Fear, a decisive force in these European elections

As the European Parliament elections approach, a growing sense of fear stemming from multiple — yet mutually reinforcing — sources seems to be the decisive force shaping electoral behaviour. Citizens of the EU experience uncertainty in the face of broad economic and cultural changes occurring at an unprecedented pace, coupled by unforeseen crises, such as Covid and the climate crisis, and the re-emergence of war conflicts, on a continent accustomed to peace for over half a century.

The survey

Last month, more than 10,800 European voters took a stand on the pressing issues and running challenges of the EU, as part of a large-scale comparative survey conducted by Kapa Research across 10 member countries (Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Spain) between May 4 and 24, 2024.

This survey goes beyond domestic dilemmas or voting intentions. Taking a closer look at emerging and established trends within European societies between 2019 and 2024, it examines what shapes the bloc’s social agenda today, citizen concerns about European and international issues, leadership expectations, and opinions about leading global figures. On question after question, responses reveal a strong undercurrent of fear impacting voting behaviour just days before June’s European elections, emanating from four critical realities.

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls.

Fear cause No.1: Economic uncertainty

Rising cost of living is the foremost concern for Europeans heading to the polls. Inflation shocks that have stunned European economies during the post-pandemic period established a deep-rooted unease about people’s ability to make ends meet. Asked about issues that worry them most when thinking of today’s Europe, respondents, at an average of 47 percent , place “rising cost of living” as their top concern. The issue has become remarkably salient in countries like France (58 percent), Greece (55 percent), Romania (54 percent), Spain (49 percent), and Bulgaria (44 percent), yet, still, in the rest of the surveyed member countries the cost of living ends up among the top three causes of concern. This wide sense of economic uncertainty is further spurred by a lingering feeling of unfairness when it comes to the distribution of wealth: M ore than eight out of 10 (81 percent overall) sense that “in Europe, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer”.

via Kapa Research

Anxiety transforms into fear when one realizes that the main political conflict has little to do with competing economic solutions to high living costs. Instead, it is more of a clash between systemic forces and extremists, primarily centred on the field of immigration and the perceived threat to the European way of life.

Fear cause No.2: Immigration

On the cultural front, since 2015, immigration in Europe has been a complex and multifaceted issue, with humanitarian and political implications. In our survey, immigration appears to be the second most important citizen concern with 37 percent (on average), while, at the same time, on the question of which areas should Europe focus on the next five years, calls for “stricter immigration control” are prevalent, with 36 percent of respondents across all surveyed countries ranking it as a top priority. This is notably evident in Germany (56 percent), in spite of its reputation as a welcoming country early in the migration crisis, and in Italy (40 percent), a hub-country into Europe for migrants and refugees. More importantly, the perception of immigration as a “threat to public order” is widespread, with 68 percent of respondents holding this view, compared to only 23 percent who see it as an “opportunity for a new workforce”.

via Kapa Research

Fear cause No.3: War on our doorstep

The return of war to Europe has reignited fears about security; conflicts in Ukraine and, more recently, in Gaza come into play as new factors impacting this year’s EU elections. In this survey, “the Russia-Ukraine war” is the third most pressing concern for 35 percent of respondents, only two percentage points below “immigration ”. Here geographical proximity is crucial as the issue is especially prominent in Estonia (52 percent), Hungary (50 percent), Poland (50 percent), and Romania (43 percent), all neighbouring countries to either Russia or Ukraine. Additionally, demand for immediate ceasefire on both fronts is prevalent: 65 percent believe that hostilities in Gaza “must stop immediately ”, while the same view is supported by 60 percent for the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

To this end, as the feeling of danger from wars and terrorism grows stronger, EU-UK relations become indirectly connected to the issue of security: 56% of respondents wish for a (re)alignment between Great Britain and the EU. At the same time, and compared to current leaders, former UK PM Tony Blair enjoys strong popularity ratings.

Fear cause No.4: The unknown reality of AI

Over time, technological advancement has been widely welcomed as a positive development for humanity, as a means of improving living conditions, and as a growth accelerator. The rapid rise of a rtificial i ntelligence in citizens’ day-to-day lives seems to be disrupting this tradition. Among the member countries surveyed, an average majority of 51 percent considers AI more as a “threat to humanity” rather than as an “opportunity” (31 percent ). Along the same vein, scepticism is reflected in the reluctance to embrace AI as a strategic goal for the EU in the next five years, with 54 percent opposing such a move.

via Kapa Research

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies.

Key takeaway

Mixing all four of the above ingredients produces an explosive cocktail of fear within European societies. While combined with the prevalent EU technocracy and the weak institutions-to-citizens communication, it is reasonable to expect mounted distrust and electoral consequences. Voters will use their ballot to send painful messages. However, our survey shows that the great majority still favo r strengthening the European acquis — security, freedom, democracy, growth, and social cohesion — and seek a competent leadership that can defend it.

via Kapa Research

See full survey report by Kapa Research here.



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‘Haiti is a country that’s drowning’: Migrants recount trauma of fleeing home

Thousands of people have fled Haiti’s capital in recent weeks as gangs continue to run riot in a country plunged into political chaos. More than 2,000 thousand kilometres from Port-au-Prince, a community centre in New York’s Rockland County is welcoming Haitians who have fled the violence. But while they have finally reached the safety of the US, they also bear traumatic memories. 

The Konbit Neg Lakay community centre is one of the first stops that many Haitian migrants make after arriving in New York. The centre’s name means “Together for a Stronger Community” in Creole and it’s a welcoming place for people who have just fled the unrest and gang violence wracking Haiti.

The mural on the centre’s exterior wall brings a splash of colour to the Spring Valley neighbourhood in New York’s Rockland County.


Mural on the wall of Konbit Neg Lakay Haitian Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York on 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

It depicts an idyllic scene of rural life in Haiti but the centre’s director Renold Julien experienced some tough times in the country of his birth.

He was an activist in Haiti during what has come to be called the Papa/Baby Doc dictatorship years. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was succeeded by son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, the Haitian regime became synonymous with torture and killings.

Julian left his homeland almost four decades ago for a new life in the US. He opened his community centre, to help other Haitians navigate their arrival in New York, 37 years ago.

The centre receives grants from foundations and NGOs but it struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands. For Julien, Konbit Neg Lakay is a work of devotion. 

Konbit Neg Lakay provides newly arrived Haitians with immigration and job services, professional training and language classes. “Everything that an immigrant needs, we have it here,” Julien explains. It struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands but for Julien: “It’s a privilege for me to help my brothers and sisters.”

‘We ran to escape from them’

Several Haitians migrants come through a US humanitarian programme but they need a sponsor, Julien explains. Others travel through Mexico and then claim asylum in the US.

A dozen new arrivals from Haiti walk through the centre’s doors every week – many have lost family members to the gang violence back home.

“It has been extremely busy here due to the situation in Haiti because thousands of Haitians have been forced to leave,” says Julien as he  introduces three women who need advice on how to get a job and other essential information.

One of them is a soft-spoken medical student who arrived in the US in November 2023. Kartika Sari Rene, 22, did not want to leave Haiti. She was in her third year of medical school, when her studies were cut short. 

“I was walking with some friends and then some kidnappers were passing by,” she says. “We ran to escape from them. We hid from them. It was really awful.”

Rene’s father was terrified for her safety and forced her to leave the country. She came to the US with her mother, sponsored by family members living in New York. She has started learning English and has obtained a certificate to work as a personal care aide. 

For now, her dream of becoming a pediatrician is on hold. “I love to help people. I can’t stand to see people suffer,” she explains. 

Her friends at medical school in Haiti have also had to pause their studies. It is too dangerous for them to leave their homes.

‘Long, difficult and uncomfortable journey’

Haitian beautician Josette Bienaise also had to flee the country after a traumatic experience. She was shopping in the market when armed gang members started shooting at vendors. “Pap, pap pap,” she says, recounting her experience that day. “I lay down on the ground terrified and prayed. I can still feel the fear in my body.”

In the Konbit Neg Lakay hallway, Jean Marc Mathurin leans against a wall as he recounts the arduous journey that he made to walk through these doors to safety.

“They killed my father,” he confides in a low voice. “He was leaving work at the airport, and they wanted to take his money. He said no, and they murdered him. Then they came and burnt our home. My mother suffered so much she became ill, her sickness killed her.” 

Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024.
Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

Mathurin finds a photo of his mother in a hospital bed on his phone and videos of his two young children and the three sisters he left behind in Haiti. He arrived in New York with nothing. He is claiming asylum in the US, but it will be many months before he can legally work here and start sending money back home to his loved ones.

Each time he eats, he thinks of his family going hungry. “People in Haiti sell their homes to make the journey here thinking they will arrive in the US with something but they spend every penny along the way, or thieves steal their money and they get here with nothing, if they even make it here. Some of them get sent back home,” he explains.

There were many times along his escape from Haiti when Mathurin thought he would not make it. He took a flight from Port-au-Prince to Nicaragua, where he travelled mainly on foot to Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico. “It was a long, difficult and uncomfortable journey.”

When he got to the Rio Grande, in Mexico, he thought it might be impossible to cross. He describes the buoys, erected by the local authorities to thwart migrants, anchored to the riverbed. The buoys have blades that cut you if you try to climb over them, he said.

Mathurin is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed. “There are those who know how to swim, and those who don’t,” he says. “In front of me were two men, a Venezuelan and a Haitian, and they drowned right in front of me.” 

It’s a trauma he likened to his ancestral land. “Haiti is a country that’s drowning. It’s a child without a mother or father. When you have a mum and dad, they tell you not to go out late, not to fall in with the wrong crowd. Haiti is an orphan.”

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Reform UK: The right-wing party that could transform British politics

Having attracted its first MP in the form of a Tory defector, the former Brexit Party is catching up with the government in the polls.

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Most western European countries have at least one major radical right-wing party either in government or close to it.

Italy’s government is run by the Brothers of Italy and Lega; the Finns Party remains part of Finland’s coalition government, the Sweden Democrats are in a confidence-and-supply deal with a mainstream right-wing coalition in Stockholm, and Germany’s AfD, France’s National Rally and Spain’s Vox all carry serious electoral weight – even if their chances of actually leading national governments remain slim for now.

Thanks in part to its electoral system, the UK has not yet seen a party like this make major gains at the ballot box outside of previous EU Parliament elections. But with the ruling Conservative Party unable to close a 20-plus-point polling deficit against the Labour Party, that could be about to change.

With a general election set for sometime this year, Reform UK, the rebranded version of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, is rapidly catching up with the governing Conservative Party in the polls. It currently has only one MP: Lee Anderson, who defected from the Tories after falsely claiming the Muslim mayor of London was controlled by Islamists.

Reform’s ideology has much in common with Europe’s radical right in general. As stated by its leader Richard Tice, it emphasises “traditional” values, including “pride in British history/culture” and law and order, while rejecting mass immigration, environmentalism, trans inclusivity, and “Islamic extremists on our streets”.

While its national polling numbers currently put it at 10-15%, a level that does not guarantee it will even win seats in parliament, Reform seems to be pulling voters away from the Conservatives at a time when they simply cannot afford to lose them.

Right and wrong

Reform has repeatedly and vehemently insisted it is not a “far right” party, and has threatened legal action against media organisations that label it as such.

Yet according to Dr Katy Brown of Ireland’s Maynooth University, there are undeniable similarities between Reform and its counterparts across the English Channel.

“Reform shares a number of ideological and policy positions with established far-right parties in Europe,” she says, “for example proposing net-zero immigration, adopting trans-exclusionary definitions of gender, and claiming to fight so-called ‘woke’ ideology.

“This places them much in line with parties like the Lega and National Rally, so it’s clear that such comparisons are not only warranted but also important in highlighting the exclusionary politics on which the party is based.”

The “far right” label has also been rejected by European parties that are far more openly radical than Reform. National Rally has its roots in the old French right, dating back to apologists for the Vichy collaborationist regime and the Algerian war of independence. The Finns count defenders of the Nazis among their ranks, while Vox has been frequently accused of nostalgia for the fascist regime of Francisco Franco.

Over the line

Reform’s stated policies aside, some of its candidates have also espoused extreme views in public.

On the one hand, Tice spoke out sternly after a major Tory donor was reported to have made viciously racist and sexist remarks about a black Labour MP, Diane Abbott. The Tories were slow to condemn his comments, and were widely criticised for their hesitancy.

And while the Tories did ultimately cut Anderson loose, many of their current MPs and candidates have pushed into the realm of conspiracy theory – with former prime minister Liz Truss increasingly associating with extremists on the American right.

However, Reform’s hands are hardly clean on this front.

Besides Anderson’s unfounded claim that the Muslim mayor of London was in the pocket of Islamists – which he made before Reform welcomed him – there is the example of Ginny H Ball, whom Reform dropped as a parliamentary candidate after she made a litany of racist statements

Another candidate was dropped after referring to Scotland as “a turd that won’t flush”.

Expert Brown, whose academic work focuses on the mainstreaming of extremist and radical ideas in European politics, cautions that Reform’s insistence it isn’t a far right party should not be taken at face value. Instead, she adds, we need to think about why it and other parties are so keen to reject these labels.

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“It is a common strategy for parties to attempt to seem more acceptable by overtly distancing themselves from supposedly more extreme examples,” she explains. “It is crucial that we challenge these self-characterisations – else we risk allowing them to set the agenda for how they are defined and perceived, which can ultimately facilitate their normalisation.”

The future

But political normalisation aside, the deciding factor in Reform’s future may be its leadership.

In its days as the Brexit Party, Reform was led by the right-wing anti-immigration politician Nigel Farage, who previously helmed the UK’s top Eurosceptic party, UKIP. That party performed well in European Parliament elections but never made much headway at Westminster level, and Farage ultimately abandoned it.

With him gone, UKIP shrank dramatically while welcoming figures from the extreme racist fringe. Meanwhile, Farage helped create the Brexit Party, which made a big impact in the 2019 European Parliament elections. 

But when it came time to fight the British general election in 2019, Farage agreed to stand aside for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in most seats, giving the government a clear path to re-election on the campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done”.

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Farage then left the party’s leadership, where he has been succeeded by the far more obscure Tice. But according to some polls, if he were to take the leadership, he might immediately give Reform an instant bump, and possibly even pull ahead of the Tories.

That almost certainly would not give Farage a path to government – but it would once again make him too loud a voice for mainstream British politicians to ignore.

Euronews has approached Reform for comment.



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India punishes critics by revoking visas and residency permits

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi often draws crowds of supporters from the Indian diaspora on his foreign visits. But back home, his administration has been revoking visas and residency permits of foreign nationals of Indian origin as well as spouses of Indian citizens. For those denied access or kicked out of India, the experience can be traumatic.

 

Vanessa Dougnac was at home in her New Delhi apartment on January 18, when she received a hand-delivered envelope that raised her spirits.

The French journalist glanced at the letterhead bearing the insignia of the Indian interior ministry’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and immediately thought this meant good news.

“Then I read the letter. It was totally the opposite. It was really, really bad news,” she recounted. 

Dougnac, 51, had lived in India for a quarter-century, or most of her adult life. For 23 years, she served as the India-based freelance correspondent for a number of French publications. Along the way, she covered stories across the country, married an Indian national, raised a son, and mastered the ropes in the place she came to call home.

But in India, things that were once fairly straightforward were now getting complicated – and stressful.

The official letter, delivered on January 18, informed the veteran French journalist that her Indian residency had been revoked. 

Dougnac had joined the growing list of overseas critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies being banned from India, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

They are part of the Modi administration’s broader crackdown on Indian citizenship laws, which have snowballed in various forms. But the intent of the “ever-expanding arsenal of laws and policies” is singular: to “target and punish dissenting voices”, said Amnesty International in a statement noting the international human rights contraventions that have increased during Modi’s 10 years in power.

With the upcoming 2024 elections widely predicted to propel Modi into his next decade in power, experts warn that India’s secular democracy is being reshaped as a Hindu-first majoritarian nation intolerant to dissent and minority religious communities. 

Citizenship lies at the heart of the reshaping, with the government pushing through laws and regulations on myriad fronts, upending lives and plunging dissenters into an omnipresent state of dread.

Diaspora with dollars to invest home

Dougnac was one of nearly 4 million people holding an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, which comes as a light blue, passport-lookalike and confers on the holder visa and residency rights.


The OCI is a form of permanent residency granted to people of Indian origin and their spouses. © Handout

Since India does not permit dual citizenship, OCI cards are provided for the equivalent of $275 to foreign nationals of Indian origin and the spouses of Indian nationals or OCI card-holders.

The residency status is the latest iteration of a decades-long bid by successive governments to tap into the economic potential of the Indian diaspora, the largest in the world, clocking nearly 18 million in 2020, according to UN figures. It’s also among the wealthiest, with strong ties to the motherland. In 2022, for instance, India’s inward remittances hit a record of almost $108 billion, around 3% of GDP, more than in any other country.

Attracting the diaspora’s dollars without offering citizenship rights historically entails acronyms in India. NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) before the 1990s gave way to PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) before the nomenclature settled on the current OCI. The latest overseas “citizen” of India is a misnomer since holders do not have voting rights or citizenship guarantees. But since the OCI privileges were an improvement on the earlier NRI and PIO categories, few made any fuss.  

That was until the government began tinkering with citizenship and visa regulations after Modi was re-elected in 2019 to a second term in office.

Many acronyms, few rights 

Just months after Modi’s May 2019 re-election, the Indian parliament, dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed a controversial citizenship amendment law, which gained notoriety as the country erupted in what was commonly called “anti-CAA” (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests.

File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020.
File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020. © Altaf Qadri, AP

The new law, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants and refugees from neighbouring countries, was widely criticised for discriminating against Muslims, an allegation the Modi government denies.

While the anti-CAA protests drew international press coverage, the insertion of a subclause covering OCI cancellations passed largely unnoticed.

As Modi nudged past the half-way mark of his second term, the regulations got tighter. By 2021, the government required its overseas “citizens” to apply for “special permission” to “undertake” research, journalistic, missionary or mountaineering “activities”.

So on January 18, when Dougnac received a letter from the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO), she initially thought she had finally received her journalist permit, which was denied in September 2022, for no stated reason.

For the freelance journalist, the denial of a journalist permit meant a precarious dip in her income and she was eager to get back to work.

But that was not to be. The FRRO letter revoking Dougnac’s OCI instead accused her and her articles of being “malicious” and of harming “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”. The notice put the onus on the freelance journalist, requiring her to respond to why her OCI should not be cancelled. 

Dougnac has launched a petition in the Delhi High Court, adding to the legal appeals and challenges launched by several others in a similar state. But nearly a month after she received her notification, Dougnac was forced to leave the country she had made her home for 25 years and return to France. 

In a statement released February 16, the French journalist noted that it had become “clear that I cannot keep living in India and earning my livelihood. I am fighting these accusations before the competent forums and I have full faith in the legal process. But I can’t afford to wait for its outcome. The proceedings with respect to my OCI status have shattered me,” she noted.

‘Showing animus’ to governments, not country

The list of shattered lives has been increasing over the past few months, perpetuating a climate of fear among overseas Indians. An investigative report published on February 12 by Indian news site Article 14 found that more than 102 OCIs were cancelled under section 7D between 2014 and 2023.

Many targeted OCI-holders prefer not to speak to the press out of fear of scuppering their appeals process and being permanently deprived of the ability to travel to a country where many have families, including aging parents and ailing loved ones.

Some high-profile cases do make the news, such as British-American writer and journalist Aatish Taseer, whose OCI was revoked in 2019, shortly after Time magazine published his excoriating cover story, “India’s Divider in Chief”, on Modi’s brand of Hindutva populism.

Indian authorities said Taseer’s OCI was revoked because he “attempted to conceal” the fact that his biological father was a Pakistani national. The journalist, who was brought up in India by his single mother and wrote a critically acclaimed book in 2009 on his journey to meet his father, Pakistan’s former Punjab governor Salman Taseer – who was assassinated two years after his son’s book was published – dismissed the claim.

The official cancellation explanations for the recent spate of OCI scraps include ill-defined allegations of “showing animus” towards India, or “attempting to destabilise the social fabric” of the country. 

“In some cases, the authorities have openly cited criticism of BJP government policies as evidence to revoke the visa status,” noted Human Rights Watch, citing the case of octogenarian British activist Amrit Wilson, whose OCI was cancelled due to her social media posts on the Kashmir crisis and a 2020-2021 farmers protest movement.

Indian authorities note that governments across the world have the discretion to grant or refuse visas to their countries. It’s a point that Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledges. “Of course, every government has the right to determine who gets visas or not. But those rights cannot be based on discriminatory ideas,” she noted. “Any democracy relies on a foundational principle of permitting dissent. That is what distinguishes it from authoritarianism. Now all dissent and all ideas may not be accepted by the state. But the fact that those opinions are put forward should not be seen immediately as something that is against the country, it is against government policies, and governments change.”

‘I miss India’

In its attempts to ensure the government does not change after the 2024 general election, the Modi administration has been pushing through key campaign promises that are popular with the BJP’s Hindu nationalist base.

On March 11, just weeks ahead of the elections, the Indian government announced the implementation of the new citizenship law. While parliament approved the CAA in 2019, the Modi government held off on the implementation following deadly protests against a law that was widely viewed as discriminatory against Muslims.

Responding to the move, the US expressed “concern” with a State Department spokesperson noting that Washington is “closely monitoring how this act will be implemented”.

The concern was echoed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “As we said in 2019, we are concerned that India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) is fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India’s international human rights obligations,” said a spokesperson.

The Modi administration’s response to the expressions of concern was forthright. The citizenship law was an “internal matter”, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters in New Delhi, noting that the US State Department’s statement was “misplaced, misinformed and unwarranted”. 

But Ganguly believes the changes in citizenship and residency laws warrant the attention of India’s democratic allies, particularly those measures that affect their own nationals of Indian origins. “It needs attention from foreign governments, because there is a lot of interest in the Indian market and in strategic partnerships. Those are legitimate interests. But when they want to do business with India, foreign governments need to be aware that any claims of partnerships between democracies is seriously undermined if the government is going to be so repressive on freedom of speech and in cracking down on its critics,” she noted.

As India heads for critical elections, Dougnac is in France, watching the coverage from thousands of miles away. “I covered elections in India for 20 years. Now for the first time, I will not be there to cover it. I miss India,” she said. 

While her appeal works its way through the Indian courts, the French journalist confesses she’s still in a state of shock. “Really, it’s too emotional for me,” she confessed. “I led a life filled with adventures and interactions across the subcontinent, and had the opportunity to witness over two decades of India’s history. Now I’m in France, I feel like I’m in exile in my own country.”

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Racist attacks on pop star Aya Nakamura test France’s ability to shine at Paris Olympics

Rumours that French pop star Aya Nakamara may sing at the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics have triggered a flurry of attacks from the French far right, questioning the host country’s ability to appreciate the globally acclaimed talent emerging from its neglected suburbs with large immigrant populations.

With the Paris Olympics still months away, the host country has already won gold in a category it truly owns: divisive racial controversy with “made in France” flair.  

That’s how public broadcaster France Inter summed up a row over unconfirmed rumours that Aya Nakamura would perform an Édith Piaf song during the Games’ opening ceremony in front of a crowd of 300,000 gathered along the River Seine

Nakamura, 28, has become a global superstar for hits like “Djadja”, which has close to a billion streams on YouTube alone. On the international stage, she is the most popular French female singer since Piaf sang “La vie en rose”, a rare case of a French artist whose songs reach well beyond the Francophone world.  

She is also the proud face of the neglected banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, which have produced many of France’s best-known icons of music and sport – and which will soon host the Olympic Village. 


On paper, tapping her for the curtain-raiser of “the biggest show on earth” is a no-brainer. 

But the mere suggestion triggered a vitriolic response from members of France’s ascendant far right, for whom Nakamura is unfit to represent France. Their sometimes racist arguments have in turn prompted outrage and bafflement, leading government ministers to wade into a debate that has had precious little to do with music. 

“If this were about music, we wouldn’t even have a debate – Nakamura is France’s biggest pop star, full stop,” said Olivier Cachin, a prominent music journalist who was among the first to speak out on social media in defence of the singer.  

“But it’s not about music. It’s about the colour of her skin,” he added. “It’s racism, pure and simple.”  

‘You can be racist but not deaf’ 

The controversy follows media reports that Nakamura discussed performing a song by Piaf during a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace last month – though neither party has confirmed the rumour.  

On Saturday, a small extremist group known as the “Natives” hung a banner on the banks of the Seine that read: “No way, Aya. This is Paris, not the Bamako market” – a reference to Nakamura’s birth in Mali‘s capital. 

The next day, the singer’s name was booed at a campaign rally for the far-right Reconquête party of Eric Zemmour, the former pundit and presidential candidate who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred. In a bizarre rant, Zemmour claimed “future babies (…) don’t vote for rap, nor for lambada, nor for Aya Nakamura: they vote for Mozart!” 

Right-wing pundits posing as music critics appeared on news programmes and chat shows to mock the singer’s unorthodox spelling and slang-infused lyrics, stripped of her distinctive rhythm and vibe, while the Senate’s conservative head Gérard Larcher took offence at her use of the sexually explicit slang term “catchana” (“doggy style”) – in the land of Serge Gainsbourg, of all places. 


Nakamura has responded to the vitriol, writing on social media: “You can be racist but not deaf… That’s what hurts you! I’m becoming a number 1 state subject in debates… but what do I really owe you? Nada.” 

The singer was backed by the Olympics’ organising committee, which said it was “shocked by the racist attacks” levelled at “the most listened-to French artist in the world”.        

Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra also expressed her support on social media, telling Nakamura she had the people’s backing, while Culture Minister Rachida Dati raised the matter in the French National Assembly, warning that “attacking someone purely on racist grounds (…) is unacceptable; it’s an offence”. 

On Friday, Paris prosecutors said they were investigating allegations of racist attacks against the pop star following a complaint filed by the anti-racism advocacy group Licra.

For Whites only 

For Karim Hammou and Marie Sonnette-Manouguian, co-authors of a book charting 40 years of hip-hop music in France, Nakamura’s elevation to a “state subject” is part of a concerted strategy of exploiting cultural events to serve the far right’s reactionary, identity politics. 

“The pattern is always the same: far-right leaders voice outrage on social media, until the controversy is picked up by a larger audience in the media and the mainstream right,” they said in written remarks to FRANCE 24. 

Rappers and R&B singers are routinely used as scapegoats in debates that go well beyond them,” they added. “The real question being raised here is that of the participation of people of immigrant background (…) in French culture and in enriching its language and modes of expression.” 

If Nakamura were White, there would be no such debate, added Bettina Ghio, who has written several books on the language of French rap, the country’s most popular musical genre – but one that has long been frowned upon by politicians and the musical establishment.  

“The far right cannot bear the idea that non-white people of immigrant descent can represent France on the international stage – let alone sing from the repertoire of White artists,” she explained. 

Ghio cited the case of Youssoupha, a French rapper of Congolese descent, who suffered similar attacks when his song “Ecris mon nom en bleu” (“Write my name in blue”) was chosen as the unofficial anthem of the French national team at the men’s Euro 2021 football tournament. 

“The Nakamura controversy should not be isolated from past incidents in which the far right has taken aim at artists and athletes based on the colour of their skin,” she said, pointing to the frequent slurs levelled at the racially diverse French squads that won the football World Cups in 1998 and 2018.  

Lilian Thuram, the Caribbean-born former international who was part of the Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab) squad of 1998, spoke in defence of Nakamura in an interview with France Info radio on Tuesday. 

“When people say she’s not fit to represent France, I know exactly what criteria they have in mind because the same arguments were used against me,” said the retired player, an outspoken campaigner against racism in France. He said the question of whether Nakamura should perform at the Olympics was being presented the wrong way. 

“If you ask people whether the most popular French artist in the world should perform at the Olympics, a majority would say ‘yes’,” he added. “Like it or not, she’s the best. And that’s why she should represent France.” 

A cosmopolitan mix 

Thuram noted that Nakamura was often mistakenly labelled a rapper, a habit he attributed to racial and class-based prejudice. 

“Why do people think she’s a rapper? Because she’s Black,” he said. “It’s as if we were discussing some random artist from the suburbs and not France’s biggest star. It’s insulting.” 

Nakamura’s music mixes R&B with the highly danceable rhythms of Afrobeat and Carribean Zouk. But right-wing criticism of her work sometimes echoes the prejudice aimed at France’s thriving rap scene, a driver of vociferous social criticism for the past three decades. 


“The far right cannot stand the criticism of France’s colonial history voiced by rappers,” said Ghio. “Zemmour has made hateful comments on television about rap, describing it as a subculture for illiterates … that wrecks the French language.” 

Zemmour’s deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of rival far-right leader Marine Le Pen, made similar comments on Tuesday, stating on BFMTV that, “Aya Nakamura does not sing in French. She does not represent French culture and elegance.” 

Such claims are “preposterous”, said Cachin, for whom the pop star “simply speaks today’s French, rich in slang and expressions, and does so very well.” He added: “Other more mainstream artists do this as well, without attracting the same kind of scrutiny.” 

Nakamura, whose real last name is Danioko, sings in French, but her lyrics borrow heavily from argot, the French slang, as well as English, Arabic and Bambara, the Malian language spoken by her parents. Her cosmopolitan mix is inspired by her upbringing in a family of griots, Malian poets steeped in music. 

The term “Djadja”, from her breakthrough hit, refers to a liar who boasts about sleeping with her. It has become a rallying cry for female campaigners against sexism and sexist violence. “Pookie”, the title of another hugely popular song, comes from the French slang term poucave, meaning a snitch. 


“Her songs bring vitality to the French language, because there’s a lot of research into sounds and rhythms, and adopting new terms that are popular with youths, particularly in the suburbs,” said Ghio. She drew a parallel with prominent rappers PNL, who experiment with accents, placing them elsewhere in words to generate new sounds. 

“To ignore their work is to consider French as a dead language that hasn’t changed one bit over the past 40 years,” Ghio said, adding that she looked forward to hearing Nakamura experiment with Piaf’s repertoire. 

Piaf in the banlieue 

The scion of poverty-stricken street performers, Piaf was also once derided for her unorthodox style and frequent use of slang terms that postwar elites frowned upon. 

“Popular music has always been attacked by bourgeois commentators and self-styled guardians of proper French language,” said Hammou and Sonnette-Manouguian. “In her day, Piaf was frequently criticised for her performances, her physique and her morals,” they added, denouncing attempts to create a “false opposition” between the legendary 20th century singer and Nakamura. 

Piaf has long been revered in the urban music scene of the Paris suburbs, sung by rapper JoeyStarr and remixed in Matthieu Kassovitz’s seminal film “La Haine”. Associating her with Nakamura would be a chance to link the past and present of French popular music, said Ghio, “from the working-class, bohemian Paris of Piaf to today’s post-colonial banlieues with their African diaspora”. 

Echoing that theme, the left-leaning daily Libération spoke of “building bridges between generations” and a chance to demonstrate “France’s gratitude towards artists that contribute to its global clout, be they from Montmartre or Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poorer suburb north of Paris)”. 


Aya Nakamura at Paris Fashion Week on February 29, 2024. © Miguel Médina, AFP

Nakamura’s position as a target of racist, sexist and class-based attacks has made her the unwitting champion of causes she never claimed to carry. 

The pop star, whose playful songs touch on relationships, flirting and female friendships, has consistently steered clear of politics. She has previously declined to describe herself as feminist, suggesting such a label would sound “fake”.  

But she has also proved her mettle in facing down a torrent of abuse throughout her still-burgeoning career. 

“When you’re a non-White woman in a patriarchal society shaped by its colonial past, you need to find the words to defend yourself,” said Binetou Sylla, producer and owner of Syllart Records, pointing at Nakamura’s social media post this week. 

“It’s possibly the first time she uses the word ‘racist’ in a tweet,” Sylla observed. “But she had no choice.”  

The music producer stressed Nakamura’s bold personality, adding: “She’s unapologetic, with a loudmouth, provocative side that is also very French – and which further winds up her racist critics.” The racist campaign against Nakamura has now made it imperative that she performs at the opening ceremony, Sylla said.  

“If Aya steps aside, if she doesn’t open the Games, it will be France’s loss. That much is certain,” Libération argued, describing Nakamura as a rare “element of French soft power in a pop culture dominated by English and Spanish.” 

A curtain-raiser without Nakamura would also mean handing a victory to the far right, added Cachin. 

“Of course she has to perform now,” he said. “Whether she sings from her own repertoire or from Piaf’s or (Charles) Aznavour’s or all of them at once, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, she’ll be in her right.” 



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France’s foreign doctors suffer insecurity as understaffed hospitals struggle to function

The situation for several thousand foreign doctors working in French hospitals has become more complicated since the end of the exemption scheme put into place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 1,900 of these practitioners have now lost their right to practise, a great loss for French hospitals already struggling with shortages of medical staff. FRANCE 24 spoke to some of them.

Karima*’s last visit to the prefecture was a complete nightmare, as her residence permit was not renewed. “All I have is a receipt”, she says. This is despite the fact that she has been working as a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon – including in the emergency department, where she is on call at least four nights a month – for the past two years in a hospital in the Parisian suburbs. “My colleagues in general surgery asked me to come help out,” says the surgeon, who is originally from a country in North Africa*. “I’m not going to let them down,” she says, although she doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to practise.

Even though the hospital has agreed to let her work, Karima is concerned that her contract, which is renewed every six months, will be allowed to expire. She is one of some 4,000 medical practitioners with qualifications from outside the European Union known as “Padhue” (for the acronym of praticiens diplômés en dehors de l’Union européenne) who have been working in French hospitals for years in precarious positions such as “acting intern”.

“The work I do is real work, the work of a practitioner, even though I’m on an intern contract for which I get paid 1,400 euros net and which has to be renewed every six months. The prefecture refused to renew my residence permit because of these breaches of contract,” says the doctor, who is constantly going back and forth with the authorities to try and stabilise her situation. “This time, the prefecture is asking me for a work permit provided by the regional health agency, which no longer wants to provide it, as the law has changed.” 

On December 31, 2023, the exemption scheme that allowed establishments to employ Padhue staff under a variety of precarious arrangements expired, making it impossible for them to continue working. As of January 1, these doctors must sit highly selective and competitive examinations known as “knowledge verification tests” (épreuves de vérification des connaissances, or EVC) before they can be reinstated. Posts under the scheme are hard to come by, with 2,700 available for over 8,000 applicants in 2023, some of whom try their luck from abroad. As a result, the majority of the Padhue doctors found themselves out of the running this year.

After an outcry from French unions, the government finally promised to “regularise a number of foreign doctors” and renewed their temporary work permits another year so that they can sit the 2024 EVC.

‘I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here’

However, Karima’s problems are far from over, as she tried to sit the EVC in paediatric orthopaedic surgery in 2023 but her application was rejected. “They tell me that I don’t have the right diploma, that I need one in paediatric orthopaedics, but my country doesn’t offer this type of diploma! I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here. I operate on my own, I consult, I have my own patients,” she says. 

When she arrived in France in 2020, she did not have long-term plans to live on this side of the Mediterranean. “I had been sent to France for further training in orthopaedic surgery because I had noticed shortcomings in the department where I was working in North Africa,” she says. But after almost two years as an associate trainee at a university hospital in Nice, Karima found herself stuck in France because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of her country’s borders. She also lost her job in North Africa. 

While in Nice, she worked on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic alongside French medical staff, lending a hand in intensive care. “We saved lives. And we’ll continue to do so. It’s what we do. Sometimes in the emergency department, I find myself in a situation where I have to react in a split second, do the right thing and make the right decision to save someone.”

‘I regularly pack my bags’

Sometimes Karima thinks about returning to North Africa. “I ask myself the question if I can go on in this situation. But I have a job that I love, especially the children. I’m attached to my patients. When I see in their eyes that they’re satisfied, I feel useful.” However, she is thinking more and more about leaving, as she wants a life where she can plan beyond a day-to-day basis. “I regularly find myself packing my bags. I hesitate to order new furniture.” Those close to her have suggested that she apply for a job in Germany “Some of my colleagues have gone there. They were accepted on the basis of their applications and took German language courses,” she says.

Against the backdrop of its overwhelmed healthcare system, France is in desperate need of additional medical staff, but risks losing thousands of these doctors to other European countries.  

Watch moreA country short of doctors: Exploring France’s ‘medical deserts’

 


Dr Aristide Yayi, originally from Burkina Faso, came to demonstrate in front of the health ministry in Paris, France to defend the rights of foreign doctors working in France on February 15, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Dr Aristide Yayi is originally from Burkina Faso and qualified in forensic medicine in Dakar, Senegal. He has been working for three years as a general practitioner at the only residential care home for senior citizens (“Ehpads”, in France) in Commercy, a small town in the northeastern Meuse department. France’s elder care sector is in desperate need of doctors. “My contract runs until July 2024. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Yayi. He wants to develop a pain management service for the Ehpad residents, but this project may never see the light of day if his situation does not become more stable. “I’ve been on one training course after another, with six-month contracts as an ‘acting intern’. It’s always uncertain and precarious. I feel like I’m being treated like a junior doctor,” he says.

Hospital services under threat without foreign doctors

Several hospital department heads, particularly in the Paris region, have warned that they will be “forced to close” if no more foreign doctors are hired. At his January 16 press conference, President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France needed these practitioners, saying he wanted to “regularise a number of foreign doctors, who help to hold our system together”. This promise was reiterated by newly-appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal in his general policy speech at the end of January. 

French unions are now demanding that this rhetoric be followed by action. At a meeting with the health ministry on February 15, they welcomed the previous day’s publication of the decree renewing temporary work permits for foreign doctors who undertake to sit the 2024 EVC. However, Olivier Varnet, general secretary of the National Union of Hospital Doctors FO, criticised the decree, saying it was “a first step” that “merely postpones the problem for a year”.

Meanwhile, foreign doctors are suffering, as almost 1,900 of them are unable to work at the moment. “My old department is desperately looking for someone to replace me. They’re really struggling. I was in charge of two units with 20 patients each. It’s absurd,” says Mostapha, who worked in a follow-up care and rehabilitation unit in Normandy. His contract as an “associate practitioner” was suspended on January 1, as he was not permitted to sit the knowledge verification tests. “The hospital wanted to keep me, but the regional health authority didn’t authorise it,” he says.

‘Some candidates failed, even with top marks’

A graduate of the Faculty of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Algiers, he followed his wife, a French national, to France three years ago. “I don’t have any problems with my papers – I have a 10-year residence permit,” he says.

Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation received on February 16, 2024 by the Ministry of Health in Paris, France.
Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation in a meeting at the French health ministry on February 16, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Mostapha hopes that his case will be examined more closely and that the new decree will enable him to return to work. However, he doesn’t really believe that taking the exam will help him get his career back on track: “I’m planning to take it again because for the moment there’s no other solution, although the chances of passing it are getting smaller and smaller because of the number of posts. It’s worse than selective.”

Many unions believe that the exam is more reflective of a quota system than an actual “verification of knowledge”. “Some candidates failed with an average of more than 15 [out of 20, a highly competitive result],” says Laurent Laporte, general secretary of the CGT’s Federal Union of Doctors, Engineers, Managers and Technicians. The unions say the test is “too academic”, “random”, “opaque” and “discriminatory for doctors working more than 60 hours a week”. The health ministry promised on February 15 to “reformulate the EVC” by making it more practical. 

*This person wishes to remain anonymous

This article has been translated from the original in French

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House speaker rejects Ukraine aid package as senators grind through votes

House Speaker Mike Johnson late Monday sharply criticised a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other countries, casting serious doubts about the future of the package just as Senate leaders were slowly muscling it ahead in hopes of sending a message that the US remains committed to its allies.

 

The Republican speaker said the package lacked border security provisions, calling it “silent on the most pressing issue facing our country.” It was the latest — and potentially most consequential — sign of opposition to the Ukraine aid from conservatives who have for months demanded that border security policy be included in the package, only to last week reject a bipartisan proposal intended to curb the number of illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border

“Now, in the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters,” Johnson said. “America deserves better than the Senate’s status quo.”

A determined group of Republican senators was also trying Monday with a marathon set of speeches to slow the Senate from passing the package. The mounting opposition was just the latest example of how the Republican Party’s stance on foreign affairs is being transformed under the influence of Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee.

Even if the package passes the Senate, as is expected, it faces an uncertain future in the House, where Republicans are more firmly aligned with Trump and deeply skeptical of continuing to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.

As Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and 17 other GOP senators have provided the votes to ensure the foreign aid package stays on track to clearing the Senate, Johnson has shown no sign he will put the package up for a vote.

Support for sending military aid to Ukraine has waned among Republicans, but lawmakers have cast the aid as a direct investment in American interests to ensure global stability. The package would allot roughly $60 billion to Ukraine, and about a third of that would be spent replenishing the US military with the weapons and equipment that are sent to Kyiv.

“These are the enormously high stakes of the supplemental package: our security, our values, our democracy,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as he opened the chamber. “It is a down payment for the survival of Western democracy and the survival of American values.”

Schumer worked closely with McConnell for months searching for a way to win favor in the House for tens of billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine. But after the carefully negotiated Senate compromise that included border policy collapsed last week, Republicans have been deeply divided on the legislation.

Sen. JD Vance, an Ohio Republican, argued that the US should step back from the conflict and help broker an end to the conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He questioned the wisdom of continuing to fuel Ukraine’s defense when Putin appears committed to continuing the conflict for years.

“I think it deals with the reality that we’re living in, which is they’re a more powerful country, and it’s their region of the world,” he said.

Vance, along with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other opponents, spent several hours on the floor railing against the aid and complaining about Senate process. They dug in to delay a final vote.

“Wish us stamina. We fight for you. We stand with America,” Paul posted on social media as he and other senators prepared to occupy the floor as long as they could.

Paul defended his delays, saying “the American people need to know there was opposition to this.”

But bowing to Russia is a prospect some Republicans warned would be a dangerous move that puts Americans at risk. In an unusually raw back-and-forth, GOP senators who support the aid challenged some of the opponents directly on the floor.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis angrily rebutted some of their arguments, noting that the money would only help Ukraine for less than a year and that much of it would go to replenishing US military stocks.

“Why am I so focused on this vote?” Tillis said. “Because I don’t want to be on the pages of history that we will regret if we walk away. You will see the alliance that is supporting Ukraine crumble. You will ultimately see China become emboldened. And I am not going to be on that page of history.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., became emotional as he talked about the drudgery of the Senate and spending time away from his family to get little done. “But every so often there are issues that come before us that seem to be the ones that explain why we are here,” he said, his voice cracking.

Moran conceded that the cost of the package was heavy for him, but pointed out that if Putin were to attack a NATO member in Europe, the US would be bound by treaty to become directly involved in the conflict.

Trump, speaking at a rally Saturday, said that he had once told a NATO ally he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to members that are “delinquent” in their financial and military commitments to the alliance. The former president has led his party away from the foreign policy doctrines of aggressive American involvement overseas and toward an “America First” isolationism.

Evoking the slogan, Moran said, “I believe in America first, but unfortunately America first means we have to engage in the world.”

Senate supporters of the package have been heartened by the fact that many House Republicans still adamantly want to fund Ukraine’s defense.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, traveled to Kyiv last week with a bipartisan group that included Reps. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, as well as French Hill, R-Ark., Jason Crow, D-Colo. and Zach Nunn, R-Iowa.

Spanberger said the trip underscored to her how Ukraine is still in a fight for its very existence. As the group traveled through Kyiv in armored vehicles, they witnessed signs of an active war, from sandbagged shelters to burned-out cars and memorials to those killed. During a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the US lawmakers tried to offer assurances the American people still stood with his country.

“He was clear that our continued support is critical to their ability to win the war,” Spanberger said. “It’s critical to their own freedom. And importantly, it’s critical to US national security interests.”

The bipartisan group discussed how rarely used procedures could be used to advance the legislation through the House, even without the speaker’s support. But Spanberger called it a “tragedy” that the legislation could still stall despite a majority of lawmakers standing ready to support it.

“The fact that the only thing standing in the way is one person who does or doesn’t choose to bring it to the floor,” she said. “The procedure standing in the way of defeating Russia — that’s the part that for me is just untenable.”

(AP)

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Riots, protests and climate uprisings: 2023 was a tumultuous year in France

France encountered severe turbulence over the past 12 months, roiled by a long and bitter battle over pension reform as well as crippling droughts, sizzling heatwaves and nationwide rioting. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the top stories from a year of turmoil.

Even by French standards, 2023 was a year of exceptional social unrest, marked by France’s largest protest movement this century and the worst bout of rioting in almost two decades. From start to end, President Emmanuel Macron’s minority government struggled to pass legislation in a fractious and bitterly divided parliament, often opting to bypass it altogether. Severe droughts and unseasonal heatwaves pushed the life-threatening challenges of climate change to the fore, while a nationwide bedbug frenzy brought unwanted attention from abroad as the country hosted the Rugby World Cup and raced to prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

  • Pension battle ends in Pyrrhic win for Macron

A montage of President Emmanuel Macron as the “Sun King” Louis XIV at a protest against pension reform in Paris on March 23, 2023. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Macron kicked off the year with a push to overhaul France’s pension system, setting the stage for a showdown with a united front of unions. The French president staked his reformist credentials on passage of the flagship reform, which raised the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 – a step his government said was necessary to balance the books amid shifting demographics. Unions countered that the reform would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers and women, successfully framing the pension debate as part of a wider fight for social justice.

The months-long tussle saw opponents of the reform stage multiple rounds of strikes and protests, drawing huge crowds in cities, towns and even villages across France. Refinery shutdowns and transport strikes caused travel chaos while a walkout by rubbish collectors kicked up a “great stink” in the streets of Paris – though unions ultimately failed in their bid to “paralyse” the country. Throughout the standoff, polls consistently showed that a large majority of the French opposed the reform, piling the pressure on a government already outnumbered in parliament.

Violence flared in late March when Macron ordered his government to ram the reform through parliament without a vote, using special executive powers. The move sparked several nights of unrest and turned the festering social dispute into a crisis of French democracy. Police crackdowns and controversial rulings by France’s constitutional court helped snuff out the movement, handing Macron a pyrrhic victory – though in the weeks that followed he could scarcely take a step outside the Élysée Palace without being greeted by protesters banging pots and pans.

  • Teen’s death sets off nationwide riots

Fireworks target French riot police during protests in Nanterre, west of Paris, on June 28, 2023.
Fireworks target French riot police during protests in Nanterre, west of Paris, on June 28, 2023. © Zakaria Abdelkafiz, AFP

Running battles between riot police and pension protesters revived a long-standing debate on police brutality in France – with human rights monitors both at home and abroad raising the alarm over officers’ “excessive use of force”. The scrutiny only increased in late June when towns and cities across the country erupted in rage at the killing of Nahel M., a 17-year-old of North African origin who was shot dead by police during a routine traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

Social media footage of the incident, which contradicted police claims that Nahel had posed a threat to officers, kicked off several nights of rioting in France’s deprived and ethnically diverse suburbs, known as banlieues, where non-white youths have long complained of being singled out by police. Rioters focused their attacks on symbols of the state, including police stations, schools and town halls. The Interior Ministry said that more than 1,000 buildings and 5,000 vehicles were torched. 

In a rare criticism of the police, Macron described the fatal shooting as “inexplicable” and “unforgivable”, while the UN’s human rights office urged France to “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement”. However, the initial expressions of outrage soon gave way to hardline law-and-order rhetoric amid consecutive nights of rioting. And as police unions openly spoke of battling “vermin” and “savage hordes”, analysts feared the real lessons of Nahel’s killing – like other past tragedies – would not be learned.

A protester holds up a Palestinian flag at an unauthorised rally in solidarity with Gaza held in central Paris on October 12, 2023.
A protester holds up a Palestinian flag at an unauthorised rally in solidarity with Gaza held in central Paris on October 12, 2023. © AFP

When the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas launched a murderous attack on southern Israel on October 7, triggering a ferocious and devastating Israeli response, French authorities openly voiced concern that the conflict might stoke further unrest in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations. 

A spike in anti-Semitic acts sowed anguish among French Jews and politicians of all stripes took part in a Paris march to denounce anti-Semitism, though the presence of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally led some opponents to shun the rally. Meanwhile, rights groups voiced dismay as the government banned pro-Palestinian protests on the grounds that they might “disturb public order”, until judges ruled that a blanket ban was unlawful. The war also sparked a rare dispute at an annual march against gender-based violence in Paris, signaling tensions between French feminists over their response to sexual crimes attributed to Hamas. 

Fears that the plight of Gaza would inspire Islamist militants to carry out attacks on French soil appeared to materialise on October 13 when a high-school teacher in northern Arras was stabbed to death by a radicalised former pupil who originated from Russia’s Ingushetia – reigniting the trauma of Samuel Paty’s beheading in 2020. In the days following the Arras stabbing, government ministers suggested the war in Gaza may have “precipitated” events, though investigators were yet to establish a formal link with the assailant, who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State group prior to the attack.

  • Far right hails hardline immigration law

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin spent much of the year trying to build support in parliament for a tough new immigration law.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin attends a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on December 12, 2023. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

For Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the Arras knife attack proved the need for new legislation making it easier to expel foreign nationals suspected of radicalisation. The hawkish minister had spent much of the year trying to build parliamentary support for a tough new “immigration law”, which rights groups condemned as repressive. His efforts appeared to have collapsed when opposition lawmakers banded together to shoot down the bill before it was even debated in the National Assembly. 

In response, the government submitted an even tougher law to win over right-wing lawmakers, introducing measures that discriminate between citizens and immigrants in terms of eligibility to benefits. The law was harsh enough for Le Pen to claim it as an “ideological victory” for her National Rally and its passage with support from the far right sparked a crisis within Macron’s ruling party, leading his health minister to resign in protest. In a rare move, a third of French regions vowed not to comply with some of its toughest measures. 

  • Droughts, heatwaves and climate uprisings

Burnt sunflowers pictured in a field near the village of Puy Saint Martin, in southeastern France, on August 22, 2023.
Burnt sunflowers pictured in a field near the village of Puy Saint Martin, in southeastern France, on August 22, 2023. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP

The ubiquitous Darmanin made headlines throughout the year as he ordered the disbanding of a range of groups he deemed extremist. They included the climate movement Les Soulèvements de la Terre (“Earth’s uprisings”), whose attempt to prevent the construction of controversial water reservoirs resulted in a pitched battle with police that left hundreds injured and two people in a coma. The interior minister accused the group of inciting “ecoterrorism”, but his attempt to ban it was quashed by France’s top administrative court.

The clashes at Sainte-Soline were indicative of mounting tensions between corporate farming and environmental activists as the country grappled with recurrent and increasingly unseasonal heatwaves, which put further stress on fragile ecosystems already weakened by crippling droughts. The climate emergency cast a spotlight on livestock farming and eating habits, with meat consumption the biggest contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

Adapting the way farmers use water resources was one of 50 measures included in a water-saving plan unveiled in March, following an exceptionally dry winter. Extraordinary measures were required to help the Indian ocean island of Mayotte, where the worst drought in decades forced the government to send a military cargo ship stacked with drinking water. And in Paris, where scientists warned that temperatures could reach 50C by 2050, volunteers used a pioneering tree-planting method to create pocket forests offering shelter from the heat. 

  • Paris Olympics feel the heat

An illustration showing the concept for the Paris Olympics opening ceremony, to be staged on the River Seine.
An illustration showing the concept for the Paris Olympics opening ceremony, to be staged on the River Seine. © Florian Hulleu, AFP

As the French capital grappled with the challenges of climate change, organisers of next year’s Summer Olympics struggled to back up their pledge to make the Paris 2024 Games the “greenest” yet. In May, they backtracked on a promise to eliminate more greenhouse gas emissions than those generated by the event, while insisting Paris 2024 would still halve the carbon footprint of previous games. But delays to transport upgrades threatened to jeopardise emissions targets, while climate activists described carbon-offsetting plans as little more than “greenwashing”.

Ambitious plans to host the opening ceremony along the River Seine – rather than inside a stadium – also came under scrutiny as officials released an 11-page security protocol aimed at shielding the event from the threats of terrorism, drone attacks and other risks. The protocol triggered a rare protest by the French capital’s famed bouquinistes, whose iconic riverside book kiosks will be dismantled for the occasion. The Seine churned up more headaches for organisers when pollution levels repeatedly forced the cancellation of trials for swimming events set to be held in the river.

  • Hosts fall short at Rugby World Cup

France's captain Antoine Dupont (left) and lock Cameron Woki react after the hosts' quarter-final defeat at the Rugby World Cup.
France’s captain Antoine Dupont (left) and lock Cameron Woki react after the hosts’ quarter-final defeat at the Rugby World Cup. © Franck Fife, AFP

Doubts about France’s ability to host large sporting events had simmered since the Champions League final hosted at the Stade de France in May 2022, when French police notoriously doused Liverpool fans with tear gas and pepper spray amid a chaotic build-up marred by train strikes and issues of fake ticketing. This year’s Rugby World Cup, hosted at the same venue and in eight other French cities, was a chance for France to make amends and prove its readiness – a challenge organisers largely pulled off.

The seven-week rugby extravaganza kicked off with a memorable French win over old rivals New Zealand, which bolstered the home nation’s hopes of winning a maiden World Cup title. Those hopes took a blow when a fractured cheekbone stripped the hosts of their talismanic skipper Antoine Dupond. The fly-half returned with a face mask for the crunch quarter-final against title holders South Africa but could not prevent an agonising one-point defeat for Les Bleus. After edging England by the same margin in the semis, the Springboks went on to grab the narrowest of wins over the All Blacks in the final, clinching a record fourth World Cup title. 

  • Bedbugs, tiger mosquitoes and trotinettes

Self-service e-scooters were banished from the streets of Paris after a public consultation marked by record-low turnout.
Self-service e-scooters were banished from the streets of Paris after a public consultation marked by record-low turnout. © Thomas Coex, AFP

Midway through the tournament, concern over an increase in the number of bedbugs rapidly spiralled into national hysteria, with the bloodsucking pests making headlines both in France and abroad. Cinemas, trains and Paris metros were said to be crawling with the tiny insects and one lawmaker brandished a vial of bugs in the National Assembly, urging the government to address the “explosive situation”. But officials insisted there was no scientific evidence to suggest any explosion in bedbugs, and that images posted on social media did not necessarily mean growing numbers.

Health authorities appeared more concerned about the spread of the Asian tiger mosquito as evidence emerged that the black-and-white striped insect had settled in 71 of the country’s 96 mainland départements (administrative units). With climate change creating perfect conditions for its proliferation, experts warned that the invasive species threatened to spread diseases like zika, dengue and chikungunya.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tackled a very different type of nuisance when she called a referendum on banning self-service e-scooters, citing irresponsible use and a rising accident toll. The April vote was billed as a showdown between trottinettes-hating boomers and Gen Z, the service’s main users. But only the former showed up for the low-turnout ballot, and the e-scooters were duly banished from the streets of Paris.

  • Ukrainian art, Gainsbourg and a fiery Palme d’Or

This Byzantine icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, dating from 6th-7th centuries, went on show at the Louvre after it was evacuated from Ukraine.
This Byzantine icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, dating from 6th-7th centuries, went on show at the Louvre after it was evacuated from Ukraine. © Khanenko Museum

As always, the French capital’s museums and galleries served up an abundance of art shows, dedicated to the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Berthe Morisot. Paris exhibits showcased Ukrainian art work evacuated following Russia’s invasion last year, taking the fight for the country’s heritage to the world-famous Louvre. Photographer Robert Doisneau’s little-known work forging documents during the Nazi occupation was the subject of a groundbreaking show near Paris, and the iconic Left Bank home of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg finally opened to the public – its ashtrays still brimming with Gitanes cigarette butts.

Down on the Riviera, French director Justine Triet won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for her thrilling courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” – becoming only the third female director to win cinema’s most prestigious award. But it was a bittersweet success for Macron and his ministers, whose cultural policies and conduct during France’s pension battle she proceeded to rubbish in a fiery acceptance speech broadcast live on national television.

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France’s undocumented migrants face uncertain future under new immigration law

Despite facing serious labour shortages, the French government passed a more restrictive immigration bill this week after watering down measures that would have streamlined the legalisation of foreign workers. But some of the law’s new provisions may still offer a glimmer of hope for the country’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. 

Until it became unstuck, the sticking point – as far as France’s right wing was concerned – for the Macron government’s sweeping immigration bill was how to deal with the country’s undocumented migrants.

In presenting the bill’s initial text a year ago, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt included provisions making it easier to legalise undocumented migrants working in sectors with labour shortages. But representatives from Marine Le Pen‘s far-right National Rally party repeatedly stated they would not endorse legislation granting undocumented workers legal status. 

After the language of the bill was significantly weakened in a joint committee, Le Pen saw an opening for a strategic victory and changed course; it passed the National Assembly (lower house) on Tuesday with Le Pen’s endorsement.

While it does not go as far as the original text, the new law gives undocumented workers in high-demand occupations a path to obtaining residency permits. Speaking a day after the law was passed, Darmanin said he expects the number of legalisations (régularisations) to double, with “ten thousand additional foreign workers each year“.

At the same time, the law will make it more difficult – and more risky – for undocumented workers in France: a law abolished by former president François Hollande that allowed police to fine foreigners up to €3,750 if they are found to be in the country unlawfully has been reintroduced. The bill also steps up sanctions against companies employing illegal workers.

Sans papiers

The number of undocumented workers, or what the French call the “sans papiers” (without papers), is impossible to calculate. Darmanin himself estimates the number to be between 600,000 and 900,000.

Amadou* moved to France from Mali on a work visa in 2001 (overstaying a legal visa is the most common path to becoming an undocumented migrant in Europe).

Finding work has never been a problem. He has primarily worked in the hospitality sector and in retirement homes – he currently works at a restaurant in Paris’s 7th arrondissement (district). “I’ve been working in France for 19 years without a holiday, without any sick days or absences,” he says.

Amadou first applied for working papers – to no avail – in 2012. The second time he applied, in 2018, he was denied because he didn’t have children or a partner to support. Since then, despite help from his employer, he has been unable to get another meeting.

Amadou belongs to an association that supports undocumented migrants in Montreuil, a suburb just east of Paris. He often participates in protests but realises he and people like him are largely powerless. “I’d like to get my papers but, considering it’s [the politicians] who decide, we are not their priority,” he says.

France’s right-wing Les Republicains party and the far-right National Rally are reluctant to endorse a path towards legalisation because they believe migrants choose France for its advantageous social system. Therefore, the logic goes, making life difficult for migrants will prevent more migrants from coming – an idea that has no grounding in research.

Read moreMacron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with stricter immigration law

By contrast, studies have found that legalising migrants has positive macroeconomic and fiscal outcomes in developed countries.

Citing research from the Institute of Labour Economics, French economist Pierre Cahuc argued for the significant advantages that legalisation can have on a country’s economy in the French financial daily Les Echos.

“It is a crucial factor to take into account in the context of low growth and an ageing population,” Cahuc said. “From a purely fiscal standpoint, legalisation could also have a positive impact since declared work generates income for the state coffers.”

Violaine Carrère, a lawyer at Gisti, an immigrant information and support group, agrees. “When you are on a payroll, you pay into social security. And with a real salary, you can spend more.” 

Not only does it benefit the economy, Carrère says, becoming legal enables migrants “to integrate fully and lead a dignified life”.

“Staying stuck, working all the time – it’s not a life that many people would want to live,” says Amadou.

“Everyone wants to be happy, have a good life, a roof and a family. If you’re a sans papier it’s all out of reach.”

Labour shortages

Under French President Emmanuel Macron, unemployment has fallen to 7.4% of the workforce, the lowest level in more than a decade. He has pledged to continue this mission, pushing for full employment (which the country’s labour organisation considers to be 5%).

At the same time, eight out of 10 professions in France saw labour shortages in 2022, according to the Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (Direction de l’Animation de la recherche, des Études et des Statistiques). This increased from seven out of 10 in 2021 due to France’s ageing population and a wave of resignations.

Targeting low domestic unemployment rates while seeking a concurrent increase in migrant labour might seem contradictory. But it is simply not possible to make up for France’s worker shortfalls with a supply of domestic labour that is mostly young – some 17% of French youth are unemployed, significantly higher than the EU average. 

Research is focusing on three central reasons for this, says migration policy analyst Anna Piccinni. The first and second are skill disparities and remuneration: much of the increasingly qualified youth are not motivated by low-skilled jobs, especially if the salary level is not what they expect.

Piccinni’s third reason is that labour shortages are often localised and migrants offer a more mobile labour force – filling the gaps that non-migrant workers might be unable or unwilling to fill. “Often, shortages of low-skilled labour are not in urban areas, where the youth move for their studies and then stick around for jobs,” she says. “Migrants have the potential to fill these gaps.”

Indeed, she points out that many municipalities across Europe are now creating incentives to retain migrant populations – such as Altena, a small town in Germany known for its successful integration scheme.

This point has not been lost on France’s business community. Speaking to Radio Classique in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, Patrick Martin, who heads the French entrepreneurs’ union, said relying on a foreign labour force is necessary for the country.

“We are already experiencing enormous recruitment pressure,” Martin said. “We have to call a spade a spade and make a choice” to allow a larger immigrant workforce.

For Piccinni, this cannot be achieved without fewer bureaucratic hurdles for issuing work permits to migrants who have already demonstrated a commitment to participating in the economy. “This has to be part of the solution,” she says.

Even the most anti-immigration governments in Europe are doing this, she points out. Georgia Meloni’s government in Italy signed a decree in March allowing 82,000 non-EU migrant workers to work in the country because of seasonal labour shortages.

“Beyond the perception of migration as a threat to social cohesion and security, some governments are aware and willing to recognise the role it has in [fulfilling] employers’ needs,” Piccinni says.

* Not his real name

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Macron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with passage of stricter immigration law

French President Emmanuel Macron is under renewed fire after urging his minority government to vote for a strengthened immigration bill that was endorsed by the far right. The late Tuesday vote, which divided Macron’s coalition MPs and prompted his health minister to resign a day later, was heralded by far-right leader Marine Le Pen as an “ideological victory” upon its passage. 

In a speech following his April 2022 re-election, Emmanuel Macron was well aware he owed his victory to left-leaning voters who considered him the lesser of two evils as he faced off a challenge from Marine Le Pen. “I know that many of our compatriots voted for me not to support the ideas I represent but to block those of the far right,” he acknowledged.

Less than two years later, Macron is facing criticism that he betrayed those same constituents by aligning with the far right after his minority government helped pass an immigration law that was heavily influenced by the right-wing Les Républicains party and supported by the far-right National Rally.

Soon after it was passed, the law was heralded by far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen who proclaimed an “ideological victory”.

Macron and members of his government rejected that assessment in a round of interviews on Wednesday.  

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told France Inter she felt a “sense of duty fulfilled” after the adoption of the immigration law. Faced with strong criticism from the left, NGOs and even within her own government, Borne insisted that the law “respects our values”.

‘Préférence Nationale’

The immigration law includes several measures inspired by the National Rally’s policy platform. For example, access to certain social benefits will be conditional on a longer period of legal residence in France.

What’s more, sanctions against companies employing undocumented workers will be stepped up.

Measures like these and others concern critics who say the Macron government has accepted policies affiliated with an ideology of “préférence nationale” – policies that legitimise discrimination against foreign nationals in favour of French citizens concerning access to employment, housing and social protections.

“This law does not encompass the entirety or even the majority of Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme, but some of her policies – especially regarding national preference – certainly made the cut even if the law does not go as far as the National Rally wants,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on the far right and the director of the Observatoire des Radicalités Politiques.

“It’s an exaggeration to talk about an extreme-right text – I would call it instead a ‘hard-right’ text – but we are still opening the door to national preference. We are not fully there, but the door is ajar,” says Caroline Janvier, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance party who voted against the immigration law on Tuesday. 

‘Kiss of death’

It is precisely the addition of national preference policies that tipped the vote on Tuesday night.

Until the mid-afternoon, representatives from the National Rally repeatedly stated they would not endorse the bill, deeming it impossible to approve a text that grants undocumented workers legal status. But seeing the possibility of a strategic victory on the issue of national preference, Le Pen reversed course.

“One can rejoice in an ideological victory … national preference is now inscribed in law, meaning the French will have an advantage over foreigners in accessing certain social benefits,” Le Pen said on Tuesday.

Janvier described Le Pen’s endorsement as the “kiss of death” – a “political move” to make Macron’s government look complicit with the far right in the eyes of left-leaning constituents.

National Rally members were not the only ones pleased by Tuesday’s vote. “There was a kind of jubilation among MPs from Les Républicains over having chipped away at a taboo: that of equality between French and foreigners,” said Camus. “For them, this means that the cultural hegemony of the left has begun to crumble. Beyond the immigration issue, a moral taboo has been broken.”

But Camus said the party’s hopes of luring away far-right supporters are likely in vain. “Les Républicains continue to pursue a strategy of undermining the National Rally by hijacking their policy platform. The only problem is that this strategy doesn’t work. The National Rally continues to rise in the polls,” he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and the founder of National Rally predecessor the National Front, may have said it best: “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.” 

Victory by ‘background noise’

Macron could have prevented this shift by choosing, in the face of Les Républicains demands, to withdraw the bill and start from scratch. But he deemed it preferable to go through with the vote, even if it meant dividing his coalition.

In total, 27 MPs in the government’s coalition voted against the bill that passed while 32 abstained. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his role in protest the following day.

Borne insisted on France Inter on Wednesday that “there is no crisis in the coalition” while government spokesperson Olivier Véran said that same day there was “no ministerial rebellion”.

Macron defended his decision in an interview with the “C à Vous” TV programme on Wednesday evening. “It is a shield that we needed,” he said, adding that the law “will allow us to fight against what nourishes the National Rally party” – namely immigration fears.

Read moreFiercely contested immigration law is a ‘shield that we needed’, Macron says

Whatever the case, the lines are no longer the same as 20 years ago, Camus said. “With this law, we have accepted the far-right vision of immigration as a danger.”

He said the National Rally’s success is due to persistent “background noise”: “This law would not have been approved without half a century of emphasis on national preference and the idea that immigration is a burden, that we pay a price for it or that it is a factor in criminality.”

To offset the right’s most extreme measures, the Macron government appears to be adopting a novel strategy: to accept Les Républicains’ demands, knowing full well that some of them will be invalidated by the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional court.

The president submitted the immigration bill to the high court on Wednesday to “decide on its conformity in whole or in part with the Constitution”, Véran announced. Borne has also suggested that some of the bill’s measures are unconstitutional and that the text would likely “evolve”.

But it’s a risky bet, according to Camus. “French people will have a hard time understanding that the law has been emptied of its substance,” he warned.

“This will inevitably benefit the National Rally and the idea, which is already beginning to take hold, that a ‘government of judges’ works against the interests of the country.”

This article was translated from the original in French.



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