Truckers Block Roads as French Strikes hit Weekend Travel

Strikes disrupted weekend travel around France on Saturday as truckers blocked highways and most trains remained at a standstill because of worker anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s policies.

Meanwhile, yellow vest protesters held their weekly demonstrations over economic injustice in Paris and other cities, under the close watch of police. The marchers appear to be emboldened by the biggest national protests in years Thursday that kicked off a mass movement against the government’s plan to redesign the national retirement system.

As the strikes entered a third day Saturday, tourists and shoppers faced shuttered subway lines around Paris and near-empty train stations.

Other groups are joining the fray, too.


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Nationwide Strike Paralyzes France

Truckers striking over a fuel tax hike disrupted traffic on highways from Provence in the southeast to Normandy in the northwest. A similar fuel tax is what unleashed the yellow vest movement a year ago, and this convergence of grievances could pose a major new threat to Macron’s presidency.

The travel chaos is not deterring the government so far, though. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe plainly told the French in a nationwide address Friday: “You’re going to have to work longer.”

He will present details of the plan next week. The government says it won’t raise the official retirement age of 62 but the plan is expected to including financial conditions to encourage people to work longer. Philippe did offer one olive branch, saying the changes would be progressive so that they don’t become “brutal.”

Macron says the reform, which will streamline a convoluted system of 42 special pension plans, will make the system more fair and financially sustainable.

Unions, however, see the plan as a t hreat to hard-fought workers’ rights, and are digging in for what they hope is a protracted strike. They also plan new nationwide retirement protests Tuesday, despite the tear gas and rioting that marred the edges of the Paris march Thursday.

In a society accustomed to strikes and workers rights, many people have supported the labor action, though that sentiment is likely to fade if the transport shutdown continues through next week.

“I knew it was going to last … but I did not expect it to be that chaotic,” Ley Basaki, who lives in the Paris suburb of Villemomble and struggles to get to and from work in the capital, told The Associated Press on Saturday at the Gare de l’Est train station. “There is absolutely nothing here, nothing, nothing. There is no bus, nothing.”

Many travelers are using technology and social networks to find ways around the strike — working from home, using ride-sharing apps and riding shared bikes or electric scooters.

But some are using technology to support the strike: A group of activist gamers is raising money via a marathon session on game-streaming site Twitch. Their manifesto says: “In the face of powers-that-be who are hardening their line and economic insecurity that is intensifying in all layers of the population,” they are trying to “occupy other spaces for mobilization and invent other ways of joining the movement.”

Trump Calls for World Bank to Stop Loaning to China

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday called for the World Bank to stop loaning money to China, one day after the institution adopted a lending plan to Beijing over Washington’s objections.

The World Bank on Thursday adopted a plan to aid China with $1 billion to $1.5 billion in low-interest loans annually through June 2025. The plan calls for lending to “gradually decline” from the previous five-year average of $1.8 billion.

“Why is the World Bank loaning money to China? Can this be possible? China has plenty of money, and if they don’t, they create it. STOP!” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

“World Bank lending to China has fallen sharply and will continue to reduce as part of our agreement with all our shareholders including the United States,” the World Bank said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
“We eliminate lending as countries get richer.”

Spokespeople for the White House declined to comment on the record.

The World Bank loaned China $1.3 billion in the fiscal 2019 year, which ended on June 30, a decrease from around $2.4 billion in fiscal 2017.

But the fall in the World Bank’s loans to China is not swift enough for the Trump administration, which has argued that Beijing is too wealthy for international aid.

 

Australian Firefighters Confront ‘Mega Blaze’ Near Sydney

One hundred forty bushfires continue to burn across eastern Australia.  A huge blaze near Sydney is bigger in size than the city itself and could take weeks to put out.  Conditions have eased Saturday but the dangers persist.  

Sydney is again shrouded in a toxic, smoky haze.  Health warnings have been issued and many weekend sporting activities have been cancelled.  Several blazes have combined to create a “mega fire” north of Australia’s biggest city. The fire’s front is 60 kilometers long and officials warn it is simply too big to put out.

Lauren McGowan works in a bar in the nearby city of Cessnock.

“Everyone is a bit on edge, getting a little bit too close to home for around here.  Like, even with people we have working here the fires are practically on their doors,” she said.

There are 95 bushfires here in the drought-hit state of New South Wales.  Half are burning out of control.  More than 2,000 firefighters are on the ground.  Their task is unrelenting, but reinforcements have arrived from overseas, including Canada, New Zealand and the United States.  

Morgan Kehr, a senior firefighter from Edmonton, has flown in to join his Australian counterparts, who have in previous years battled blazes in Canada.

“First time away from Christmas, as it is with all of these guys.  Certainly a tough conversation but we’re happy,” said Kehr. “We’ve been assisted four times out of the last five years.”
 
There are hazardous conditions in Queensland, to the north.  Parts of that state are blanketed in smoke, and dozens of blazes still rage.  The World Health Quality index, a nonprofit environmental project based in China that measures global pollution, has shown unhealthy levels of air quality in many areas.

Authorities say that only heavy rain will put some of the fires out, but, ominously, the forecast is for more hot and dry conditions over the Australian summer.

Saudi Aramco Plans $25.6B Share Sale in Biggest IPO Ever

Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, on Thursday set a share price for its initial public stock offering — expected to be the biggest ever — that puts the value of the company at $1.7 trillion, more than Apple or Microsoft. 
 
The company said it would sell its shares at 32 riyals ($8.53) each, putting the overall value of the stake being sold at $25.6 billion. 
 
Aramco is floating a 1.5% stake in the company, or 3 billion shares. Trading is expected to happen on the Saudi Tadawul stock exchange as early as December 11. 
 
The company is selling 0.5% to individuals who are Saudi citizens and residents  and 1% to institutional investors, which can be sovereign wealth funds, asset managers or government-run pension programs. 
 
The pricing of the shares was at the top of the range Aramco had sought. The company had priced its shares ranging from 30 to 32 riyals each, or $8 to $8.53 a share. 
 
In the announcement Thursday, Aramco said the offering drew heavy demand.

Most orders from Saudis

The company’s financial advisers had said earlier that most orders came from Saudi funds or companies, with foreign investors, including from neighboring Persian Gulf Arab states, accounting for 10.5% of the bids. It was not immediately known what the final figures released Thursday represented and how much of that was generated by foreign investment. 
 
The highly anticipated sale of a sliver of the company had generated global buzz since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans for it more than two years ago. That’s in part because it would clock in as the world’s biggest IPO, surpassing record holder Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese conglomerate and e-commerce company, which raised about $25 billion in 2014. 
 
The kingdom’s plan to sell part of the company is part of a wider economic overhaul aimed at raising new streams of revenue for the oil-dependent country. It came as oil prices have struggled to reach the $75-$80-per-barrel range that analysts say is needed to balance Saudi Arabia’s budget. Brent crude is trading at just over $63 a barrel. 
 
Prince Mohammed has said listing Aramco is one way for the kingdom to raise capital for the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which would then use that money to develop new cities and lucrative projects across Saudi Arabia. 
 
Despite the mammoth figures involved in the IPO, they are not quite what the prince had envisioned based on his remarks over the past two years. He’d previously talked about a valuation for Aramco of $2 trillion and a flotation of 5% of the company involving a listing on a foreign stock exchange. There are no immediate plans for an international listing. 

Another sale?
 
Aramco said Thursday that it would retain the option of an even bigger offering of a 3.45 billion-share sale, representing $29.4 billion. 
 
Despite Aramco’s profitability, the state’s control of the company carries risks for investors. Two key Aramco processing sites were targeted by drones and missiles in September, an attack that was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen but that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Iran denies the allegation. 
 
The Saudi government also stipulates oil production levels, which directly affects Aramco’s output. 
 
On Thursday, the countries that make up the OPEC oil-producing cartel, led by Saudi Arabia, were meeting in Vienna to decide whether to cut production and push up prices of fuel and energy around the world. 

Tiny Analyzer Promises Boost for Coffee Growers, Their Soil

A piece of paper no bigger than a business card could enrich struggling coffee farmers and their soil, a growing challenge as temperatures rise and prices fluctuate. 
 
Enveritas, a U.S. nonprofit, signed an agreement with International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) on Thursday to pilot the AgroPad, which analyzes soil samples remotely and quickly. 
 
Powered by artificial intelligence, the AgroPad can perform a chemical analysis in 10 seconds, reading nitrate or chloride levels from a drop of water or small soil sample, said IBM. 
 
Enveritas plans to provide the devices for free to farmers in coffee-growing regions of Latin America and Africa, and IBM said it aims to make them affordable for everyone. Its target production cost: less than 25 cents. 
 
The nonprofit, which works with 100,000 farms, mills and estates in Latin America and Africa, did not say how many would be in the pilot but, if successful, “the plan is to scale it out,” CEO David Browning told Reuters. 
 
Coffee farmers have been struggling with a slump in global prices while climate change is threatening vast swaths of land in Latin America, Asia and Africa. 
 
Enveritas, which verifies the sustainability of coffee farmers, said most of its growers live on less than $2 a day. 
 
Chemical analysis of soil is vital to improve yields but is complicated, expensive and time-consuming because it requires laboratory equipment, said Mathias Steiner from IBM Research-Brazil. 
 
AgroPad costs less and could reduce the use of fertilizers, which would save money and help the environment, said Steiner, one of its inventors. 
 
Last week, engineers from Britain’s Brunel University also unveiled an AI device for farming: small red pods, costing £92 ($118) each, that could be planted into the soil. The pods collect data hourly and would show farmers what the soil needs. 

Trump Threatens Trade Action to Spur NATO Contributions

President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States may take action on trade with countries that are not contributing enough to NATO.

Trump, fresh from a trip to London for a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been pushing member countries to contribute more to the organization.

The U.S. president said a lot of countries were getting close to the goal of 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for NATO contributions.

“A lot of countries are close and getting closer. And some are really not close, and we may do things having to do with trade. It’s not fair that they get U.S. protection and they’re not putting up their money,” he said.

Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by many as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

He also was upbeat about the alliance on Thursday, saying his meetings went well and that “NATO is in very, very good shape and the relationships with other countries are really extraordinary.”

Uganda’s Museveni Criticized for Leading March Against Corruption

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Wednesday led hundreds of people in a march against corruption, calling corrupt people parasites who steal public wealth.

Museveni said to end corruption, leaders must develop the economy.

“Commercial agriculture, industry services and ICT, because that’s how we can create jobs and wealth and income so that our people do not have a material basis for acute need, which forces them to be corrupt,” Museveni said.

President Yoweri Museveni addresses a gathering that had participated in the anti-corruption walk in Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 4, 20
President Yoweri Museveni addresses a gathering that had participated in the anti-corruption walk in Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 4, 2019. (Halima Athumani/VOA News)

Critics note that last year, Transparency International ranked Uganda as one of the most corrupt countries in Africa, below Kenya, Mauritania and Nigeria.

Action Aid International-Uganda says Museveni marching against corruption is ironic, because his government is to blame for much of it.

Nickson Ogwal is the director of programs and policy at Action Aid International-Uganda.

“He is the chief law enforcement officer of Uganda,” Ogwal said. “He’s therefore the one [to] whom the citizens are supposed to walk and show and demonstrate that they are angry about corruption. Now, to whom is he angry? So, we really think that he is playing politics.”

Critics accuse Uganda’s inspector general of holding only lower level officials or private citizens to account for corruption.

The inspector, Irene Mulyagonja, acknowledges that some top government officials hide behind Museveni but argues the president is sincere in tackling corruption.

“You see when he says, ‘I am ready to fight,’ it means he’s ready to give them up. So that if you start looking for them, and to be true to him, if you are investigating a person who is near him, he doesn’t say stop investigating. He says, ‘bring me the evidence,’” Mulyagonja said.

WATCH: Uganda’s Museveni Criticized for Leading March Against Corruption


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But, Uganda’s deputy speaker of parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, says he is not convinced that corruption is now at the top of Museveni’s agenda.

“Unless we take this from our own frontline and extend the frontier to cover other areas, it’s a waste of time,” Oulanyah said. “It’s a public show for nothing. I come because it’s a public show, but deep down I know. We are going right back to practice the same damn corruption that we claim to fight.”

Nonetheless, Uganda’s lawmakers and judges Wednesday renewed public vows to be honest and not accept bribes.

The anti-corruption events blocked all roads leading to central Kampala, forcing many skeptical passers-by to walk for more than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to get to work.