replicated in other contexts where there are refugees and budgets are running thin,” she said.  

Camp life

But the camp in eastern Cameroon has not necessarily improved the lives of CAR refugees.

Bidem said access to essential services has reduced as funding from NGOs runs thin. 

“It is difficult to get food and to get healthcare when you are sick. When it rains, we can’t sleep because everywhere gets soaked,” Bidem said of the conditions in Gado-Badgere. 

She said fights over water, food and land frequently break out, often resulting in gendered violence. 

“If you go in search of water, food or firewood, you could be attacked, beaten or raped. If you get pregnant, nobody accepts responsibility,” she told RFI. 

Her teenage daughter is now the mother of three children, all a result of rape.

“[They] all denied they raped and impregnated her, and I have the added burden of catering for the kids,” Bidem said. 

Voluntary return 

On 6 March, nearly 300 refugees living in Gado-Badgere returned to the CAR. A similar number left other areas, with a total of 600 leaving Cameroon in that day alone.

A larger planned repatriation group of 2,500 was departing between March and April, according to Mansare.

“It is wholly voluntary. If at any one time any of the refugees opts not to return for whatever reason, they cannot be forced,” she said.

Ismail, a former CAR politician facing fatal threats from his opponents, said he cannot return to his home country.  

“I still have my children to take care of. It’s better to be alive in hardship than die in search of comfort,” he said. 

Likewise, Bidem plans to stay.

She told RFI: “If I were to go back, where do I start? My husband killed, our property destroyed, where do you begin? I can’t return. It will only revive old wounds.”

Sodea said he feels hurt seeing refugees leave.

“Some of them have gotten married to our people and they have children. It is very difficult and sad to go this way,” he said.


Looted art

French antique art dealers lobby against EU rules that threaten trade

Antique art dealers in France are campaigning against forthcoming EU regulations that aim to restrict illicit imports of cultural artefacts, but which critics say risk criminalising legitimate traders too. 

The European Commission says that the new rules will prevent the import of looted cultural goods that finance terrorism. 

The regulation requires new documentation for imported archaeological, antique and art objects found or made outside the EU. 

France’s National Union of Antiques Dealers (SNA) gave a press conference in Paris last month to push back against what speakers called “unreasonable and disproportionate” criteria.  

The SNA warns that the new rules, in effect from mid-2025, will have a “dramatic and damaging impact” on the EU’s art market. 

They also said that the legal onus for highly accurate provenance will unfairly criminalise many in the trade. 

‘Illicit unless proven otherwise’ 

According to UK-based consultant and adviser to art trade associations Ivan Macquisten, the law “deems an imported item illicit, unless proven otherwise”. 

He adds that this means a “reversal of the burden of proof”, effectively scrapping common property law that assumes the owner’s good faith. 

The SNA, which lobbies on behalf of around 300 French antique and art dealers, said that the regulation will also make it difficult for owners to donate cultural objects – like fossils, antiquities, texts and art – to museums.  

Owners of items over 200 years old that are valued above €18,000 will need an “importer statement”. They’ll also need an import licence for other items over 250 years old. 

Critics say finding the proof required for these documents will be costly or impossible.

SNA board member Anthony Meyer added that many owners have had items “for years”. 

“No one ever requested any form of information, any paper trail, because there was no obligation to do so. It was moral and legal at the time,” Meyer said.

“Today, the mentality has changed, and we are changing with it.” 

Looted art 

The EU says Europe’s large art market and close proximity to the Middle East and Africa make it a target for illicit trade.

The European Commission hopes that the law will curb a rise in looting in war-stricken countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. 

It’s also meant to address reports that goods imported and sold in the EU are financing terrorist activities, according to the commission’s website.

The SNA refuted the EU’s claims, citing two studies that the illicit art trade is smaller and less organised than reported.

“The fantasy that the art market is financing terrorism doesn’t exist,” said Yves-Bernard Debie, a Belgian art lawyer representing the SNA, claiming that the legislation responds to “fake news”. 

  • Outrage as 2,200-year-old shipwreck looted off French Riviera
  • Rare Roman statue returned to French museum 50 years after heist

Compromised market 

While EU-wide, the rules will hit hard in France, the world’s fourth-largest art market and the EU’s largest for such imports.

Meyer added that the SNA and other international trade groups want to work with lawmakers in Brussels to adjust the laws and add exclusions. 

According to the commission, exceptions will be made for objects that only briefly enter the EU, for example at institutional displays and commercial fairs. However, dealers say there’s no incentive to bring objects to a fair if they lack the licence to sell them.

“We’re trying to save all of our jobs, our market, [and] save the possibility for people to appreciate art and to own art,” said Meyer. 

“The antique market is one of the great purveyors of cultural information and knowledge. If you kill the market, you’re going to kill all of that information and appreciation.”

But with the regulation approved in 2019, the SNA has acknowledged that their lobbying has come late.

(with newswires)


Science

Push for UN protection of clouds driven by ‘weather weaponisation’ fears

The French National Assembly was confronted with a demand this week to have the clouds in our skies protected by Unesco. The move comes amid concerns that weather systems could be scientifically manipulated for military or civilian use. 

Who owns the clouds? A group of high school students, fearing the potential weaponisation of weather systems, put this question to the French parliament.

They were accompanied by French author and lawyer Mathieu Simonet who, in his book The End of Clouds, argues they are a precious natural resource in need of protection. 

“Since the 1940s, experiments have been carried out on clouds in around 50 countries with the aim of manipulating the climate,” Simonet told French daily Le Parisien.

The technique consists of injecting silver iodide or other substances into clouds from aeroplanes or canons on the ground, producing crystals of ice, Laurent Deguillaume, a physician at Clermont-Auvergne University, explained.

“They absorb humidity and turn into snow, ice or rain,” he added.  

Another technique involves injecting salt into clouds at high altitudes so water particles grow and are released faster. 

“The impact of these experiments is not yet well documented, and the idea could lead to exacerbating tensions between states,” Simonet warned.

He cited the 2018 example of an Iranian general who accused Israel of “stealing clouds”. The cliam was quickly refuted.

War tactics

There was also “Operation Popeye“, run by the Americans during the Vietnam War.

Between 1967 and 1972, the US carried out cloud seeding over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They caused floods that disrupted North Vietnamese military supplies by causing landslides.

The tactic created a scandal that resulted in a UN convention banning the “weaponisation of clouds”.

France was not a signatory. 

  • Adapting to climate change is like climbing a slippery slope: IPCC author

Rosa, a 15-year-old student from a school in a suburb near Paris, asked: “Who owns the clouds if they don’t belong to the Earth?”

“At first I wasn’t concerned about this subject, but then I realised it could be dangerous to have experiments going on,” she told Le Parisien.

“We have no real understanding of the effects this may have on military operations or the climate.”

Harmful consequences

As droughts worsen with global warming, more countries are turning to cloud seeding.

“If everyone starts bombing the atmosphere with silver iodide, then it will undoubtedly have harmful consequences due to the stocking of chemicals in the ground,” Deguillaume warned.

China, meanwhile, has invested more than a billion dollars into research. In 2022 Chinese authorities bombed the atmosphere to provoke rainfall over the Yangtze River to counter a historical drought, Simonet said.

Other Southeast Asian nations, like Indonesia, have turned to the technology to combat forest fires and smog.

Geoengineering has evolved considerably since World War II.

“In the last five years there has been a sharp increase in the number of countries using cloud seeding and the techniques are evolving quickly,” Simonet told RFI.

Last year saw 70 projects linked to environmental manipulation, many focused on clouds and solar energy.

The United Arab Emirates regularly uses cloud seeding techniques. In Dubai, drones are sent into the clouds to set off electric shocks to force rainfall.

But many scientists agree that when it comes to consequences there is much uncertainty.

Climatologist and member of the International Panel on Climate Change Robert Vautard said that allowing “apprentice wizards” to experiment sets a dangerous precedent.

Large quantities of chemicals would need to be used over two decades before visible effects could be measured. In the meantime, we can’t see the full impact on clouds, rainfall cycles and carbon emissions, Vautard said.

  • Extreme weather blamed for 195,000 deaths, €560 billion in damage over past 40 years: Report

Petition

More than 450 scientists and climate experts signed a petition in 2022 against geoengineering experiments of this kind, citing the “risks of uncontrollable side effects”.

Even if outright bans might not be possible, Simonet said, at the very least there should be best practice rules with future procedures documented and monitored by the scientific community.

He suggested that a parliamentary inquiry be launched in France to address the issue.

Gaëtan de Royer, the president of Koz, a consulting firm for public affairs supporting Simonet, said the request to Unesco makes sense.

“Our dream is that the Declaration of Human Rights will be revisited to include the rights of nature,” he told Le Parisien.

“By asking MPs to consider jurisdiction for the protection of the sky, we’re asking them an offbeat albeit serious question: doesn’t this cause deserve support seeing as the clouds are shared by all of humanity?”


Ocean mining

India dives into deep sea mining as it battles for a clean future

India hopes to widen an undersea hunt for limitless metals that hold the key to clean energy. The move comes amid warnings from France and others that harvesting the seas could devastate ecosystems.

India, already the holder of two exploration rights, has sought two more from the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

The country wishes to expand its hunt for cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese – materials that are essential for making solar panels, electric vehicles and defence systems.

India’s latest applications seek permissions to explore a vast patch of 75,000 square kilometres of the metal-rich Indian Ocean covering 70.5 million square kilometres of the planet.

More than 1.5 million square kilometres of the international seabed have already been marked for exploration.

A clearance by the Jamaica based ISA will make India’s seabed permit count climb to four, bringing it on par with Russia and one behind China, a nation opposed to any pause to underwater activity. 

Sri Lanka has also staked a claim on a patch in the Bay of Bengal.

Several countries have opposed the mad rush by maritime prospectors. French President Emmanuel Macron, in 2022, became the first head of state to seek an outright ban on undersea mining in international waters, though this has not yet eventuated. 

Natural historian David Attenborough lent his voice as he, too, wants a halt to deep sea mining, describing it as the destruction of “an ecosystem about which we know pathetically little”. 



Seabed sprint

All eyes are on ISA for the 1.2 million square kilometres of seabed it has opened for exploration with 30 licences granted since 2001.

The UN-backed organisation is set to publish mining regulations next year. 

“We are at the threshold of a new era of deep seabed mining,” said ISA secretary general Michael Lodge, predicting a fevered race among stakeholders.

Analysts say India’s move to seek new licences will provoke China – a country with 17 percent of the licensed area.

“China will have rights to 92,000 square miles of seabed once commercial mining gets the green light,” a Delhi-based Asian ambassador said.

“It is an excellent idea to have countries like India and others to act as a counterweight to our Communist friend,” the diplomat added on the condition of anonymity.

“China must know that it takes two to tango,” they said on the anticipated race between nations to take claims to maritime windfalls worth tens of billions of euros.

Marine riches

India estimates that 380 million tonnes of rare deposits in the Indian Ocean basin will easily cross the staggering mark of 102 billion euros.

A bonus of gold and silver is also likely among the treasure trove, according to India’s government, which in 2019 forked over 887 million euros for exploration.

Another sum of 452 million euros was set aside in 2021 for five years.

The appetite for marine reserves has prompted several countries, including India, to start developing submersibles to carry humans to a depth of six kilometres.

ISA says the limitless deposits in the Indian Ocean can make India self-sufficient and help the world’s third largest emitter reach its promised net zero target by 2070.


CANNABIS

Strasbourg looks to launch legal cannabis experiment, as German laws change on 1 April

As Germany authorises the consumption and cultivation of cannabis from 1 April, the mayor of Strasbourg is calling for the introduction of a local ‘experiment’ to move away from France’s repressive approach to marijuana.

According to Mayor Jeanne Barseghian: “In a shared catchment area, we are going to have two different sets of regulations, almost diametrically opposed, between Germany, which authorises the recreational use of cannabis, and France, which has one of the most repressive sets of laws in Europe”.

“Obviously, this raises questions,” she told French news agency AFP, “and it’s bound to raise questions among the population”, stressing the flow of people and commerce between the two countries via Strasbourg – a border town whose transport network extends across the Rhine and leads many users to travel there on a daily basis to work or do their shopping.

“The fact that a European country like Germany, which is committed to public order and public health, has decided to change its legislation clearly shows that a purely repressive policy did not seem satisfactory or effective. In my opinion, this should provide food for thought” about French policy choices in this area.

She cites figures from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, according to which 47 percent of French adults say they have already used cannabis, a higher figure than in any other EU country.

France has 5 million cannabis users, according to the French Drugs Observatory.

“As the mayor of a large city, I am confronted on a daily basis with calls from residents who are legitimately concerned about [drug] trafficking, which generates feelings of insecurity, and even delinquency and a parallel economy”, she says. 



No coffee shops

Barseghian is keeping a close eye on changes in German legislation and their possible consequences on the French side of the border.

“This has been a point of attention for over a year. Together with the mayor of Kehl [a neighbouring German town], we took the initiative of calling on the German authorities to consider cross-border areas like ours”, she explains.

The new law, passed by the Bundestag at the end of February, authorises people living in Germany for at least six months to grow up to three plants at home for their own use, or to buy up to 50 grammes of dried cannabis per month from the new “Cannabis Club” non-profit associations.

“It’s going to be very tightly controlled, much less permissive than in the Netherlands,” says Barseghian.

“These clubs will not be places where people consume cannabis, there will be no coffee shops“, she insists.

  • Germany gives green light to ‘controlled’ use of cannabis
  • France bans sale of HHC, the first semi-synthetic cannabis found in Europe

Pioneering city

The mayor believes it would be interesting to launch a cannabis experiment on a local, cross-border scale, which would enable the authorities in Strasbourg to test what is going to be implemented on the German side of the border. 

She defends this approach by highlighting the experience and local know-how in the field of prevention and support for drug users, Strasbourg and Paris being the only two cities in France to have two low-risk drug consumption rooms.

“The city of Strasbourg has been a pioneer in harm reduction and the fight against addiction for several mandates now, with a policy that has set an example at national, European and international level”, she points out.

“We have a whole ecosystem of associations, doctors and elected representatives who see this issue not in terms of repression, but in terms of health: a person in a situation of addiction is a public health problem, and we need to be able to support them to get out of addiction”.

However, the launch such an experiment is not up to the local authorities and Barseghian is hoping to find support on a national level and is counting on the Treaty of Aachen – signed in 2019 between France and Germany – which authorises “waivers” for the implementation of cross-border projects, particularly in the field of health.


NETHERLANDS

Hostage ordeal in the Netherlands resolved peacefully, suspect arrested

A hostage drama in the Netherlands that lasted several hours ended without bloodshed on Saturday as all four hostages were freed and police took the suspect into custody.

Dutch authorities said there was no reason to suspect a “terrorist motive” for the ordeal, which took place at a night spot popular with young people in the central Dutch town of Ede.

Police said they received reports of a potential hostage situation at 05h15 local time at the Café Petticoat, with local media saying a “confused” man burst in as staff were clearing up after a party.

The man was armed with “several knives” that he showed to the hostages, prosecutor Marthyne Kunst told reporters at a news conference in Ede’s town hall.

Police are also investigating a black backpack he was carrying with him, amid reports that the hostage-taker had threatened to use explosives.

The authorities later confirmed there were in fact no explosives in the backpack.



Police spokesperson Anne Jan Oosterheert said officers were on the scene within minutes, immediately opening negotiations with the man. 

“Luckily that all went well,” he said, declining to offer details of the negotiations.

The suspect is known to the police and has a previous conviction for threatening behaviour.

Investigations are under way as to his motive and psychological state, Kunst said.

“Great respect and appreciation for police, emergency services and special forces who brought the hostage situation … to a successful conclusion,” said outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

“I wish everyone affected a great deal of strength to deal with these intense and dramatic events,” he added.

  • Emotional scenes as kidnapped journalist Olivier Dubois returns to France

‘Terrible situation’

The incident sparked a major deployment including riot police and explosives experts.

Police cleared the town centre and evacuated the residents of some 150 buildings near the cafe. Trains were diverted away from the town as a precaution.

Hours after the ordeal began, an initial group of three people was released, pictures from public broadcaster NOS showing them exiting the building with their hands in the air.

The fourth hostage was freed shortly afterwards, with the suspected hostage-taker then arrested.

NOS images showed a man kneeling on the ground with his hands behind his back, as officers restrained him with handcuffs.

“A terrible situation for all these people. My concern and thoughts go out to them and their loved ones. I hope that the situation is now resolved quickly and safely,” said Ede mayor Rene Verhulst.

“Emotions are high” in the town, said the mayor, saying it had been “a very intense Saturday morning.”

  • Four hostages released after hold-up near Toulouse; suspect arrested

The Netherlands has seen a series of terror attacks and plots but not on the scale of other European countries, such as France or Britain.

In 2019, the country was stunned by a shooting spree on a tram in the city of Utrecht that claimed four lives.

Last year, a 27-year-old man armed with two guns held several people hostage at an Apple store in Amsterdam, sparking a tense five-hour ordeal.

That stand-off ended when the suspect was hit by a police car as he chased his last hostage who made a desperate break for freedom and ran out of the store.

He later died in hospital from his injuries.


Paris Olympics 2024

Olympics windfall brings prospects of happy days to Paris suburbs

Olympics naysayers would be given short shrift at the moment in and around the Paris suburbs of Le Bourget and Dugny.

Following the formal launch a €650 million regeneration project of 70 hectares, the self and the external perception of this flat plains hinterland some 20 kilometres to the north of Paris will undergo an existential change.

The new Gymnase Marie Paradis – named in homage of the first woman to climb Mont Blanc – forms the centrepiece of a revamped sports complex in the Le Bourget end of the grandly titled Cluster des Médias.

Cross a new footbridge over the A1 motorway into Dugny and voilà Le Plateau and L’Air des Vents – two tranches of land dotted with slick new apartment blocks providing just over 1,000 new abodes in what has been anointed the Village des Médias.

Aptly named too. For the first technicians will arrive from abroad over the next few days to use the homes as lodgings while they toil at the nearby International Broadcast Centre at the Le Bourget Exhibition Centre during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Once they’ve all gone home, the homes will be spruced up and sold as part of the fabled legacy strand of the contemporary Olympics extravaganza.

Chance

“It’s essentially an opportunity for people from Dugny to buy a home … especially those who couldn’t necessarily afford one,” said Quentin Gesell, the mayor of Dugny.

“It’s a chance for people from Dugny as well as from all over the Seine Saint Denis region to get larger homes to accommodate their growing families.”

Gesell – born and bred in Dugny – knows the misfortunes of living in an outback squeezed in between Le Bourget airport and the 400-hectare Georges Valbron park. Promises. Promises. Promises. So many made over the years, he recounts.

“The Universal Exhibition in 2004 was supposed to take place on the site of the media village, but unfortunately it was abandoned,” lamented the 30-year-old.

“But the Olympic Games has been the project that has made the regeneration happen. And it’s something to be proud of. In the town where I grew up, we’re going to welcome the whole world here.”

After the Games, another 13 hectares will be added to Georges Valbron park following the clean-up and landscaping of the former military oil and gas storage site Le Terrain des Essences. The 20-hectare Air des Vents – which has been mainly used as a car park for the Le Bourget Air show a – will become a separate park.

During the games, the climbing walls inside the Gymnase Marie Paradis will act as a warm-up and training zone for the sport climbing which will take place on the specially constructed walls outside between between 5 and 10 August.

And though the walls outside will disappear along with the temporary stands, the climbing walls inside the gym will remain for use by the soon to be installed Le Bourget sport climbing club.

Traditional gymnasium sports such as badminton, volleyball, handball and basketball will share the space which acted as an impromptu salon for the inauguration of the Cluster des Medias.

Pride

“I take my hat off to you all,” sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said in front of 200 or so engineers, landscapers and artisans who had worked on the revamp.

As industry minister Roland Lesclure stood approvingly at her side, she added: “You’ve worked very hard over the years and now you’re delivering a whole complex, a whole extraordinary area, on time. 

“It will allow us to be extremely proud to welcome more than 1,500 journalists and technicians from all over the world.”

If the Cluster des Médias serves as a microcosm of French technical diligence and wondrousness, security concerns highlighted the fragilities swirling amid the pomp and circumstance.

Fear

France has asked its foreign allies to send several thousand members of their security services to help guard the Olympic, it emerged on Thursday.

Poland’s defence minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz confirmed his country was joining an international coalition established for the Olympics.

It is understood that the French government has asked 46 allies to send just over 2,000 police reinforcements to join up to 45,000 French police and gendarmes who will be deployed each day during the Olympics between 26 July and 11 August.  Another 20,000 private security guards will be on the ground for the Games.

“The terrorist threat is real,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said on Monday as he announced that the country’s security forces had been placed on emergency alert – the highest level – following a terrorist attack in Moscow on 22 March that left more than 130 people dead and hundreds wounded.

Future

Thoughts of such atrocities were far from the thoughts of the local and regional dignitaries standing or glad-handing their way around the Gymnase Marie Paradis as Oudéa-Castéra and Lesclure concluded their cheerleading.

Gesell, though, was happily landlocked and loaded to enjoy the future.  

“We’ve not been well known as a town,” he conceded. “But now we find ourselves at the centre of the universe due to the Cluster des Médias.

“And we’re also getting closer to Paris too. In three years, we’ll have the Grand Paris Express railway and the automatic metro lines 16 and 17. So it’s a really great opportunity to come and live in Dugny.”

Cheaper housing costs will certainly embellish the allure as prices within the confines of inner Paris continue to rise.  

Gesell added confidently: “We’ll be able to come to this area in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and say that the Paris 2024 Olympic Games were here and look at what’s left.”


ENVIRONMENT – POLITICS

Green credentials at stake as EU scrambles to save nature restoration law

The European Union’s green commitments are on shaky ground as countries remain split over the bloc’s flagship nature restoration law – one of the biggest environmental policies ever put forward. The divisions underscore the profound impact that protests by farmers have had on EU politics. 

Aimed at reversing decades of damage to the EU’s land and water habitats, the law is a crucial pillar of the EU’s ambitious climate agenda.  

It obliges countries to restore nature on a fifth of land and sea ecosystems by 2030. This rises to 60 percent by 2040 and at least 90 percent by 2050.  

The law, which took two years to engineer, was approved by the EU parliament in February – despite a last-minute revolt by the centre-right European People’s Party.  

It was on its way to being rubber-stamped during a final vote by environmental ministers – usually a formality – on Monday when Hungary suddenly withdrew its support. 

This meant the policy no longer had the requisite backing of at least 55 percent of EU countries that represent 65 percent of the population – so the vote on it was indefinitely postponed. 

Hungary joins Finland, Poland, Belgium and Austria as countries who say they’ll abstain, while Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands continue to staunchly oppose the policy. 

  • Greater biodiversity shields forests from climate extremes, say scientists

Reputation at stake

Now, it appears, everything is back on the table – despite the many months of hoop-jumping, text rewrites, backroom negotiations, compromises, and kowtowing to farmers worried about the impacts on industry.  

Abandoning policy at such a late stage in the EU lawmaking process is highly unusual. Environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius warned that shelving the law will put the bloc’s international reputation on the line. 

“I cannot avoid expressing my deep regret. The current stalemate raises serious questions about the coherence and stability of EU decision-making,” Sinkevicius told ministers following the unexpected about-face by Budapest. 

Having positioned itself as a global leader on climate policy – and pushing other countries to back stronger targets to protect nature – the EU, he said, risked going “empty-handed” to the next Cop16 biodiversity summit in November. 

“We are fooling ourselves if we pretend that we can win our fight against climate change without nature,” Sinkevicius added. 

  • One in five migratory species faces extinction, UN report warns

Failing habitats

Data shows more than 80 percent of Europe’s habitats are in poor condition. Scientists say that reversing this damage will help ensure food security, protect against extreme weather events and reduce emissions.  

Ministers from member states who support the nature restoration law – also intended to help Europe achieve its aim of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 – have been outspoken over its scuppering. 

“How could we say we’ve decided not to restore nature?” Irish Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said. “Not to deliver on the protection of biodiversity is a shocking statement to the rest of the world.” 

Spanish Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera said it was worrying to see that obstructionism was becoming “customary” in the EU Council. 

Meanwhile Greenpeace said that governments “torpedoing the first tiny steps towards restoring European nature” was disgraceful.

  • France presents strategy to protect biodiversity without ‘brutality’

Farmer protests

The nature law is one of several environmental policies in EU nations to come under fire as governments seek to quell months of angry protests by farmers who say overly strict rules are bankrupting them at a time when food security is being compromised by the Ukraine war. 

“The agricultural sector is a very important sector, not only in Hungary, but everywhere in Europe,” Hungarian environment minister Aniko Raisz said. 

The deadlock over the law’s future comes as the EU gears up for parliamentary elections in June – polls that are widely expected to see a shift to the right as conservative parties appeal to rural voters who object to excessive red tape from Brussels. 

It’s now up to Belgium, holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, to engineer a consensus among member states.  

Belgium itself has said it will abstain from the vote. 

International report

Turkey looks for regional help in its battle against Kurdish rebels in Iraq

Issued on:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to end the threat posed by Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has been fighting Turkey for decades. As Turkey prepares to launch a major military operation against the organisation in Iraq, it is looking to other governments in the region for support.

Turkish forces have been carrying out military operations in northern Iraq for the last two years against bases of the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish minority rights in Turkey for decades.

But Erdogan is now vowing to permanently end the threat posed by the PKK and its affiliates in neighbouring Syria.

“We have preparations that will give new nightmares to those who think that they will bring Turkey to its knees with a ‘Terroristan’ along our southern borders,” the Turkish president bellowed earlier this month.

According to Mesut Casin, a presidential adviser and professor of international politics at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, the military operation is expected to take aim at PKK targets along the more than 300km border that Turkey shares with Iraq.

“By securing the Iraq border, Turkey is expected to create a 40km new security corridor, similar to the one in Syria,” he said.

But Casin also stressed that, to end the PKK threat, Ankara is looking beyond military means to a new model of military and diplomatic cooperation with the leaders of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Regional cooperation

Ankara got a boost in its war against the PKK this month when Baghdad banned the Kurdish group.

Erdogan is also developing close ties with the leadership of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan regional government in Erbil.

Such cooperation is seen as vital to Ankara’s goal of eradicating the PKK threat.

“Turkey will focus on the capacity of Iraqi security forces, together with the Kurdish regional government’s Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish soldiers],” explained Murat Aslan, an analyst with Turkish think tank the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

“Turkey wants a full encirclement of all PKK members in Iraq and then to destroy them, neutralise them,” Aslan said.

New leverage

In April, Erdogan is scheduled to visit both Erbil and Baghdad, where the PKK is expected to top the agenda.

Enhanced bilateral trade and increasing international transit trade through Iraq to Turkey is seen as giving Erdogan new leverage with Baghdad.

“The carrot is the new so-called ‘Development Road‘, which will connect Basra port to to the Turkish border, to Habur or to a new border gate,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served in Iraq.

“Perhaps it will have a railroad, then a parallel highway, which will bring billions of US dollars to Baghdad’s coffers,” continued Selcen, now a regional analyst for Turkey’s Medyascope news portal. 

“For that project to be realistic, there should be stability and security in Iraq. So in a way, Ankara wishes to repackage the combat against PKK within that project.”

  • France becomes first EU country to open visa service in Mosul, Iraq

Iran question

However, analysts predict Iran’s cooperation will also be needed, given that the PKK headquarters are located in the mountainous Qandil region.

“Why is Iran important? Because the Qandil mountains are not only in Iraq. They are divided between Iran and Iraq,” explained analyst Aslan.

  • Four decades later, veterans of the Iran-Iraq war still can’t forget

“Whenever an operation is planned and implemented in the region, [the PKK] go to Iran, enjoy a safe haven, and come back,” he said.

“So this campaign should be complemented by Iranian efforts, but it’s not guaranteed. We will see what happens.”

With the rivalry between Turkey and Iran increasing across the region, Tehran may be reluctant to accommodate Ankara’s demands. That could add to ongoing bilateral tensions, giving the PKK room to escape the tightening Turkish grip.


FRANCE – SECURITY

France rolls out ‘mobile security force’ for troubled schools

French Education Minister Nicole Belloubet on Friday announced the creation of a national “mobile force” to be deployed to schools facing security issues. The move comes amid a spate of death threats directed at teaching staff.

“This school force will enable struggling establishments to address difficulties over a long period, and is meant to reassure teachers” and education staff, she said during a visit to a vocational high school in Bordeaux, where staff recently faced threats.

According to French press agency AFP, the minister’s office said that the team would consist of “around 20 agents from the National Education system”.

The team will be operational from the beginning of the 2024 school year, in September.

In the event of a crisis, “it can be deployed nationwide within 48 hours” if local school authorities need additional support, she said.

Hijab row

Schools can already call in “mobile security teams” under a regional system that was established in 2009.

The new unit comes after the principal of the Maurice-Ravel High School in Paris resigned over threats he received after asking a Muslim student to remove her headscarf.

A complaint filed by the girl against the principal was dismissed, but he chose to step down, citing safety reasons.

  • School principal resigns after receiving death threats in hijab row
  • French schools sent threatening messages and beheading videos, says ministry

Messaging suspended

As a result of repeated threats sent via the internal electronic messaging system for schools, the education ministry said the platform would be suspended until further notice.

Hundreds of middle and high schools have been targeted by hacking of the ENT messaging system, prompting the decision to deactivate it to prevent more of what Belloubet called “malicious acts”.

According to the ministry, 340 schools have received threats since the middle of last week. Some schools were temporarily evacuated, and one teenager was arrested in relation to the hacks.

(with newswires)


FRANCE – HEALTH

France’s law to ensure people ‘age well’ falls short of expectations

Like many developed countries, France is facing an ageing population and low birth rate. Parliament this week approved a law that aims to help seniors “age well”. After months of debate, however, MPs across the political spectrum worry the final bill isn’t ambitious enough.

The proposed law on “healthy ageing and autonomy” was definitively approved by the upper house of parliament on Wednesday, following a green light from the lower house last week.

“We all want an ambitious reform to meet the challenge of ageing,” Renaissance party MP Annie Vidal told France Info.

One of four rapporteurs involved in examining the legislation, she defended the bill as “pragmatic”.

But it has been criticised by MPs who say the text falls short of the wider plan on senior care and autonomy promised by President Emmanuel Macron during his first mandate.

“While it includes some interesting advances, this text cannot replace an overall strategy proposed by the government,” said Philippe Mouiller, a senator from the conservative Republicans party.

Socialist and green MPs abstained from the vote while the Communist Party rejected the text.

It’s “a publicity stunt to give the illusion of progress on this issue” according to Communist senator Cathy Apourceau-Poly.

Among the key concerns is the need for a clear plan for financing elderly care.

Declining birthrate

France’s birth rate continues to decline, while life expectancy has increased. By 2030, there will be more people over 65 than under 15.

According to national statistics office Insee, some 678,000 babies were born in France in 2023, the lowest figure since World War II.

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

The first draft of the bill was tabled in April last year and has seen months of debate by lawmakers, who took into account hundreds of amendments.

One of the articles in the newly approved text requires the government to review the plan “every five years”, with a first version required before 31 December 2024.

Visiting rights

The law will protect the right to receive daily visits in health establishments, as well as in places caring for the elderly or people with disabilities.

This came about after many families were cut off from their relatives during the Covid-19 crisis.

A visit can only be refused “if it constitutes a threat to public order” or “a threat to the health of the resident” and that of other members of the establishment, the law says.

The right to visit dying patients or those in palliative care people will now be unconditional, including in the event of a new pandemic.

  • Recognising (and paying) caregivers, the ‘invisible spine’ of France’s health system

Under the law, retirement and nursing homes must also guarantee their residents “the right to welcome their pets”, on the condition that they’re able to care for them properly.

The list of domestic animals and their maximum size is yet to be defined.

Crackdown on elder abuse

Dedicated units are to be set up in each French department where cases of elder abuse can be reported and centralised.

A new feature in the law frees people bound to professional secrecy – such as caregivers, notaries and bankers – to alert the unit without exposing themselves to disciplinary proceedings.

All personal service professionals, including home helpers, will be barred from working if they have been convicted of a crime or misdemeanour. This rule expands a measure that already applied in nursing homes and various medical establishments.

Managers of structures may also be informed of other incidents which do not appear on a staff member’s criminal record, such as an indictment or a conviction contested on appeal.

“The objective is to prevent a rapist from continuing to work with vulnerable people for several years while awaiting the final judgment,” MP Vidal told France Info.

“Employers will be able to take measures to remove the person in question, in particular by assigning them to a position that does not require contact with the public.”

  • Half a million elderly people live in isolation in France – report

Early intervention

To help older people from the first signs of dependence, appointments will be offered from the age of 60 as part of an “early detection and prevention of loss of autonomy programme”.

Under the programme, already tested in several parts of France, people are accompanied to choose their wheelchair, stair lift or hearing aid, as well as arrange their home according to their needs.

Mayors will be also asked to create a register of elderly people or people with disabilities who request certain social and health services.

Such registers are already kept on an opt-in basis and used to check in with vulnerable people in the event of a heatwave. 

The Sound Kitchen

The Bocuse d’Or International Cooking Competition

Issued on:

This week on The Sound Kitchen, a special treat: You’ll hear about the European final from one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions. 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 about a European “cook-off”: 20 young chefs from Europe compete for the chance to make it to the international finals of the cooking competition founded by the beloved French chef, Paul Bocuse. 

The quiz will be back next Saturday, 6 April. Be sure and tune in! 


Senegal

Change afoot for Senegal as Bassirou Diomaye Faye readies for power

Five days after Senegal’s landmark presidential vote, elected leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye is getting ready for a swift transition – promising to overhaul the way the country is run.

Outgoing president Macky Sall held his last government meeting in the capital Dakar this week with both Faye and fellow opposition figure Ousmane Sonko.

Sall’s last-minute postponement of the vote and the ensuing rushed electoral timetable had cast doubt over whether the handover could take place before the end of his term on 2 April.

A swift transfer of power in Senegal, described as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, would help build stability in the coup-hit region.

Faye and his team, formed from members of the Pastef party, say they’re be ready for next week’s handover, which is rumoured to happen the day Sall steps down.

The president-elect has said he will form his first government on 5 April – the day after Senegal celebrates its independence from France.

‘Surprise’ win

“Faye’s victory took many by surprise,” security analyst Babacar Ndiaye, from the Timbuktu Institute, told RFI. “The days after the election have been really peaceful so it’s a success for democracy.”

Faye’s win largely came about because of people’s anger against Sall’s autocratic and oppressive drift, Ndiaye added.

Now he and Sonko must deliver the change they promised.

Having never held elected office, Faye is set to become the fifth president of Senegal, which has a population of around 18 million people.

On Monday he promised to restore national “sovereignty” and implement his programme of “leftwing pan-Africanism“. He said he would prioritise national reconciliation, rebuilding institutions and reducing the cost of living.

Faye’s presidency could herald a profound overhaul of Senegal’s institutions.

He has spoken of reducing so-called “hyper-presidentialism” and of reintroducing the position of vice president. Some say that role might be offered to Sonko, his mentor and former Pastef party leader.

  • Senegal’s opposition hopes promise of new national currency will win votes

Faye has said he wants to slim down the government by getting rid of positions and institutions seen as useless, including the Social and Economic Council, and the High Council for Local Governments.

“This could save billions a year – money that could be used for programmes targeted at reducing inequality,” Ndiaye said.

Faye’s policies could also have regional impacts: he has promised a change in the monetary system, dropping the colonial CFA franc and switching to an Ecowas-led currency first, the “eco”. If this doesn’t come about, he’ll introduce a national currency.

“This could change Senegal by addressing the needs of the people – especially the poorest and the weakest,” Ndiaye said.

It also puts a lot of responsibility on the presidency.

“It’s one thing to be popular, but another to deliver and show good management skills.”


artificial intelligence

France appoints engineer to lead artificial intelligence safety summit

French President Emmanuel Macron has tasked engineer Anne Bouverot with organising the world’s next Artificial Intelligence (AI) safety summit, which is set to take place in France.

Bouverot has been asked to continue “ongoing international initiatives to contribute to an open and democratic global governance of AI”.

The first such summit was organised by the UK in November last year in Bletchley Park, of World War II code-breaker fame. It resulted in the Bletchley Declaration, which was signed by 28 countries.

The declaration states that AI has the potential to “transform and enhance human wellbeing, peace and prosperity”, but adds that it should be “designed, developed, deployed and used in a manner that is safe … human-centric, trustworthy and responsible”.

There has been much excitement over the development of artificial intelligence since OpenAI’s ChatGPT arrived on the scene in late 2022, but the concerns over the potential harm the technology could cause have grown in parallel.

Disinformation

For example, the EU called on Facebook, TikTok and other tech giants on Tuesday this week to crack down on deepfakes and other AI-generated content by using clear labels ahead of Europe-wide polls in June.

Brussels especially fears the impact of Russian manipulation and disinformation on the elections, taking place in the bloc’s 27 member states.

The EU has unleashed a string of measures under its newly approved Digital Services Act (DSA) to clamp down on big tech – especially regarding content moderation.

  • Political and tech leaders tackle AI safety at inaugural summit
  • Macron promises to boost investment in French artificial intelligence

Bouverot did her PhD in AI at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) university, where she is also chairwoman of the board of directors.

She also co-chairs the 15-member Generative AI Committee, which was established on in September 2023 by then prime minister Elisabeth Borne.

The committee has recommended that France invest €5 billion yearly over five years to keep up with the United States and China.

France’s summit will be proceeded by a mini virtual summit on AI to be hosted in May by South Korea, where the Bletchley Declaration and follow-up actions will be discussed.

Earlier this month the G7 – which includes the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada – said there were ongoing efforts to “advance and reinforce inter-operability between AI governance frameworks”.

(with newswires)


Diplomacy

France’s foreign minister to visit China in bid to stabilise relations

French Foreign Minister Stéphane Sejourné will visit China on Monday, Beijing’s foreign ministry has announced, as the two countries mark 60 years of diplomatic relations and seek to strengthen ties.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Sejourné would meet with his counterpart, Wang Yi. The trip may include preparations for a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to France and Italy in May.

France and China have sought to strengthen ties in recent years.

During meetings in Paris last month, Wang told President Emmanuel Macron that Beijing appreciated his country’s “independent” stance on global issues.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and France.

France has in recent years invested huge amounts of money, in nuclear and car construction industries.

  • Six decades of rocky relations between France and China
  • Macron says EU must follow its own course, avoid getting caught up in Taiwan issue

‘Rock star’ welcome

Sejourne’s visit is the second to China by a French foreign minister in less than six months, following a trip by his predecessor, Catherine Colonna, in November.

Macron also visited China last April, receiving a “rock star” welcome at a university in southern China from hundreds of enthousiastic students and fans.

Macron has brushed off accusations of cosying up to Beijing and sparked controversy by saying Europe shouldn’t be a “follower” of the United States in the event of conflict with China over Taiwan.

But despite this, France remains wary of Beijing’s growing assertiveness, especially in the Pacific, where Paris has overseas territories in New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia.

(with newswires)


PARIS OLYMPICS 2024

France seeks help from allies to bolster security during Paris Olympics

Paris (AFP) – France has asked its foreign allies to send several thousand members of their security forces to help guard the Paris Olympics, officials said Thursday, underlining the strains caused by the sporting extravaganza which begins in July.

“Several foreign nations are going to reinforce us in certain critical areas, such as dog-handling capabilities where the needs are enormous,” an official at the defence ministry told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The official did not say how many foreign soldiers would be on French soil, but Polish Defence Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz confirmed his country was joining “an international coalition established by France” for the Olympics.

An official in the French interior ministry said separately that in January Paris had asked 46 allies to send 2,185 police reinforcements.

Both officials played down the significance of the requests for foreign assistance.

“It’s a classic move for host countries ahead of the organisation of major events,” the French interior ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

For the Rugby World Cup in France last year, European allies sent 160 police officers to help with security, the official added, with some of them visible to fans as they patrolled the streets.

  • Paris Olympics to cost taxpayers between 3 and 5 billion euros, French auditor says

Security stretched

Securing the Paris Olympics is stretching France’s domestic forces, however, and an attack last Friday on a concert hall in Moscow that killed more than 140 people, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, underlined the stakes.

“The terrorist threat is real, it’s strong,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told reporters on Monday, adding that two plots by suspected Islamic extremists had already been thwarted this year.

Up to 45,000 French police and gendarmes are set to be deployed each day during the Olympics, while 18,000 troops are also expected to be mobilised, according to government figures.

Another 18,000-22,000 private security guards will be on the ground for the Games, which run from July 26 to August 11.

The request for foreign help was “for the spectators’ experience, to respond to the capacity challenge of the Games and to reinforce international cooperation,” the French interior ministry official explained.

Germany said in March that it would send an unspecified number of police to France for the Olympics, while French forces are set to travel to Germany when it holds the Euro 2024 football tournament in June and July.

  • France’s epic history of open-air stadiums captured in Paris expo

Unprecedented opening ceremony

The Olympics have been attacked in the past — most infamously in 1972 in Munich and again in 1996 in Atlanta – with the thousands of athletes, huge crowds and live global television audience making it a target.

French organisers have faced persistent questioning over their decision to hold the opening ceremony outside of the athletics stadium for the first time.

Athletes are instead set to sail down the river Seine in a flotilla of boats in a made-for-TV extravaganza. The choice has been resisted by some security officials because of the challenges for police.

The crowd size for the ceremony has been significantly reduced, but 326,000 are set to attend with tickets while hundreds of thousands more are expected on the streets or watching from windows overlooking the waterway.

French security forces are screening up to a million people before the Games, including athletes and people living close to key infrastructure, according to the interior ministry.

France was placed on its highest terror alert on Sunday following the attack in Moscow.


Israel-Hamas war

UN top court orders Israel to open more land crossings for aid into Gaza

The top United Nations court has ordered Israel to take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza – including opening more land crossings to allow food, water, fuel and other supplies into the war-ravaged enclave.

The International Court of Justice issued two new so-called provisional measures in a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of acts of genocide in its military campaign launched after the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

Israel denied it was committing genocide and accused South Africa of trying to “undermine Israel’s inherent right and obligation to defend its citizens”.

Thursday’s order came after South Africa sought more provisional measures, including a ceasefire, citing starvation in Gaza.

Israel, which had urged the court not to issue new orders, said it places no limits on aid entering Gaza and vowed to “promote new initiatives” to bring in even more assistance.

In its legally binding order, the court told Israel to take measures “without delay” to ensure “the unhindered provision” of basic services and humanitarian assistance, including food, water, fuel and medical supplies.



It also ordered Israel to immediately ensure that its military does not take action that could that could harm Palestinians’ rights under the Genocide Conventions, including by preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The court told Israel to report back in a month on its implementation of the orders.

Israel declared war in response to a bloody cross-border attack by Hamas on 7 October, in which 1,200 people were killed and 250 others taken hostage.

Israel responded with a campaign of airstrikes and a ground offensive that have left over 32,000 Palestinians dead, according to local health authorities.

  • South Africa takes Israel to international court for ‘genocidal’ acts in Gaza

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but says roughly two-thirds of the dead are women, children and teens.

Israel says over one-third of the dead are militants, though it has not provided evidence to support the claim and it blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group operates in residential areas.

The fighting has displaced over 80 percent of Gaza’s population, caused widespread damage and has sparked a humanitarian crisis.

The UN and international aid agencies say virtually the entire Gaza population is struggling to get enough food, with hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of famine, especially in hard-hit northern Gaza.

South Africa welcomed Thursday’s decision, calling it “significant”.

“The fact that Palestinian deaths are not solely caused by bombardment and ground attacks, but also by disease and starvation, indicates a need to protect the group’s right to exist,” the South African president said in a statement.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, said the ruling must be enforced by the international community.

“It must be implemented immediately, so that this decision does not remain a dead letter,” it said.

(with newswires)


South Africa

Former South African president Zuma barred from May election

South Africa’s electoral officials said Thursday that they had excluded former president Jacob Zuma from May elections, further stoking tensions in the run-up to the polls.

The country is to hold general elections on 29 May in what is expected to be the most competitive vote since the advent of democracy in 1994.

The governing African National Congress (ANC) is on the brink of dropping below 50 percent of the vote for the first time since it came to power at the end of apartheid.

The party is bleeding support amid a weak economy and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Zuma, 81, was forced out of office in 2018 under a cloud of corruption allegations but still wields political clout.

Zuma’s declaration in December that he would campaign for the opposition uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party was a blow for the ANC, as he remains popular with Zulus.

“In the case of former president Zuma, yes, we did receive an objection, which has been upheld,” electoral commission president Mosotho Moepya told reporters, without giving details.

  • South Africa’s ANC and DA look at coalition deal as elections loom

“The party that has nominated him has been informed” as have those objecting to the move, he added.

MK spokesman Nhlamulo Ndlhela told French news agency AFP the party was “looking at the merit of that objection but we will of course appeal it”.

The decision can be appealed before 2 April.

The announcement of Zuma’s exclusion came as the head of South Africa’s biggest opposition party, John Steenhuisen of the Democratic Alliance, refused to rule out a coalition deal with the ANC after the elections.

‘Intellectual property theft’

The electoral commission decision is not the MK’s only problem.

The ANC on Wednesday filed a new court application to stop the MK from using its name, alleging intellectual property theft.

According to the governing party, the uMkhonto we Sizwe name and logo are similar to those of the now disbanded apartheid-era military wing of the ANC, which could deceive or confuse voters.

A court decision is expected to be announced in the coming days.

On Tuesday a court rejected an initial complaint by the ANC, which said the MK was registered unlawfully, allowing the small radical party to stand in the election.

The general election, after which the victor will appoint a president, is set to be tense.

If the ANC falls below 50 percent of the vote it would force the party once led by Nelson Mandela to form a coalition to stay in office.

Latest opinion polls put the ANC on just over 40 percent of the vote, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance on around 27 percent and the MK at 13 percent.

Cronyism, corruption

The electoral commission said that under the constitution “any person who was convicted of an offence and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment without the option of a fine” cannot stand in an election.

Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in jail in June 2021 after refusing to testify to a panel probing financial corruption and cronyism under his presidency.

He was freed on medical parole just two months into his term.

But his jailing sparked protests, riots and looting that left more than 350 dead in South Africa‘s worst violence since the advent of democracy.

An appeals court later ruled Zuma’s release was illegally granted and ordered him back to jail.

But on returning to a correctional centre he immediately benefited from a remission of non-violent offenders approved by President Cyril Ramaphosa, his arch-rival and successor.

Besides his 2021 contempt conviction he is facing separate charges of corruption in an arms procurement scandal in the 1990s, when he was vice president.

Zuma cannot in theory seek re-election as he has already served two terms as president.

Final electoral lists are due to be published within around a fortnight.

The electoral commission has received 82 appeals relating to candidates designated by 21 political parties.

(with AFP)

The Sound Kitchen

The Bocuse d’Or International Cooking Competition

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This week on The Sound Kitchen, a special treat: You’ll hear about the European final from one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions. 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 about a European “cook-off”: 20 young chefs from Europe compete for the chance to make it to the international finals of the cooking competition founded by the beloved French chef, Paul Bocuse. 

The quiz will be back next Saturday, 6 April. Be sure and tune in! 

Spotlight on France

Podcast: France-Russia relations, hair discrimination, tax history

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How France’s new hardline position on Russia marks a major shift away from decades of pro-Russia policies. The fight to make hair discrimination illegal. And why VAT – a tax introduced 70 years ago – is so important to French finances, despite being deeply unequal.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently done a U-turn on Russia:  having argued against humiliating Russia following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he has now become one of President Vladimir Putin’s biggest critics. Journalist Elsa Vidal, the head of RFI’s Russia service, author of La fascination russe (The fascination with Russia), talks about France’s long history of Russophile foreign policy and how it has been coloured by a certain anti-Americanism. It led to complacency – even blindness – over Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule. (Listen @0’30)

France’s parliament has begun debating legislation against a form of discrimination that’s often overlooked: prejudicial treatment on the basis of hair. The bill is inspired by laws in the United States, where anti-racism campaigners have long argued that black people face unfair pressure to change their natural hair. Artist and activist Guylaine Conquet, who first came up with the idea for the French bill, explains why France is taking a different approach from the US: her proposal would classify hair discrimination as discrimination on the basis of physical appearance, not race. That’s in line with France’s universalist, “colour-blind” approach to racial discrimination, but also broadens the application of the law to everyone. (Listen @21’10) 

France was the first country to introduce a Value Added Tax (VAT), on 10 April 1954. 70 years later, the tax brings in more than half of France’s revenue, and far more than income tax. Economist Julien Blasco explains that while VAT is regressive, it serves to fund crucial social welfare programmes. (Listen @16’30)

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

With Somalia naval deal, Turkey steers into strategic but volatile region

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A naval agreement between Turkey and Somalia positions the Turkish navy in a strategically vital region, underlining Ankara’s growing ambitions at sea. But analysts warn that the deal threatens to escalate tensions with Somalia’s neighbour, Ethiopia.

Under a ten-year defence agreement ratified earlier this month, the Turkish navy will help protect Somalia’s territorial waters and facilitate training and equipment for the Somali navy.

The deal is just the latest step in Ankara’s deepening relationship with Mogadishu.

“Not only is this the location of Turkey’s largest international military base, it’s also the location of Turkey’s largest embassy in the world,” explains Norman Ricklefs, chair of multinational consultancy group Namea.

“This shows the importance Turkey has placed on Somalia, and rebuilding Somalia as a major state in the Horn of Africa, and making Somalia’s future success part of Turkey’s broader strategic goals in eastern Africa in the Red Sea region,” he says.

Turkey also signed an energy exploration deal with Somalia this month. The East African country is believed to have major oil and gas reserves both on land and within its territorial waters.

Blue-water navy 

Experts see the deepening of ties with Somalia as part of growing international competition for influence in this strategically vital region.

“This will provide Turkey an opportunity to increase its influence in the Horn of Africa,” says Elem Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu, an associate professor of African studies at Ankara’s Social Sciences University.

“Because all those external countries – Gulf countries, Western countries… even Japan – have bases in Djibouti, they are all vying to increase their development in the region, especially for economic purposes. So this is also an opportunity for Turkey,” she says.

The Somali deal comes as Ankara rapidly expands its navy’s so-called “blue-water” capabilities – the ability to operate on the open oceans, far from the country’s home ports.

Turkey has built up a fleet of energy research ships and a growing navy.

“[Naval expansion] focuses on the projection of Turkish military capacity in the maritime domain – both in protecting its own exclusive economic zones and waters, while also helping its allies and partners to do the same,” explains Sine Ozkarasahin, an independent defence analyst.

“And Somalia has been facing an increased threat of piracy.”

Tensions with Ethiopia

Turkey’s deepening military ties with Somalia come as the Horn of Africa nation faces tension with its neighbour, Ethiopia.

In January, Ethiopia infuriated Somalia by signing an agreement with the breakaway region of Somaliland, giving Addis Ababa long-desired sea access.

But Mehmet Ozkan of the Turkish National Defence University says Ankara is well placed to contain any fallout, given its ties with Ethiopia. 

“Military cooperation, personal cooperation, the personal relationship between the leaders – I think relations are pretty good,” he says.

“Because in the region everybody is looking for security cooperation, and it’s same for Ethiopia… Turkey is a security provider for Ethiopia as well.”

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

‘Drone diplomacy’

With Turkish-made military drones widely used by both the Ethiopian and Somali militaries in their wars against insurgencies, Ankara’s so-called “drone diplomacy” has been instrumental in balancing its relations with rivals.

“Turkey has also probably supplied some drones to Somalia – which are operated by Turkish operators, not Somalis – but they’ve been useful in the conflict against Al-Shabaab,” explains analyst Ricklefs.

“I know Turkey has a good relationship with Ethiopia. It has a good relationship with Somalia. So its presence in Somalia is more likely than not – given Turkey’s broader strategic aims in the region – to have a stabilising effect rather than a destabilising effect,” he argues.

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

However, Africa expert Eyrice-Tepeciklioglu warns that, given the region’s volatility, Ankara will still need to tread carefully.

“In the long run, this might lead to Turkey’s involvement in regional conflicts. This is what Turkey was trying to avoid in its Africa policy: it does not want to be a part of African conflicts, but it might be dragged into [them],” she says.

As Turkey extends its influence in one of the most volatile parts of the world, analysts suggest Ankara will need to perfect its diplomatic balancing skills.

The Sound Kitchen

There’s Music in the Kitchen, No 34

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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

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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

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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.


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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.