Macron urged to press Egypt’s Sisi on human rights during Paris visit



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President Emmanuel Macron hosts Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi from Sunday for a three-day state visit with France facing calls from activists that Egypt should not be “indulged” despite the close alliance between Cairo and Paris.

Egypt and France have enjoyed an increasingly close relationship under the secular rule of former army general Sisi, with common interests in the Middle East and a shared suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sisi will dine with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday evening before holding talks with Macron at the Elysee on Monday. Meetings with other political leaders are due to stretch into Tuesday.

France’s close relationship with Egypt at a time when Cairo stands accused of serial human rights violations has concerned activists, who want Macron to make the issue central to the discussions.

“French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President al-Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent,” a dozen human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a joint statement ahead of his visit.

“It is now or never for President Macron to stand up for his self-declared commitment to promote human rights in Egypt.”

The statement said that as well as being Egypt’s main arms supplier by selling warships and fighter jets, the French government has also allowed French companies to provide Cairo with surveillance and crowd control tools.

“We are amazed that France is rolling out the red carpet for a dictator when there are more than 60,000 prisoners of conscience today in Egypt,” Antoine Madelin, international advocacy director of the FIDH, told AFP.

‘Positive sign’

Sisi came to power in 2014 in the wake of the overthrow in 2013 of the president Mohamed Morsi by the military which he then led.

Those caught in the crackdown included Islamist supporters of the ousted Morsi, but also leftists and liberals.

Concern over Sisi’s visit to Paris was amplified when three Egyptian activists were arrested last month following a meeting with foreign ambassadors.

However, following an international campaign backed by celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson, all three campaigners from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have been freed.

Rights NGOs are set to hold a protest outside the French parliament on Tuesday denouncing the “strategic partnership” between France and Egypt. 

A French presidential official, who asked not to be named, described the release of the trio as a “positive signal” and emphasised that rights issues would be brought up by Macron.

Macron had raised human rights concerns during a visit to Cairo in January 2018, mentioning “respect for individual freedoms, dignity of everyone and the rule of law.”

The French leader had been criticised by rights groups after saying in October 2017 during a visit by Sisi to Paris that he would not “lecture” Egypt on liberties.

Those jailed in Egypt include Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun, and held since July 2019 on accusations of acting against the state.

“His case is completely empty and the accusations are devoid of any proof,” Lebrun told AFP, saying she had only been able to speak to her husband twice by phone.

‘Strategic partnership’

Both Macron and Sisi are wary of the regional ambitions of Turkey under Erdogan which has intervened militarily in the conflicts in Libya and Syria and sought to bolster the Turkish footprint in Africa.

The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Morsi was a close ally of Erdogan and the Turkish president has repeatedly expressed dismay over his ousting.

Tensions between Ankara and Paris grew further in the run-up to the visit with Erdogan saying that France should “get rid of” Macron “as soon as possible”.

France’s priority is the reinforcement of the “strategic partnership” with the most populous country in the Arab world which is considered a centre of “stability” in a volatile region, said the French official.

(AFP)



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Hundreds arrested in fresh Belarus protests against Lukashenko



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More than 300 people were detained in the Belarusian capital on Sunday, where crowds of people took to the streets for the 18th consecutive weekend, demanding the ouster of the country’s authoritarian leader who won a sixth term in office in an election widely seen as rigged.

Thousands of people Sunday took part in dozens of small rallies scattered all over Minsk, the Belarusian capital — a new tactic the opposition employed instead of one large gathering to make it harder for the security forces to target the protesters. 

“We believe! We can! We will win!” the demonstrators chanted. Several people wore Santa Claus costumes and masks depicting President Alexander Lukashenko. “Give Belarusians a gift: go away,” a banner they carried read. 

Police in Minsk said they detained more than 300 people. The Viasna human rights group released the names of 189 people detained in Minsk and other cities, where rallies also took place.

Mass protests have rocked Belarus, a former Soviet republic in eastern Europe, since official results from the Aug. 9 presidential election gave Lukashenko a landslide victory over his widely popular opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She and her supporters refused to recognize the result, saying the vote was riddled with fraud. 

Authorities have cracked down hard on the largely peaceful demonstrations, the biggest of which attracted up to 200,000 people. Police used stun grenades, tear gas and truncheons to disperse the rallies. 

On Sunday, water cannons, armored vehicles and military trucks were seen in the center of Minsk. Several subway stations were closed and internet access was restricted. 

At least four journalists have been detained in Minsk and the western city of Grodno, according the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Nina Bahinskaya, a 73-year-old protester famous for her resilience, was also among those detained.

The continued crackdown on the protests elicited international outrage. Earlier this year, the European Union imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and several dozen officials over their role in the security crackdown launched after the contested election. 

On Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that the situation with human rights in Belarus is getting worse. Bachelet pointed to reports of mass arrests, the beating of detainees and the use of force in dispersing peaceful demonstrations. 

“It is urgent that the government of Belarus puts an end to ongoing human rights violations,” Bachelet said, urging Belarusian authorities to release those who have been unlawfully detained during protests, stop clamping down on the demonstrations and investigate “all allegations of torture and other human rights violations, including the deaths of at least four persons in the context of the protests.” 

Protesters in the meantime say they aren’t discouraged by the crackdown. 

“The protest will not fade down until Lukashenko leaves,” Maksim Borovets, one of those rallying in Minsk on Sunday, told The Associated Press. “The intensified repressions did not stop (it). They merely changed the forms of the fight.”

(AP)

 



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Amid the verbal barbs, Macron and Turkey’s Erdogan may be ideal foes



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Relations between Turkey and France sank to new lows this week as the countries’ heads of state engaged in the latest bout of vitriol that had all the colour and spectacle of a ringside sport.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been caught up in a series of verbal spats with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent months as diplomatic ties between them continue to fray. At the core of escalating animosities is a host of issues, including what Erdogan defines as French Islamophobia, energy disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and military support in Libya.

But on Friday, the acrimony reached febrile proportions as Erdogan called on the French to dump their leader at the ballot box in 2022 when Macron is expected to seek re-election.

“My wish is for France to get rid of the Macron trouble as soon as possible,” Erdogan said.

Macron fired back calling for “respect” during an interview with the news site Brut, saying Erdogan was curtailing the freedoms of the Turkish people.

Dr Ian Lesser, vice president and executive director at the German Marshall Fund, said Erdogan’s resorting to diplomatic barbs is nothing new as he has a “tendency to use his own rhetoric as part of his foreign policy”.

“The friction between France and Turkey is partly driven by personality,” Dr Lesser said. “In some ways, Erdogan takes this quite personally [as] he’s increasingly disenchanted with the West and Turkey’s place in it and he sees France and its leadership embodying all that he dislikes in Europe – culturally, politically, geopolitically.”

Erdogan’s latest invective against Macron comes ahead of a crucial EU summit on December 10 in which France is expected to lead the push for sanctions against Turkey for violating Greek waters to search for gas or breaching a UN arms embargo on Libya.

The strongman has long aspired to join the table of his European counterparts as a member of the EU and once seemed willing to do whatever the EU asked to get there. Turkey even agreed to be the gatekeeper in a crucial deal for the EU to stem the number of migrants entering Europe.

But the prize of EU membership may be losing its appeal.

Some critics see Erdogan’s verbal lashings against Macron, and the EU, as deliberate provocations, a way of burnishing his image among nationalistic Turks who see their president as a defender of Islamic values.

“There’s a tendency globally for leaders to personalise relationships – Trump and Putin were examples of this and Erdogan has been another,” Dr Lesser said.

“At a certain level personality matters … but combined with intense nationalism as seen in Turkey and elsewhere [the rhetoric has] taken on a particularly edgy character.”

Erdogan calls for French boycott

Erdogan inflamed tensions with Macron when he became the self-appointed voice of the Islamic world in the aftermath of terror attacks against France in October.

In a suburb of Paris, teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Islamist for showing students cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics lesson on free speech. This was followed days later by a church attack in Nice in which a radicalised man armed with a large knife killed three people.

As France emerged from its collective grief, Macron urged the French to rally behind the Republic’s values of secularism, or laïcité, in defiance of attacks by radicalised elements. But his impassioned speech caused a furore when he said that Islam was “in crisis all over the world today”. Erdogan’s retort was swift and personal, saying Macron needed to get his mental health checked.

The Turkish leader fanned the flames of dissent by accusing France of being constitutionally Islamophobic and called on Muslims everywhere to boycott French goods. He sought solidarity, too, with fellow Muslims in France, who he said were “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II”. 

 

While effigies of Macron burned in Pakistan, Egypt and Iran, elsewhere in the Arab world Erdogan’s rallying cry mostly fell flat.  

French authorities denounced Erdogan’s words as Turkish “propaganda” against France and immediately recalled its ambassador to Turkey for talks.

Burnishing images at home

Aside from the role of personality in fuelling the current animosities between the two headstrong leaders, there is also a desire to boost support at home.

“In each other, Macron and Erdogan have found the ideal enemy,” Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post. “This spat works for both leaders in some strange fashion, both domestically and in terms of the influence they are trying to project abroad.”

Even with an incoming US Biden administration which will likely take a more active role in international affairs, including in regards to Europe, it may not be enough to encourage Erdogan to rein in his attacks against Macron.

“Erdogan is a skilful politician who has made the journey from liberal reformist to something tougher-minded and authoritarian,” Dr Lesser said. “There’s a very small price to pay inside Turkey for an outspoken stance against France and Europe. It’s a political plus for Erdogan because the mood of nationalism is widely shared – even by the opposition.”

Macron may also be somewhat driven by domestic motivations. His fierce defence of secularism following recent terror attacks and attempts to better integrate the practice of Islam into French culture may help his chances of re-election if he’s to face far-right leader Marine le Pen in 2022.

“When it comes to France’s larger relationship with the Muslim world, Turkey is going to be part of the calculus when it comes to French policy,” Dr Lesser said. “As the French president seeks to manage this relationship there has to be calculation on the French side of how far it’s willing to push Ankara.”



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Last-ditch push as Britain, EU resume Brexit trade talks in Brussels



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British and European Union negotiators will meet in Brussels on Sunday in a last-ditch attempt to strike a post-Brexit trade deal before a transition agreement ends on Dec. 31.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke on Saturday and instructed their teams to resume talks after they were paused on Friday.

In a joint statement after their call, Johnson and von der Leyen said that no agreement was feasible if disagreements on the three thorny issues of governance, fisheries and competition rules, known as the level playing field, were not resolved.

“This is the final throw of the dice,” a British source close to the negotiations said.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the talks on Sunday with his British counterpart David Frost would show whether a new trade deal could be struck.

A majority of Johnson’s ministers were willing to back him if he decides a deal is not in Britain’s interests, the Times newspaper reported, saying 13 cabinet ministers – including eight who opposed Brexit – had confirmed they would do so.

British farming minister George Eustice backed that up in an interview on Sky News on Sunday, saying the country had done a huge amount of preparation for a no-deal and was ready to go through with such a scenario.

“We’ll continue to work on these negotiations until there’s no point in doing so any further,” said Eustice.

But Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, a key figure in Brexit talks in recent years, said it was not credible for the British government to suggest they could manage a no-deal.

Striking a more optimistic note, Coveney said it was his “very strong view” that a deal could be done. “We are more likely to get a deal than not,” Coveney told Ireland’s Sunday Independent newspaper.

>> Irish foreign minister on Brexit: ‘We won’t strike a deal at any cost’

Negotiations were paused on Friday after hopes of a deal earlier in the week evaporated. The British team said the EU had made demands incompatible with its sovereignty and warned that the talks could end without an agreement.

Coveney denied the EU had hardened its stance.

If they fail to reach a deal, a five-year Brexit divorce will end messily just as Britain and its former EU partners grapple with the economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts have warned that a no-deal scenario would cause huge long-term disruption to the British economy.

(REUTERS)





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Jailed Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul accused of passing classified information



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Jailed Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul is accused of contacting “unfriendly” states and providing classified information, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told AFP Saturday, after the campaigner’s trial was transferred to a terrorism court.

Hathloul, 31, was arrested in May 2018 with around a dozen other women activists just weeks before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers, a reform they had long campaigned for.

Saudi authorities late last month transferred her case to the draconian anti-terrorism court, her family said, raising the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence, despite international pressure for her release.

“There are accusations of dealing with states unfriendly to the kingdom and with providing classified information and other issues like that,” Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said during a visit to Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

“It’s up to the courts to decide… what the facts are,” he added, without giving any further details.

Hathloul’s treatment has been sharply criticised by rights groups, and her sister Lina al-Hathloul said that during the three years of pre-trial detention, no evidence to support the allegations had been put forward.

“Loujain’s charges don’t mention any contact with ‘unfriendly’ states — they explicitly cite her contact with the EU, the UK and the Netherlands. Does Saudi Arabia consider them as enemies?” she said to AFP.

“The charges don’t mention anything about sensitive information either, they are all about her activism — they accuse her of speaking about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia in international conferences and to NGOs.”

>> This is the time to release my sister, Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul’

Lina al-Hathloul said her sister was not aware of what the classified information is.

Hathloul, who recently went on a two-week hunger strike in prison, was visibly “weak” and “shaking uncontrollably” when she appeared on November 26 at Riyadh’s criminal court, where she has been tried since March 2019 in closed-door sessions, Lina has said.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, faces growing international criticism for its human rights record, even as US President-elect Joe Biden‘s incoming administration could intensify scrutiny of its human rights failings.

“We don’t look at international pressure on these issues one way or the other,” Prince Faisal said.

“These are domestic issues of our national security and we will deal with them in an appropriate manner, through our court system.”

While some detained women activists have been provisionally released, Hathloul and others remain imprisoned on what rights groups describe as opaque charges.

The pro-government Saudi media has branded them as “traitors” and Hathloul’s family alleges she experienced sexual harassment and torture in detention.

Saudi authorities vigorously deny the charges.

(AFP)



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Sudden-death penalty hands England Nations Cup victory over France



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England won the Autumn Nations Cup final in the most dramatic circumstances on Sunday, as Owen Farrell landed a “golden point” penalty in sudden-death extra time to secure a 22-19 victory over a young French team who had been seconds away from a famous victory.

Farrell converted a Luke Cowan-Dickie try with the last kick of normal time to level the scores, but then hit the post with a penalty 80 seconds into extra time, where the first points scored would win the match. It was tough on France, who played with all the confidence of youth and, taking the game to the hugely experienced hosts, deservedly led 13-6 at halftime after a sharp Brice Dulin try and the boot of impressive flyhalf Matthieu Jalibert and then a spirited defence of their own line in the face of a relentless England forward assault at the end of the half.

England made most of the running in the second half but an uncharacteristically inaccurate Farrell could not turn enough penalty opportunities into points. Instead, replacement France flyhalf Louis Carbonel landed two pressure kicks which looked to be enough.

However, England mauled Cowan-Dickie over the line in the last minute, and Farrell made the pressure conversion to take the game to extra time – raising a huge roar from the lucky 2,000 fans who had their own golden tickets. 

(REUTERS)



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Campaigning in Ghana winds up ahead of presidential, parliamentary polls



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Defeaning vuvuzelas and party songs took over Ghana’s capital Accra on Saturday, the final day of campaigning ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections.

Twelve candidates, including three women, are vying for the west African nation‘s top job, but Monday’s vote is essentially a fight between President Nana Akufo-Addo, 76, and former head of state John Mahama. 

The city centre was plastered with billboards and posters and flags at every corner. 

Akufo-Addo, running for a second term, drove through the shanty town of Nima, making whistle stops to acknowledge mammoth crowds clad in T-shirts of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP).

“It’s a done deal. It’s clear. The crowd says it all. Four more (years) for Nana,” a party supporter, Dauda Faisal, told AFP. 

Defying all COVID-19 protocols — with just a handful wearing face masks — the ecstatic crowd waved miniature flags as the president headed towards the rally grounds where he was due to address supporters.  

Opposition leader John Mahama meanwhile kicked off his final day of campaigning by meeting local chiefs and labour union leaders, assuring them of more jobs if he won the December 7 election.

Mahama, 62, who has been campaigning hard for months, was expected later in the evening at a rally organised by his party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

More than 17 million people are registered to vote in the nation’s eighth poll since it returned to democracy nearly 30 years ago.

This is the third time that Akufo-Addo and Mahama are running against each other, and the race is expected to be very close.

Results could be announced within 24 hours after the polls close.

(AFP)



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Amnesty, rights groups urge Macron to press Egypt’s Sisi during Paris visit



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President Emmanuel Macron hosts Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi from Sunday for a three-day state visit with France facing calls from activists that Egypt should not be “indulged” despite the close alliance between Cairo and Paris.

Egypt and France have enjoyed an increasingly close relationship under the secular rule of former army general Sisi, with common interests in the Middle East and a shared suspicion of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sisi will dine with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday evening before holding talks with Macron at the Elysee on Monday. Meetings with other political leaders are due to stretch into Tuesday.

France’s close relationship with Egypt at a time when Cairo stands accused of serial human rights violations has concerned activists, who want Macron to make the issue central to the discussions.

“French diplomacy has, at the highest levels, long indulged President al-Sisi’s brutal repression of any form of dissent,” a dozen human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a joint statement ahead of his visit.

“It is now or never for President Macron to stand up for his self-declared commitment to promote human rights in Egypt.”

The statement said that as well as being Egypt’s main arms supplier by selling warships and fighter jets, the French government has also allowed French companies to provide Cairo with surveillance and crowd control tools.

“We are amazed that France is rolling out the red carpet for a dictator when there are more than 60,000 prisoners of conscience today in Egypt,” Antoine Madelin, international advocacy director of the FIDH, told AFP.

‘Positive sign’

Sisi came to power in 2014 in the wake of the overthrow in 2013 of the president Mohamed Morsi by the military which he then led.

Those caught in the crackdown included Islamist supporters of the ousted Morsi, but also leftists and liberals.

Concern over Sisi’s visit to Paris was amplified when three Egyptian activists were arrested last month following a meeting with foreign ambassadors.

However, following an international campaign backed by celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson, all three campaigners from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have been freed.

Rights NGOs are set to hold a protest outside the French parliament on Tuesday denouncing the “strategic partnership” between France and Egypt. 

A French presidential official, who asked not to be named, described the release of the trio as a “positive signal” and emphasised that rights issues would be brought up by Macron.

Macron had raised human rights concerns during a visit to Cairo in January 2018, mentioning “respect for individual freedoms, dignity of everyone and the rule of law.”

The French leader had been criticised by rights groups after saying in October 2017 during a visit by Sisi to Paris that he would not “lecture” Egypt on liberties.

Those jailed in Egypt include Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, husband of French national Celine Lebrun, and held since July 2019 on accusations of acting against the state.

“His case is completely empty and the accusations are devoid of any proof,” Lebrun told AFP, saying she had only been able to speak to her husband twice by phone.

‘Strategic partnership’

Both Macron and Sisi are wary of the regional ambitions of Turkey under Erdogan which has intervened militarily in the conflicts in Libya and Syria and sought to bolster the Turkish footprint in Africa.

The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Morsi was a close ally of Erdogan and the Turkish president has repeatedly expressed dismay over his ousting.

Tensions between Ankara and Paris grew further in the run-up to the visit with Erdogan saying that France should “get rid of” Macron “as soon as possible”.

France’s priority is the reinforcement of the “strategic partnership” with the most populous country in the Arab world which is considered a centre of “stability” in a volatile region, said the French official.

(AFP)



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French govt vows ‘transparency’ amid widespread vaccine scepticism



The French government on Thursday unveiled its Covid-19 vaccination strategy, vowing transparency as it sought to placate fears and growing levels of scepticism in France over the safety and efficacy of the new vaccines.

The French government will begin its vaccine rollout in January, with nursing homes first in line before the programme is extended in February to the vulnerable elderly and those with underlying health conditions. By spring, the vaccine is expected to be available to the rest of the population. Vaccination will be free of charge for everyone but it will not be mandatory. 

The French will have access to both the Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, available at the earliest towards the end of December, if not from January, after regulatory approval from the European and French health authorities.

But one of the government’s biggest hurdles will be overcoming the high level of distrust of vaccines in France – one of the highest in Europe – which could hinder efforts to combat the coronavirus and potentially delay a return to “normal” life.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex stressed the need for clarity when he outlined France’s vaccination plan. “I am committed to full transparency and information-sharing on the decisions we will take,” he said. 

Health Minister Olivier Véran also raised the issue of vaccine scepticism.

“Before we immunise ourselves against the coronavirus, we must first immunise ourselves against the fears,” he said, alluding to the challenge ahead for health officials.

Several recent polls show that the French are reluctant to be vaccinated. “Only half of the respondents (53%) answered that they definitely or probably wanted to be vaccinated against Covid-19” in November, according to a survey of 2,000 people released on Friday by the French Public Health Agency. The figure is much lower than in July when 64% agreed to be vaccinated, according to a poll by the agency.

France ranks among the countries most hesitant in Europe to take the new Covid-19 vaccines, behind only Hungary (56%), Poland (56%) and Russia (54%), according to a World Economic Forum poll published in September by Ipsos. On the other hand, countries with a projected strong uptake of the vaccine were China (97%), Brazil (88%), Australia (88%) and India (87%).

Macron’s new ‘vaccine man’

The widespread mistrust of vaccines in France may possibly stem from a previous vaccination campaign that was marred by misinformation. 

“In France, the population still remembers what happened under the Hepatitis B vaccination programme. In the 1990s, it was wrongly suspected of triggering several types of multiple sclerosis,” explained Dr Caroline de Pauw, a sociologist at the Lille Centre for Sociological and Economic Studies and Research.

“Some people are still very fearful that if they get vaccinated, they will fall ill from the vaccine.”

These fears have seemingly re-emerged with the Covid-19 pandemic, even though none of the vaccines have yet shown serious adverse effects.

“Some people who are not vulnerable wonder if they will put themselves at greater risk with a vaccine –  whose side-effects are still unknown – than if they catch the virus,” the sociologist explained.

To counter the apprehension, the government will have to advocate convincingly for vaccination, being careful to avoid the obfuscation and contradictory statements it delivered earlier this year on masks and testing.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the government will rely on “a scientific committee responsible for monitoring vaccination” and on “a collective of citizens to engage the population more widely”.

Macron has chosen Alain Fischer as his point man to coordinate the nation’s vaccination strategy. An immunologist and biology professor, Fischer said he wanted to work with “health professionals who are themselves convinced by transparent and open communication on the risk-benefit analysis of these vaccines; civic groups, such as associations representing those with chronic diseases; and researchers and specialists in ‘vaccine hesitancy’ (a reluctance to be vaccinated) who are likely to make suggestions on the best way to communicate”.

According to de Pauw, one of the government’s priorities will be to provide a strong education campaign that explains both the benefits and disadvantages of being vaccinated.

The sociologist argues that anti-vaxxers do not refuse “vaccination on principle but because they indirectly fear for their health”.

“We really need to take the time to explain to the population how these different vaccines work, while answering all questions, even the most simple ones.”

“Reassuring the French”

The government “must reassure the French people”, de Paux stressed, by focusing on vaccine safety. In addition to driving home this positive message, the French government must also “reinforce its messaging on the benefits of collective or widespread vaccination”.

However, some of the grey areas around the vaccines are likely to undermine the government’s messaging.

Fischer on Thursday pointed out that it was not yet known whether the vaccines “protect the vaccinated individual against infection” or “against transmission”.

“We only have press releases from the companies behind the vaccines. As a scientist I am looking forward to seeing articles published in scientific journals,” he said.

Given there are unanswered questions concerning the Covid-19 vaccines – even among scientists themselves – it’s not surprising that the French have responded to the vaccination rollout with uncertainty.

“In any vaccination period, there is always a segment of the population that decides not to get vaccinated. If it’s 5% of the French, that’s not worrying. But if it’s 50% or 60%, then you have to ask yourself questions,” de Pauw said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

 



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Tear gas fired as thousands protest in Paris against security bill



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Thousands protested in Paris on Saturday to denounce police violence and President Emmanuel Macron’s security policy plans which the demonstrators say would crimp civil liberties.

In one incident, police fired tear gas and charged after fireworks were launched at their lines. Hooded youths smashed one store window. There were violent clashes between protesters and police in a similar protest last week.

In a U-turn earlier this week, Macron’s ruling party said it would rewrite part of a draft security bill that would curb rights to circulate images of police officers after it provoked a strong backlash among the public and the political left.

The protesters marched through the French capital under the close watch of riot police, waving banners that read “France, land of police rights” and “Withdrawal of the security law”.

“We’re heading towards an increasingly significant limitation of freedoms. There is no justification,” said Paris resident Karine Shebabo

Another protester, Xavier Molenat, said: “France has this habit of curbing freedoms while preaching their importance to others.”

The beating of a Black man, music producer Michel Zecler, by several police officers in late November intensified public anger. That incident came to light after closed circuit television and mobile phone footage circulated online.

Critics had said the original bill would make it harder to hold the police to account in a country where some rights groups allege systemic racism inside law enforcement agencies. Many opponents of the draft law say it goes too far even as rewritten.

(REUTERS)



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‘Vaccines do not equal zero Covid,’ warns WHO as jab rollouts start



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The World Health Organization warned that vaccines were no magic bullet for the coronavirus crisis, as Russia started vaccinating its high-risk workers Saturday and other countries geared up for similar programmes.

The WHO warned about what it said was an erroneous belief that the Covid-19 crisis is over with jabs on the horizon, nearly a year after the start of the pandemic that has killed 1.5 million people worldwide.

“Vaccines do not equal zero Covid,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan, adding that not everyone will be able to receive it early next year.

“Vaccination will add a major, major, powerful tool to the tool kit that we have. But by themselves, they will not do the job.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also cautioned against the “growing perception that the pandemic is over” with the virus still spreading fast, putting enormous pressure on hospitals and health care workers.

Health officials in Moscow said they had opened 70 coronavirus vaccine centres in the Russian capital that would initially offer jabs for health, education and social workers. 

The WHO caution came as the United States clocked a record number of Covid-19 cases for a second day in a row Friday, with the country preparing for what US President-elect Joe Biden has called a “dark winter”.

America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended “universal face mask use” indoors and Biden said he would scale down his January inauguration ceremony to mitigate the virus risk.

It comes as countries prepare for the approval and rollout of several vaccines that have proven effective in trials.

Massive logistical effort

The WHO says 51 candidate vaccines are currently being tested on humans, with 13 reaching final-stage mass testing.

Britain on Wednesday became the first Western country to approve an inoculation, from a Pfizer-BioNTech, for general use, piling pressure on other countries to swiftly follow suit.

The United States is expected to give a green light later this month.

Belgium, France and Spain have said jabs will begin in January for the most vulnerable.

With the imminent arrival of vaccines that need storage at ultra-low temperatures, US companies are preparing for a massive logistical effort to aid their distribution. 

Firms specializing in insulating containers are on a war footing after Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius).

Meat processing giant Smithfield said it was ready to put the cold rooms at its abattoirs at the disposal of vaccine rollout operations.

And US logistics giant UPS is producing 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of dry ice an hour in its depots and has developed portable freezers capable of storing the vaccines at temperatures down to -112 Fahrenheit.

‘Follow the science’              

Standing in the way of success are growing signs of vaccine skepticism, with misinformation and mistrust coloring public acceptance of inoculation.

In Russia, Levada polling agency recently found that only 36 percent of respondents were prepared to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Several high-profile figures have pledged to receive the vaccine in public in an effort to build confidence, including Biden, Tedros and former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

The United States recorded 225,000 new infections on Friday — the second daily record in a row for the world’s worst-hit nation.

Biden said the surging number of cases meant he would scale back his inauguration ceremony set for January.

“We’re going to follow the science and the recommendations of the experts,” Biden told reporters.

Christmas spike expected

More than 65 million people have contracted Covid-19 globally with the death toll from the disease topping 1.5 million since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

British medical chiefs said the arrival of a vaccine should see deaths reduce “significantly” by early next year but warned social mixing over Christmas could cause another spike before then.

“By spring the effects of vaccination will begin to be felt in reducing Covid admissions, attendances and deaths significantly but there are many weeks before we get to that stage,” they said.

Italy is seeing a dramatic resurgence of infections after it largely tamped down an earlier outbreak by enforcing a strict lockdown, while Latin America and the Caribbean region has seen an 18 percent spike in cases in a week.

Other countries are also unveiling holiday restrictions, with Switzerland banning Christmas carolling in the streets and Madrid cancelling most New Year events in the city centre.

(AFP)



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Military officer elected head of Mali’s interim legislature



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Mali’s interim legislature on Saturday elected Colonel Malick Diaw, a member of the military junta that toppled president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August, as its president. 

The 121-seat body known as the National Transition Council was meeting for its inaugural session in the capital Bamako, and is a key part of the post-coup interim government apparatus in Mali

Young army officers in the conflict-ridden Sahel state toppled president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18 after weeks of anti-government protests.

Under the threat of international sanctions, the officers between September and October handed power to an interim government, which is meant to rule for 18 months before staging elections.

Figures with army links dominate this interim government, however, and anger over their prominent role is growing.

Coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita was elected interim vice president, for example, and retired army colonel Bah Ndaw was also elected interim president.

Members of the defence and security forces have 22 seats in the transition council, according to a government decree, while political parties, civil society groups and trade unions also have seats. 

On Saturday, the council elected Colonel Malick Diaw as its president unopposed, according to AFP journalists, with 111 votes in his favour and seven abstentions. Three council members did not vote.

Diaw was second in command of the military junta that took power after Keita’s ouster. The junta has never formally been dissolved.

Last month, Goita was also given veto power over the appointments to the new legislature, in a move seen by critics of the interim regime as strengthening army control.  

The opposition June 5 Movement, which led protests against Keita this year, said in a statement on Friday that it was boycotting the new legislature and that it would not serve as a “stooge for a disguised military regime”.

(AFP)

 



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Argentina introduces ‘millionaire’s tax’ to help pay for coronavirus



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Argentina’s Senate passed a tax on about 12,000 of the country’s richest people on Friday, to pay for coronavirus measures including medical supplies and relief for the poor and small businesses.

In a session streamed live on YouTube, and after a long and polarizing debate, the so-called solidarity contribution was signed into law with 42 votes in favor and 26 against, as the pro-government alliance flexed its majority.

The government of President Alberto Fernandez hopes to raise 300 billion pesos ($3.75 billion) with the one-off levy, which earlier passed the Chamber of Deputies with 133 for votes to 115 against.

Argentina‘s 44 million population has been badly hit by the coronavirus, with more than 1.4 million cases and over 39,500 deaths, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The pandemic has exacerbated already high unemployment and poverty rates in a country which has been in recession since 2018.

Under the scheme — also dubbed the “millionaire’s tax” — people with declared assets greater than 200 million pesos will pay a progressive rate of up to 3.5 percent on wealth in Argentina and up to 5.25 percent on wealth outside the country.

Of the proceeds, 20 percent will go to medical supplies for the pandemic, another 20 percent to small and medium-sized businesses, 15 percent to social developments, 20 percent to student scholarships and 25 percent to natural gas ventures.

Director of the tax agency Mercedes Marcó del Pont said it will affect almost 12,000 taxpayers.

“The tax reaches 0.8 percent of total taxpayers,” said one of the authors of the project, legislator Carlos Heller.

“Forty-two percent have dollarized assets, of which 92 percent is located abroad.”

He said the plan was “far from taxing productive activity.”

On the opposite side, Daniel Pelegrina, president of the powerful Argentine Rural Society (SRA), warned that Heller “wants to present it as a contribution of the richest, but we know what happens with all those unique taxes, they stay forever.”

The neoliberal Juntos por el Cambio coalition, of former president Mauricio Macri, said it was a “confiscatory” measure.

(AFP)



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Iran’s Supreme Court to retry three on death row over anti-govt protests



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Iran’s supreme court said Saturday it will review the cases of three young men sentenced to death over links to deadly November 2019 protests after a request from their lawyers.

Numerous calls had spread online after the verdict was announced, calling for a halt for executions in Iran, with the United Nations and European countries reaffirming their opposition to the death sentence.

In July, Iran’s judiciary halted the death sentences against the three a week after they were upheld by a tribunal over evidence the judiciary said was found on their phones of them setting alight banks, buses and public buildings during the wave of anti-government protests.

“A request to retry the three sentenced to death over the (November) incidents was accepted,” the supreme court said on its official website.

“The case will be reviewed in another tribunal,” it added, without elaborating further on the decision.

Four lawyers representing the accused made the request days after the young men’s sentences were upheld in July, local media said at the time.

One of the lawyers identified the three as friends 26-year-old retain worker Amirhossein Moradi, Said Tamjidi, a 28-year-old driver for Snapp (Iran’s Uber), and Mohammad Rajabi, also 26 and unemployed.

‘Collusion to endanger national security’

They were sentenced over “collusion to endanger national security” and “destroying and setting fire to public property with the aim of confronting the political system of the Islamic republic,” Babak Paknia, who represents Moradi, told AFP in an interview in July.

Paknia confirmed the supreme court’s decision in a tweet on Saturday.

The demonstrations erupted in November last year after authorities more than doubled fuel prices overnight, exacerbating economic hardship in the sanctions-hit country.

They rocked a handful of cities before spreading to at least 100 urban centres across Iran.

Petrol pumps were torched, police stations attacked and shops looted before security forces stepped in amid a near-total internet blackout.

A senior Iranian lawmaker in June put the death toll at 230 but said most were killed by armed “rioters,” months after authorities had refused to provide casualty figures.

London-based rights group Amnesty International has put the number of deaths at 304, including 23 minors, and a group of independent UN rights experts said last year that 400 could have been killed.

(AFP)



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Moscow starts vaccinating high-risk workers against Covid-19



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Moscow on Saturday began vaccinating workers at high risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus at newly opened clinics across the city.

Health officials said they had opened 70 coronavirus vaccine centres in the Russian capital that would initially offer jabs for health, education and social workers.

“Citizens from the main risk groups who in connection with their professional activities come into contact with a large number of people can get vaccinated,” officials said.

Russia was one of the first countries to announce the development of a vaccine, Sputnik V — dubbed after the Soviet-era satellite — in August but before beginning final clinical trials.

It is currently in its third and final stage of clinical trials involving some 40,000 volunteers.

Sputnik V’s developers last month said interim results had shown the vaccine was 95-percent effective and would be cheaper and easier to store than some alternatives.

The jab uses two different human adenovirus vectors and is administered in two doses with a 21-day gap.

The vaccine will be free to all Russian citizens and innoculation will be voluntary.

Health officials on Saturday said that during the initial rollout in Moscow the jab would not be available to workers over 60, those with chronic diseases, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

They did not say when the vaccine would be available to the wider public.

Mass vaccinations planned for military

On Friday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said that 5,000 people had registered to be vaccinated within the first five hours of online registration having opened.

AFP journalists at one of the new centres on Saturday saw queues as people waited their turn.

“I want to be sure that the coronavirus won’t infect me and my loved ones,” said Sergei Buslayev, a 42-year-old insurance worker.

“I want to be able to go to the gym safely and lead my life normally again,” he added.

The mass vaccination rollout began as Russia set a new daily record for coronavirus infections.

Health officials on Saturday reported 28,782 new infections, bringing the national total to 2,431,731 cases since the beginning of the pandemic — the fourth-highest caseload in the world.

Despite the surge in cases, Russia has not imposed the kind of nationwide lockdowns seen in some parts of Europe, although restrictions were imposed in some major cities.

Instead, they pinned their hopes on ending the pandemic on vaccines.

President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday told health officials to start widespread vaccinations next week, adding that Russia has produced close to two million doses of Sputnik V.

Last month Russia’s defence ministry announced that a mass vaccination campaign has been rolled out in the military, aiming to inoculate over 400,000 servicemen, including 80,000 by the end of this year.

Russia’s Levada polling agency in a recent survey found that only 36 percent of respondents were prepared to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

(AFP)



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‘We are in our homeland, the invaders are attacking us,’ says Tigray’s Gebremichael



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As fighting continues “in many parts” of Ethiopia’s Tigra, according to the United Nations, Tigray’s regional president Debretsion Gebremichael told FRANCE 24 that the northern region would continue fighting as long as federal “invaders” are on Tigrayan soil.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations in the northern region of Tigray a month ago, saying they targeted the leaders of its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Gebremichael believes neighbouring Eritrea is playing a key role in the conflict.

“They already have 16 divisions in Tigray. They are fighting on the side of the federal army… They have a united front against us. Wherever you go, they are there.”

“We are in our homeland, the invaders are attacking us, by air or by artillery fire.”

Gebremichael also claimed that Eritrean forces had taken part in mass lootings, a report denied by both Eritrea and Ethiopia.

“They have taken laboratory equipment, computers, books. They have gone to one factory of medicine,” Gebremichael told FRANCE 24’s Nicolas Germain.

The month-long conflict has claimed thousands of lives, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), and tens of thousands of refugees have streamed across the border into Sudan.

The UN has been warning of a possible humanitarian catastrophe within Tigray, though a communications blackout has made it difficult to assess conditions on the ground.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)



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