rfi 2024-04-03 10:06:00

War in Ukraine

NATO ministers meet to discuss €100bn military fund for Ukraine

NATO foreign ministers are on Wednesday meeting in Brussels amid increased worry about the ongoing war in Ukraine. They’re expected to discuss a proposal to create a €100 billion fund for supporting Ukraine’s military.

The proposal, by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, would give the alliance a more direct role in coordinating the supply of arms, ammunition and equipment to Ukraine as it fights Russia’s invasion.

NATO’s official stance on the Ukraine war is unequivocal: it “condemns in the strongest possible terms Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war of aggression”.

An updated statement by the alliance confirmed it would continue to provide Ukraine with “unprecedented levels of support, helping to uphold its fundamental right to self-defence.”

But Kyiv ghas said this is not enough. The country is facing critical shortages of arms and troops as it holds off an onslaught of Russian attacks.

US aid blocked

The US, NATO’s leading member, is a key military backer for Ukraine – but a €55.8 billion aid package has been held up in Congress.

Ahead of the Brussels talks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken renewed calls for Congress to release the aid.

“We are at a critical moment where it is absolutely essential to get Ukrainians what they continue to need to defend themselves, particularly when it comes to munitions and air defences,” Blinken said during a visit to an arms factory in Paris.

Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky, speaking to Congress earlier this week, said Ukrainian forces would have to cede further territory to Russia if US military aid does not arrive soon.  

The war in Ukraine has radically altered the alliance. 

As a direct result of Russia’s 2022 invasion, Finland and Sweden – formerly staunchly neutral countries – joined the alliance.

NATO seems more unified in the face of a common adversary it was than five years ago when French President Emmanuel Macron warned in an interview with The Economist that it was “becoming brain-dead”.

The US, then governed by Donald Trump, showed signs of “turning its back on us”, Macron told the weekly.

  • France to send armoured vehicles to war-torn Ukraine

Trump threat

But in spite of the current unity and willingness to provide help, there’s the real possibility of another Trump administration taking over NATO next year and causing an extra headache for Ukraine. 

Even today with the alliance stronger than ever it’s doubtful that all members will be willing to continue supplying Ukraine with arms and ammunition.

According to the French Ministry of Defence, the total value of French military equipment delivered to Ukraine until 31 December 2023 amounted to €2.6 billion.

Paris contributed a further €1.2 billion to the European Peace Facility (EPF), bringing the overall total to €3.8 billion.

This includes 445 night vision goggles, 6 TRF1 Howitzers, 30 Caesar guns and an unspecified number of ground-to-air defence Scalp, Mistral, Aster and Crotale missiles as well as 1.74 million 12.7mm cartridges, 1.1 million small arms ammunition and other equipment.

France’s contribution is dwarfed by US aid given to Kyiv, statistics published by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations show. A staggering €69.1 billion in funds and equipment has been provided by the US: that’s 18 times the amount Paris has supplied.

Meawhile figures from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy show that the EU and its institutions topped the list of combined military, humanitarian and financial government support to Ukraine. This is followed by the US, Germany, the UK and Denmark.

The NATO meeting, spread over two days, is partly meant as preparation for a summit between NATO heads of state in Washington in July.

On 4 April, NATO will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Paris Olympics 2024

A million free Paris Olympics tickets to go to locals in bid for inclusive Games

Starting in April, around one million free tickets for the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics will be handed out to local young people, amateur athletes, people with disabilities and others in a bid to broaden access to the Games. It comes after criticism that tickets on sale to the public were beyond most budgets.

The free tickets will be shared between the neighbourhoods and cities across France that are hosting Olympic events, according to the organising committee Cojop.

They are destined for people with disabilities, people in economic difficulty, young people and students, those practicing or working in sports, and residents in areas directly affected by the mega event.

Of around a million tickets, Cojop said, 100,000 were donated by organisers and others were purchased by the national government and local authorities.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, a densely populated department north of Paris that is hosting four of the Games’ big venues as well as the athletes’ village, nearly 180,000 tickets are up for grabs: 150,000 for the sporting events and 28,000 for the opening ceremony.

“We’ve chosen sports that appeal specifically to our audience,” said Mathieu Hanotin, mayor of Saint-Denis. The town is home to the Stade de France, the national stadium that will host athletics this summer.

As well as tickets for basketball, football, table tennis and trampolining, some lucky locals will also get their hands on free spots at the men’s 100m final – currently on sale for between 195 and 990 euros.

  • Have poor and troubled Paris suburbs won Olympic gold?

Prize draw

Further afield, the cities of Lyon, Nantes and Saint-Etienne – all hosting Olympic football matches – as well as sailing venue Marseille have a smaller number of free tickets available.

Each local authority will decide how to distribute its tickets, and to whom.

The greater Paris region, Île-de-France, has already opened a prize draw for 30,000 of its 50,000 places on its official app for 15- to 25-year-olds, and is inviting high schools to apply for the rest.

In Saint-Denis and neighbouring towns, meanwhile, priority will be given to locals involved in amateur sport – along with residents affected by construction work or traffic restrictions.

    Around 20,000 tickets will be reserved for them, according to Hanotin.

    “Not everyone will be able to go to the stadium,” he told a press conference last week, “but we want those who are most affected to be able to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

    • Paris vehicle traffic to be heavily restricted during 2024 Olympic Games

    Games for all?

    Organisers have been accused of falling short on their original promise to make Paris 2024 accessible to all, amid complaints about eye-watering ticket prices. 

    Around 10 percent of tickets were priced at 24 euros, organisers have insisted, while half cost less than 50 euros. They say only 10 percent are on sale for 200 euros or more, and 5 percent for 400 euros and up.

    Cojop is counting on profits from ticketing and hospitality to bring in around a third of the amount it has budgeted the cost of organising the Games, which it is aiming to cover almost entirely through revenues generated.

    The French government said it had bought 400,000 of the tickets that are being donated to members of the public. More than half of those are earmarked for young people, with smaller numbers going to volunteers, people with disabilities and public employees.


    Endangered brown bears bounce back in the French Pyrenees

    The population of brown bears in France’s Pyrenees mountains has risen to levels not seen since the 1990s, authorities have said. 

    Brown bears in the area were hunted almost to the point of extinction until three bears were released from a population in Slovenia in 1996 – making local sheep farmers furious. 

    Since then, the population has grown steadily, with the French Biodiversity Office and its Brown Bear Network counting 83 bears and 16 cubs during the course of last year.  

    Of those, 37 are female and 40 male, while the sex of the remaining six is undetermined. 

    The numbers are up from 76 bears counted in 2022 and 70 in 2021. 

    The bear population is spread over some 7,100 square kilometres, between the French Pyrénées-Orientales department and Navarre in Spain. 

    Scientists used footprints, hairs and footage from infrared cameras to count the bears. Two were the cubs of Caramelles, a bear killed by a hunter in November 2021. 

    • Bear trouble spreads in the French Pyrénées (three-part series)

    Inbreeding worries

    Despite the boost in population, French NGOs say the survival of the species in the area is still not guaranteed – accusing authorities of disregard the “essential question” of increasing inbreeding. 

    “All cubs born in 2023 are affected,” they said in a joint letter, adding that some were the result of parents and grandparents who are already inbred.  

    “Genetic diversity is deteriorating […] All studies confirm this, but the state refuses to act.” 

    More than 85 percent of brown bears born in the mountain range since 1996 were the offspring of a single male, Pyros, the NGOs added. 

    Activists see bears as integral to preserving a fragile mountain ecosystem that is under threat from human activity and climate change.

    The population of brown bears in the Pyrenees is subject to annual cross-border monitoring involving the Andorran and Spanish authorities. 


    Bassirou Diomaye Faye becomes Senegal’s youngest president ever

    Bassirou Diomaye Faye became Senegal’s youngest president, Tuesday, pledging systemic change, greater sovereignty and calm after years of turmoil in the country.

    The ceremony took place  in the town of Diamniadio, near the capital Dakar Tuesday morning before Faye headed for the presidential palace for the formal handover of power by the former president,  Macky Sall.

    He then gave his first official presidential speech, which began at 13:00.

    “Before God and the Senegalese nation, I swear to faithfully fulfil the office of President of the Republic of Senegal,” the 44-year-old said before hundreds of officials and several African heads of state at an exhibition centre in the town.

    He renewed his promise of “systemic change” and “greater sovereignty”.

    He also vowed to “scrupulously observe the provisions of the Constitution and the laws” and to defend “the integrity of the territory and national independence, and to spare no effort to achieve African unity”.

    International support

    Among the guests were Nigeria’s  President Bola Ahmed Tinubu as well as the leaders of the juntas in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, all of whom have said they will be breaking away from West Africa‘s regional economic group Ecowas.

    After three tense years in the traditionally stable nation, Faye’s democratic victory was hailed  internationally.

    Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday spoke with the president-elect by telephone and “underscored the United States’ strong interest in deepening the partnership,” between their two countries.

    Faye has voiced admiration for international leaders like former US president Barack Obama and South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

    He also seeks to bring Sahel‘s military-run Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger back into the fold of Ecowas.

    • Insecurity erodes chances of return to civilian rule in Niger and Mali

    Commonly known as Diomaye, or “the honourable one” in his local Serer language, he won the March 24 election with 54.3 percent of the vote.

    The remarkable turnaround came after the government had dissolved his the party, Pastef,  he co-founded last July with Sonko in 2014, before Sall decided, in February, to  postpone the election.

    The 44-year-old pan-Africanist becomes the youngest leader ever in charge of Senegal, and the youngest currently in power in Africa.

    He has never before held an elected office before.

    Faye’s campaign was launched whilst he was still in detention.

    He was one of a group of political opponents freed from prison 10 days before the March 24 presidential ballot under an amnesty announced by Sall who had tried to delay the vote.   

    • Thousands celebrate release of Senegalese opposition leaders ahead of election


    French teachers strike over ‘unfair’ classroom groups, lack of resources

    Several unions representing middle and high schools in France are calling for another round of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday to demand the abandonment of a scheme separating students into levels, as well as a salary hike and more resources for public schools.

    Launched by the Snes-FSU union, the strike will mostly affect middle schools. They want the removal of the controversial scheme of dividing classes up based on “good” and “bad” results and they are demanding salary increases and better resources for public schools.

    Rallies are expected to take place in many cities in France on Tuesday.

    In Paris, the demonstration will start near the Luxembourg Gardens around 2 p.m.

    Already on strike several times since the beginning of the year, French teachers are angry about a set of reforms launched by former Education Minister Gabriel Attal called “Shock of Knowledge” (Choc des savoirs) to boost basic reading and arithmetic, considered below par.

    The measure involving sorting students into smaller groups according to their levels in mathematics and French, is designed to support students in difficulty.


    The decree, published on 17 March, does not use the term “level groups”, but refers to groups “according to the needs of the students” the new Education Minister Nicole Belloubet has said.

    Unions said in a statement that the government had not consulted properly with the teaching profession, judging this publication “unacceptable and irresponsible”.

    The “level” groups are to come into effect from the start of the 2024 school year for the first two grades of middle schools and from the start of the 2025 school year for the next two grades.

    • French education minister wants to improve schools after Pisa shock
    • Striking French teachers pile pressure on embattled education minister

    Teachers say it’s already difficult enough for teachers to handle overcrowded classes with insufficent staff, let alone organise different groups within the same class.

    They’re also concerned the scheme will create unnecessary stigmatisation for struggling students.

    The recommended objective is to limit groups to “around fifteen students” the ministry note reads.

    The groups can focus on different aspects of the curriculum and include “transversal skills” such as improving concentration, memorisation and being better organised, the note reads.

    Legal action

    On Tuesday, the mayors of 12 towns in Seine-Saint-Denis, the working-class department north of Paris, jointly filed a legal complaint against the government over the lack of teaching staff and support which they say has been dragging on far too long.

    Students lose 15 percent of their lesson hours – the equivalent of a year of their education – due to a lack of teachers, according to unions.

    The state may be forced to pay a financial penalty of up to €500 per day.

    “For the moment in Seine-Saint-Denis, there is a breakdown in equality. Massive efforts are needed and obviously the ministry does not have the means,” says far-left MP from the France Unbowed party (LFI) party Clémentine Autain.

    Fellow LFI MP Eric Coquerel said that after the April holidays, “if there is no response from the government, it is very possible that the strike movement will continue”.

    The department’s unions want the creation of 5,000 teaching positions and some 3,000 school assistant jobs to meet “emergency” needs.

    They also want repairs made to the buildings which have become rundown. 


    Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé dies aged 90

    Guadeloupe-born author Maryse Condé, who best known for novels tackling the legacy of slavery and colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean, has died aged of 90.

    Condé died in her sleep at hospital in the town of Apt in southeastern France on Monday night, her husband Richard Philcox said.

    She was known as one of the greatest chroniclers of the struggles and triumphs of the descendants of Africans taken as slaves to the Caribbean.

    The mother of four, who once said she “did not have the confidence to present her writing to the outside world”, did not pen her first book until she was nearly 40.

    Often tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature, “the grand storyteller” from the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe won the alternative Swedish New Academy prize in 2018.

    By then the francophone novelist, with close cropped grey hair, was confined to a wheelchair with a degenerative disease.

    Tackling racism, corruption

    Her first book Heremakhonon, which means Waiting for Happiness in the Malinke language of West Africa, centred on a Caribbean woman’s disillusioned experience in Africa.

    It caused a scandal in 1976 and three West African countries ordered the copies destroyed.

    “In those days, the entire world was talking of the success of African socialism,” she later wrote.

    “I dared to say that… these countries were victims of dictators prepared to starve their populations.”

    She found popular and critical success with novels like Segu set in the Bambara Empire of 19th-century Mali.

    Then came I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem in 1986, about a slave who became one of the first women accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials in the United States.

    But Condé still felt snubbed by the French literary establishment, never winning its top prizes.

    There was belated recognition in 2020, when President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “the fights she has waged, and more than anything this kind of fever she carries within her,” awarding her the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit.

    Eventful life

    Condé’s life was almost as eventful as one of her historical novels.

    Born on 11 February, 1934, as Maryse Boucolon, she grew up the youngest of eight children in a middle-class family in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, and only became aware she was black when she left to go to an elite school in Paris when she was 19.

    Growing up, she had not heard of slavery nor Africa, and her mother – a schoolteacher – banned the use of Creole at home.

    Her literary imagination had been fired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which she later transplanted to the Caribbean in Windward Heights.

    • Pan-African filmmaker Sarah Maldoror dies in Paris from Covid-19 complications

    In Paris her mind was opened to questions of identity when she met the Martinique writer and politician Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of the negritude literary movement that sought to reclaim black history and reject French colonial racism.

    But unlike him, Condé was a passionate believer in independence from France.

    “I understand that I am neither French nor European,” she said in a 2011 documentary. “That I belong to another world and that I have to learn to tear up lies and discover the truth about my society and myself.”

    African roots

    Condé fell for a Haitian journalist, who left her when she got pregnant. Unmarried and with a small boy, she gave up on university.

    Three years later she married Mamadou Condé, an actor from Guinea, and they moved to the West African country.

    It fulfilled a need to explore her African roots, but life in the capital Conakry was tough. “Four children to feed and to protect in a city where there is nothing, it was not easy,” she recalled.

    Her marriage to Condé fell apart and she moved to Ghana and then Senegal, eventually marrying Richard Philcox, a British teacher who became her translator and, she would say, offered her the “calm and serenity” to become a writer.

    • Artist’s quest to honour hidden heroes of fight against French slavery

    Condé lived in New York for 20 years, founding the Center for Francophone Studies at Columbia University before moving to the south of France.

    Her later works tended to be more autobiographical, including Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, about her grandmother who was a cook for a white Guadeloupean family.

    (with AFP)


    Insecurity erodes chances of return to civilian rule in Niger and Mali

    Attacks by jihadists are on the rise in both Niger and Mali, where juntas are keen to hold on to power. The volatile situation in the Sahel region is casting a long shadow over future elections and the return to civilian rule, which now look increasingly distant.

    “All parties now acknowledge that the challenges in the region are even higher than expected,” says Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, a political analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria.

    Earlier this year, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso all declared their intention to leave the West Africa regional bloc Ecowas and form a new entity, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES).

    But “AES has limited resources to organise any better response to the security issues”, Adekaiyaoja told RFI.

    “And the level of violence, after the departure of Western troops, has surprised even the juntas, especially in Niger.”

    Multiplying armed groups

    The increase in violence is due to the multiplication of armed groups, which go beyond jihadists and include militants hostile to the juntas, he explained.

    And they are now able to travel more freely within the Sahel region, including in Burkina Faso and Chad. 

    Despite the danger, Niger has ordered US troops to leave, while Mali signed a deal with Russian forces.

    Amid such insecurity, experts say it’s hard to see how a political transition could actually take place.

    • Ecowas’ future in jeopardy after Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso leave group

    Political deadlock

    In Mali, a roadmap leading to elections was supposed to be put in place in February, paving the way for the junta to leave power on 26 March – but its military rulers have already missed the deadline.

    “They are using the meltdown within Ecowas to free themselves from any democratic obligation,” Seidik Abba, a Nigerien writer and Sahel expert, told RFI.

    Groups representing legal professionals filed a petition with the Malian Constitutional Court on 28 March, demanding elections and the return to constitutional order.

    The following Sunday, more than 80 civil society organisations and political parties voiced the same demand.

    But their case seems to have little chance of success. Mali’s military authorities have not communicated about the official end of their supposedly temporary leadership, and do not seem in any way ready to give up power.

    • Mali junta to delay 2024 presidential elections

    Regional leadership

    “A key change could come from Ecowas when the next leader takes charge, after Nigeria,” according to Adekaiyaoja.

    “The region needs a much more neutral approach. Senegal would make a much better negotiator, especially after the recent election.”

    Senegal’s president-elect Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who ran on a platform of pan-Africanism, has said that he wants to bring Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso back to Ecowas.

    Adekaiyaoja fears, however, that none of the three countries’ juntas will leave power for at least another year, if not more.

    He added: “We have to monitor the other elections in the region, up until Ghana‘s in December, to see how Ecowas will be able to implement a new, and hopefully more efficient, foreign policy.”   

    • Year of elections has Africa poised for political shake-up in 2024

    Worsening terror 

    In Mali, the junta has been in power since May 2021, after the country’s second coup in ten months.

    Niger has been ruled by military leaders since they took over in a July 2023 coup, citing a worsening security situation as justification for the power grab.

    Since then jihadist violence, which had already plagued the Sahel region for most of a decade, has continued and even worsened.

    Last week 23 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush in western Niger during an offensive near the border with Burkina Faso, the defence ministry said.

    The soldiers were were killed during a “complex ambush”, the ministry said, adding that “about 30 terrorists had been neutralised”.

    Limits of power

    Groups linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have operated in Niger’s Tillaberi region – which borders Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin – since 2017, despite a massive deployment of anti-jihadist forces.

    In Mali, armed forces and foreign fighters from Russia’s Wagner Group have “unlawfully killed and summarily executed several dozen civilians in counterinsurgency operations since December 2023”, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch.

    The insecurity exposes the limits of military power.

    “They have not brought back even the safety they claimed to be able to bring back,” Abba pointed out.

    “The military succeeded in keeping France, the United States and the European Union away and as a result, no one on the outside says anything to them and that’s worrying,” he said.

    “It is therefore now necessary, in addition to internal mobilisation to bring back democracy, to call for external pressure. Otherwise, the juntas will think they can stay in power as long as they want.”

    Democratic Republic of Congo

    DR Congo names Judith Suminwa Tuluka as first woman PM

    The Democratic Republic of Congo has announced the nomination of its first woman prime minister, Judith Suminwa Tuluka. An economist, she takes over as prime minister from Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, following President Felix Tshisekedi’s re-election on 20 December.

    Tuluka – who was previously planning minister – said on national television that the “task is big, [and] the challenges are immense but together… we will get there”.

    “I am aware of the great responsibility that is mine,” she added, saying she wanted to work “for peace and development” so that the “Congolese people can benefit from the resources” of the country.

    Tshisekedi officially triumphed with 73 percent of the vote in the December vote and the vote passed largely peacefully in a country long torn by violence and instability.

    The opposition branded the ballot a sham. Voting was officially extended by a day due to logistical snarls and polls were open for days after in remote areas.

    Parties supporting Tshisekedi garnered more than 90 percent of the seats in parliament, allowing him to legislate with ease.

    National cohesion, employment

    The new Prime Minister will be tasked with pushing the president’s declared priorities of f developing and aiding youth, women and national cohesion for the nation of about 100 million people.

    Tshisekedi became president in 2019 promising to improve living conditions in DR Congo – which boasts mineral riches but has a largely impoverished population – and put an end to 25 years of bloodshed in the east.

    • Who are the armed groups ravaging the eastern DRCongo?
    • Young African photographers provide new perspective on DR Congo conflict

    According to the United Nations, some seven million people have been internally displaced by conflict in the DR Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries.

    The security situation has worsened in North Kivu province where a Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 has seized swathes of territory over the last two years.

     After eight years of dormancy, the M23 rebellion took up arms again in late 2021, seizing large swathes of eastern North Kivu province – cutting off all land access to Goma except the Rwandan border road in early February.

    Health alarm

    The World Health Organization also sounded the the alarm last month over the country’s worsening health situation, where cholera, measles, mpox, anthrax and plague are wreaking havoc.

    The health crisis is being exacerbated by violence, climate shocks, displacement, poverty and malnutrition, the WHO said, as it called for an urgent funding surge.

    Some 15,000 UN troops deployed in the DRC started to leave at the end of February, at the request of the Kinshasa government. The withdrawal is due to be completed by the end of the the year.

    (with AFP)

    French football

    Sage advice: Lyon should look back ahead of Valenciennes Coupe de France clash

    Lyon boss Pierre Sage urged his players to look back at their catastrophic start to the Ligue 1 season in order to seize their chance for glory when they take on Valenciennes in the semi-finals of the Coupe de France.

    Sage’s side go into the clash on Tuesday night at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon as favourites against a team propping up Ligue 2.

    Lyon appeared to be heading to that division earlier in the 2023/24 season.

    Former France international Laurent Blanc was dismissed as coach in September with the team showing one point from the first four games.

    His replacement, Fabio Grosso, managed to garner six more points during his eight games in charge.

    Sage, who was coach of the Lyon academy team, took over as interim boss in November and promptly oversaw two more defeats  – 2-0 to Lens and 3-0 at Marseille – to leave the seven-times champions with seven points from a possible 42.

    “If we go back to the night of that loss, the statistics were that we were almost 100 per cent certain to go down to Ligue 2,” said Sage.

    “So the players were up against the wall at that point,” Sage added. “They managed to pick themselves up, managed to win the three following games and get out of the relegation zone before the end of the year.”

    Seven games from the end of the campaign, Sage has been confirmed as permanent coach and his side lies 10th with 35 points.


    “We need just a few more points to be absolutely sure but we’re likely to achieve something that we were told was impossible to do,” added the 44-year-old Frenchman.

    “And winning the Coupe de France would be truly extraordinary. It would also reward the reaction this group has shown. As the saying goes: ‘When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up.'”

    Valenciennes appear to be heading in the opposite direction. They are bottom of Ligue 2 with 17 points from 30 fixtures. All that seemingly remains is the identity of the other teams who will drop with them into the third tier of French football.

    “We have to enjoy this incredible moment,” said Valenciennes coach Ahmed Kantar ahead of the semi-final.

    “The players have performed wonders to get us here to the semis. They’re fighters and they’ll will leave body and soul on the field to get the win.”

    Valenciennes last reached the final of the Coupe de France in 1951 when they were also in the second division.

    They lost the final to Strasbourg and have been in the last four on only two more occasions in 1963 and 1970.

    “This will be one of the best games in the history of the club,” Kantar added. “We’ve got to try and stay cool so that we can actually play it but really this is already a final for us.”

    The victors will take on either Paris Saint-Germain or Rennes in the final at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille on 25 May.

    “We must not get lulled into thinking this will be an easy match,” Sage said. “We will have to show respect to Valenciennes. They are coming to Lyon to win and we will have to work hard to stop them from doing that.”


    Iftar for All: Ramadan handouts highlight food insecurity in Paris

    For the second year running, hundreds of volunteers across Paris and its suburbs joined the ‘Iftaar for All’ campaign to hand out free food to people in need to mark the Muslim month of Ramadan. As inflation and precarity tip more people into poverty, charities say they’re seeing a rise in the number of people seeking help.

    “People don’t see us. It’s like we’re invisible. If it wasn’t for food parcels, I’d die of hunger,” said Nelly, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, who chanced upon one of the ten Iftaar for All stands delivering food to people in need in and around Paris.

    It was a biting cold evening in Paris and Nelly was walking towards the spot where she usually picks up free warm milk when she saw a table heaped with food parcels, which volunteers from the charity Muslim Hands were handing out behind the posh Printemps department store.

    “Food assistance is vital for us,” Nelly said. “In my case, I have only 10 euros for the next 10 days until the end of the month.” 

    She is one of thousands of people in Paris and its suburbs who received food parcels, or a warm meal, during the one-day Iftaar for All event organised by Hmarket supermarket and six French charities on 28 March.

    Food for all

    It was the second edition of Iftaar for All, a yearly event aiming to distribute food to all people in need – not only Muslims – during the month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during the day.

    Ramadan, a lunar month, this year began on 11 March and runs until 9 or 10 April.

    Iftaar, or f’tour, is the time at sunset when they break their fast. Charitable initiatives are common during that month, when sharing is as important as fasting.

    Born out of a brainstorming at Hmarket headquarters during last year’s Ramadan, the project was set up in two weeks and promptly gathered the support of four charities Hmarket works with all year round.

    “We believe it is important to join forces so as to create a greater impact on the ground,” says Attika Trabelsi, Hmarket’s communications and marketing manager. “It seemed important to build bridges and help people connect who otherwise wouldn’t.”

    Last year’s Iftaar for all enabled Muslim Hands and Amatullah to work together in Morocco following the devastating earthquake in September.

    This year, the team included the Paris Central Mosque, local charities G Huit and O Coeur de la Rue, and three French NGOs that operate internationally: LIFE, Muslim Hands and Amatullah.

    “We wanted to join them again this year because even though each of us is involved in food security all year round, such an event places a spotlight on what we do and helps us reach out to a larger number of people,” said Imad Bentayeb, LIFE’s country coordinator for France, Morocco and Palestine.

    Rising needs

    The first edition saw volunteers hand out 3,000 food parcels in five locations. This year, 3,500 food parcels were distributed in 10 different areas across Paris and neighbouring suburbs Nanterre and Aulnay-sous-Bois. 

    “We gave out 350 parcels in less than an hour and a half. I was surprised it went so fast, especially when there were hot meals distributed only a few metres away by [another food charity] La Soupe Saint-Eustache,” said Matthieu Jeuland, property manager at Hmarket, who was volunteering near Les Halles commercial centre in the centre of Paris.

    Need for food assistance is increasing in France. According to the independent Inequality Observatory, 5.3 million people – 8 percent of the population – lived below the poverty line in France in 2023, a rate that has been rising steadily since the mid-2000s.

    “We operate in 19 developing countries and used to carry out actions in France occasionally. But we had to open an office here because living conditions took such a hard blow after the Covid pandemic. Inflation is ever increasing and people have difficulties making ends meet,” said Bentayeb.

    Almamy Sylla, marketing and communications manager at Muslim Hands France, said they too had seen a shift.

    “We provide assistance all year round and we’ve noticed a steadily rising number of people who need us,” he said. “We often come across some families who – from the outside – do not appear to be facing difficult circumstances.”

    • More French people turn to food banks as inflation bites
    • Struggling French food bank warns it will soon be turning needy people away

    Hidden poverty

    According to Nelly, who is homeless, there is no one type of person living in poverty: “They are of all ages, all social backgrounds, foraging for food in bins.”

    Appearances are often deceptive. Nelly, like many who collected the food handouts, does not wear ragged clothes and is not dirty or gaunt. She seems put together, yet does not know where the next meal is coming from or where she’ll sleep tonight.

    “Dignity, reticence, shame, pride stop us from begging,” she says. “Some people will wait towards the end to walk up and ask for food parcels.”

    As she spoke, she shared a cream puff with a young volunteer, Yanele. Aged seven, she told RFI she was eager to come volunteering again.

    “I am relieved to see that there is a new generation who will continue what we’ve started,” said Malia, who volunteers for LIFE in its kitchen. “We had 50 mums who came to help us last year and over 80 women this year, most of whom are students.”

    First-time volunteers

    Both editions of the initiative gathered around 350 volunteers, but this year, over a hundred of them were helping Iftaar for All for the first time.

    Some having never participated in such activities before. The charity O Coeur de la Rue said it even enrolled five new volunteers.

    Sirine, a 25-year-old who works in digital communications, is a first-time volunteer with Muslim Hands and Iftaar for All but helps out twice a week with Restos du Coeur, a French organisation providing food assistance.

    “I feel as if the people we are trying to help give us much more than we give them,” she told RFI.

    “It’s such a fast-moving world and we’re fuelled by the need to acquire as many apps, or what not, to stay connected to the wider world. Yet in real life, I think we’re pretty isolated.

    “On the other hand, the rough sleepers I meet, who have none of those tools and are facing a tough reality, are capable of kindness we’ve probably never shown to others.”

    Another volunteer, Rabia, said that helping people in need broadens her perspective.

    “I was surprised to see young delivery bike or scooter riders, wondering what they are doing at the stand. Then I remembered an article describing how they are struggling,” she said.

    Saif Thabet, an Instagram content creator who covered the Iftaar for All event, told RFI it got an enthusiastic response from his followers.

    “Most of them said they wish they’d known sooner so that they could join in, and they liked that it was an operation open to all and not sectarian at all,” he said.

    Melissa Nedjam, a quality manager at Hmarket who helped distribute food in Paris, reflected: “I will go to bed thinking that I have been useful today.”


    UK says Channel crossings on small boats hit a record this winter

    Channel arrivals on small boats to the UK hit a record in the first quarter of 2024 with a nearly 42 percent rise over last year, British officials said Monday.

    The UK interior ministry said 5,373 migrants landed on the shores of southeast England in the first three months of the year after crossing the Channel in small vessels.

    This compares to 3,793 making the perilous journey from January to March in 2023 – a 41.7 percent rise and the highest figure ever for the opening quarter of any year.

    Nearly 800 arrived on 16 small boats over just the Easter weekend.

    This is a serious political problem for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a general election year, after the embattled Conservative leader repeatedly vowed to “stop the boats“.

    • Nearly 30,000 migrants crossed Channel to UK last year

    He claimed to be succeeding when the annual total fell by around a third last year, but the trend has reversed dramatically so far in 2024.

    Sunak is facing a daunting task keeping his Tories – in power since 2010 – in charge after the next election, which he must call at some point this year.

    After nearly two years lagging well behind the main Labour opposition, two weekend surveys showed a further deterioration in support for the Conservatives.

    Rwanda deal still on the cards

    One study, involving more than 18,000 voters in multiple polls over recent weeks, forecasts the party will suffer its worst election defeat in history, reduced to just 80 MPs while Labour wins a record 470.

    The small boat arrivals, and broader concerns among some voters about levels of immigration, are blamed for contributing to the predicted exodus of former Tory voters.

    The interior ministry has said that smugglers organising the Channel crossings are adapting their methods, using bigger boats and packing more people.

    • UK accused of not doing enough to stop Channel migrant crossings

    Interior Minister James Cleverly told the BBC this week that the government is now “going after the boats upstream in the supply chain”.

    Sunak is also pushing ahead with controversial proposals to deter the cross-Channel journeys by trying to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

    The UK Supreme Court blocked the plan over safety fears but the government has introduced contentious legislation to override that by declaring Rwanda “safe” and agreeing a new treaty with the east African country.

    Flights could take off within months if lawmakers approve the draft law in the coming weeks.

    (with AFP)


    Opponents slam Togo’s new constitution as ploy for Gnassingbé to stay in power

    Togo’s presidency has asked the parliament for a “second reading” of a controversial constitutional reform approved last week following public outcry over what opponents say is a ploy by President Faure Gnassingbé to hold onto power and extend his nearly two-decade-long rule.

    A “second reading” of the reform was justified by the “interest of the public aroused by the text since its adoption” last week, Gnassingbé’s office said in a statement published Friday.

    The constitutional reform, which was approved with 89 votes in favour, one against and one abstention, would grant parliament the power to choose the President, doing away with direct elections.

    This would make it likely that Gnassingbé, whose party controls the parliament, would be re-elected in next year’s presidential election.

    ‘Avoiding’ voters

    The move towards a parliamentary system is a way for Gnassingbé to avoid facing voters at the polls, says Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson, of the opposition Democratic convention of the African people (CDPA).

    “This is being done to avoid direct voting for the president, because the person holding power knows very well that it will be difficult to continue to cheat and tamper with presidential elections,” she told RFI.

    “He was never elected, you know, and he knows that the Togolese people are lying in wait for him in the next election”.

    Gnassingbé has ruled the country for 19 years, since 2005 when he took over after the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadema, who seized power in a coup in 1967. The last elections date back to 2020.

    Gnassingbé faced widespread demonstrations in 2017 and 2018 calling for an end to his family’s rule. A crackdown on protests including internet shutdown helped Gnassingbé survive the demonstrations and in May 2019 his government voted in a change to Togo’s constitution potentially enabling him to remain in office until 2030.

    Several other African countries have pushed through constitutional and legal changes in recent years, allowing their presidents to extend their terms in office.

    Parliamentary system

    Togo‘s new constitution, which would mark its fifth republic, would also limit the power of the presidency – which would be reduced to a single six-year term – and create the position of President of the council of ministers, who would have “full authority and power to manage the affairs of the government”.

    The role, similar to that of a Prime Minister, would go to the leader of the party or majority coalition of parties following legislative elections.

    Adjamagbo-Johnson says that while parliamentary systems like this exist elsewhere, the reform in Togo would not work in the current context.

    • Togolese opposition cries foul over detention of leaders opposing Gnassingbe

    “The problem is that we are faced with a system that is resistant to democracy and that has done everything it can for several years to prevent political change,” she said.

    She doubts a parliamentary system would have any more legitimacy than the presidential system that has been in place until now.

    “This surreal debate is occurring in a country where we know that elections have never been transparent,” she said.

    “This is a diversion to scheme to hold on to power indefinitely”.

    Elections coming up

    Parliamentary and regional elections are coming up on 20 April and Adjamagbo-Johnson is coordinating an opposition campaign, after having boycotted the elections in 2018.

    It is unclear when lawmakers would start a second reading of the constitutional reform and whether there would be amendments added.

    The date on which the reform would take effect has also not been communicated.

    (with newswires)


    Remains found of toddler missing from French village

    The remains of young boy who went missing last summer from a village in the French Alps were found this weekend, in the first major breakthrough in the case that has gripped France. Investigators are now trying to determine how he died.

    Prosecutor Jean-Luc Blachon said genetic testing on bones found near the tiny village of Le Vernet showed they were the remains of Emile, who went missing on 8 July 2023.

    The two-and-a-half-year-old had been with his grandparents in the village of 25 residents, where he had come to stay at their second home for the holidays.

    The bones were reportedly found by a hiker, and Blachon said that forensic investigators were analysing them to determine the cause of death.

    Police had opened a criminal investigation into a possible abduction, and had also considered the possibility that the boy fell or had an accident.

    Around a hundred gendarmes from the criminal research institute and a team of sniffer dogs will be deployed on Monday to search the area.

    Revisiting the day

    On Sunday police set up a roadblock on the only road into Le Vernet, and investigators started re-interviewing 17 people, including family members, neighbours and witnesses to revisit the moments before Emile went missing.

    The last people to have seen him were two neighbours who saw him walking alone on a street.

    • Missing UK teen found in France returned to Britain for better ‘future’

    A massive search was launched after he disappeared, involving police, soldiers, sniffer dogs, a helicopter and drones, which all failed to find any sign of him.

    Time for mourning

    “This heartbreaking news was feared,” Emile’s parents said about the discovery of the bones in a statement released by their lawyer, Jerome Triomphe.

    The statement said that the parents, both devout Catholics “now know on this Resurrection Sunday that Emile watches over them in the light and tenderness of God”, adding that “the pain and sorrow remain”.

    (with AFP)


    France mulls New Caledonia electoral reform ahead of key vote

    The future of New Caledonia’s electoral system is up for debate as the French Senate examines a constitutional reform that would broaden the roll of eligible voters ahead of provincial polls in the French overseas territory.

    Some 17,000 kilometres from the New Caledonian capital Nouméa, French senators made various changes to the government’s proposed reforms to the territory’s electoral system last week, and are due to adopt them in a formal vote on 2 April.

    The elections – due by mid-December – are crucial for New Caledonia, where the regional provinces hold a large proportion of the territory’s powers.

    The national government’s proposals aim to expand the electoral roll for the provincial elections has so far proved a sticking point in discussions on the future status of the archipelago.

    Currently reserved for certain people who have been living on the islands since before 1998 as well as their descendants, the next elections would be opened to people with at least ten years’ residence in New Caledonia.

    The change, which requires an amendment to the French Constitution, could allow an extra 11,000 people to vote.


    The fact that the electoral roll has been frozen for more than 25 years means that almost one in five voters has been excluded from elections, which would run the risk of rendering the next ballot unconstitutional.

    According to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who has travelled extensively to the region, residents need to “correct a distortion that is not in keeping with the exercise of the right to vote in a territory of the Republic”.

    But pro-independence senator Robert Xowie, who has repeatedly denounced what he calls a “murderous” and “colonialist” approach to the territory, declared: “This bill confirms the adage ‘divide and conquer'”.

    • French mission to New Caledonia unable to solve historic problems

    The Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (Flinks), an umbrella coalition of pro-independence movements, is opposed to the electoral reforms and last week demanded their “definitive withdrawal”.

    However, a motion to reject the bill tabled by the Flinks group at the French Senate on Tuesday was overwhelmingly defeated.

    With negotiations between loyalists and pro-independence groups at an impasse, pro-independence parties are also calling for mediation “to guarantee the impartiality of the State and encourage the resumption of discussions” on the institutional future of the archipelago.

    Meanwhile protests against a disputed tax reform are ongoing, fuel depots remain blocked and a recovery plan for the crisis-hit nickel industry is struggling to get off the ground. 


    During last week’s Senate debate, several senators stressed the importance of parliament remaining “impartial”.

    A number of the house’s amendments aimed to facilitate dialogue, including extending the window for constitutional reform to be suspended from July to 10 days before the next elections, provided an agreement is reached.

    For the constitution to be amended, the proposed text must be approved by both houses of parliament before going before a special joint session where it must win a three-fifths majority.

    Read also:

    • Why are talks between Paris and New Caledonia’s rival groups deadlocked?
    • Macron’s visit to New Caledonia shows Paris’ concern over Chinese influence


    France to send ageing armored vehicles, advanced missiles to Ukraine

    Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu has confirmed France will deliver hundreds of old armoured vehicles and new surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine for its war against Russia.

    In an interview with La Tribune Dimanche, Lecornu said that President Emmanuel Macron – following talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – had asked him to prepare a new aid package, which will include old but still functional French equipment.

    “The Ukrainian army needs to defend a very long front line, which requires armoured vehicles; this is absolutely crucial for troop mobility and is part of the Ukrainian requests,” he told the newspaper.

    He said France was looking at providing hundreds of VAB (Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé) front-line troop carriers in 2024 and early 2025.

    France’s army is gradually replacing its thousands of VABs, which first went into operation in the late 1970s, with a new multi-role troop carrier.

    Ground-air defence 

    Lecornu added that France was also preparing to release a new batch of Aster 30 surface-to-air missiles for the SAMP/T system provided to Kyiv.

    The Aster 30 can intercept warplanes, drones and cruise missiles within a range of 120 km.

    “Ukraine has an urgent need for better ground-air defence … Russia is intensifying its strikes, in particular on civilians and civil infrastructure,” he said.

    Lecornu said he had asked government defence procurement agency DGA (Direction Generale de l’Armement) to make proposals to accelerate production of Aster missiles, manufactured by European group MBDA.

    • France’s Macron says ground operations in Ukraine possible ‘at some point’
    • France blames Houthis for escalation of war, defends Red Sea operations

    More munitions for Kyiv

    Aster missiles are also being used in the Red Sea, where French frigates defend maritime traffic against attacks from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, he said.

    Lecornu said last week a decree was published giving the ministry powers to impose stock levels and prioritise contracts.

    France is also speeding up the development of remotely operated ammunition for delivery to Ukraine as early as this summer, Lecornu said.

    Last month, President Macron suggested the possibility of European nations sending troops to Ukraine, although he cautioned that there was no consensus as allies agreed to ramp up efforts to deliver more munitions to Kyiv.


    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.


    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”.

    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.

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

    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.

    • EU turns back the clock on daylight savings

    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.

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

    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)

    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! 

    Spotlight on France

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

    Issued on:

    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

    Issued on:

    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

    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.

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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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    The editorial team did not contribute to this article in any way.

    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.