rfi 2024-04-05 16:13:10



EU – CRIME

Europol report identifies more than 800 criminal networks in EU

The Hague-based crime-fighting body Europol has mapped 821 of the EU’s “most threatening networks” involving some 50,000 people engaged in drug trafficking, fraud, migrant smuggling, human trafficking and organised property crime.

For the first time in history, Europol has gathered the information into one data centre for the judicial authorities of all 27 EU member states to access.

The result of the 12-month investigation commissioned by Brussels was presented in a 59-page report.

“Until now, every country had its own criminal oversight,” Belgian Justice Minister Paul van Tigchelt told a press conference on Friday.

“Now for the first time, we have a European oversight. A network of specialised prosecutors will be put in place on a EU level, which will use the mapping to coordinate their actions.”



Transnational operations

The main findings of the report have revealed that 821 “most threatening networks” are active across the EU.

“They commit crimes for profit and are able to operate in different countries simultaneously,” according to Catherine de Bolle, executive director of Europol, which was founded in 1993 as the “Europol Drugs Unit (EDU)”.

Gangs are active in fields ranging from drug trafficking to fraud, property crime, migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

They’re hard to get, as most of them operate semi-legally, and manage to remain under the police radar.

According to the report, 86 percent of the gangs make use of legal business structures. They Infiltrate companies at a high level, or they set up their own legal business structures, most often within the European Union.

‘Under the radar’

Sectors most vulnerable to infiltration are construction, the hospitality industry and logistics.

“These structures are used to launder money, done through real estate and cash intensive businesses. While they are expanding in these legal sectors, they can stay under the radar for periods longer than ten years,” de Bolle said.

Annelies Verlinden, Belgium’s minister of home affairs, has identified the illegal drug market as “one of the main sources of violence within the EU” and one of the main sources of income for criminal organisations.

Actions have become “more visible”, threatening the safety of EU citizens, while more minors were being drawn into the networks. Half of the drug gangs were involved in cocaine trafficking.

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De Bolle said information on which gangs were active, and the names and locations of leaders and members were not in the public version of the report.

But Van Tigchelt revealed that in Belgium, the “Mocro maffia” drug traficking gang, is one of the most active groups.

It consists of Belgian and Dutch Moroccans and is controlled from Spain, the UAE and Morocco.

The Albanian mafia is also well represented, Van Tigchelt said, adding that Albanian was the language most used in Sky ECC messages, the encrypted messaging app that was infiltrated by law enforcement and taken down in 2021.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johanson added that last year, there were 350 shootings in Sweden alone and 700 arrests related to drug raids in France.

“Gangs are resilient, and able to maintain business even if the leaders are in prison. Gangs have end-to-end control. So we need an end-to-end police organisation,” she said.

Previous reports ‘incomplete’

While Europol has in the past published “Serious and Organised Crime Assessments” (Socta), they “remained incomplete” without much detail on the intentions and capabilities of the key players behind the crimes, Johanson said.

That’s changed now, and the new report will serve as a stepping stone to “dismantle entire criminal networks.”

  • European police agency raises alarm over fake Covid-negative certificates

Preceding Interpol’s efforts, EU law enforcement already got a stronger mandate on the use of “e-evidence” – including checking emails, text messages or content from messaging apps, audiovisual content and information about a user’s online account – to fight gangs, as “85 percent of criminal investigations involve digital data”, according to an EU brief.

On 24 January, the European Commission launched the European port alliance aimed at strengthening security in all EU ports to fight drug trafficking and organised crime.

According to an EU factsheet, some 70 percent of all drug seizures made by customs take place at EU ports. Customs authorities seized 500 tonnes of drugs in 2023, more than half of which was cocaine.


EU – ARMENIA

EU vows €270m package for Armenia as ties with Russia collapse

Brussels (AFP) – The European Union on Friday pledged a €270 million financial package for Armenia as Brussels and Washington push to boost ties with Yerevan while its relations with Russia crumble.

The announcement came after talks between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken aimed at ramping up cooperation.

Caucasus nation Armenia is looking to solidify economic support from the West as it edges away from traditional ally Russia after anger with Moscow for failing to stop neighbouring Azerbaijan from recapturing territory in recent years.

Von der Leyen said the four-year “resilience and growth” package of financial grants for Armenia showed the EU stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Yerevan.

“Europe and Armenia share a long and common history and the time has come to write now a new chapter,” she said.

  • France ups military ties with Armenia with first ever visit by a defence minister

‘Shared vision’

Pashinyan said Friday’s meeting in Brussels was proof of his ex-Soviet country’s “expanding partnership” with the EU and US.

“I believe that our shared vision of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous future will continue to serve as the backbone and the guiding star of our mutually trusted relations,” he said.

Blinken said the US was also bolstering its economic support for Yerevan to $65 million this year to aid efforts to make Armenia “a strong, independent nation at peace with its neighbours”.

“We have to harness this moment of choice for the Armenian people and for its leaders,” he said.

Armenia has drawn Russia’s ire by criticising its role as a regional security guarantor and even floating the idea of applying to join the EU.

Yerevan has a longstanding alliance with Moscow but was infuriated when the Kremlin – consumed by the Ukraine war and annoyed by Pashinyan’s overtures to the West – failed to stop Azerbaijan’s seizure of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenian separatists last year.

Since then, Pashinyan and Azerbaijan‘s President Ilham Aliyev have voiced hope for a comprehensive peace agreement between their countries.

  • Armenian Resistance hero Manouchian joins France’s Panthéon luminaries

Karabakh tensions

But the two sides on Tuesday traded accusations of opening fire across their border, renewing fears of conflict.

Ahead of the talks in Brussels, Blinken called Aliyev on Wednesday to try to ease the tensions.

Pashinyan said at the Brussels meeting that he remained “committed to the normalisation of relations with Azerbaijan”.

But Turkey, Azerbaijan’s main backer, warned that Armenia’s talks with the US and EU “undermine the neutral approach that should be the basis for the solution of the complex problems of the region”.

“This initiative, which excludes Azerbaijan, will pave the way for the South Caucasus to become an area of geopolitical confrontation, rather than serving peace,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.


ENVIRONMENT

Sand storms ahead with Saharan dust cloud set to smother France

A cloud of sand from the Sahara Desert will cover the whole of France this weekend – an orange spectacle visible to the naked eye that may cause some health problems.

France will once again be covered by a cloud of sand from the Sahara this weekend, a phenomenon that already affected the south-east of the country last Saturday.

However, the dust will return for three days from Saturday 6 April, this time affecting the whole of the country.

The Saharan dust will tint the skies orange, to the delight of amateur photographers, but with consequences for the health of people with respiratory problems.



Weather models clearly show a cluster breaking away from North Africa, moving up towards France and continuing towards the rest of Europe over the next three to four days.

According to Vincent Guidard, a researcher at Météo France: “This phenomenon is caused by sand on the ground that is lifted by the wind and then falls back down. As the sand is lifted up and blown back down, the grains of sand break up into smaller dust particles.”

The dust rises into the atmosphere to an altitude of between one and seven kilometres, and is then transported by the prevailing air mass – which at the moment is headed towards Europe.

Depending on the location of the dust cloud, the sky will take on a sepia hue, and will settle on windows and windscreens.

  • French regions hit by Sahara sands on air pollution alert

Health risks

Antoine Trouche, an engineer at Airparif – the organisation that monitors air quality in the Paris region – says the sand cloud also entails health risks.

“At least on Saturday and Sunday, air quality in the Paris region will deteriorate as a result of the presence of these sand particles,” he said.

“Because within the sand mists that travel in the atmosphere, there are small particles that are less than 10 micrometres in diameter, and these [micro particles] are capable of breaking through the natural barriers that we have, particularly in the nose, and therefore of getting into the lungs.”

During episodes of sand clouds, vulnerable people suffering from respiratory illnesses, pregnant women and young children are advised to be vigilant.

“Be alert to the appearance of any symptoms linked to air pollution, such as throat irritation, coughing or breathing difficulties, and potentially, especially if you have pre-existing pathologies, call your doctor,” Trouche said.

  • French TV transforms weather forecasts to include climate change context

‘Natural cycle’

The severity of the pollution caused by sand clouds depends on their intensity, which varies, as does their number.

The arrival of sand clouds in Europe are “natural cycles” occuring regularly, usually between February and May, when weather conditions are favourable.

Sand and dust storms mainly affect people living in arid or semi-arid regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China, representing “a serious threat to health,” according to the World Meteorological Organisation.

However these sand mists are less toxic than the ultrafine particles produced by road traffic, wood burning, coal burning or fires.


EAST AFRICA

Somalia’s spat with Ethiopia deepens over naval base plans in Somaliland

Somalia has expelled the Ethiopian ambassador, ordered the closure of two Ethiopian consulates and recalled its own ambassador over Addis Ababa’s plan to build a naval base in the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Authorities in Mogadishu say they’ve given Ethiopia’s ambassador 72 hours to leave the country and ordered the closure of Ethiopian consulates in Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

However Ethiopia’s foreign ministry told Reuters it was unaware of any such moves and has no information on the matter, which was first announced by ther Somalian prime minister’s office.

“This follows … the actions of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which infringe upon Somalia’s sovereignty and internal affairs,” Somalia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Senior officials from Somaliland and Puntland, which is engaged in another constitutional dispute with Mogadishu, said they would not apply the order to shut the consulates.

“The embassy shall remain open irrespective of what Mogadishu says,” said Rhoda Elmisaid, Somaliland’s deputy foreign minister, adding that Somaliland was an “independent sovereign nation“.

Mohamud Aydid Dirir, Puntland’s information minister, said: “Somalia’s decision will not work. It cannot shut the consulates in Puntland and Somaliland.”



Naval aspirations

The expusion is linked to a dispute over a deal to lease 20km of Somaliland coastline to landlocked Ethiopia.

Somalialand claims independence and has had effective autonomy since 1991.

Ethiopia said it wanted to set up a naval base there and offered possible recognition of Somaliland in exchange – prompting a defiant response from Somalia and fears the deal could further destabilise the region, which has been plagued by an Islamist insurgency and piracy. 

Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the port deal, agreed on 1 January, was illegal – adding the country would “defend itself” if Ethiopia were to go ahead with its plan.

  • Somalia recalls envoy in anger over Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal
  • Somalia signs law ‘nullifying’ Ethiopia-Somaliland port pact

Constitutional changes

Tensions between Mogadishu and Puntland also flared last month when Puntland’s state council said it had withdrawn from the country’s federal system and would govern itself independently in a dispute over proposed changes to Somalia’s constitution.

Last weekend, Somali legislators overwhelmingly approved a series of constitutional amendments aimed at restructuring the political and electoral framework, granting greater authority to the president, and allowing him to appoint and dismiss prime ministers.

They also enhance the president’s control over electoral commission appointments, diminishing the role of federal states in the process. 

The potential repercussions of the amendments have raised concerns about violence given they would mean significantly changing the constitution.

Somalia’s move to expel the ambassador and shut down the consulates also raises concerns over the fate of some 3,000 Ethiopian soldiers stationed in Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission fighting al Shabaab militants.

In February, Mohamud said he had no plans to kick them out of the country. 


ENVIRONMENT – HEALTH

French MPs vote to ban ‘forever chemicals’ except in cookware

French lawmakers have adopted a bill to restrict the production and sale of non-essential products that contain PFAS, a group of synthetic “forever chemicals” that break down slowly and have been linked to cancer.

After a first reading, MPs in the National Assembly on Thursday unanimously approved a bill aimed at restricting the production, import, export and sale of some products containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS.

MPs had been divided over the legislation, while industry groups were opposed – arguing that banning the chemicals would mean layoffs.

The legilsation was approved unanimoulsy after cookware was excluded from the text, marking a win for manufacturers.

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 bans by 2026 the use of PFAS in 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 had lobbyied 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.”

The bill must now be debated in the Senate before it can become law.

(with AFP)


FRANCE – RWANDA

Macron says France and allies ‘could have stopped’ the Rwandan genocide

President Emmanuel Macron believes France and its Western and African allies “could have stopped” Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, but lacked the will to halt the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, the presidency has said.

Macron expressed the view in a video message to be published on Sunday to mark the 30th anniversary of the genocide, which was carried out by Hutu extremists and lasted 100 days.

He will not be travelling to Rwanda to attend commemorations in Kigali alongside President Paul Kagame.

France will instead be represented by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné.

Macron’s message will emphasise that “when the phase of total extermination against the Tutsis began, the international community had the means to know and act”, a French presidential official said, asking not to be named.

The president believes that at the time, the international community already had historical experience of witnessing genocide with the Holocaust in World War II and the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I.

Macron will say that “France, which could have stopped the genocide with its Western and African allies, did not have the will” to do so, the official added.

‘One more step’

Macron had already recognised France’s “responsibilities” in the genocide during a visit to Rwanda in 2021 – adding only the survivors could grant “the gift of forgiveness”.

Since he was elected in 2017, Macron commissioned a report on France’s role before and during the genocide and ordered the country’s archives to be opened to the public. 

The Ibuka France association, which brings together survivors of then genocide living in France, said Macon’s message was an “important step”.

Its president, the historian Marcel Kabanda, told RFI: “It is reassuring for us to go to the 30th commemoration with this declaration.”

Kabanda also called on France to go further by apologising to the victims of this genocide, and open the way to reparations – even if only through a symbolic gesture.

French historian Vincent Duclert, who chaired the commission responsible for shedding light on the role of France in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, told RFI that Macron’s speech was an example of ongoing efforts to recognised what happened.

He said France, which had military forces on the ground in Rwanda, could have intervened in April 1994.

The troops and other western troops had “all the means to do so” and organise “evacuation operations”, he told RFI.

“This is the way to resolve past traumas.”

(with AFP)


TOGO

Togo’s opposition urges mass protests over delayed elections

Togo’s opposition has called for a three-day mass protest against the delay of this month’s parliamentary elections – due in two weeks – which the government said would allow for a second reading of a contested constitutional reform.

The opposition accuses President Faure Gnassingbe of hijacking power in a bid to rule indefinitely following parliament’s approval of the reform, which would switch the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system.

Togo’s parliament, dominated by the ruling UNIR party (Union for the Republic), adopted the law on 25 March. Under it, MPs will elect the president for a single six-year term instead of a renewable five-year term.

While the new law restricts the power of future presidents, it gives greater power to a figure similar to a prime minister, officially called the president of the council of ministers. A renewable position also elected by MPs.

Saying more consultations are needed over the reform, the presidency suspended the 20 April legislative and regional elections without giving a new date.

“We felt it was important to have wide-ranging consultations … It is not possible to debate the reforms and, at the same time, campaign for upcoming elections,” Gilbert Bawara, the minister for civil service and social dialogue, told RFI.

“That’s why they’re slightly delayed.”

‘Unacceptable’

Four opposition parties and a civil society group issued a statement calling for protests on 11, 12 and 13 April.

“They are trying to force a law that we do not and will not accept,” said Paul Dodji Apévon, chairman of the opposition Democratic Forces for the Republic.

“Elections have again been postponed, and it was announced on the day before electoral campaigns should have kicked off.”

Opposition groups say they’ll press ahead with their election campaigns regardless.

The parliamentary and regional elections were originally due on December 2023 but postponed to 12 April, then later to 20 April.

Apévon said that given the parliament’s mandate ended last December, MPs were not in a legitimate position to debate on a new constitution for Togo.

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

Tensions

Amid mounting pressure, Gnassingbé sent the reform bill back to the national assembly for a second reading on 29 March – four days after it was adopted.

The Conference of Togolese Catholic Bishops had issued a statement urging him to delay promulgating the new constitution and to start an inclusive political dialogue.

Meanwhile police broke up several press conferences by opposition parties and civil society groups, including one called Don’t Touch My Constitution.

Some 100 academics, artists, politicians and activists signed an open letter calling on Togolese people to protest and reject what they called a “violation of the constitution”.

Amnesty International’s Fabien Offner told RFI that the government has a tendency to repress people who do not toe the line.

‘Open dialogue’

Minister Bawara said all parties were invited to take part in the dialogue over the constitutional reform.

When RFI asked what would happen if the opposition parties asked the government to drop the reforms, Bawara said that this was “not the objective” of a second reading.

“The reforms have already been adopted by parliament. We are trying to get the critics on board and we are asking them to contribute in improving the work already accomplished by the national assembly,” he said.

Those opposed to the reform say Gnassingbé has found another way to hold on to power and ensure he is re-elected as president of the council of ministers when his mandate expires in 2025.

Gnassingbé has been in office since 2005 after succeeding his father, who seized the presidency in a coup in 1967.

Both father and son have ruled Togo for the past 57 years.


India elections

Indian opposition leader’s arrest before elections draws international rebuke

The United States, Germany and the United Nations have expressed concern after Indian police arrested Delhi’s chief minister on corruption charges just weeks ahead of national elections. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is accused of seeking to undermine opposition-led state governments in the run-up to the polls.

Arvind Kejriwal is the fourth leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, Common Man’s Party) to be arrested on charges of taking bribes from businesses seeking permits to sell liquor in the city – but so far the police have not established a link to any purported crime.

Kejriwal claims it is a plot by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist BJP to dislodge AAP from Delhi state, where it has governed since 2013.

His 21 March arrest led to protests in Punjab state, also ruled by the AAP, and drew outcry from India’s 27-party national opposition bloc, which accused the BJP of derailing opposition-led state governments in the run-up to the April-June general elections.

“The sole purpose of the arrest is to humiliate and incapacitate the AAP,” Kejriwal’s lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi told a court hearing.

State prosecutors, however, insisted they had proof to nail the key opposition leader.

Foreign reaction

The UN, US and Germany have demanded a fair and impartial trial for Kejriwal, who will be held behind bars until 15 April.

“We encourage fair, transparent, timely legal processes. We don’t think anyone should object to that,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, stressed that the case came at a sensitive time.

“What we very much hope that in India, as in any country that is having elections, that everyone’s rights are protected, including political and civil rights, and everyone can vote in an atmosphere that is free and fair,” he told reporters.

Sebastian Fischer, a spokesperson for Germany’s foreign office, told a press conference: “We assume and expect that the standards relating to independence of judiciary and basic democratic principles will also be applied in this case.”

Government defiant

India’s foreign ministry rejected the Western concerns, saying in a statement: “India’s legal processes are based on an independent judiciary which is committed to objective and timely outcomes. Casting aspersions on that is unwarranted.”

New Delhi summoned the German embassy’s deputy chief of mission to protest his government’s remarks, the ministry said.

“We should not be interfering in each other’s internal affairs, we should not be passing comments about each others’ politics,” Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said at a recent BJP-sponsored event.

“We have told the diplomats of those countries clearly that we take very strong objection to it and we think it is not a good practice … There are certain etiquettes, there are certain conventions, certain practices to be followed in international relations.”

  • India threatens to expel French journalist ahead of Macron visit
  • India’s press freedom under scrutiny after police raids on journalists

Bank accounts frozen

Financial investigators have opened probes into at least four other state chief ministers or their family members, all of them opponents of Modi.

Kejriwal’s arrest came as Indian revenue officials froze bank accounts of the main opposition Congress party and demanded nearly 400 million euros in arrears in a tax case pending since 2018.

“Our entire financial identity has been erased. We have no money to campaign… Our ability to fight elections has been damaged,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said.

Some 970 million people are eligible to vote for a new parliament in a staggered six-week ballot that starts on 19 April.  

The BJP said this week it had invited 15 overseas political parties to tour India in May for a first-hand view of the vote.


TERRORISM

French court hands Strasbourg attack plotter 30-year prison term

A French court has sentenced Audrey Mondjehi to a 30-year jail term for helping an Islamist militant who killed five people in a 2018 attack on a Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg.

Mondjehi, 42, was the main defendant among four accused of helping Cherif Chekatt, who shot and stabbed shoppers at the market and was killed by police after a 48-hour manhunt.

Prosecutors said Mondjehi – who is of Ivorian origin – helped Chekatt obtain a gun for the attack in a square in front of Strasbourg cathedral on December 11, 2018.

Chekatt killed five people, including a Thai tourist and an Italian journalist, and wounded 11 people before he was wounded and escaped in a taxi.

He was killed in a shootout two days later after hundreds of police and security forces launched a manhunt.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, and a video of Chekatt pledging allegiance to the group was found at his home.

  • Strasbourg terror suspects in court over deadly 2018 Christmas attack

Mondjehi was found guilty of associating with terrorists but not guilty of complicity in terrorist murders as the court said he did not know what the gun was to be used for.

The accused was one of four defendants in the trial held before a special court in Paris.

He gave no reaction before being led away.

Two other men were found guilty of playing a minor role in helping Chekatt and were given jail terms of up to five years.

A third defendant was acquitted.

An 83-year-old man still faces charges for having sold the gun used in the attack to Mondjehi and Chekatt, but he is considered too ill to be tried.

Mondjehi was a former prison cellmate of Chekatt, who the court was told was a hardened criminal who had been on a list of security risks.

Prosecutors maintained the two had a close relationship in the months leading up to the market attack.



Regrets   

“I think deeply and feel a lot of sadness for all the victims. All my life I will regret what happened,” Mondjehi told the court in his final statement on Thursday ahead of the verdict.

“I would never have thought that he would have done that, I never thought that he was radicalised,” he said.

While defence lawyers acknowledged Mondjehi had admitted to helping obtain the weapon, they insisted he was unaware of Chekatt’s plans and so should not be convicted of terrorism.

  • Paris attacks jihadist Abdeslam transferred from Belgium to France

With the verdict, “the victims feel relieved,” said Mostafa Salhane, the taxi driver forced to take Chekatt away from the scene of the attack.

Salhane sat in on nearly every day of the five-week trial.

“Justice has been served,” said the mayor of Strasbourg, Jeanne Barseghian, in a statement after the sentence was handed down.

“I hope that the verdict can contribute to the process of mourning” for the victims, “even if their suffering will always be immense”.

The trial, which began in February, is the latest legal process over a number of jihadist attacks in France since 2015.

Most of the actual attackers were killed, but a number of people have faced trials for complicity.

In June 2022, 20 defendants were convicted over their roles in major attacks in the French capital in November 2015 when 130 people were killed.


France – Religion

Dearth of mosques in France leaves Muslims short of space to pray

With just 2,600 places of worship for some five million Muslims, France has a shortage of mosques – and securing permits and financing for new religious sites is notoriously difficult. That leaves many worshippers struggling to find a place to pray, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

“Quite simply, we need space,” says Abdellah, one of dozens of people lining up to enter the Javel mosque in south-west Paris for Friday prayers.

“We pray in two shifts, we’re packed in, it’s not comfortable. It’s very complicated, and during Ramadan it’s even worse. We pray as quickly as possible so that we don’t suffocate.”

The mosque, housed on one floor of a brick office building, opened in 2003 with space for around 350 worshippers. But for several years now, it has found itself struggling to accommodate those who come to pray.

“Unfortunately the south of Paris is very poorly served for Muslim places of worship. This is the only mosque in the south-west of Paris,” says the rector, Najat Benali.

The mosque offers two prayer services on Fridays to try and meet demand, she says.

“What you see now is the queue – the very long queue – for the second service, which is attended by both men and women, who have a large room that’s reserved for them.”

Thriving religion

With the number of Muslims estimated at around 5 million, Islam is France’s second-biggest religion after Catholicism.

According to national statistics office Insee, 10 percent of people in mainland France aged 18-59 identified as Muslim in 2020, compared to 29 percent who described themselves as Catholic.

Muslims were more likely to attend religious services than Catholics, with 20 percent saying they went to mosque regularly in contrast to just 8 percent who regularly go to church.

Their options are limited, however. Of around 2,600 Muslim places of worship in France, most are prayer halls, not mosques, and at least two-thirds are “of modest size”, according to a 2019 report by France’s former religion monitor, the Secularism Observatory.

It estimated that the existing facilities could accomodate around 500,000 Muslims maximum – yet nearly double that number are believed to attend Friday prayers.

Stopgap solutions

“You have to come very, very early to get in line,” says one young man waiting to pray at the Javel mosque.

“I actually came for the first prayer service, but I only got here 45 minutes beforehand and they stopped us at the front saying there was no more room and we had to wait for the 2pm prayers.”

The mosque has opened a temporary overflow space during Ramadan, which this year is expected to end on 9 April.

“During the Ramadan period we’ll have a temporary site where we can send part of the influx from the south of Paris … and try to spread it out,” says rector Benali.

“But that’s really only a short-term solution to avoid disturbing the public order.”

  • French Muslim women push for ‘inclusive’ mosque in Paris

Barriers to building

In previous years, overcrowding has driven some French Muslims to pray in the street or other unofficial sites, posing problems both for worshippers and the wider community.

But building more places to worship is no easy task. 

Under a 1905 law that aimed to separate church and state, no public funds can be used to establish new religious facilities for any faith.

The same law also transferred ownership of all France’s existing religious properties – the overwhelming majority being Catholic churches – to the state. Today some 90 percent of Catholic churches in France are owned and maintained by the government, according to a 2015 Senate report.

In contrast, all of France’s Muslim places of worship postdate the cut-off, and receive little or no public funding.

To maintain or expand their facilities, they rely instead on private donations – but many of the communities concerned, which often include immigrants and their children, have limited resources.

And in the past four years the French government has imposed strict controls on what funds religious organisations can accept from overseas donors who might otherwise make up the shortfall, in a bid to rein in what it calls “foreign influences” on French Muslims. 

  • Macron lays out strategy to tackle ‘Islamist separatism’ in France

‘We make do’

Plans to construct new mosques or convert existing buildings also run into administrative hurdles, Muslim leaders say.

Several projects have stalled or been called off altogether – notably in Marseille, home to one of France’s largest Muslim populations.

After opposition from far-right parties, the revocation of a construction permit and difficulties raising funding, the plan to build a large central mosque for the city’s 250,000 Muslim residents was abandoned for good in 2016. 

Back at the Javel mosque, a worshipper named Fatima tells RFI: “Outside the city there’s more room, mosques and prayer halls are bigger.”

It’s different in Paris, she says. “This is the capital, a big city, so there’s no land to build on or buy up.”

She has travelled from a neighbouring district of Paris to pray here, despite the crowd.

“It’s pretty tough for prayer halls, pretty cramped,” she says. “But we make do.”


This story is based on reporting by RFI’s Aram Mbengue.


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)


PARIS OLYMPICS 2024

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

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)


FRENCH POLITICS

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)


ISRAEL – HAMAS CONFLICT

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.

Chance

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.

Regret

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

Anti-Americanism

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


ENVIRONMENT – JUSTICE

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
  • Energy-related CO2 emissions hit record levels in 2023, says IEA

“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.

    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.