French Farmers Heckle Macron at Agricultural Fair

President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday faced heckles and whistles from French farmers angry with reforms to their sector, as he arrived for France’s annual agricultural fair.

For over 12 hours, Macron listened and responded to critics’ rebukes and questions — only to return home to the Elysee Palace with an adopted hen.

“I saw people 500 meters away, whistling at me,” Macron said, referring to a group of cereal growers protesting against a planned European Union free-trade pact with a South American bloc, and against the clampdown on weedkiller glyphosate.

“I broke with the plan and with the rules and headed straight to them, and they stopped whistling,” he told reporters.

“No one will be left without a solution,” he said.

Macron was seeking to appease farmers who believe they have no alternative to the widely used herbicide, which environmental activists say probably causes cancer.

Mercosur warning

He also wanted to calm fears after France’s biggest farm union warned Friday that more than 20,000 farms could go bankrupt if the deal with the Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, which is the world’s top exporter of beef, plus Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) goes ahead.

Meanwhile, Macron was under pressure over a plan to allow the wolf population in the French countryside to grow, if only marginally.

“If you want me to commit to reinforce the means of protection … I will do that,” he responded.

And he called on farmers to accept a decision on minimum price rules for European farmers, “or else the market will decide for us.”

But it wasn’t all jeers and snarls for Macron at the fair.

He left the fairground with a red hen in his arms, a gift from a poultry farm owner.

“I’ll take it. We’ll just have to find a way to protect it from the dog,” he said, referring to his Labrador, Nemo.

It was a far cry from last year, when, as a presidential candidate not yet in office, Macron was hit on the head by an egg launched by a protester.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Juncker Heads to Western Balkans to Discuss EU Strategy

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a Western Balkan tour to promote the EU’s new strategy for the region.

Juncker’s tour to the six Balkan countries that remain outside the European Union starts in Macedonia, where he will hold talks with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on Sunday.

Earlier this month, the European Commission unveiled its new strategy to integrate Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

Among the six countries, the commission considers Serbia and Montenegro as current front-runners toward accession and the new strategy says they could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.

Juncker has warned that this was an “indicative date; an encouragement so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path.” 

“The EU door is open to further accessions when, and only when, the individual countries have met the criteria,” the EU road map said.

It insisted that the six countries still have many obstacles to overcome before joining the bloc, including regarding corruption, the rule of law, and relations with their neighbors.

EU member states Croatia and Slovenia are still locked in a border dispute stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Macedonia and EU-member Greece are engaged in UN-mediated talks to resolve a 27-year-old dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav republic.

The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has produced agreements in areas such as freedom of movement, justice, and the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo — as well as enabling Serbia to start EU accession talks and Brussels to sign an Association Agreement with Kosovo.

Juncker’ strip to the Western Balkans comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Belgrade this week for a two-day visit aimed at bolstering longstanding ties with Serbia.

During the visit, Lavrov welcomed Serbia’s drive to join the EU, but also vowed that Moscow would remain engaged with the Balkan country no matter what happens.

“We always wanted partners to have a free choice and develop their political ties,” Lavrov said at a news conference with President Aleksandar Vucic, who is leading Serbia through a delicate balancing act.

Although Serbia is seeking to join the EU, it continues to nurture close ties with Moscow and has said it will not join the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

‘Years of Lead’ Haunt Italian Election as Political Street Skirmishes Return

Italy has had 64 governments since the World War II and many more prime ministers, but even by its own chaotic standards the country is mired in one of the most divisive and increasingly violent parliamentary elections in recent years.

Rising political violence has prompted comparisons to the 1970s and early 1980s  — the “Years of Lead,” as they were known — when the country was engulfed in political and social turmoil and buffeted by domestic terrorism launched by extremists on the right and left of the political spectrum.

Twenty-one parties — and two highly unstable electoral alliances with shifting allegiances and sharp personal animosities, also darkened by intrigue worthy of the Borgia era — are competing in a race that has become shriller and more menacing with each passing day.

Tribal mood prevails

Politicians haven’t restrained their political rhetoric, hurling accusations with abandon at their rivals, smarting their characters and alleging treachery. The political language matches the grim, tribal mood of an electorate in the grip of anti-migrant fervor and furious with a political system seemingly incapable of grappling with key bread-and-butter issues.

 

Voters have become angrier as the election campaigning has unfolded, as well as more violent. This was demonstrated this week as police in several towns scuffled with bottle-throwing far-left protesters to block them from closing in on provocative anti-migrant and far-right rallies, where speakers call for the mass expulsion of the more than 600,000 migrants who have arrived in the country in the past two years.

On Friday, political violence plunged the center of the coastal city of Pisa into chaos and sent shoppers scurrying as left-wing protesters mounted a violent demonstration against Lega leader Matteo Salvini, who was speaking at a public rally and repeating his pledge to fight Brussels to ensure that “Italians come first.” Protesters threw smoke bombs, stones and bottles at blue-helmeted riot police.

In Turin, six police were hurt Thursday as they battled anti-fascists trying to reach a rally mounted by CasaPound, a neo-fascist grassroots group turned political party. The skirmish was described by local officials as “very serious.” They said the protesters clearly “intended to hurt” the police.

Anti-migrant fever

CasaPound itself has been eager in recent weeks to goad reaction from leftwing adversaries. It has been mounting highly provocative patrols in the multi-ethnic Esquilino neighborhood of Rome. This week group members in the district waved Italian flags and unfurled an anti-migrant banner emblazoned with the words: “Rape, theft, violence, enough degradation in this area.”

“Italians can no longer walk around this area peacefully, because of all the foreigners that continue to arrive end up here,” Carlomanno Adinolfi, a group member told reporters.

On Saturday police imposed a major security clampdown on Rome as political tensions mounted in the final days of the March 4 elections. A Mai piu fascismo (fascism never again) march drew thousands, and beforehand police warned demonstrators from carrying “blunt objects and rigid flag poles” and from wearing helmets and hard hats.

The tone for violence was set earlier this month when a onetime regional candidate for the right-wing populist Lega party, a key group in a right-wing alliance with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, shot and wounded half-a-dozen migrants in a central Italian town 200 kilometers from Rome.

Street skirmishes between neo-fascists and leftists — as well as racially motivated attacks on migrants — have increased ever since. In the central town of Perugia, a campaigner was reportedly stabbed and wounded midweek while putting up campaign posters for Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), a coalition of communist parties.

Politicians targeted, abducted, beaten

And politicians have been singled out for attack.

Candidates receive death threats on social media. Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the Italian Parliament, who has been a vehement opponent of racism, has received more than most — she also received a bullet in the mail. She is competing for reelection in Milan but is living in a secure house, the whereabouts of which are a closely-guard secret. Effigies of her and the country’s current left-wing prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, were burned last month by youth members of the Lega in the northern town of Varese.

On Wednesday, a regional leader of Forza Nuova, a stand-alone far-right party that blames migrants themselves for anti-migrant attacks, was abducted in Palermo, Sicily, by leftwing activists wearing balaclavas, who bound and beat him. The activists sent a video of the assault to news stations, accusing their victim, Massimo Ursino, of spreading hate and racism across Italy.

“We tied him up and beat him to show that Palermo is anti-fascist and there is no place for men like him here,’’ they said.

Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, said the attack was a sign of the “shameful and disgraceful” state of Italian politics. “We can’t beat fascism with violence. We can’t beat fascism with fascist behavior,” he added. The rise of the far-right has prompted the rise of a new far-left, which appears determined to be muscular.

Homegrown dangers

The day before the Palermo attack, the Italian intelligence services released their annual security report detailing potential hazards to the country. They identified radical Islamic terrorism as the greatest of the security challenges facing Italy, but the agencies also noted that home-grown extremism and the increased presence in Italy of far-right groups, and “fierce Neo-Nazi networks” promulgating racism and intolerance, posed a grave risk, too.

The Italian security services also raised the possibility of cyber-campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion and the country’s political orientation in the run-up to the March 4 election, worrying such campaigns would seek to introduce “destabilizing elements” by exacerbating online Italy’s political, economic and social divisions.

Although Russia wasn’t mentioned by name, U.S. and Italian analysts have warned that European elections have been targets for Russian meddling. But La Stampa newspaper in an investigation has found scant evidence of Russian actors using social media and cyber-attacks to try to shape this election cycle in Italy.

The country’s domestic political actors have proven all too capable of poisoning the political atmosphere without a helping hand from overseas, analysts note.

“Political violence must be stopped,” said Pietro Grasso, leader of Free and Equal (LeU), a leftwing party contesting in the elections. A former anti-mafia prosecutor and Senate speaker, Grasso told a Facebook forum this week, “I condemn violence, from whatever side it comes. It must be condemned and it must be stopped, and we must try to nip in the bud all manifestations of violence linked to political ideology.”

 

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

EU Leaders Draw Up Battle Lines for Post-Brexit Budget

European Union leaders staked out opening positions Friday for a battle over EU budgets that many conceded they are unlikely to resolve before Britain leaves next year, blowing a hole in Brussels’ finances.

At a summit to launch discussion on the size and shape of a seven-year budget package to run from 2021, ex-communist states urged wealthier neighbors to plug a nearly 10 percent annual revenue gap being left by Britain, while the Dutch led a group of small, rich countries refusing to chip in any more to the EU.

Germany and France, the biggest economies and the bloc’s driving duo as Britain prepares to leave in March 2019, renewed offers to increase their own contributions, though both set out conditions for that, including new priorities and less waste.

Underlining that a divide between east and west runs deeper than money, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized what he said were poor countries abusing EU funds designed to narrow the gap in living standards after the Cold War to shore up their own popularity while ignoring EU values on civil rights or to undercut Western economies by slashing tax and labor rules.

Noting the history of EU “cohesion” and other funding for poor regions as a tool of economic “convergence,” Macron told reporters: “I will reject a European budget which is used to finance divergence, on tax, on labor or on values.”

Poland and Hungary, heavyweights among the ex-communist states which joined the EU this century, are run by right-wing governments at daggers drawn with Brussels over their efforts to influence courts, media and other independent institutions.

The European Commission, the executive which will propose a detailed budget in May, has said it will aim to satisfy calls for “conditionality” that will link getting some EU funding to meeting treaty commitments on democratic standards such as properly functioning courts able to settle economic disputes.

But its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned on Friday against deepening “the rift between east and west” and some in the poorer nations see complaints about authoritarian tendencies as a convenient excuse to avoid paying in more to Brussels.

At around 140 billion euros ($170 billion) a year, the EU budget represents about 1 percent of economic output in the bloc or some 2 percent of public spending, but for all that it remains one of the bloodiest subjects of debate for members.

Focus on payments

The Commission has suggested that the next package should be increased by about 10 percent, but there was little sign Friday that the governments with cash are willing to pay that.

“When the UK leaves the EU, then that part of the budget should drop out,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who leads a group of hawks including Sweden, Denmark and Austria.

“In any case, we do not want our contribution to rise and we want modernization,” he added, saying that meant reconsidering the EU’s major spending on agriculture and regional cohesion in order to do more in defense, research and controlling migration.

On the other side, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said his priorities were “sufficient financing of cohesion policy” a good deal for businesses from the EU’s agricultural subsidies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there had been broad agreement that new priorities such as in defense, migration and research should get new funding and she called for a “debureaucratization” of traditional EU spending programs.

Summit chair Donald Tusk praised the 27 leaders — Prime Minister Theresa May was not invited as Britain will have left before the new budget round starts — for approaching the issue “with open minds, rather than red lines.” But despite them all wanting to speed up the process, a deal this year was unlikely.

Quick deal unlikely

Although all agree it would be good to avoid a repeat of the 11th-hour wrangling ahead of the 2014-20 package, many sounded doubtful of a quick deal even early next year.

“It could go on for ages,” Rutte said. He added that it would be “nice” to finish by the May 2019 EU election: “But that’s very tight.”

Among the touchiest subjects will be accounting for the mass arrival of asylum-seekers in recent years. Aggrieved that some eastern states refuse to take in mainly Muslim migrants, some in the west have suggested penalizing them via the EU budget.

Merkel has proposed that regions which are taking in and trying to integrate refugees should have that rewarded in the allocation of EU funding — a less obviously penal approach but one which she had to defend on Friday against criticism in the east. It was not meant as a threat, the chancellor insisted.

In other business at a summit which reached no formal legal conclusions, leaders broadly agreed on some issues relating to next year’s elections to the European Parliament and to the accompanying appointment of a new Commission for five years.

They pushed back against efforts, notably from lawmakers, to limit their choice of nominee to succeed Juncker to a candidate who leads one of the pan-EU parties in the May 2019 vote. They approved Parliament’s plan to reallocate some British seats and to cut others altogether and also, barring Hungary, agreed to a Macron proposal to launch “consultations” with their citizens this year on what they want from the EU.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Int’l Donors Pledge More Than $500M for West Africa’s Sahel

The European Union and other international donors pledged more than half-a-billion dollars Friday to support a multi-national military operation in Africa’s vast Sahel region, which has fallen prey to smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists in recent years. 

Speaking after an international meeting on the Sahel in Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the pledges far exceeded initial expectations. She said they mirrored the strong international support for the so-called G-5 Sahel — a regional development and security initiative headed by five Sahelian nations.

Mogherini said the challenges facing Sahel spill well beyond the region, and demand a collective response — although G-5 countries must define their own strategy and priorities.

Along with African countries, Europe is concerned about the Sahel not only because it is a transit route for tens of thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores, but also because it fears it may become a launching pad for terrorist strikes at home.

Insecurity has deteriorated in the region since 2011, and extremist attacks occur regularly. There are also fears that Islamic State group fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq are heading there.

The United States has about 800 troops in Niger alone, while France has 4,000 forces in the region under its Barkhane anti-terrorism operation.

Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, noted the money raised will only cover the G-5 operations for this year. Continuous funding was needed, he said. And until security conditions improve in Libya, he added, it will be difficult to stabilize Sahel countries further south.

International support includes billions of dollars in development aid for the region.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in the next few weeks, the first development initiatives will be up and running, including in Mali’s restive central region of Mopti.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Haiti Suspends Oxfam’s Operating Right Amid Misconduct Probe

Haiti has temporarily revoked Oxfam Great Britain’s right to operate in the Caribbean country after allegations of sexual misconduct by some of the charity’s staff there, Planning and External Cooperation Minister Aviol Fleurant said on Thursday.

The British aid organization has been rocked by allegations that staff, including a former Haiti country director, used prostitutes during a relief mission after a devastating earthquake hit the island nation in 2010.

Fleurant said the suspension was ordered due to “serious failings” by Oxfam Great Britain between 2010 and 2011, and that a definitive decision on its ability to operate in Haiti would be made in two months following a review of the evidence.

“If during the two month-long investigation I find out there is a link between the aid funds that Oxfam received on behalf of Haiti and the crime that has been committed, we will … declare Oxfam Great Britain persona non grata and they would have to leave the country without further delay,” Fleurant said.

Alain Lemithe, a lawyer representing Oxfam Great Britain, called the decision to suspend the charity “hasty and political”, saying that it was not based on clear evidence of wrongdoing.

“For example, they accused the organization of sexual abuse and use of minors,” Lemithe said. “Those are very serious allegations which until now have never been proven.”

In a separate statement, Fleurant accused Oxfam staff of committing acts of “sexual abuse” and exploitation.

The minister said Oxfam Great Britain had “deliberately omitted” to alert Haitian authorities about the alleged misconduct, thereby allowing perpetrators to escape justice.

Allegations of misconduct surfaced through media investigations and an internal Oxfam report. Fleurant said the revelations had besmirched the “honor and dignity” of Haiti’s people.

The suspension of the charity’s right to operate did not apply to Oxfam Canada, he said.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Iran’s Rights Record Still Poor, Group Says, But Some Positive Signs

Amnesty International says its new global report on human rights shows Iran’s record reflected some positive developments, but mostly remained poor, and in some areas worsened in the past year.

The London-based group’s annual State of the World’s Human Rights report for 2017-2018, released Thursday, accused Iranian authorities of “heavily suppressing” people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and religious belief. It also said those authorities arrested and imprisoned “peaceful critics and others” after what it called “grossly unfair trials” before Islamic Revolutionary courts.

The Amnesty report said torture and other ill treatment of detainees “remained common and widespread” and were committed with impunity in Iran. It also said floggings, amputations and other cruel punishments “continued to be applied.” 

Iran’s government had no immediate response to the rights group’s allegations.

In an interview with VOA Persian’s NewsHour program Thursday, Amnesty’s London-based Iran researcher, Raha Bahreini, said the blame for Iran’s perceived mistreatment of detainees lies with a series of official bodies: police, prison guards, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the judicial system. 

These groups not only failed to uphold their responsibilities to ensure the safety of prisoners, Bahreini said, but in some cases made conditions for prisoners worse.

Iran has drawn particular scrutiny from rights activists in recent weeks for reporting three cases of Iranians committing suicide while in detention. Officials said two of those Iranians had been arrested during a wave of nationwide anti-government protests last month, while a third, Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami, killed himself in Tehran’s Evin prison earlier this month.

Iranian authorities had arrested 63-year-old Seyed-Emami, managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Jan. 24, saying he was a suspect in a spying case. 

Iranian prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi told a local news agency that Seyed-Emami committed suicide after confessing to the charge and learning that others involved in the case had accused him of being a spy. North America-based friends and family of Seyed-Emami disputed those claims and called for further investigation.

Iran-based callers to the Thursday edition of VOA Persian’s Straight Talk program also universally rejected Iranian officials’ assertions that the three recently reported prison deaths were cases of suicide.

Several callers, who said they had been detained in Iran, said it is virtually impossible to commit suicide in an Iranian prison. 

One of those callers, who gave his name as Mohammad Hosein Heidari, said his prison uniform did not have a strap to hold up his pants. He said he initially thought the saggy pants were a form of psychological torture, but later realized that they were strapless to prevent prisoners from using straps to hang themselves. The man’s account of being in detention could not be independently verified.

Earlier this month, exiled Iranian rights activist Maryam Shafipour tweeted a similar point about steps taken by Iranian prison authorities to make it hard for prisoners to commit suicide. 

Shafipour, who was detained at Evin Prison in 2013 and released in 2015, said Iranian prison guards do not give any metal objects to prisoners, do not allow women to wear hijabs or head coverings inside their cells, and do not allow detainees to stay in a bathroom for more than 15 minutes.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not addressed the purported prisoner suicides directly. But he tried to strike a conciliatory tone on human rights in public remarks made during the anti-government protests of early January. He said the Iranian people have the right to peacefully criticize those in power, because the country “belongs to them.” He also said attention should be paid to demands of the people in the economic, cultural, social and security-related spheres.

Bahreini said one positive development in Amnesty’s annual report was its first mention of discussions between Iran and the European Union related to human rights. Iranian and EU officials who met in Tehran last November held what they called an “exploratory meeting” about renewing a bilateral human rights dialogue.

The Amnesty report criticized Iran for carrying out hundreds of executions in the past year after “unfair trials,” with at least two juvenile offenders confirmed by the group as among those executed. But Bahreini told VOA Persian that some executions were halted at the last minute because of additional information provided to authorities by family members and their lawyers. She said this was a sign that Iranian people are becoming better informed about human rights. 

“More people are demanding respect for the rights of women, workers and minorities, despite government threats and oppression,” Bahreini said.

Behrooz Samadbeygi and Shahram Shahseta of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

International Agriculture Fair Opens Saturday in Paris

The annual international agriculture fair opens Saturday in France’s capital, Paris. The 10-day event will promote agriculture as a collective effort involving farmers, decision-makers, institutions and communities. The show is divided into four sectors, focusing on livestock breeding, growing crops and gardening, products from French regions and territories, and agricultural services and professions. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports the fair opens amid farmers’ protests over their declining income.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

UK Police Investigating Package Sent to Harry and Meghan

London police say they are investigating a suspicious package that was sent to Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle.

The Metropolitan Police force says “a package containing a substance” was delivered to St. James’s Palace, where Harry has his office, on Feb. 12.

 

It says the substance “was tested and confirmed as non-suspicious.”

 

The force said Thursday that detectives are investigating an offense of malicious communication in relation to the package. The Evening Standard newspaper says it contained a racist message.

 

The prince and Markle are due to marry May 19 at Windsor Castle.

 

Earlier this month a letter containing white powder was sent to an office at Parliament, leading to a partial evacuation of the building. It also was found to be non-toxic.

 

 

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.