rfi 2024-04-05 01:07:53

Defence cooperation

As NATO marks its 75th anniversary, US says Ukraine will eventually join

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg reminded the United States that it needs allies more than ever as foreign ministers marked the 75th anniversary of the alliance on Thursday in Brussels. NATO has expanded since Russia invaded Ukraine, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that Ukraine will join.

“Europe needs North America for its security,” Stoltenberg said Thursday at a ceremony at NATO’s headquarters on the second day of a two-day summit of foreign ministers aimed at shoring up support for Ukraine.

“At the same time, North America also needs Europe. European allies provide world-class militaries, vast intelligence networks and unique diplomatic leverage, multiplying America’s might.”

The ceremony, which included cake and marching bands, marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April, 1949, which established the political and military alliance.

What began as a 12-member alliance from North America and Europe now counts 32 members, including two – Finland and Sweden – that joined in direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“Democratic nations, free people chose to join, unlike how Russia expands by annexation or illegal aggression,” Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen said on Thursday.

  • After 75 years of mutual defence, NATO eyes an uncertain future

Ukraine a candidate

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that Ukraine itself will join the alliance at some point.

“Ukraine will become a member of NATO. Our purpose at the summit is to help build a bridge to that membership,” said Blinken, adding that support for Ukraine remains “rock solid” among member states.

European leaders have been anxious about US support for Ukraine, as a $60 billion aid package is held up in Congress by Republicans.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba attended the summit to press for more air defence systems, which he said they agreed to.

“Allies will undertake an exercise of allocating or finding this – identifying these additional air defence systems in order to bring them to Ukraine, to provide them to Ukraine and help defend our skies,” he told reporters.

On Wednesday, NATO ministers agreed to start planning to play a greater role in coordinating military aid to Ukraine.

Under a proposal by Stoltenberg, NATO would take over work done by a US-led coalition known as the Ramstein group to guard against any cut in support if Donald Trump is re-elected president in November.

Diplomats said that Stoltenberg also proposed a fund of €100 billion to support Ukraine’s military over five years.

(with Reuters)


French MPs debate legislation to ban harmful ‘forever chemicals’

French lawmakers are debating a bill to ban the production and sale of products that contain PFAS, a group of synthetic chemicals that break down slowly and have been linked to cancer. MPs are divided over the legislation, while industry groups are opposed – arguing that banning the chemicals would mean layoffs.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly were on Thursday debating a bill to ban the production, import, export and sale of some products containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS.

Used in some non-stick and stain-resistant products, PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals”, because they take a long time to break down and have been detected in water, air, fish and soil in the remotest corners of the globe.

Prime Minister Gabriel said the bill, introduced by Greens MP Nicolas Thierry, is unnecessary because the use of PFAS is an issue that should be addressed on a European level.

The European Union is considering a blanket ban, but Thierry said the timeframe was too long.

The French proposal would ban by 2026 the use of PFAS in kitchen utensils and cosmetics, as well as most clothing, except for some safety gear. The entire textile industry would come under the ban by 2030.

The legislation would also set up monitoring of PFAS in water supplies across France, and would require companies to pay to clean up any spills or pollution.

Industrial pushback

Companies are lobbying against the law, and some lawmakers have introduced amendments pushing back its implementation, for kitchen appliances for example, to 2030.

The French company SEB, which owns Tefal, the world’s largest cookware producer, warned the legislation would impact jobs. It encouraged dozens of employees to bang pots in and around the National Assembly in Pars on Wednesday to demand the bill’s withdrawal.

The company says 3,000 jobs in its Rumilly and Tournus factories that produce Tefal non-stick pans would be under threat.

The best known PFAS is non-stick Teflon, which uses PFOA, which has been shown to be carcinogenic. Its American manufacturer, DuPont, has been the subject of thousands of lawsuits over water pollution and health impacts.

When it bought the Tefal brand in 1968, Seb decided to create its own non-stick coating that does not use PFOA but polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), another PFAS that the company says is not dangerous.

MPs urged to step up

In response to the protests, Thierry told the AFP news agency that the legislation is intended to protect the very employees sounding the alarm.

He added that the companies were trying to distract from the real danger by talking about employment.

“We must face up to a large scale health scandal, maybe the largest massive pollution in history,” Thierry said. “We must show up and step up to it.”

If the bill is passed in the National Assembly, it will then be debated in the Senate before a reconciled version can become law.

(with AFP)


Macron hails ‘great human chain’ behind new Olympic Aquatics Centre

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday paid tribute to the vast array of engineers, landscapers and politicians who worked on the Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis, which will be used during the Paris Olympic Games.

The 180 million-euro centre – a stone’s throw from the Stade de France in Saint-Denis – will host water polo, diving and synchronised swimming competitions between 26 July and 11 August.

In the month after, it will be used as a training facility for the Paralympics swimming events.

During the formal inauguration ceremony, Macron said: “There is a great human chain that has made it possible to build this centre. The elected representatives and local authorities who are funding it alongside the government and all the government departments who have monitored the project.

“And I’d like to congratulate our architects, the contractors and the thousands of journeymen who worked on it.

“It’s exemplary from an environmental point of view, in terms of construction and operation, and it’s exemplary from a social point of view, precisely because of the ability to integrate and promote social integration.

“And you’ve done it on time and on budget.” 

Countdown to Games

Flanked by regional leaders as well as Olympics organising committee boss Tony Estanguet, Macron was taken on a tour of the building where he met its interior designers, outfitters and architects. He was also shown models of the site and the surrounding landscape.

“In around 120 days or so we’ll have the Olympic Games,” he told around 1,000 people congregated in the stands around the main pool. “But after that this centre will be yours.

“That’s how we wanted it and that’s how we planned it.”

In the years before the bid was lodged to host the Olympics, politicians of the 1.6 million people in the Seine Saint-Denis department just outside Paris had lobbied for a pool to aid an area where statistics revealed that 60 percent of the 11-year-olds in the region were unable to swim.

“And that’s one of the challenges we face,” added Macron. “Because we want to see more and more people learning to swim at school, collège, lycée and outside school.

“We will train our future champions here in these pools and we will be able to have other sports here.

“You can be proud of what you have around here,” Macron added. “To the youngest here, this is yours.”

The Aquatics Centre will be able to host spectators around the pool in stands which can be configured for between 2,500 and 5,000 people.

Outside, a footbridge over the A1 motorway connects the complex with the Stade de France, which will be the venue for the athletic events during the Olympics.

Solar farm

On an environmental level, a 5,000 square metre roof covered with photovoltaic panels, will make it one of France’s largest urban solar farms and supply all the energy that the centre needs.

Paris organisers have said they want the Olympic Games to finish by using half the carbon emissions of London in 2012 and Rio four years later.

Paris 2024 executives initially set a target equivalent to 1.58 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. But that ambition has been lowered to around 1.75 million tonnes to allow for the visitors flying from abroad to the events around France.

Organisers promised to use either existing or temporary sites for 95 percent of the sports events.

Apart from the Aquatics Centre, the athletes village in Saint-Denis and the La Chapelle Arena have been the only venues constructed from scratch.


Senegal’s new leader announces audit of oil, gas and mining sectors

In his first speech to the nation since his election as president of Senegal, Bassirou Diomaye Faye said one of his first policy moves would be to audit the country’s oil, gas and mining sectors to root out corruption.

“The exploitation of our natural resources, which according to the constitution belong to the people, will receive particular attention from my government,” said Faye in the president’s traditional speech given the day before the country’s independence day.

“I will proceed with the disclosure of the effective ownership of extractive companies [and] with an audit of the mining, oil, and gas sector.”

Senegal’s first offshore oil development is due to start production in the middle in this year.

The Sangomar oil and gas project, operated by the Australian Woodside Energy is expected to produce about 100,000 barrels per day.

  • The long path to Senegal’s troubled presidential elections

Faye, a former tax inspector who defeated the ruling coalition’s candidate by a landslide in last month’s presidential election, also sought to reassure investors, who he said are “welcome in Senegal”.

“Investor rights will always be protected, as well as the interests of the state and the people,” he said.

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

He has never held elected office before.

(with Reuters)

France – Russia

Rare phone call between French, Russian defence ministers

France and Russia have had different takeaways from a phone call on Wednesday between French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu – a rare instance of high-level contact between the two countries, whose relationship has been strained by the war in Ukraine.

Russia said that Shoigu and Lecornu discussed the possibility of talks on the Ukraine conflict, which France immediately denied.

“Readiness for dialogue on Ukraine was noted. The starting points could be based on the Istanbul peace initiative,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement on the unexpected call, which Moscow said was initiated by France

Turkey said last month it was ready to again host a peace summit between Russia and Ukraine, but Kyiv has pushed back at the idea of negotiating directly with Moscow.

A source close to Lecornu quickly denied that France supported the plan.

“France neither accepted nor proposed anything of the sort”, the source told the AFP news agency.

The French defence ministry acknowledged the pair discussed the war in Ukraine, but stressed that Lecornu reaffirmed France’s support for Kyiv.

“France will continue to support Ukraine as long and as intensely as necessary in its fight for freedom and sovereignty, in order to bring peace and security to the European continent,” the French ministry said in a statement.

Moscow attack

Both Russia and France said the two ministers discussed the deadly attack on a Moscow concert hall that left at least 144 people dead, which was claimed by Islamic State armed group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that “radical Islamists” conducted the attack, but suggested they were linked to Ukraine.

According to the Russian defence ministry’s statement, Shoigu told Lecornu that he hoped France was not involved.

  • France raises security alert to highest level after Moscow attack

“The Kyiv regime does nothing without the approval of Western curators. We trust that in this case French special services are not behind it,” Shoigu was quoted as saying.

Lecornu said that France had no information to establish a link to Ukraine, calling on Moscow “to stop all instrumentalisation” of the attack, the French defence ministry said.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed Shoigu’s suggestion that France was behind the attack as “ridiculous”.

“It makes no sense and doesn’t fit with reality,” he told reporters, adding that the suggestion was “baroque and threatening, which is nothing new”, and a “manipulation of information, which is part of Russia’s arsenal of warfare today.”

The French defence ministry did say that Lecornu told Shoigu that France is prepared for “increased exchanges” with Russia to fight “terrorism”, following the attack.

Macron said in March that France had offered Russian security services “increased cooperation” with contact on a “technical and ministerial level” rather than direct talks with Putin.

Rare contact

Lecornu and Shoigu last held phone talks in October 2022, following a series of phone calls between Macron and Putin, the last of which was in September of that year.

Macron has in recent months toughened his line against Russia, refusing to rule out putting troops on the ground in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a phone call in April 2023.

Lavrov regularly travels to G20 meetings, but there is no indication he speaks directly with Western officials there.

(with AFP)


Police raid ex-French PM’s office in Le Havre as part of corruption inquiry

French police have searched the mayoral offices of former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe as part of a preliminary probe into possible corruption and financial wrongdoings.

Former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is cooperating with authorities, his office said on Wednesday, after police searched his office premises as part of a preliminary probe into possible corruption.

Philippe, the mayor of Le Havre, is widely seen as a potential candidate to succeed Emmanuel Macron in the 2027 French presidential election.

The search is reportedly part of a preliminary investigation opened in December 2023 on charges of influence peddling, favouritism, misappropriation of public funds and psychological harassment.

Philippe’s office said in a statement that he and his team “stand entirely and serenely at the disposal of the prosecutors to provide all of the elements necessary for the investigation”.

  • French former PM summoned in inquiry into the management of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe resigns ahead of ministerial shake-up

Speaking earlier to the BFM TV news channel, Philippe said he and his team planned to show investigators “we respected the rules”.

French newspaper Le Monde, which first reported the probe, said on Wednesday the investigation is targeting Philippe directly, as well as some of his aides.

Philippe resigned as prime minister in 2020 ahead of a government reshuffle.

He was Macron’s first prime minister, having defected from the conservative Les Républicains party to join the president’s team after the 2017 election.

In 2020, Philippe was re-elected mayor of Le Havre, the industrial port city in northern France where he built his political career.

(With newswires)


France condemns killing of Gaza NGO workers as US pressed to toughen stance with Israel

France’s Foreign Minister Sébastien Séjourné has held talks with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in Paris after a Washington-based NGO was struck by an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza, adding pressure on the United States to toughen its stance in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Blinken arrived in the French capital on Tuesday before heading to Brussels for a NATO ministerial meeting this Wednesday.

During his visit, Blinken met with French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu, before meeting with Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné and President Emmanuel Macron.

While Ukraine was high on the agenda, the killing of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen NGO by an Israeli strike in Gaza took centre stage.

Speaking at a press conference following talks with Blinken, Séjourné “strongly condemned” the Israeli airstrike on the aid workers in Gaza, adding: “The protection of humanitarian personnel is a moral and legal imperative that everyone must adhere to”.

‘Thorough and impartial investigation’

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Blinken said Washington has urged Israel to carry out a swift, thorough and impartial investigation into the airstrike against people working for the World Central Kitchen charity.

“We’ve spoken directly to the Israeli government about this particular incident. We’ve urged a swift, a thorough and impartial investigation,” Blinken told reporters in Paris, adding that humanitarian workers have to be protected.

“These people are heroes, they run into the fire, not away from it,” he said of the NGO workers killed in the strike. “We shouldn’t have a situation where people who are simply trying to help their fellow human beings are themselves at grave risk.”

Blinken stopped short of directly condemning the attack, unlike his French counterpart  Séjourné, who said “nothing can justify such a tragedy”.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the airstrike was unintended and “tragic”, and the Israeli military have pledged an independent inquiry.

  • Macron to host Blinken in Paris for talks on Ukraine and Gaza
  • Macron issues ‘war crime warning’ to Netanyahu over forced displacement in Gaza

‘No comment’ on Damascus strike

On the topic of an alleged Israeli airstrike on the Iranian embassy compound in Syria earlier this week, Séjourné declined to comment.

Iran has blamed Israel for the attack, while Israel has not openly declared responsibility for it.

The French foreign minister said the danger of an escalation of regional violence in the Middle East was the responsibility of certain actors in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Suspected Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus on Monday in a strike that Iran said killed seven of its military advisers, including three senior commanders.

French football

Mbappé’s strike takes PSG into Coupe de France final against Lyon

Somewhat ironic that Paris Saint-Germain’s bogey team Rennes were undone by a bit of old-fashioned fluke on Wednesday night at the Parc des Princes.

Just before half-time, Fabian Ruiz set Kylian Mbappé free down the left. The star striker surged into the Rennes penalty area but seemingly unsure of his wondrousness following two botched attempts, he shot prosaically towards the goal.

Steve Mandanda, who had foiled him on those earlier occasions, had the inconsequential effort covered at the right hand post but the strike hit the trailing foot of Warmed Omari to obtain unwarranted gravitas and roll tauntingly into the left side of the goal as Mandanda lay prone.

The veteran transformed his pose into a theatrically rueful sprawl as Mbappé charged off to celebrate with his teammates and the faithful.

It was his first goal in four games and rather saved his blushes after Mandanda had saved his penalty in the 37th minute and pushed another Mbappé blast onto the crossbar in the opening quarter of an hour.

During the initial exchanges, Rennes showed why they have emerged of late as PSG’s bete noire.

They have exuded yeoman ruddiness and favoured toil in their skirmishes with PSG teams boasting stars such as Neymar, Dani Alves and Lionel Messi. Rennes have won four and drawn two of the last 10 games against the big spending Parisians – most famously the 2019 Coupe de France final in which they came from 2-0 down to claim the trophy following a penalty shootout.


In the prelude to the semi-final, Rennes coach Julien Stéphan – the man who oversaw the cup coup five years ago – said his players would have to perform beyond their usual levels to have any hope of victory. They executed their boss’s enjoiner.

They ran and harried their illustrious hosts. Désiré Doué should have opened the scoring for the visitors in the eighth minute but he blazed over the crossbar of the PSG goalkeeper Gigi Donnarumma. Seconds after Mbappé had squandered his first presentable chance, Donnarumma was forced into action to push away Arnaud Kalimuendo’s vicious drive.


Rennes were in the game thanks to Mandanda’s continuing heroics but yet unable to make a significant impression at the other end. Amine Gouiri was guilty of a sloppy finish early in the second-half with only Donnarumma to beat.


And the Italy international was the busier of the two keepers in the closing stages as Rennes battled for the equaliser that would have taken the tie to a penalty shootout.


It never came. 

PSG will take on a revitalised Lyon outfit in the final on 25 May at the Pierre Stade Mauroy in Lille.

By then, Luis Enrique’s side should have claimed the Ligue 1 crown to add to their French Super Cup title.

A domestic sweep in his first season would vindicate the PSG hierarchy’s decision to ditch Chrisophe Galtier after one campaign and replace him with the 53-year-old Spaniard.

Enrique’s players are also questing for the Champions League and take on Barcelona on Wednesday in the first leg of the quarter-final. 

Lyon, who appeared doomed for relegation in November with seven points from 14 games, will be seeking a sixth Coupe de France and a first piece of silverware since 2012 while PSG will be hunting for a record 14th Coupe de France title.

France-Russia relations

How anti-Americanism shaped France’s Russophile elites

President Emmanuel Macron’s call for Europe not to rule out sending troops to Ukraine to defeat Russia marks a turning point in France’s decades-long “unhealthy fascination” with the country and its strongmen, argues journalist Elsa Vidal. So what’s been driving the charm?

“Yes I admire Vladimir Putin,” announced far-right leader Marine Le Pen in 2017 as she posed alongside the Russian president in the Kremlin.

Four years later, the leader of the hard-left France Unbowed party Jean-Luc Melenchon said Russia was not an adversary but a “partner” for France.

But fascination for Russia goes beyond populist would-be leaders – most of the governments of the Fifth Republic, whether right or left, have been Russophile.

General de Gaulle spoke of “eternal Russia”, Jacques Chirac described himself as a “lover of Russia” and Emmanuel Macron spent most of his first term in office trying to woo Putin.

Nostalgia for the empire

In her book La Fascination Russe (Fascination with Russia) journalist Elsa Vidal argues that France’s diplomatic and military elites, as well as its politicians, have developed an “unhealthy” fascination for Russia. It has led to three decades of complacency towards Moscow, obscuring the reality of Putin’s regime.

The fascination is partly based on shared nostalgia for lost glory after the French colonial empire was dismantled twice, whereas the Russian empire twice rose from the ashes.

“French politicians and military sometimes feel sympathy towards Russia, because Russia crumbled twice – in 1917 and then after the collapse of the USSR – but was then reborn.

“Vladimir Putin is promoting a new vision of Russia, which has a lot to do with imperialism. It’s attractive to part of the French that are still nostalgic about the time France was an empire, and at the centre of a colony.”

Vidal also noted resentment and envy among some French military top brass who’ve had to swallow big cuts in military spending – down from five percent of GDP in 1960 to less than two percent in 2022. Although the budget is set to increase from 2025, it will still be a far cry from the six percent of GDP that Moscow claims to be spending on defence this year.

Listen to a conversation with Elsa Vidal in the Spotlight on France podcast


But the biggest driver behind this fascination with Russia turns out be a shared antipathy for the United States, which Vidal discovered when interviewing elites for the book.

Before answering questions on Russian foreign policy, interviewees insisted on talking about US war crimes and “the evil influence of the US on world current affairs”.

“‘What about the US? What about Afghanistan? Guantanamo?’ they would say. That’s how I understood that anti-Americanism is a very powerful force and [means of] political leverage in France.”

The sentiment has its roots in two world wars.

“There’s a sort of resentment among the French that the Americans saved them twice”, notes Vidal. “It’s quite embarrassing for those in France who think that we have to be recognised as a great power in the political game, and those who long for the empire that we lost.”

Such resentment may appear churlish, but it was fed by the US administration’s disdain for France’s war-time hero General de Gaulle. 

“De Gaulle is out to achieve one-man government in France. I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more,” US President Franklin D. Roosevelt is quoted as saying in the book As He Saw It.

Vidal says the French were also angered over US attempts to build an alternative administration that they would control after the war.

In the end it didn’t happen.  “But we still seem to be quite concerned with the US wanting to dominate us,” she says. “We are still being advised or governed by people whose minds were moulded immediately after the Second World War.”

  • Why everyone wants a bit of France’s General de Gaulle

Blinded by a fantasy

Vidal spent much of her adult life living and working in Moscow and other parts of the Russian Federation, before becoming head of RFI’s Russian-language service.

She maintains that those who see Russia as the guardian of Christian and traditional family values are under an illusion.

While Putin’s regime has repressed the LGBTQ community, “it’s not a champion for family values and is not conservative,” she insists, pointing to high divorce rates and long-authorised commercial GPA.

Neither is it deeply religious. “Russia is a very secular society and only 2 percent of Russians go to church,” she adds.

While most of France’s leaders since 1958 have leaned more towards the USSR and the Russian Federation than to the US, François Hollande – Socialist president from 2012 to 2017 – was a notable exception.

In 2014, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he suspended a €1.2bn deal to sell Moscow two Mistral missile launchers.

Hollande told Vidal he hadn’t fallen for the Putin cocktail – one third seduction, one third brutality, one third surprise and a few lies – because he’d “seen it being prepared in front of him”.

Her own theory is that since France’s Socialist party had been active in fighting totalitarian regimes, especially the USSR, this may have “served as a counter poison”.

“For a president that was sometimes bashed for being too normal, he took the only decision that was historically necessary, and that France’s allies had been asking for, especially after Crimea had been annexed.”

  • France condemns Putin’s Crimea annexation, mulls sanctions

The long march to Ukraine

The Putin cocktail worked well on Emmanuel Macron.

In May 2017, just days after being elected as France’s youngest ever president, Putin got the star treatment at Versailles – the first step in several attempts to win over the Russian leader.

France supported Russian reintegration into G7 during an August 2019 summit, and that same month Macron welcomed Putin at his summer residence of Brégancon. He described Russia as “profoundly European” and said France believed in a Europe “from Lisbon to Vladivostock”.

Putin was not convinced, remarking that this vision of big Europe was “not theirs, but that of de Gaulle”.  

Vidal confirms that Moscow had not appreciated being told it had a “European destiny” and such comments reflected a misunderstanding of both Russia and its president.

As it became clear Moscow was preparing to invade Ukraine, Macron nonetheless continued to push for dialogue, meeting Putin in Moscow in February 2022. The photo of the two leaders at opposite ends of a 4m-long white table put Macron in his place.

In May 2022, having condemned the massacres in Bucha and Irpin, Macron refused to give up on the idea he could bring Putin to reason, warning against the “temptation of humiliation and spirit of revenge” towards Russia.

It was like “dropping a bomb”, Vidal says. “It was very difficult in the wake of the Bucha and Irpin war crimes, to hear the consistency with which the French president was still trying to maintain good relations with the aggressor.” 

It was a year before France began to switch sides, when in May 2023 Macron and Ukrainian President Volodomy Zelensky issued a joint declaration condemning Russia’s ongoing war of aggression.

And then, in February this year, Macron did a full U-turn urging Europe not to rule out sending troops “to help Ukraine win the war and defeat Russia”.

  • EU leaders reject Macron’s suggestion that sending troops to Ukraine is possible

Regime change

Once again his comments caused consternation among EU member states, and left the French confused.

“We are used to being the last one willing to oppose Russia, now we are leading the way,” says Vidal. “Emmanuel Macron seems to enjoy being the disruptive element.

“So we are back in our favourite position. Now we have to build a consensus around us.”

She admits it won‘t be easy, but insists France is not esclalating tensions. “We are just putting ourselves in a position that allows us to defend our interests.”

That means working towards securing a democratic Russia. Not just by talking tough, but through action, since “only deeds count” for the Kremlin.

“It’s dangerous for us all, but there are good chances that the regime will disappear if it loses the war, so I think it gives us very clear objectives,” Vidal concludes.

“If we want to have a sovereign, stable and peaceful Europe, there is no better ally for France than a democratic Russia in Europe, and that means supporting the opposition.”

This story appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast, episode #109


Shell appeals court ruling ordering it to slash emissions by 2030

A Dutch court has begun hearing an appeal brought by Shell against a landmark 2021 ruling ordering the multinational oil giant to reduce its carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030. 

Shell argues the case could harm the Dutch economy by forcing companies to reduce or sell operations, adding it would ultimately be counterproductive to the energy transition.  

It aims to reduce the carbon intensity of products it sells by 15-20 percent by 2030 from a 2016 baseline, and to become a “net zero” emissions company by 2050. 

Environmental groups accuse Shell of failing to implement the 2021 decision, which also holds the company responsible for emissions resulting from the use of fuels sold to customers. 

Historic win

It was seen as an historic victory for environmental campaigners because it marked the first time a company had been made to align its policy with the 2015 Paris climate accords

The case was brought by NGOs including Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) in 2019, who argued that Shell was in breach of its legal duty of care due to its impact on climate change. 

  • Nuclear safety in spotlight as French start-ups bring mini reactors to market
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“We are very confident. We have been working for more than two years towards this moment,” said Donald Pols outside the Hague courthouse, where four days of hearings are scheduled.

“I hope this case will change the way that Shell does business … as it is currently one of the largest polluters in the world.” 

A verdict is expected in the second half of the year. A further appeal to the Dutch Supreme Court is widely expected regardless of the outcome of this appeal. 

(with newswires)

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. 

    French football

    PSG battle Rennes for right to face Lyon in Coupe de France final

    Ligue 1 pacesetters Paris Saint-Germain take on Rennes on Wednesday night at the Parc des Princes for a place in next month’s final of the Coupe de France against Lyon.

    Pierre Sage’s side progressed to the showdown at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille on 25 May following a 3-0 victory over second division Valenciennes.

    Alexandre Lacazette opened the scoring just after half-time from the penalty spot and the 32-year-old doubled the advantage at the Groupama Stadium in the 57th minute. Substitute Gift Orban added the gloss 15 minutes from time.

    PSG lie 23 points ahead of Rennes in Ligue 1 but the Bretons have been something of a bogey side for the team from the capital.

    They have won four of their last 10 encounters including a famous victory in the final of the Coupe de France in 2019 where they came from 2-0 down to beat PSG on penalties.

    Rennes boss Julien Stéphan, who orchestrated that triumph over PSG five years ago, said: “We need to focus on this particular semi-final and also remember what we’ve done so well before.

    “Obviously, we’re not favourites,” Stéphan added. “But I think the players are capable of playing beyond their usual levels. That’s what they’ll need to do if they’re to have any chance of going through.


    “On the run to the trophy five years ago, we had to beat some of the top teams in Ligue 1 so we know it’s very difficult, but it’s not impossible.”

    Rennes and PSG enjoyed contrasting fortunes last weekend in Ligue 1 in preparation for the clash.

    Rennes slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Strasbourg while PSG emerged with an impressive 2-0 win at Marseille despite playing for the whole of the second-half with 10 men due to the dismissal of defender Lucas Beraldo.

    Star striker Kylian Mbappé was substituted mid way through the second-half with his side leading 1-0. His replacement Gonçalo Ramos slotted in the second in the closing stages to seal the win and maintain PSG’s 12-point lead over Brest with seven games remaining.

    “I think Rennes are a very good team, who are well prepared defensively,” said PSG boss Luis Enrique. “We will need to give something extra to play in a Coupe de France final.

    “One more step and we’ll be in the final. It’s a very powerful incentive,” added the 53-year-old Spaniard who has steered PSG to the 2023 French Super Cup.

    Victory on Wednesday night would maintain PSG’s push for silverware on three fronts.

    On Saturday, they entertain bottom-of-the-table Clermont with the aim of keeping their huge cushion at the top of the table.

    NextWednesday, PSG host Enrique’s old club Barcelona for the first leg of the quarter-final in the Champions League – a competition Enrique won with the Catalans in 2015.

    “After eight months of the season, we’re at the perfect moment,” said Enrique.


    Senegal’s President Faye appoints Ousmane Sonko as prime minister

    In Senegal, in his first act as leader, President Bassirou Diomaye Faye  has appointed by his ally and key backer Ousmane Sonko as prime minister.

    Sonko, 49, has been the fiercest opponent of former President Macky Sall for the past three years, and the founder of the Pastef Party, dissolved last July but still active as a banner for Faye and Sonko.

    He is also very popular among the West African nation’s youth.

    In January, Sonko had to give up on running for president himself when he was barred from the 24 March election because of a conviction for defamation after six months of convoluted legal battles.

    • Senegal’s authorities refuse to reintegrate Sonko on electoral lists

    He denies any wrongdoing.

    Campaigning jointly under the slogan “Diomaye is Sonko,” Sonko urged supporters to vote for his top lieutenant, Faye, who ultimately won with over 54% of the vote in the first round.

    Faye was inaugurated president on Tuesday.

    • Bassirou Diomaye Faye becomes Senegal’s youngest president ever

    Speaking after his appointment, Sonko said he would present Faye with a full list of proposed ministerial appointments for his approval.

    “There will be no question of leaving him alone to assume this heavy responsibility”, Sonko added.

    “I measure the importance of the trust he (President Faye) has placed in me,” Ousmane Sonko told the Senegalese public media RTS, thanking him and guaranteeing his “loyalty” and “dedication”.

    A new generation of politicians

    Faye, a 44-year-old pan-Africanist has become the youngest leader ever in charge of Senegal, and the youngest currently in power in Africa.

    He has never held elected office before.

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

    They were part of a group of political opponents freed from prison ten days before the 24 March presidential poll under an amnesty announced by Sall, a month after the latter had tried to delay the vote.   

    Both Faye and Sonko are practising Muslims from humble backgrounds, representing a new generation of youthful politicians.

     (with newswires)


    Uganda court rejects petition against harsh anti-gay law

    Uganda’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday rejected a bid to overturn its highly contentious Anti-Homosexuality Act – one of the toughest such laws in the world. 

    Despite international criticism, the court declined to nullify or suspend the law, which imposes severe penalties including death for certain same-sex acts.  

    However, the court did acknowledge that certain parts were inconsistent with fundamental rights – particularly the right to health, privacy and freedom of religion. 

    Adopted in May 2023, the legislation has led to increased persecution of LGBTQI+ people in Uganda, a conservative predominantly Christian country in East Africa

    In August last year a 20-year-old man was the first Ugandan to be charged with “aggravated homosexuality”. 

    He was accused of “unlawful sexual intercourse with … (a) male adult aged 41”, an offence punishable by death. 

    • World Bank to implement LGBTQ safeguards before resuming Uganda funding
    • Uganda’s president signs harsh anti-gay bill into law

    ‘Violation of rights’

    A petition against the law was brought by two law professors from Makerere University in the capital Kampala, by legislators from the ruling party and also human rights activists. 

    They argued that it violated fundamental rights guaranteed under Uganda’s constitution, including freedom from discrimination. 

    The petitioners also said it contravened Uganda’s commitments under international human rights law, including the United Nations convention against torture. 

    But President Yoweri Museveni‘s government has struck a defiant tone, with officials accusing the West of trying to pressure Africa into accepting homosexuality. 

    Following Wednesday’s decision, activists vowed to carry on their fight for equality and justice for the LGBTQI+ community in Uganda. 


    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)

    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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    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.