Bush battler rises out of the dirt in pursuit of Olympic dream

He’s the bush battler without a beach volleyball court who has trained in the dirt in pursuit of an Olympic dream.

Tom Bergemann is from rural Glenwood, 40 kilometres north of Gympie, and an athlete scouted as part of the Queensland Academy of Sport’s Brisbane 2032 Olympic talent identification programs.

The 16-year-old often travels more than 100km to train in Nambour or more than 200km to play at Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

Part of the champion’s motivation is spurred by honouring a sibling who died in tragic circumstances.

Tom Bergemann (back row, left) with his parents and older brother Cody.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

In 2022, Bergemann’s older brother Cody was killed when his vehicle rolled a short distance from his family home.

Within 24 hours, Bergemann was back on a volleyball court.

“He had a game that night and I told him he didn’t have to go,” his mother, Katherine Bergemann-Cook said.

“Tom said to me, ‘I don’t have to, but I need to.’

“Volleyball is what got him through.

“Tom started volleyball three years ago because of his mates. He’s had a few that he’s gone right the way through to representative teams with, and that’s the place where he feels supported.”

Tom Bergemann often trains indoors or on a makeshift dirt court at his family’s Glenwood property.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

Against the odds

Ms Bergemann-Cook said the family were in the process of building sand courts on their property.

“But we’re a family that’s struggling to get by and I’m spending time working on a remote homestead in the Northern Territory just to pull together a bit of money for everything we need,” she said.

Bergemann’s father, Paul, has battled a severe back injury that has put him off work for an extended period.

Three of Bergemann’s remaining four siblings have special needs, and their 36-hectare property has been home to foster children and others looking for a safe port of call.

The family credits his indoor volleyball coach at Gympie State High, John Scheuber, and other coaches for often coming to the family’s aide when they can’t transport Bergemann to training, games or events.

Boy with half ponytail, wears maroon sports jersey, shots, digs the ball in a game of indoor volleyball.

Tom Bergemann has also displayed his proficiency in indoor netball by representing Queensland and Australia.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

Like Bergemann’s other peers, Mr Scheuber references the youngster’s maturity, dedication and friendly nature as both a reason for his sporting success, and his popularity.

“Tom is well-loved. Everywhere he goes, he says hello to everyone,” he said.

“He’s a very nice guy, as well as being a freak of an athlete. I think everyone would love to see him there [at an Olympics] one day.”

Volleyball Tom with Australian uniform

Tom Bergemann has earnt Australian selection within three years of taking up both indoor and beach volleyball.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

‘Gold human being’ inspirational to others

Nathan McLean, an area manager for the Queensland Rugby League, has a daughter, Matilda, also playing representative beach volleyball amid Gympie State High’s sand-less surrounds.

“Tom is a superstar, inspirational to everyone, but incredibly humble,” Mr McLean said.

“He’ll come up look you in the eyes and when he talks to you, he’s really listening and caring about what you have to say.

“He’s a gold human being, whether he wins medals or not.”

And winning medals is something the 1.9 metres Bergemann has become accustomed to, despite having limited family background in volleyball.

He’s a gold medal winner for Queensland in both beach and indoor volleyball at national championships, has represented Australia in Uzbekistan and has won several Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards.

Young boy with hair tied in pink band with Natalie Cook. Green shurbs, flowers, white building behind. Cook holds medal.

Tom Bergemann hopes to follow in the footsteps of five-times Olympic beach volleyballer Natalie Cook.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

Ms Bergemann-Cook said some senior players also initially protested having to play against her son after he successfully stepped up to regional men’s competitions.

“They said he should have to stay in the juniors,” she said.

“But, honestly, he doesn’t do any of this for the awards. He puts all his medals in the bottom drawer.

“Friendship is the main motivator for him.”

You for 2032 talent hunt

Alex Roberts leads the Queensland Academy of Sport’s talent identification and development program for the Brisbane Olympics, an initiative titled You for 2032.

Ms Roberts has been travelling the state trying to unearth athletic gems and observed that the most enthusiastic applicants often came from rural areas.

“We generally have a good reception in the regions because it’s an opportunity to be seen that athletes often don’t get,” he said.

“We’re looking for athletes from all kinds of backgrounds.

“We put all our athletes through a whole range of tests to check their underlying capacities.

“We look at their speed, their strength, their power … all the pieces that go into becoming an athlete.”

Katherine Bergemann-Cook hugs son Tom after he was named MVP in the under 16 national beach volleyball titles.

Katherine Bergemann-Cook with son Tom Bergemann after he was named MVP in the under-16 national beach volleyball titles.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

Ms Roberts noted that many of the youth athletes being identified ahead of the Brisbane 2032 Olympics were being scouted with the intention of transitioning them into other sports.

She said Queensland was blessed with children who excelled in surf sports, or power-based activities like rugby or CrossFit that gave them abilities which transfer well to multiple activities.

In that respect, fashioning a beach volleyballer out of somebody who trains on dirt or indoors is not at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it still presents challenges.

Chelsea Stevenson has coached Queensland representative volleyball teams in both beach and indoor volleyball and said the weather, heavy sand and rules often took adjustment.

“Even though some skills are transferable, when [beach] facilities aren’t available to you, it can be difficult,” she said.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the success of our regional beach volleyballers.”

Dig, set, spike

Construction of the sand courts on the Bergemann’s property has stalled several times due to cash flow, but the family says it has received council approval and assistance from neighbours and local businesses. 

Bursaries from the QAS and Variety Queensland, a children’s charity, have also helped the Bergemanns’ during their challenging times, as has cooperation from Jeff Bampton at the Sandpit Volleyball Club, Nambour.

“We’ve levelled out the tiers, cut a walkway around where the courts will go, and had some help from people with diggers,” Ms Bergemann-Cook said.

Ropes, stakes and proof of excavation on a muddly plateau on the Bergemann family property at Glenwood.

Works have commenced on beach volleyball courts at the Bergemann family property at Glenwood.(Supplied: Katherine Bergemann-Cook)

“But there’s no sand yet. We need to really get this going because we have some amazing kids up here.

“It’s not just about Tom.”

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Taiwanese youth voice income, housing concerns ahead of crucial elections

While cross-strait relations remain an overarching theme in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections this weekend, many young voters are more concerned with domestic issues, such as low wages and housing, that preoccupy them as much as or even more than the threat of an invasion by the People’s Republic of China. FRANCE 24 met with several of them. 

Some 19.5 million Taiwanese are eligible to vote in the island’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, January 13. Some 2.8 million, or 15 percent, are aged between 20 and 29 years old. 

Voters will determine Taiwan’s next leader from among three candidates: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Lai Ching-te, the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Hou Yu-ih and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP)’s Ko Wen-je. 

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence DPP is due to step down at the end of her second consecutive term in May.     

Read moreTaiwan’s presidential election: Who are the candidates in the high-stakes vote?

Despite not being a large enough cohort to determine the outcome of an election, young people nevertheless represent a sizable chunk of Taiwan’s electorate capable of tipping the scales in a neck-and-neck race. 

With less than a day to go before the election, political groups have called on young people to return home and vote.  

Taiwan’s voting system relies on household registrations to determine voter eligibility. Despite moving to other cities for work and study, many young Taiwanese remain registered in their home town, so they must return in order to vote. 

While many have already bought tickets and packed their bags for the weekend, some remain uncertain whether they’ll cast their ballots on Saturday.  

Eligible youth participation in the past two elections ranged from 56.3 to 72.7 percent

Stagnant wages 

“I still haven’t decided yet if I’m going to vote … if I do, I’ll take the bus first thing tomorrow morning,” said Wang Miao, a 25-year-old woman working in Taipei’s IT sector.  

Wang’s hometown is in Kaohsiung, a southern port city over 400km from the capital. 

“The thing is, I don’t feel like the elections are going to change anything … Wages are low, and inflation is still high,” she said. 

IT worker Wang Miao pictured in Penghu County. © Wang Miao

While median wages in Taiwan grew 2.37 percent in 2023, average consumer prices increased by 2.5 percent over the same period, outpacing wage growth.  

“My company gave us a 1.5 percent raise last year, which is ridiculous compared to inflation,” said Xu Jing-chen, a 29-year-old engineer working in Hsinchu, a city southwest of Taipei.  

On the way back home to the coastal city of Tainan, Xu said he feels frustrated at the current politics because the available options seem unlikely to resolve the issues that young people face. 

“They’re all talking about raising the minimum wage, but I don’t make the minimum, so how does that affect me? I’m only voting out of civil duty … As far as I can tell, none of the candidates are offering any concrete solutions to improve our lives,” he said. 

While Lai proposes to increase the monthly minimum wage of publicly traded companies’ employees to 30,000 New Taiwan Dollars (NTD) (or €880.40), Hou proposes a general hike of minimum wage to NTD 33,000 (€968.70) from the current NTD 27,470 (€806.37). Both are significantly lower than the NTD 43,166 (€1265.13) median wage in Taiwan. 

“The only option for me, if I want to increase my salary, is to move abroad, maybe to the US. But my parents are here, my home is here,” Xu said.  

Hoping to start a family with his girlfriend, Xu said he has been looking to purchase an apartment in Hsinchu. 

Unaffordable housing 

“The market is crazy. A simple two-bedroom can cost over NTD 10 million (around €292,000), and that is without a parking space!” Xu said. 

Due to low interest rates, tax cuts and market speculation, housing in Taiwan is notoriously unaffordable, with an average unit costing over 9 times the median annual wage, far exceeding the price-to-income ratio of 3 times the annual wage recommended by the UN.  

Other young Taiwanese also talk about housing concerns. 

Wu Qian-hue, a 26-year-old graduate student working part-time and living with her parents in the suburbs of Taichung, a bustling city in central Taiwan, said soaring rents have prevented her from moving out. 

“What’s the point? I can barely pay for my daily expenses and that’s it. I barely have any savings, everything I make goes to pay my bills. There’s nothing left at the end of the month. Living with my family helps me avoid getting into debt,” she said. 

“One day I’d like to have a place of my own, but for now it’s a dream,” Wu said, lamenting her city’s high housing costs.  

“Everything’s more expensive now … House prices in Taipei are crazy. For now, I can only afford to rent. I’m glad [that] I receive a subsidy for it,” said Pheonix Hung, a 27-year-old artist working in Taipei.  

Hung added that she plans to vote for Lai in the upcoming presidential election because of his party’s policies on housing, which introduced rent subsidies for single people and households with young children in 2019.  

Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei.
Taiwanese artist Pheonix Hung pictured in Taipei. © Phoenix Hung

Computer science student and first-time voter Sung Zhi-ming, 22, said he chose to remain in accommodations provided by his university, where he shares a room with three other students, because of high rents. 

“I don’t really have a choice. It’s either this or back home, which is too far to commute every day,” said Sung, who comes from Hualian, a city on Taiwan’s east coast. 

Sung said he plans to vote for the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, a candidate popular among younger generations for his outspoken manner and focus on domestic issues. 

Both Ko and Lai propose to tax vacant properties to encourage owners to put them on the rental market.  

Cross-strait relations 

But Taiwan’s relations with its giant neighbour remain at the forefront of some young people’s minds. 

Sung, who finished his military service last year, said he’s worried about a potential Chinese invasion

Taiwan requires all male citizens of military age to serve for four months in the national army, a period that was extended to one year starting in 2024. 

“I know we hear about it all the time, Chinese drills, Chinese balloons and Chinese ships in the Taiwan Strait, and we’re all kind of numb, by the end of the day … but at the same time, you can’t not think about it,” he said.

Read more‘People don’t want to talk about war’: Taiwan civil defence battles invasion risk denial

Sung said he plans to vote for the KMT, a party that favours closer ties with Beijing, in Saturday’s legislative election. 

“My parents have always voted for the KMT. … We feel like they are more capable of making peace with China. We don’t want a war,” he said.  

While echoing Sung’s sentiments, Wu said she prefers to vote for the DPP. 

Although both parties aim to maintain the status quo, the DPP differs from the KMT ideologically in that it rejects the “One China” principle. The “One China” principle is a diplomatic consensus between mainland China and the KMT that only one “China” exists, without the sides agreeing about which country is the “real” China. 

“They’ve [the DPP] managed to safeguard Taiwan’s independence, despite the pressure from China … We can’t appease China forever; we have to stand up for ourselves,” she said.  

“Of course, I worry about war, but what can you do? It’s not really up to us whether China will invade or not, is it?” Wu said.  

“At the end of the day, you just have to live with it and carry on,” Wang said. 

“The threat of invasion isn’t going to go away any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for other issues. We have all sorts of problems, and China is not the biggest one,” she said.  

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Turkish century: History looms large on election day

ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks are voting at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt the president sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community. Unsurprisingly, he wrapped up his campaign on Saturday night in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he contentiously reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is a world away from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury at the ballot box those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.   

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. While Erdoğan ended his campaign in the great mosque of Hagia Sophia, Kılıçdaroğlu did so by laying flowers at Atatürk’s mausoleum.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP party that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

At least in the upscale neighborhood of Beşiktaş, on Saturday night, all the talk of Atatürk was no dry history lesson. Over their final beers — before an alcohol sale ban comes in force over election day — young Turks punched the air and chanted along with a stirring anthem: “Long Live Mustafa Kemal Pasha, long may he live.”

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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Why Elly Schlein is freaking out Italy’s ‘soft’ socialists

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Right-wing hardliners could not dream of an easier target than Elly Schlein, the new leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (PD).

A global citizen with a female partner and an upper-middle-class upbringing, the youngest and first female leader of Italy’s most-established progressive party has sparked the ire of the country’s conservatives.

“CommunistElly,” the right-wing newspaper Il Tempo dubbed her after the leadership contest was decided on Sunday. Schlein defeated the favorite Stefano Bonaccini with 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent of the vote.

Far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s allies have been relishing the polarization around Schlein — the two political leaders, though both female, stand for very different values.

“She promised to prioritize the poor, public education and workers,” right-wing commentator Italo Bocchino said in attacking Schlein. “But unlike Meloni, she has never known the poor in her life,” he continued, pointing out how she attended a private school “for rich people” in Switzerland. Nor can Schlein know workers “as she’s never worked in her life,” he ranted.

Schlein’s surprise win has not only fired up her opponents, but also unsettled many in her own party. Fellow social democrats are spooked that Schlein could transform the PD from the broad progressive church it’s historically been into a much more radical sect.

There’s also concern about whether she’ll stand by the party’s support for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine given her self-described pacifist views.

Most skeptics are clinging on — for now — although a few have already jumped ship.

“The PD is over,” declared David Allegranti, a journalist for the Florence daily La Nazione. The expert on the Italian center-left argues that Schlein and many of her allies hail from leftist splinter groups and were not members of the PD until barely a few months ago — discrediting them in their critics’ eyes.

Ex-Cabinet minister Giuseppe Fioroni, among the founding members of the PD, told POLITICO: “Her project has nothing to do with my history and my political culture.” Having foreseen the outcome, Fioroni left the party one day before Schlein’s victory was announced. “My PD is no longer there, this is another party — it no longer belongs to the center left, but to the hard left,” he said.

As a youth leader in 2013, Schlein became the figurehead of Occupy PD, a protest movement set up by disaffected progressives angered over 101 center-left parliamentarians who voted against their own social democrat grandee Romano Prodi’s bid to become the president of Italy.

“With Elly Schlein, the PD has occupied itself,” quipped Allegranti.

Ex-Cabinet minister and PD founding member Giuseppe Fioroni left the party one day before Schlein’s victory, saying that the party “no longer belongs to the center left, but to the hard left” | Claudio Peri/EPA

The young radical

The daughter of a Swiss-based political scientist couple (one Italian and one American), Schlein was raised in Lugano, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, and spent her teens writing film reviews — her dream at the time was to become a film director — as well as playing the board game “Trivial Pursuit” and the cult 90s video game “The Secret of Monkey Island.”

Her first stint in politics came in 2008, when she cut her teeth working as a volunteer for Barack Obama’s two U.S. presidential election campaigns — heading to Chicago to do so.

“Here, I understood that you don’t need to ask for votes, but mobilize people with ideas,” she recalled to La Repubblica. A decade on, the lesson proved useful for her own leadership campaign.

In a first for the PD’s leadership contests, Schlein won the open ballot after losing by a wide margin in the caucus with party members the week before, demonstrating her capacity to win over voters.

The newly elected leader gained the upper hand over Bonaccini in big cities such as Milan, Turin and Naples, as well as performing well almost everywhere north of Rome — but lost in most southern regions, according to pollster YouTrend.

“There was a wave of support that brought along different kinds of voters, who were united by a strong desire for change,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, the founder of YouTrend.

However, Pregliasco played down reports of a “youthquake,” and described the leadership campaign as “boring, dull and largely ignored by public opinion.”

End of the party, or a new beginning?

While there are no exact figures on voter turnout available, Italian media reports that around 1.2 million people cast their ballots — which would mark the lowest figures since PD party primaries were first held in 2007.

After becoming a member of the European Parliament with the Socialists & Democrats group in 2014 at the age of 28, Schlein took the unexpected decision to abandon the PD a year later, accusing then-prime minister and PD party leader Matteo Renzi of lurching to the right.

The decision turned out to be prophetic, as Renzi suffered a number of electoral defeats that snowballed into his resignation as prime minister in 2016, and as party leader in 2018.

Pippo Civati, a former parliamentarian and longtime ally of Schlein who is now out of politics, recalled of Schlein in 2015: “We left at the same time because he [Renzi] was making one mess after another.”

Speaking to POLITICO, Civati warned that the newly elected leader could end up having her hands tied by party bigwigs who backed the popular politician without necessarily having any genuine commitment to her radical ideas.

Pundits point out that the conflict in Ukraine could be the trickiest issue for Schlein, whose distant ancestors hail from a village close to modern-day Lviv. There are question marks over whether she will carry forward her predecessor Enrico Letta’s all-out support for the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine.

A U-turn by Schlein on support for Ukraine would leave Meloni as the only national party leader in favor of sending arms to the besieged country, fueling concerns among Western allies who see Italy as a weak link.

“A change of line over Ukraine could be the trigger for many centrists to leave the PD,” Allegranti said.

But Civati played down rumors of an about-face, arguing that Schlein is unlikely to oppose the sending of arms to Ukraine.

“We support Ukraine’s right to defend itself, through every form of assistance,” said Schlein in a recent interview with broadcaster La7. “But as a pacifist, I don’t think that weapons alone will end the war.”

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‘Live to work or work to live?’: Why France’s youth are fighting Macron’s pension reform

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France’s youth have featured prominently in mass protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension overhaul, rallying against a reform they consider to be unfair and symptomatic of a broader rollback of social rights. FRANCE 24 spoke to young demonstrators who took part in the latest protest in Paris.

Hundreds of thousands of French people marched in a third day of nationwide protests on Tuesday against the government’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 while strikes and walkouts disrupted public transport and schools. Though turnout was lower than on previous occasions, young people – including many teenagers – continued to feature prominently in the rallies in towns and cities across France. 

© france 24


While retirement is a distant prospect for students and young workers mobilised against Macron’s planned pension overhaul, their opposition to the reform ties in with generational concerns about climate change, youth unemployment, societal reform and the widespread perception that governments are steadily chipping away at France’s cherished welfare model. 

FRANCE 24 spoke to young protesters who took part in Tuesday’s rally in the French capital. 

‘We live in a productivist society that is destroying our planet’

  • Rose, 16, high-school student

It’s important to go out and protest because this reform takes us a huge step back. It will mean rolling back the social progress and rights won in the past. 

We live in a productivity-obsessed society that is preoccupied with economic growth and which has been destroying our planet for decades. Now we’re being asked to work for two more years so we can produce even more. This system is wrecking our planet – it’s normal to rebel against it. Among my generation, we’re overwhelmingly concerned about the environment; we have no choice. But we know that small steps alone won’t change things. I’m vegetarian, I recycle as much as I can … but if we don’t resist more, it won’t be enough.  

I’m not very optimistic for the future, unless we profoundly change the way our society functions. That’s why I protest – and why I’ll still be out protesting in 20 years’ time. It’s not about young people wanting to skip class. It’s about our political commitment on issues that are fundamental for us. 

‘We should be able to live longer and in better health, without working ourselves to death’

Yannaël, 24, says the reform is unfair to people who perform physically demanding jobs.
Yannaël, 24, says the reform is unfair to people who perform physically demanding jobs. © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24

  • Yannaël, 24, studies medieval history at the Sorbonne University in Paris 

This reform is unfair because it categorises physically arduous jobs the same as any other. I can understand the need to balance budgets when the population is getting older. But any reform must take into account the fact that some jobs are physically more demanding than others. 

>> ‘I can’t take any more’: Working-class French lament Macron’s push to raise retirement age

We should be able to live longer and in better health without working ourselves to death. Besides, if they’re talking about retiring at 64 now, what will it be when I’m 60? Will I have to work until I’m 70 or 75? 

This is the first time I am protesting, because the government is pushing us too far. They refuse to listen to the people. (…) My aim is to become a teacher, but I’m worried I’ll be paid a pittance to do a difficult job with classes that are becoming ever-larger. That’s what I’m scared of and that’s why I’m out here protesting: to better our society and our future. 

‘Will we work all our lives instead of working for a living?’ 

  • Shaïma, 17, high-school student in Vitry-sur-Seine, southeast of Paris 

I’m anxious for my parents and grandparents, but also for my generation. Will we even get a pension when our time comes? Or will we just work all our lives instead of working for a living? 

I worry for my parents, who are both 55 and have work-related illnesses. They wonder whether they’ll live long enough to retire. My mother is a care worker and my dad works at the post office, sorting mail all day long. They both need surgery. If the retirement age is pushed back, will they ever get a chance to rest and enjoy life? 

I worry for my own future too. I’m scared that I won’t find work after my studies because more jobs will be taken by older workers whose retirement has been pushed back. I see people all around me who can’t find work despite their degrees. Young people are also affected by this. 

‘Older people should be able to participate in society without having to make money’

The reform is
The reform is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, says 23-year-old neuropsychologist Bertille. © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24

  • Bertille, 23, neuropsychologist at a Paris hospital 

This reform is the straw that broke the camel’s back. There comes a point when you start thinking, ‘are there any social benefits they haven’t rolled back?’ And when will we finally say enough is enough? Our hospitals are at breaking point, inflation is sky-high… and yet nothing changes. Now is our chance to force the government to back down, because this issue affects everyone.  

Of course, we’re still young and retirement is a distant prospect for us. But the more we let them eat away at our rights, the less we will have when it’s our turn to retire. It’s everyone’s duty to protect our rights, to protect society’s most vulnerable, and to make sure we continue progressing.  

>> ‘Not just about pensions’: French protesters see threat to social justice in Macron’s reform

We should also remember that most people’s health begins to decline around the age of 64. After a lifetime of work, it is only fair that people should enjoy some time for themselves while they are still healthy and able to participate in society without having to make money. It’s what many elderly people already do: looking after others and playing active roles in charities. It might not be lucrative, but it’s beneficial. 

‘There are other ways to finance pensions, like taxing the ultra-rich’

Amélie, 21, says there are other ways to finance France's pension system, such as reintroducing a wealth tax scrapped by Macron.
Amélie, 21, says there are other ways to finance France’s pension system, such as reintroducing a wealth tax scrapped by Macron. © Lou Roméo, FRANCE 24

  • Amélie, 21, studies sociology at the university of Paris Cité 

People say the young are lazy and don’t want to work – but it’s not true. My generation has been hit hard by Covid and the situation hasn’t improved. Most of my fellow students have to work to pay for their studies. And we have no guarantee we’ll find jobs with decent salaries after we graduate. 

I think the government’s reform presents us with a false dilemma. There are other ways of financing our pension system, like taxing the ultra-rich, restoring the wealth tax that Macron’s government scrapped, and giving proper contracts to delivery workers who currently have no job protection and do not pay into the system. We could also hike wages and thereby increase pension contributions.  

The vast majority of the French are opposed to this reform. It should be cancelled, full stop. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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