Austrian Far-right Politician Resigns over ‘Rat’ Poem

The vice mayor of the Austrian town where Adolf Hitler was born resigned from his post and the far-right Freedom Party on Tuesday after provoking strong criticism with a poem in which he compared migrants with rats.

Christian Schilcher left the Freedom Party (FPO) to avoid damaging the junior partner in a national coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, FPO chief Heinz Christian Strache told a news conference in Vienna. 

Schilcher’s poem in a party newspaper was written under his pseudonym “the city rat” and told from the perspective of a rodent.

“Just as we live down here, so must other rats, who as guests or migrants… share with us the way of life! Or (they must) hurry away quickly,” it says.

One verse adds that if two cultures were mixed it was as if they were destroyed.

“Such misconduct is incompatible with the principles of the Freedom Party,” said Strache, who is vice-chancellor in Austria’s coalition government.

Freedom Party members have repeatedly stumbled over Nazi scandals and made headlines in local media for alleged links with the far-right Identitarian movement.

Schilcher’s resignation was “the only logical consequence” after publishing that “horrible and racist poem”, Kurz told news agency APA.

Japan’s PM Vows to Help France in Rebuilding Notre Dame

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pledging to help France rebuild the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral.

Abe stopped in France Tuesday as part of his tour of Europe and North America.

Speaking alongside French president Emmanuel Macron, Abe said through a translator he “was deeply saddened by the damage inflicted to the World Heritage” building.

He said the Japanese government “will spare no effort to bring its cooperation” in the reconstruction.

Macron and Abe will discuss the agenda for the upcoming Group of Seven and Group of 20 leaders’ summits that France and Japan will respectively host this year.

In their statement at the Elysee palace, they said they will also talk about boosting economic growth through free trade, and address issues including North Korea and plastic waste in ocean.

Turkey’s Sole Communist Mayor Promises Small Steps to Socialism

Capitalism is too firmly entrenched in Turkey to be uprooted overnight, according to the country’s sole communist mayor, but small steps to create local jobs and promote cooperative farming can help nudge it along “the path to socialism.”

Fatih Macoglu, from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), took over as mayor of the central district of Tunceli this month after victory in March 31 local elections, which saw President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party lose control of the capital Ankara and Turkey’s business hub, Istanbul.

In a country where politics have often been dominated by right-wing nationalist or Islamist parties and where the TKP won just 0.16% of the vote in the March polls, Macoglu’s victory has been a cause for celebration among Turkish leftists.

But then the eastern town of Tunceli, home to minorities such as the Kurds, Zazas and Alevis, has long been known for its leftist, secularist views and for bucking national trends.

The Turkish government removed Tunceli’s last elected mayor for suspected links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and appointed a trustee who built walls around the town hall for security reasons.

The first thing Macoglu did after his election was to remove the walls, but he also knows he has to adapt his ideals to the tough economic and security conditions of provincial Turkey.

“When we went to people before elections, they had two problems. First, they did not want walls, bureaucracy between the people and the municipality. Second was the issue of unemployment,” he told Reuters at an interview in his office.

“As part of this world where capitalism, imperialism, fascism rule, this country is unable to work without them,” he said, striking a pragmatic tone that has earned him respect beyond far-leftist circles and also beyond Tunceli. 

“Of course, we are not establishing communism. We want to clear the path to socialism that has been polluted by capitalism.”

‘Fairness and equality’

Macoglu came to prominence five years ago when he was elected to run Tunceli’s Ovacik district. He paid off most of the municipality’s sizeable debt, provided free public transportation and opened up government land for agriculture.

Macoglu’s work in Ovacik has changed ordinary Turks’ views of communism, said Serife Ozdemir, 64, a retired teacher from nearby Malatya, one of many admirers from around Turkey to visit Tunceli to offer their congratulations to its new mayor.

“In the past, if two people fought, instead of swearing, one would yell, ‘communist, communist,’ and the other would feel offended,” she said.

Tunceli has always been a “socialist society”, said Serkan Sariates, 44, a bookstore owner who wears a beret with a red star, “because people here believe in fairness and equality.”

Pledging greater transparency, Macoglu has put up posters outside the town hall detailing municipal expenditure and income.

He aims to curb high unemployment — which he puts as high as 35% — by promoting tourism, cooperative farms and the construction of eco-friendly homes for rent. He also wants to slash the municipality’s heavy debt load within two years, repeating his success in Ovacik.

But not everyone in Tunceli is convinced he can succeed.

“The conditions are not suitable here,” said Firaz Tekol, a 24-year-old sociology student. “He’s going to have a hard time tackling all these problems.”

Crisis-hit Greeks Foot Steep Bills for Health and Education

Every month, when his respiratory medicine runs out, Dionysis Assimakopoulos heads to the most unlikely pharmacy in Athens.

Amid derelict stadiums dating from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the volunteer-staffed social pharmacy of Hellinikon has handed out free medicine to hundreds of poverty-stricken patients, keeping some of them out of death’s reach.

“My wife and I have been unemployed for over two years. We need about 150 euros for medicine every month,” says Assimakopoulos, a former baker.

Established at the height of the crisis in 2011, the pharmacy runs on donated medicine and disposables. Some 40,000 people have brought medicine, many from abroad, says on-duty pharmacist Dimitis Palakas.

Another patient waiting in line is Achilleas Papadopoulos, a retired tenor. His pension of 700 euros is not enough to cover the antibiotics he has come for.

During nearly a decade of cuts imposed as Greece struggled to avert national bankruptcy, public education and health were among the sectors hit the hardest as the country lost a quarter of its national output.

Amid sweeping layoffs, wage cuts and tax hikes, many could not maintain their social insurance contributions and were pushed out of state-provided health support.

“Only 11 percent of Greeks can currently afford private insurance giving full health coverage,” says Grigoris Sarafianos, head of the association of private Greek health clinics.

According to the national statistics service, Greeks paid 34.3 percent of their medical expenses out of their own pocket in 2016.

The crisis exposed “huge state shortages,” says Petros Boteas, a member of the Hellinikon health team, which serves over 500 patients every month.

“There are fewer doctors and hospital staff. Money for medicine has been cut. There is a long waiting list for doctor’s appointments…we had a cancer patient given an appointment in three months,” he told AFP.

To avoid a long wait — especially in an emergency — many are forced to seek private healthcare, regardless of the cost. There are currently over 120 private clinics in the country.

‘Go to a better school’

A similar scenario casts its shadow over education.

When Aspasia Apostolou’s son was 11 years old and finishing Greek public primary school, his class teacher did something unexpected.

“He told us our son is bright and that he should be in a better school,” reminisces Apostolou, a 44-year-old lawyer.

According to the government, public funding for education fell by about 36 percent during the crisis.

Thousands of trained staff including teachers and doctors emigrated — part of an exodus of some 350,000 people — or opted to retire.

A recent study by the London School of Economics found 75 percent of Greek crisis emigrants hold university degrees.

The OECD in a 2017 study — prepared at Greece’s request — said austerity cuts had “a major impact on the demands on the Greek education system, and on those working within it.”

It said that in 2015, there were approximately 25,000 posts vacant for teachers in primary and secondary education schools.

Apostolou now pays 5,800 euros ($6,500) a year in tuition fees at a private school where her son can be assured of a well-structured curriculum.

“At our old school, the children usually come home early. So many school hours are lost because of teacher shortages during the year,” she says.

“There is no evaluation, no reward for effort in a public school. You wallow in mediocrity.”

Between 2011 and 2014, the state cut education wages and expenses by 24 percent, the OECD study said.

While school books are provided by the state free of charge, the cuts continue to impact other essential resources including computers and petrol for heating.

It’s not uncommon for schools to be shut down for lack of heating. The last instance was in February at the Athens school complex where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras himself was a pupil.

In public schools, much now relies on private initiative and personal goodwill, what Greeks call ‘filotimo’, says Athanassia, a veteran public school teacher.

“I’ve worked in schools where the principal or teachers or parents paid out of their own pocket for essentials…or discreetly brought food to needy families,” says Athanassia, who has worked in 20 public schools as teachers are shared out to plug staffing gaps.

“Whatever works is based on filotimo,” she adds. “If funding were better, it would be totally different.”

According to the Greek statistics agency, around 12 percent of the country is near the poverty level.

In response, Tsipras’ government in 2016 began a program giving out free school meals at hundreds of schools in poorer regions.

Similarly, the government allowed access to public hospitals to long-term jobless with Greeks without health insurance.

“It’s a step forward, but inequalities persist,” says Petros at the Elliniko clinic.

“Without health insurance, securing a public hospital appointment might take six months, even for critical examinations,” he adds.

Spanish General Election Candidates Clash over Catalonia

The main candidates in Spain’s general election on Monday clashed over how to handle Catalonia’s independence drive, accusing each other of lying in a tense television debate that left questions open on what coalition deals could be struck.

Spain’s parliamentary election on April 28, one of the country’s most divisive since its return to democracy in the late 1970s, is being fought more on emotional and identity issues, such as Catalonia’s botched independence bid than on the economy.

No clear winner

None of the four candidates emerged as a clear winner from the late-night debate during which all except the anti-austerity Pablo Iglesias appeared quite tense, trading barbs and accusing the others of lying, being out of touch with reality and not doing enough to handle corruption cases within their respective parties.

Pablo Casado, of the conservative People’s Party, and Albert Rivera, from the center-right Ciudadanos, repeatedly accused outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, the election front-runner, of working against the country’s interest.

“The unity of Spain is at risk because of the Socialist government of Pedro Sanchez … those who want to break Spain apart have Sanchez as their favorite candidate,” said the right-wing Casado.

“Do we want the future of Spain to remain in the hands of those who want to liquidate Spain?,” the center-right Rivera said in the late-night televised debate.

Rivera also kept pointing to a picture of Sanchez meeting with Catalonia separatist leader Quim Torra, which he put on his podium for much of the debate.

Shockwaves

The October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia — declared illegal by Spanish courts, but followed by a short-lived declaration of independence — has sent shockwaves through Spanish politics, which are weighing on Sunday’s vote.

Sanchez, who became prime minister in June of last year and has been more open to dialogue with Catalan separatists than his conservative predecessor Mariano Rajoy, responded by saying he was in favor of dialogue, but was opposed to independence for the region located in the country’s northeast.

He said several times throughout the debate that his two right-of-center opponents, who both accused him of lying, might need “a truth detector to see if they tell any truth.”

Sanchez’s Socialists are seen as ahead in opinion polls, but without enough seats to rule on their own. The same polls show they will likely need more than the support of the anti-austerity Podemos to rule, and may need the support of nationalist parties, including those from Catalonia.

What coalition deal?

The polls show it will be even harder for the three right-wing parties to win enough seats to rule.

But the number of undecided voters is so high that all possible outcomes are within the margin of error and could still change on Sunday, pollsters say, all the more so because of how hard it is to predict how many seats the upstart far-right Vox party will get.

Opinion polls show a possible coalition deal would be between the Socialists and Ciudadanos, but Rivera has repeatedly ruled it out and did so again on Monday.

Sanchez, however, did not respond when Podemos leader Iglesias repeatedly asked him if he was ruling out a deal with Ciudadanos, indirectly keeping the door open to such an option.

Vox isn’t invited 

Vox was not invited to the debate and was not mentioned by name by any of the candidates, with only Sanchez mentioning its leader Santiago Abascal by name, to try and rally left-wing voters against the possibility of seeing a right-wing government backed by the far right.

Vox is forecast to be the far-right party to get seats in the national parliament in nearly four decades, marking a watershed in the country’s modern democratic history.

Another TV debate among the same four candidates will follow on Tuesday, giving them another chance to differentiate themselves ahead of the election.

N. Korea Confirms Kim Jong Un to Visit Russia for Summit with Putin

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will visit Russia for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean state media confirmed.

With his Russia visit, North Korea’s Kim is seen working to build up foreign support for his economic development plans, since the breakdown of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February led to stalled talks with Washington on the sanctions relief Pyongyang had sought.

State media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the visit will happen “soon,” but did not elaborate the time or the venue.

Putin and Kim are on track to meet by the end of April, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.

Kim Jong Un’s chief aide, Kim Chang Son, was seen in Vladivostok on Sunday according to South Korean news agency Yonhap, leading to speculation that the Putin-Kim summit will be held in the city around April 24-25.

NK News, a group that follows North Korea, showed photos on its website on Monday of preparations underway at Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University, likely to host part of the summit, with workers installing North Korean and Russian flags.

After the diplomatic failure at the Hanoi summit, Kim is likely looking to prove that he is still being sought after by world leaders, and that he has more options, said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.

“Kim does not want to look too dependent on Washington, Beijing and Seoul,” he said. “As for Russia, the Putin-Kim summit will reaffirm Moscow’s place as a major player on the Korean Peninsula. This meeting is important for Russian international prestige.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy Wins Landslide Victory in Ukraine Presidential Election

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a television actor, has won a landslide victory in the Ukrainian presidential election Sunday. Exit polls show he received around three times as many votes as incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who conceded defeat Sunday evening. As Henry Ridgwell reports, Zelenskiy’s supporters say the country needs an outsider to tackle endemic corruption, but critics say Russia could seek to take advantage of his inexperience.

London Climate Protesters Seek Talks With Government

Climate change protesters who have brought parts of London to a standstill said Sunday they were prepared to call a halt if the British government will discuss their demands.

Some 963 arrests have been made and 42 people charged in connection with the ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests.

On the seventh day of demonstrations that have occupied key spots in the British capital, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the demonstrators, telling them: “Humanity is standing at a crossroads.”

Organizers said they were willing to switch tactics from disruption to dialogue next week — if the government enters talks.

“We are prepared to pause, should the government come to the negotiating table,” Extinction Rebellion spokesman James Fox told AFP.

“What the pause looks like is us stopping an escalation.

“We can discuss leaving if they are willing to discuss our demands.

“At the moment, we haven’t received a response from the government… so we’re waiting on that.”

Extinction Rebellion was established last year in Britain by academics and has become one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental movements.

Campaigners want governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, halt biodiversity loss and be led by new “citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice.

“We’re giving them an opportunity now to come and speak to us,” Fox told AFP.

“If they refuse to come and negotiate with us, then this is going to continue and this is going to escalate in different, diverse and very creative ways.”

Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has inspired pupils worldwide to boycott classes to join climate protests, addressed the cheering crowds at the Marble Arch landmark, the only authorized demonstration site.

“For way too long the politicians and people in power have got away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and ecological crisis,” she said.

“But we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer.”

She continued: “How do we want the future living conditions for all living species to be like?

“Humanity is now standing at a crossroads. We must now decide which path we want to take.

“We are waiting for the others to follow our example.”

Police said they had managed to clear the protesters from Parliament Square and the Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus junctions.

Those charged range in age from 19 to 77. They hail from around England and Wales, with one person from France charged.

The charges are for various offenses including breaching public order laws, obstructing a highway and obstructing police.

Calling for an end to the protests, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said more than 9,000 police officers had been responding to the demonstrations, which had left the force as a whole overstretched.

“This is now taking a real toll on our city… this is counter-productive to the cause,” he said.

“I’m extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime.

“You must now let London return to business as usual.”

In the blazing sunshine on Waterloo Bridge, police lifted protesters and carried them off to waiting police vans.

“I’m genuinely terrified. I think about it all the time. I’m so scared for the world. I feel like there is going to be calamity in my lifetime,” student Amber Gray told AFP.

“I don’t even feel comfortable bringing children into this world knowing that that is coming.

“And I don’t want people in the future to say to me, ‘why didn’t you do anything?’.”

In Shadow of Burned Notre-Dame, Paris Catholics Pray for Easter Renewal

French Catholics on Sunday celebrated Easter mass in Paris in the shadow of the badly burned Notre-Dame Cathedral, praying that the landmark monument — and along with it the entire Catholic Church — can be renewed.

The fire at Notre-Dame six days earlier destroyed the cathedral’s spire and two-thirds of its roof. The damaged building is now to be closed for years to visits and worship.

Deprived of access to Notre-Dame, regular worshipers instead lined up patiently to celebrate Easter Sunday mass a short walk away, on the Right Bank of the Seine at Saint-Eustache church.

Throughout, the service was pervaded by the spirit and hope of a fresh start, infused by the Easter celebrations commemorating the resurrection of Christ according to the Bible.

‘Recreate unity’

The flames that devastated the cathedral were a “sign” said worshiper Marie Fliedel, 59, adding that she now felt a “renewal, a communion and a spirit”.

“I hope Christians react and take note of all that is taking place in this sad period and that this will bring us back together,” she said.

“This will recreate unity among Catholics. In misfortune, the fire will give strength to find ourselves again and defend our religion,” added Francois Toriello, 70.

The Catholic Church worldwide has been hit by a series of sexual abuses scandals, including in France where French cardinal Philippe Barbarin was handed a six-month suspended jail sentence last month for failing to report sex abuse by a priest under his authority.

Another sombre mark came from the series of devastating bomb blasts that ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on Sunday, killing more than 200 people, including dozens of foreigners.

‘Courage, knowledge and prayers’

The Saint-Eustache service, also attended by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, was led by Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit who thanked the capital’s fire brigade for saving the cathedral from an even worse fate.

“When, for a moment, we thought that the bell towers could also fall, these towers that are so well known throughout the would, courage and knowledge came together with the prayers of all the faithful,” he told members of the fire service, several of whom were present in the front pews.

Laurence Mahoudeau, 55, who had come with her husband to celebrate the mass, said she had her doubts over whether the fire would prompt major change in the Catholic Church.

“Notre-Dame is something that goes beyond our religion, it’s historic, it is our heritage,” she said.

“I don’t know if this will prompt a renewal. There needs to be time. We want a strong Church. But it must be something completely different after the suffering and the sexual abuse.”

Pope Calls for Peace in Syria, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan

Pope Francis expressed closeness to the Christian community struck by the attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter day. In his Easter message he also prayed for peace in Syria, Yemen, Libya and South Sudan. Addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square from the central balcony of the basilica, the pope said the resurrection of Christ, he said, is the principle of new life for every man and woman.

Under grey skies, but in a Saint Peter’s Square filled with flowers, Pope Francis, dressed in white vestments, celebrated Easter mass in front of tens of thousands of faithful and tourists.

At the end of the mass the pope gave his traditional message and blessing to the city and to the world. His last words before he wished everyone a Happy Easter were for the people of Sri Lanka struck he said by the serious attacks on Easter day, which brought mourning and pain in some of the churches and other sites in the country. He said he learned the news with sadness and expressed closeness to the Christian community gathered in prayer.

Earlier in his message the pope said, “The resurrection of Christ is the principle of new life for every man and every woman, for true renewal always begins from the heart, from the conscience.” Yet Easter, the pope added, is also “the beginning of the new world, set free from the slavery of sin and death.”

The pope’s first thoughts went to the people of Syria, “victims of an ongoing conflict to which we risk becoming ever more resigned and even indifferent.” He urged a new commitment for a political solution that will respond for the hopes for peace and confront the humanitarian crisis. The pope’s thoughts also turned to “the people of Yemen, especially the children, exhausted by hunger and war,” and to the situation in Libya.

The pope said, “May conflict and bloodshed cease in Libya, where defenseless people are once more dying in recent weeks and many families have been forced to abandon their homes.” Pope Francis urged the parties involved to “choose dialogue over force and to avoid reopening wounds left by a decade of conflicts and political instability.”

The pope also prayed for peace in other parts of the African continent, which he said is still rife with “social tensions, conflicts and at times violent forms of extremism that leave in their wake insecurity, destruction and death.” He mentioned Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. But he also spoke of Sudan, which he said is “presently experiencing a moment of political uncertainty.”

Referring to the recent spiritual retreat held with South Sudanese leaders in the Vatican, the pope expressed the hope for “a new page open in the history of that country, in which all political, social and religious components actively commit themselves to the pursuit of the common good and the reconciliation of the nation.”

The pope also mentioned the crisis Venezuela and the situation in Nicaragua, where he expressed hope for a “peaceful negotiated solution.”