Shock four-country poll reveals widening gulf between Britain and EU
Poll of France, Germany, Poland and the UK shows British hostile to EU, and other nations hostile to Britain
Toby Helm, political editor
The Observer, Sunday 1 December 2013
A powerful cross-party alliance including former Tory foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is calling for an urgent fightback against spiralling anti-European sentiment as a new four-nation poll suggests the UK could be heading out of the EU.
The landmark survey of more than 5,000 voters in the UK, Germany, France and Poland finds British people far more hostile to the EU and its policies than those in the other EU states, and strikingly low support for British membership among people on the continent.
At the same time, the total numbers of people in Germany and France who support giving Britain a special deal on membership to satisfy British opinion are heavily outnumbered by those who oppose doing so, which suggests that David Cameron may struggle to achieve his hoped-for tailor-made arrangement for the UK.
Testing cultural opinions, the poll finds very few British people choose to describe themselves as European. In other EU nations, enthusiasm for the concept of Europeanism is far higher.
Opinium found that just 26% of British voters regard the EU as, overall, a "good thing" compared with 42% who say it is a "bad thing". In Poland 62% say it is a good thing and 13% bad; in Germany 55% good and 17% bad, and in France 36% good and 34% bad.
When asked about the UK's contribution to the EU, there is little enthusiasm among our partners, and little to suggest they will go out of their way to keep us in. Just 9% of Germans and 15% of French people think the UK is a positive influence on the EU, with more Poles, 33%, taking that view.
Only 16% of Germans and 26% of French people back the idea of a special deal being struck for the UK. Cameron has said he intends to renegotiate the UK terms of entry and hold an in/out referendum if he wins a majority at the next election, offering the new arrangement to the British people in a referendum.
The idea of Britain leaving the EU does not appear to worry our European partners unduly. Just 24% of French voters said a UK exit would have a negative effect, compared with 36% of Germans and 51% of Poles.
Rifkind said: "There needs to be a serious debate about the real benefits of – as well as the real problems about – British membership of the EU. Without it we could do serious damage to Britain's interests."
Clegg said next year's European elections represented a key test and attacked those intent on taking Britain out of the EU. He said: "Everybody knows the EU needs reform. But simply carping from the sidelines and flirting with exit undermines British leadership in the EU, fails to deliver reform and leaves Britain increasingly isolated. The debate about Europe is no longer about who is for or against reform – everybody agrees on that – it is between those who believe we can lead in the EU and those who want to head for the exit.
"That's why next year's elections will be so important: the Liberal Democrats will be the leading party of 'in'. It's time we challenged Ukip and large swaths of the Conservative party who want to betray Britain's vital national interest by pulling us out of the world's largest borderless single market, on which millions of jobs depend."
Labour MP and former Europe minister Peter Hain urged pro-Europeans to stand up and fight: "This is a wake-up call for British pro-Europeans that Britain – especially if the Tories win the next election – is heading for an exit from the EU which would be an utter disaster for British jobs, prosperity and influence in the world. But it is equally a wake-up call for the Brussels Bubble, which is totally out of touch with Europe's citizens."
The poll shows concern about immigration to be almost as high in France as in the UK. In Britain, 64% of voters think the EU's immigration policies have a negative effect; 59% say the same in France.
It also reveals that more UK voters feel an affinity with the US than with their European neighbours, whereas our EU partners tend to choose other EU nations. When asked who they would generally support on occasions when there was a disagreement between the US and EU countries, 37% of UK respondent said they would tend to support America; just 10% would generally side with Europe.
British people are not negative about everything the EU does: 54% think free movement rules are good for tourism against 6% who think the reverse. There is also strong endorsement for free-trade benefits. Nearly half of those polled say the absence of customs controls and tariffs on goods and services is an advantage. Only 10% see free trade as a disadvantage.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: "This is a fascinating and comprehensive study into the relative relationships between countries within and about the EU. We, on these islands feel, due to our history as a globally trading nation, much more at home with our cousins in the Anglosphere than we do with our friends on the continent."
Is Britain sleepwalking towards a European exit?
An Observer poll conducted in four countries reveals the widening gulf between Britain and the rest of the EU. And on both sides of the Channel, attitudes seem to be hardening
Toby Helm, political editor
The Observer, Saturday 30 November 2013 21.09 GMT
Slowly but surely, Britain is detaching itself from the European project, slipping into an EU membership category of its own, one marked "outlier nation". That, at least, was the impression left by statements emanating from a European Union summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on Friday, where the UK's reputation as the club's most awkward and unhappy member was underlined yet again.
It is also the clear lesson from a landmark four-nation poll of attitudes to Europe carried out by Opinium in the UK, Germany, France and Poland and published by the Observer.
The survey shows not only that British people regard the EU much more negatively than do citizens of other countries, but also that the citizens of other EU nations think Britain brings few benefits to the union. As a result, more people on the continent seem happy to see us leave than seem keen for us stay. That, in itself, should worry pro-Europeans profoundly.
Exchanges at the Vilnius summit gave glimpses of the current state of relations between Britain and its partners. The so-called Visegrád Four – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – posed as the true Europeans as they tore into David Cameron in a statement, reacting to his calls for tougher rules to prevent mass migration within the EU.
The four insisted that eastern Europeans, rather than being a drain on the UK economy and scrounging from the British benefits system, were in fact harder workers and more productive than many Britons. "They are younger and economically more active than the average British workforce; they also contribute to UK national revenues far in excess of the social benefits they use," they said. They also accused Cameron of adopting a selective approach to core EU principles, such as freedom of movement across borders.
Separately, Romania's prime minister, Victor Ponta, reacted to Cameron's pledge of tough new welfare rules for EU migrants, including those expected to arrive in Britain from his country from 1 January, by saying: "We will not accept being treated as second-rate citizens." Britain has always been involved in rows in Europe, but now such talk is more commonplace. Earlier this year, France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, adopted a lofty Gallic tone towards Cameron and Britain. "You can't do Europe à la carte," he said. "I'll take an example which our British friends will understand: let's imagine Europe is a football club and you join, but once you're in it you can't say 'let's play rugby'."
Fabius spoke out after the prime minister pledged that if the Tories won a majority in 2015, he would seek to re-define the terms of UK membership and then hold an in/out referendum in which the people would be asked to approve or reject membership on the new terms, by the end of 2017.
For France and Germany, whatever their differences over the future of the EU – and there have always been many – the political consensus about Europe has held firm between them for well over 60 years. From the founding fathers, who formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, insisting that the pooling of resources would "make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible", to the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who described the EU as "a matter of war and peace in the 21st century", to Angela Merkel today, European integration has remained not just an economic cause for the mutual benefit of neighbour nations, but an underlying moral imperative. New members in eastern Europe such as Poland have their concerns, but are broadly very content to be inside.
With the UK it is different. We have always been suspicious but now we seem borderline hostile, and the feeling is mutual. The survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK and over 1,000 in each of Germany, France and Poland, shows a clear parting of the ways. Just 26% of Britons think the EU is, overall, a "good thing" compared with 62% of Poles, 55% of Germans and 36% of French.
Accompanying this anti-EU feeling is an ingrained cultural resistance to the European ideal and the very idea of being European. Just 14% of UK people polled say they regard themselves as European, compared with 48% of Poles, 39% of Germans and 34% of French. Whereas most people in Germany, France and Poland name a fellow European country as their closest ally, the British name fellow English-speaking nations: 33% named the US, 31% Australia and 23% Canada.
Equally striking, in the context of Cameron's attempts to negotiate a new deal for the UK, attitudes to British membership are pretty negative among our partners, who will have to sign off on any future special terms of membership we may want to agree. When asked whether the UK is a positive force in the EU, just 9% of Germans, 15% of French and 33% of Poles say it is. Opposition to giving the UK special membership terms is strongest in Germany, where 44% are against and 16% in favour, with 26% of the French in favour and 36% against. In Poland there is more support, with 38% in favour and 23% against.
Even the prospect of the UK leaving the EU – an outcome that would destabilise the community profoundly – does not seem to worry most German or French people too much. Ever-closer union can live on without the UK. Just 24% of French respondents say a British exit would have a negative effect on the EU, compared with 36% of Germans. Poles were more concerned, with 51% saying the effect would be negative.
The picture is not one of uniform enthusiasm for the EU in the other three countries, and blanket hostility towards the EU in the UK. The polling shows very high levels of concern about the EU's effect on immigration among French and German citizens, as well as among the British: 64% of British people say they regard the EU as having a negative impact on immigration, with 59% of French people and 42% of Germans saying the same. Only 20% of Poles regard the effect on immigration as negative.
And when it comes to the ability to travel easily to other EU nations, even the British are strongly in favour, with 56% saying it is positive and 6% taking a negative view.
On the EU's role in environmental policy, opinion in the UK is quite evenly split, with 34% viewing it positively and 30% saying it is negative. On foreign policy, 22% of Britons are in favour of what the EU does, while 35% are negative.
The gulf between British and German views about Europe's role is demonstrated, perhaps most starkly of all, by the findings on foreign policy: 49% of Germans regard the EU's involvement in foreign affairs as a good thing, against just 10% who are against.
As the UK prepares to admit Romanians and Bulgarians to work and live here from January 1, before European elections next May in which the anti-EU Ukip party is expected to perform strongly, it is difficult to see how the pro-European argument will be able, easily, to break through in the months to come. All three mainstream parties are terrified of Ukip, and aware of the state of public opinion. Next September's referendum on whether the people of Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom will further test the depth of separatist tendencies. Then will come a general election campaign in which the main parties, again, will have one eye on Nigel Farage's party when drawing up their manifestos. Pro-EU campaign statements will be in short supply.
Last week, the former Tory prime minister Sir John Major said it would be a "truly dreadful outcome for everyone" if Britain were ever to leave the EU.
With opinion as it is, here and in other EU countries, it is also an outcome that now seems entirely possible.
British Prime Minister David Cameron heads to China to end Dalai Lama controversy
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 1, 2013 1:57 EST
British Prime Minister David Cameron heads to China on Sunday aiming to reset relations with Beijing after a row over his decision to meet the Dalai Lama.
Cameron’s trip is aimed at fostering ties with the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and boosting trade, with more than 100 business people set to accompany him.
Human rights groups have urged Cameron to press China on promised reforms.
Relations between Britain and China have been frosty since Cameron met Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in May 2012.
But aides said that the trip was a chance to “turn the page” in the relationship with Beijing and that Cameron wanted the visit to be “forward-looking”.
Cameron sent his first message in Mandarin on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, this week and now has more than 101,000 followers.
“Hello my friends in China. I’m pleased to have joined Weibo and look forward to visiting China very soon,” he wrote in the message.
But Cameron faced accusations of double standards after he used a visit to the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka last month to urge Colombo to address war crimes allegations.
“Given the deplorable state of rights in China, Cameron should pick up where he left off earlier this month in Sri Lanka, when he said he would ‘shine a global spotlight’ on abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The UK should have a consistent approach to human rights, which must include a forceful public condemnation of rights violations that can be heard by the people of China as well as the government.”
The Free Tibet group said that Cameron “should speak up” for Tibetans.
Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama two years ago prompted fury from Beijing, which branded it an “affront to the Chinese people”.
But the British premier said in parliament in May this year that London does not support Tibetan independence and that he had “no plans” to meet the Dalai Lama.
Cameron last visited China in November 2010 and this will be his first trip there since Xi took office in March.
The trip is regarded as so crucial that the annual Autumn Statement budget update by finance minister George Osborne has being postponed by one day to December 5.
Osborne visited China in October, coming away with a range of investment deals as Britain seeks to tame its record deficit.
Britain also in October signed a £16-billion ($26-billion, 18.9-billion-euro) deal involving Chinese nuclear firms CGN and CNNC to build Britain’s first nuclear plant in a generation, along with French energy giant EDF.
The business leaders reportedly accompanying Cameron will include the bosses of Jaguar Land Rover, the English Premier League, Royal Dutch Shell, the London Stock Exchange and GlaxoSmithKline.
Cameron said when he announced the visit earlier this month that he wanted to “forge a relationship that will benefit both our countries and bring real rewards for our peoples”.
He added that the visit was aimed at “opening the way for British companies to benefit from China’s vast and varied markets and preparing the way for a new level of Chinese investment into the UK”.
The Conservative leader has often spoken of the need for Britain to compete in the “global race” against rising economic powers.
Germany rethinks its liberal ways on sex workers
Prostitution was decriminalised in 'the bordello of Europe' in 2002. Now feminists want to overturn that law
The Observer, Saturday 30 November 2013 19.46 GMT
On Berlin's Kurfürstenstrasse, they are out in force: women in their late teens to late forties, some of them perhaps older but dressed to look younger. On a November night, many are wearing puffer jackets and tight-fitting jeans under their miniskirts.
A shiny grey BMW stops and silently winds down its window. One of the women steps up on the passenger side. There's a brief exchange of words – five or six syllables, not more – then the car drives off again. A few minutes later the same woman can be seen walking towards the LSD ("Love, Sex & Dreams") adult entertainment store on the corner with Potsdamer Strasse, a client in tow. A girl on her way home from school is skipping down the road in the other direction.
A scene like this can probably be witnessed in most large cities around the world. What is unusual about the situation in Germany is that prostitution here has been legal since the Social Democrat (SPD)-Green coalition government changed the law in 2002.
The aim of that change was, as the SPD politician Anni Brandt-Elsweiler put it at the time, "to improve the situation of prostitutes by giving more power back into their own hands, by strengthening their self-confidence and their legal position when dealing with clients and pimps".
In Berlin, political support for the pioneering law change is still strong. Earlier this year SPD and Green city councillors compiled a little booklet that they distributed among Kurfürstenstrasse residents, pleading for more tolerance and understanding towards the sex trade in their midst. "City life and prostitution have gone hand in hand for more than 100 years," it said. "Prostitution is not illegal."
But across the border in France politicians are contemplating a ban on paying for sex, and the tide seems to be turning when it comes to German public opinion as well. Last month the veteran feminist Alice Schwarzer published a book entitled Prostitution: A German Scandal. Emma, the feminist magazine started by Schwarzer in 1977, has also published a petition against the current law, signed by 90 celebrities from both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
They argue that Germany's experiment with liberalising prostitution has failed spectacularly, turning the country into "the bordello of Europe", with more and more brothels popping up near the border. The 2002 law was trying to make sex work a job like any other. But currently only 44 sex workers in Germany are registered with the national insurance scheme. Social workers say that most prostitutes cannot afford the luxury of putting aside money for a health insurance policy.
Schwarzer and her supporters have championed the legal situation in Sweden, where it is illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them. She likens current attitudes to prostitution in Germany to those towards paedophilia in the 1970s: a wilful blindness towards an apparent injustice. "Prostitution, like paedophilia, is characterised not by equality, but drastic power imbalances," she recently wrote in Die Zeit.
Schwarzer is not without her critics. At the launch of her book last week, she was harangued by a group of pro-prostitution campaigners.
Alexa Müller, 38, is one of the sex workers who passionately defend Germany's unique path on prostitution law. "Women can run brothels responsibly here and not be prosecuted, that's an incredible achievement. And sex workers are autonomous legal agents. They can take a client to court if he refuses to pay up," she said.
She accused Schwarzer of spreading ignorance and churning out misleading figures. Criminalising the clients of sex workers, as it is done in Sweden, she says, would only cement their victim status. "We are not victims, we are adventurous sex goddesses!" she said.
If only 44 sex workers are registered for the public health scheme, she argued, it is because 10 years of the new law haven't been enough to remove social stigma. Most sex workers lead a double life where they do more than one job, and even if they work full-time, they are more likely to register as a "performance artist".
"Do you really think I would call up my dentist and say: 'By the way, I now earn my living mainly as a whore'?" she asked.
Müller originally started having sex for money in order to fund her degree in design, and went full-time seven years ago. "To be frank with you, I found it more creative, fun and fulfilling work than being a graphic designer. And I can say no to a client when you don't want to work for him." Her family knows about her work and supports her.
Müller volunteers for the sex workers' support charity Hydra, and said she regularly meets and talks to Romanian and Bulgarian prostitutes who are in more desperate circumstances than she is. But the criticism remains that those defending the current law tend to be those who can afford to pick better jobs and reject the more debasing work.
"The biggest problem with the debate around prostitution is that we don't have any reliable figures – mine are as much a stab in the dark as Alice Schwarzer's. If there really is a problem and we want to fix it, a serious effort to get an idea of the scale of prostitution would be a start," she said.
French lawmakers approve new penalties for sex workers’ customers
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 29, 2013 23:25 EST
French lawmakers on Saturday adopted a highly controversial provision in a bill that punishes clients of prostitutes amid fierce argument that the new measure will be counterproductive.
Under the new provision, buying sex acts will be punishable by a 1,500-euro ($2,000) fine. Repeat offenders risk a fine of 3,750 euros. Alternatively, a course will be proposed to make them aware of the risks involved in the sale of sex.
Dozens rallied both for and against the bill as debate began in the lower house, the National Assembly, which is expected to vote on the sex bill’s other provisions on Wednesday.
Prostitution is allowed in France, but soliciting, pimping, and the sale of sex by minors are prohibited.
The government says the bill is aimed at preventing violence against women and protecting the large majority of prostitutes who are victims of trafficking gangs.
But critics warn that it would force sex workers further underground and put them in greater danger, and some argue that everyone should be allowed to use their own body as they see fit.
Kicking off the debate, Maud Olivier, one of the lawmakers spearheading the bill, blasted the “hypocrisy” of critics.
“One prostitute declares herself free and the slavery of others becomes respectable and acceptable?” the socialist MP asked parliament.
“How can you find glamorous the 10 to 15 penetrations a day endured by prostitutes for economic reasons with dramatic consequences on their health?”
Women’s Rights Minister and government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem told lawmakers “France is not a country that welcomes prostitution”.
“The question is not sexuality. We are not here to be a moral police… the question is about money that feeds pimping,” she said.
The head of the parliamentary commission created for the bill, Guy Geoffroy, also defended the proposition, saying it “advanced women’s rights”.
“We talk about the satisfaction of male desires but what are we doing about female desires?” asked Geoffroy, who is from the main opposition UMP party.
As the session got under way, supporters and opponents of the bill rallied outside the parliament.
“You sleep with us and you vote against us,” shouted a group of about 150 prostitutes, many of whom wore red or white masks.
“They are trying to stop us from working,” said Thierry Schaffauser, an activist from STRASS, France’s sex workers’ union.
About 50 supporters of the bill, including feminists and others, rallied nearby, holding up a banner reading: “Together for the abolition of prostitution.”
There are an estimated 20,000-plus sex workers in France, many from eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania as well as African nations such as Nigeria and Cameroon, and China and South America.
According to the interior ministry, foreign prostitutes make up 80 to 90 percent of all sex workers in France, a vast majority of whom are victims of trafficking rings.
The bill takes inspiration from Sweden, where a similar law punishing clients has reduced street prostitution by half over the past decade.
It also puts forward measures to help prostitutes who want to quit, including foreigners who would be given a six-month, renewable residence permit.
But critics insist that shifting the focus onto clients will only force prostitutes to work even more covertly.
The Greens believe the bill does not make enough of a distinction between victims of prostitution rings and independent sex workers who fear their revenues will fall.
Many of these have taken to the streets in recent days, denouncing a bill that is already scaring clients away.
“I’ve lost 80 percent of my turnover,” Priscilia, a 40-something sex worker in Paris, told AFP recently.
“This law is… killing me,” she said, pointing out that one of her clients had told her he now goes to the more discreet Chinese massage parlours.
Some 26 lawmakers from different parties have signed a petition against punishing clients, describing the bill as “a moralistic text”.
About 60 people, including celebrities such as actress Catherine Deneuve and singer Charles Aznavour, also released an open letter earlier this month opposing the bill.
Another more contentious letter released last month, entitled “Don’t touch my whore!”, said: “When parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone’s freedom is threatened.”
If approved, the bill will move on to the upper house, the Senate.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Strident neocon, lame Socialist: A gap is widening between the French president’s decisiveness abroad and dithering at home
Nov 30th 2013 | PARIS |
ON PAPER, he is one of the most powerful leaders in the Western world. Under the French constitution President François Hollande can dispatch troops abroad, as he is about to do in the Central African Republic (CAR), conduct foreign affairs as he pleases, and dissolve parliament as he sees fit. Moreover, his Socialist Party controls all levels of government, from the senate down to a majority of local councils. In diplomacy, Mr Hollande has indeed turned out to be as decisive in his exercise of power as the constitution allows. Yet, on the domestic front, he behaves with ever-shrinking authority.
In January an unexpectedly hawkish Mr Hollande dispatched 4,500 French soldiers and fighter jets to Mali, to push back an incursion in the north by rebels linked to the local branch of al-Qaeda; 2,800 French troops are still on the ground there. More recently, Mr Hollande had his jets on alert, ready to strike targets in Syria, before America’s president halted matters by deciding to consult Congress first. France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, then took a tougher line in the latest negotiations with Iran than the Americans did, insisting on pushing for further concessions and delaying the final deal.
Now Mr Hollande is preparing to send some 1,000 French soldiers to the CAR, where lawlessness and violence, in Mr Fabius’s words, “borders on genocide”. The French have drafted a resolution for the United Nations Security Council, which could go to a vote in early December, to authorise a UN peacekeeping force. This could support African regional peacekeepers already there, and operate with French military backing. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, says that he expects the French intervention in the CAR, which will add to the 400 or so French soldiers already guarding the capital’s airport, to last six months.
As the French prepare for yet another foreign military adventure, there is much head-scratching about how such a decisive war leader can be so ineffective domestically. Mr Hollande’s decidedly shaky grip on governing at home has been underlined by two recent episodes.
The first was his ill-judged decision in October to intervene, via a live televised address to the nation, in a court order to deport Leonarda Dibrani, an illegally resident Roma school pupil, back to Kosovo. Reacting to an outcry about the deportation, and faced with the decision either to uphold the law or flaunt it, Mr Hollande chose a third way with an offer to let the under-aged Ms Dibrani return to school in France—but without her family. This satisfied nobody, and exposed the president as an indecisive meddler.
At the same time, a bigger revolt broke out, this time over taxes. In anticipation of a new “eco-tax”, which was to be a charge on big lorries using main roads in an effort to discourage road freight, furious truckers in Brittany began commando-style attacks on automatic toll sensors. The burning and smashing-up of the sensors spread; the western Peninsula of Brittany fast became the centre of a popular revolt against taxation that drew an improbable mix of farmers, local business bosses and nationalists. In a clever propaganda coup, they adopted red woolly hats, or bonnets rouges, in a nod to the headgear worn during a 1675 uprising in Brittany against taxes imposed by Louis XIV.
The fiscal revolt took the government by surprise. The French are famously tolerant of high taxes, regarding them as part of a social pact that secures them good public services in return. Yet that pact has been put to the test by several years of tax increases. Even Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, recognised that the French had “had it up to here” with higher taxes.
The government promptly backed down on the eco-tax, with Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, declaring it “suspended”. This was the third retreat on a new tax this autumn. What made this surrender such an emblem of Mr Hollande’s diminished authority was that it was not a mere proposal but written into law, and had passed with cross-party parliamentary support.
Mr Hollande’s options are now limited. His approval rating sank to 20% in November, the lowest since Ifop, a polling group, started measuring presidential popularity in 1958. The economy shrank again in the third quarter. The president’s team argues that it will take time for its efforts, on public finances and competitiveness, to bring results, and that patience will pay off.
But fretful Socialist deputies want a firmer hand now. One has urged a change of prime minister; yet it would be hard to find a pliant successor to the plodding but loyal Mr Ayrault. Others have called for parliament to be dissolved. For now, the strategy seems to be to try to restore the prime minister’s authority, thanks to a grand “fiscal rethink”. This idea was cooked up by Mr Ayrault. Mr Hollande said that this could take years; Mr Ayrault has begun consultations.
Whatever relief this rethink brings may prove short-lived. Mr Ayrault says the idea is to make the French tax system “fairer”, but also that he will keep the overall tax take at the same level. And rejigging the system to help the worse-off is likely to mean higher taxes for the rest, including the squeezed middle. Above all, it means yet more uncertainty about French taxes, at a time when their unpredictability is already a worrying deterrent to investment and confidence.
France's new African war
Nov 28th 2013, 11:30 by S.P. | PARIS
IS FRANCE about to embark on another African military intervention? Things certainly seem to be moving very fast in Paris. Just over ten months after it dispatched soldiers and fighter jets to push back an Islamist incursion in Mali, the French are putting things into place in order to launch another operation, possibly as early as next week, this time in the Central African Republic (CAR).
This is Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, making the case for intervention in Le Figaro, a newspaper, on November 25th. He described a “collapsed state” in which violence, rape and executions by armed gangs was turning into inter-religious hatred. Intervention always had a cost. But, he wrote: “We don’t want tomorrow to pay the far higher price of inaction”.
France is not alone in sounding an alert over the CAR, a former colony. Jan Eliasson, the United Nations deputy secretary-general, has described “pre-genocide” conditions there. The UN estimates that there are 400,000 displaced people, or a tenth of the population, within the country, as villagers flee the violence.
As Mr Fabius laid it out, the French case is chiefly humanitarian. Yet French officials stress that there are two other reasons to intervene. One is to try to restore security on the ground before the violence takes on an explicitly inter-religious character. The CAR is composed of over a dozen different ethnic groups, mostly Christian, some animist, and a significant Muslim minority.
The other is to avert a destabilisation of the region. CAR is mineral-rich and landlocked, bordered by six countries, each of them linked to a broader zone of instability. The French worry that the emergence of a failed state in this strategic location could draw into the void any number of networks, including traffickers in drugs and arms, Islamists or regional terrorist groups.
France has drafted a UN Security Council resolution, which it hopes to put to the vote in New York next week. This would authorise a UN peacekeeping operation as a “bridging force”, to restore security in the country pending a reinforcement of the regional African unit there, known by the acronym MISCA. “We won’t be there to replace the African force, but the strengthen them,” said a defence-ministry official. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, said that the plan is to send an extra 1,000 or so French soldiers, who will join the 400-odd already guarding the capital’s airport there.
French officials stress that this is a quite different operation to that conducted in Mali, where the French went directly into combat against a well-trained, well-armed Islamist force that had conquered a big chunk of territory. Things are far more chaotic and disorganised in the CAR, with disparate armed gangs on the loose. This time, and unlike in Mali, stresses an official, this is “not a war mission”.
Whatever the differences, though, the French are struck by the consistently warrior-like behaviour of their Socialist president, François Hollande, now about to launch his second African intervention of the year. The French are being careful to secure international authorisation for their mission. But they are set to go it alone, with no sign of wanting help. “If he did not swear by socialism in France,” wrote Le Figaro in an editorial, “François Hollande could pass for a neo-conservative abroad.”
The Iran deal: Well begun, not nearly done
An encouraging interim deal with Iran makes a permanent check on its nuclear ambitions easier to imagine. It will still be hard to achieve
Nov 30th 2013
THE interim deal concluded on November 24th between six world powers and Iran is much better than its many critics allow. In return for six months of “limited, temporary…and reversible” relief from some international sanctions, Iran has said it will not just freeze its progress towards a possible nuclear bomb, but actually take a few steps back. This, too, is limited, temporary and reversible; nothing is being decommissioned, and six months is a short time. But if further negotiations can cement the gains in place, they would mark a turning point in efforts to stop nuclear proliferation—and perhaps in regional politics more broadly (see article).
The agreement was brought about by a multilateral process in Geneva and secret parallel discussions between the Obama administration and Iran which began in August, when Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, took office. Both sets of negotiations were conducted in an atmosphere of constructive endeavour, a far cry from the sterile declarations and mutual suspicion of the past.
A nuclear-weapons programme needs either uranium which has been highly enriched—something achieved by passing the stuff repeatedly through cascades of whirling centrifuges—or plutonium. At present the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reckons that Iran has almost 200kg of 20%-enriched uranium in a form that could easily be enriched up to the 90% or so needed for a bomb. Under the terms of the deal (see table on next page) Iran will get rid of this stock, either by putting it in a form that is hard to enrich further or by mixing it with unenriched uranium, thus diluting it to less than 5%. At the same time it will freeze its enrichment capabilities at their current capacity, undertake no further enrichment beyond the 5% level, and do nothing to increase the 7,200kg stockpile of low-enriched uranium that is currently in a form that can easily be further enriched.
Speed bumps for breakouts
Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, believes that the effect of the deal is to double the “breakout time” it would take Iran to produce enough material for a few nuclear weapons. Before the deal this was estimated at perhaps six weeks, and was steadily shortening.
The deal addresses the other possible route to the bomb by stopping most work on a reactor at Arak which was to have been ready for commissioning late next year. The Arak reactor is of a design particularly well suited to producing plutonium, and needs no enriched uranium in order to do so. Once the reactor is fuelled up, any attack on it would release a plume of radioactivity; this makes its commissioning something of a point of no return as far as military action against Iran is concerned. The deal also stops all work on facilities that might be used to extract plutonium from its spent fuel. These constraints are in large measure thanks to the French, whose objections to insufficient action on Arak prevented an agreement from being reached two weeks earlier.
Iran has also said it will co-operate with a far more intrusive inspection regime; this makes the deal very different from the one reached with North Korea in 2005, which the Koreans then broke. Iran has promised to answer all the questions posed by the IAEA about what the agency refers to as the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear programme. It will provide access to nuclear sites hitherto off-limits, possibly including the Parchin military base where Western intelligence agencies think it tested a detonation system for a bomb.
In return for taking these steps, Iran gets access to about $4.2 billion held in currently frozen bank accounts and some easing of restrictions on trade in petrochemical products, precious metals and parts for aircraft and cars, a package thought to be worth $7 billion to its economy over the six months. Sanctions on oil which will cost Iran $30 billion over the same period remain firmly in place, providing a lot of leverage as negotiators start work on a final deal. Critics, though, argue that the psychological impact of relaxing these lesser sanctions will weaken the greater ones, particularly when it comes to some countries that have only toed the line with reluctance.
A stronger criticism is that the deal says nothing about Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, which the country sees as “inalienable”. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gives signatories such as Iran a right to the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy. That can be construed as a right to enrich if the enrichment is for peaceful purposes, though other interpretations are available. Given that Russia, which built Iran’s only large reactor, at Bushehr, has a ten-year contract both to provide its fuel and to remove its waste, it is very hard to see Iran’s large and growing enrichment programme as entirely for peaceful purposes; the country’s record of cheating when it comes to inspections makes it hard to trust. Yet the deal implicitly recognises that Iran will stay in the enrichment game.
Not there yet
But those insisting that Iran must forswear any enrichment in the future are demanding something that almost certainly cannot be negotiated. Whatever the pressure of sanctions, Iran will not consent to an agreement it regards as a national humiliation. Given the promise of the interim deal, ratcheting up sanctions now, as some in America’s Congress urge, is more likely to weaken international support for America’s position—and for the existing sanctions—than to draw concessions Iran would never otherwise make.
The objective of the negotiations’ next stage will not be to make it impossible for Iran ever to acquire nuclear weapons. Instead, its aim should be to make it unfeasibly difficult for Iran to get a bomb by stealth and to stretch the period it would need for a nuclear breakout to a year or so, thus giving time to mount a response.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think-tank in Washington, DC, says a final deal will have to require Iran to abandon the Arak reactor—perhaps replacing it with one of a different design that has safeguards built in—and close its Fordow enrichment site, which is buried deep beneath a mountain and thus very hard to bomb. Iran would also have to adhere to the Additional Protocol of the NPT, giving IAEA inspectors enhanced rights of access to ensure that it is not cheating.
There is room for manoeuvre on the number and quality of the centrifuges that Iran could retain at Natanz (its other main enrichment site) the size of its low-enriched-uranium stockpile, and an Arak replacement. Also unanswered is the question of how quickly sanctions relief should be granted in return, and how long the agreement should last. American negotiators would be unhappy with anything less than about ten years. They think it will take that long for a culture of compliance and transparency to build up.
Getting a long-term deal that meets all those requirements will not be easy. Iranian negotiators may well be under pressure from factions at home to get tougher. Mr Rohani continues to enjoy the backing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state. But conservatives, including the ubiquitous and powerful Revolutionary Guard, will not just be loth to accept a plan that would stymie their ambition to acquire a nuclear bomb, as any final comprehensive deal must seek to do. They will also hate the idea of any deal that seems to point towards a “normalisation” of relations with America and the West.
Mr Rohani has been careful, so far, to give no hint that he would dilute the theocratic essence of the regime. Some of Iran’s conservatives, though, fear that he could become an Iranian Gorbachev, a man whose attempts to reform the system and make peace with a long-standing enemy could lead to its downfall.
The Revolutionary Guard could, by obstructing the inspections the deal requires, do a lot to derail a more durable follow-up agreement. And the approach taken in the next stage of the negotiations could be less constructive than what has been seen so far. But enough has already been agreed to suggest that success is possible.
November 30, 2013
Afghans Assail Karzai’s Disparate Views on Killings
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — As so often happens in the fog of war, the attack in a village in Kandahar on Friday missed the enemy patrol that was its intended target, instead killing an 8-year-old boy and wounding two other children.
President Hamid Karzai was silent about the civilian casualties, although just the day before he had responded with fury to a similar attack in Helmand Province, which also killed one child and gravely wounded two women.
The attack he complained about was carried out by the American-led coalition and used a drone. The attack he ignored was by the Taliban and used a suicide bomber.
The bomber had targeted an American military patrol in the Daman district but detonated prematurely — killing only himself and the boy and wounding two American soldiers, said Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor, who said no condolences had yet been received from Kabul.
The disparity in the Afghan president’s reaction has been rued by American officials here, but little commented upon, to avoid a messy diplomatic squabble in an already troubled alliance. Now it has started to draw criticism among many Afghans, who complain that their president has been looking for excuses to besmirch the Americans and delay signing a vitally important security deal with them, while overlooking equally serious or even worse abuses attributed to the Taliban.
In short, many Afghans have begun asking, Who exactly are our enemies here? The Americans, who underwrite our government and military but now say they will be forced to withdraw in 2015 without a security deal? Or the Taliban, who have a history of killing officials even remotely connected with the government — a policy that has apparently begun to claim the lives even of some independent relief workers?
That unease has spread throughout governing circles, and several prominent officials have said that a meeting of the president’s cabinet last Monday was dominated by ministers who tried to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement promptly, as his own handpicked loya jirga, or grand council, also urged him to do on Nov. 24.
“We were so shocked by the president’s decision on postponing the signing of the B.S.A.,” one high-ranking official said, on the condition of anonymity to preserve his job. “I think most of his advisers and members of his cabinet disagree with the president on the B.S.A. issue. They all want it to be signed.”
Atiqullah Baryalai, a former deputy defense minister in the Karzai government, said, “His entire cabinet is against him on this.”
“The only ones with him are his spokesman and a few in his inner circle like Khurram,” he added, referring to Mr. Karzai’s chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram. A member of the hard-line and conservative Hizb-i-Islami political party, Mr. Khurram since 2012 has been in control of the president’s news media message, persuading Mr. Karzai to appoint a Khurram ally, Aimal Faizi, as spokesman and wresting control of the Government Media and Information Center from its American-mentored staff.
At the president’s cabinet meeting last Monday, Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal went through a detailed analysis of what Afghanistan had to lose financially.
“We need international support,” Mr. Zakhilwal said he reminded the cabinet. “Without that, we would not have been here. Our security, every element of government development, depends on it.”
Mr. Zakhilwal has a close relationship with Mr. Karzai and is also well regarded by the Americans.
After the cabinet session, Mr. Zakhilwal gave a series of interviews suggesting that Mr. Karzai was moderating the demands he had made before he would agree to sign the deal, dropping his insistence on a politically difficult release of Afghan prisoners from the American base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and accepting United States assurances that it would not interfere in next year’s Afghan presidential elections.
That left only the president’s insistence that raids on Afghan homes had to stop immediately (instead of in 2015, as provided in the security agreement) and that the Americans should make some initial steps to try to restart peace talks with the Taliban.
“These are conditions that are doable,” Mr. Zakhilwal said in an interview. “These things could be done very quickly.”
He predicted that the security agreement could be signed within two or three weeks, if there was proof that home raids had really stopped and some concrete overtures toward peace talks were made. “The president absolutely has no intention of delaying this thing,” Mr. Zakhilwal said.
Mr. Faizi, the spokesman, said he had made similar assurances in an interview with 1TV, an Afghan station.
Then the drone attack in Helmand took place on Thursday.
Asked on Friday about Mr. Zakhilwal’s assurances, Mr. Faizi was dismissive. In an email response to questions, he said of Mr. Zakhilwal: “His opinion is based on what I said two days ago to 1TV in an interview, which was the case. But yesterday’s incident in Helmand has damaged the whole atmosphere.”
“President Obama assured President Karzai that the U.S. will ‘make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, JUST AS WE DO FOR OUR OWN CITIZENS,’ ” he said, quoting from a letter that Mr. Obama sent Mr. Karzai, to which Mr. Faizi added his own emphasis. “That is how the U.S. respects the sanctity and dignity of homes in the U.S., bombing a residence for an individual?”
The Taliban for years have been killing far more civilians than the coalition has; the latest United Nations report on the subject says three-fourths of the 1,038 civilian fatalities between January and July this year were by the Taliban, and less than one-tenth of them by the Americans and their coalition partners.
“What does this mean, when every time he says nothing about the Taliban but always is raising questions about the Americans?” Mr. Baryalai asked. “I think Karzai is sending a message to the Taliban, that he really doesn’t want a security agreement with the Americans.”
Most of Mr. Karzai’s American allies, for all the bruising they have taken from him in public lately, would probably not go that far. But, as one Western diplomat warned, noting how weak public support was in the United States for a continued mission in Afghanistan: “Mr. Karzai should be careful what he wishes for.”
Alissa J. Rubin and Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
India's Mars mission spacecraft leaves Earth orbit
All systems functioning normally as rockets fire Mangalyaan vessel out of orbit, says India launch control
Associated Press in New Delhi
theguardian.com, Sunday 1 December 2013 10.46 GMT
India's Mars orbiter mission has left Earth's orbit after performing a manoeuvre to put it on its way to orbit the red planet.
The spacecraft fired its main engine for more than 20 minutes to reach the correct velocity to leave the Earth's orbit, the Bangalore-based Indian Space Research Organisation said. It said that all systems on board the spacecraft were performing normally.
India launched its first spacecraft bound for Mars on 5 November, a complex mission that it hopes will demonstrate and advance technologies for space travel.
The 1.3-tonne orbiter Mangalyaan, which means "Mars craft" in Hindi, must travel 485m miles over 300 days to reach an orbit around Mars next September.
If the mission is successful, India will become the fourth space programme to visit the red planet after the Soviet Union, the US and Europe.
Some have questioned the price tag for a country of 1.2 billion people still dealing with widespread hunger and poverty. But the government defended the Mars mission, and its $1bn space programme in general, by noting its importance in providing hi-tech jobs for scientists and engineers and practical applications in solving problems on Earth.
Decades of space research have allowed India to develop satellite, communications and remote sensing technologies that are helping to solve everyday problems at home, from forecasting where fish can be caught by fishermen to predicting storms and floods.
The orbiter will gather images and data that will help in determining how Martian weather systems work and what happened to the large quantities of water that may have once existed on Mars.
Experts say the data will improve understanding about how planets form, what conditions might make life possible and where else in the universe it might exist.
The orbiter is expected to have at least six months to investigate the planet's landscape and atmosphere. At its closest point, it will be 227 miles from the planet's surface, and its furthest point will be nearly 50,000 miles away.
November 30, 2013
Indian Editor Is Arrested in Assault of Employee
By HARI KUMAR
NEW DELHI — A crusading editor revered in India’s liberal circles has been arrested in connection with the sexual assault of a young employee at his magazine, raising the stakes in a case that has riveted India’s political and journalistic classes.
The editor, Tarun Tejpal, has denied any wrongdoing in two episodes that occurred in a hotel elevator at an annual intellectual symposium held by his magazine, Tehelka. Mr. Tejpal made written apologies to the young woman after she complained to her manager at the magazine, evidently hoping it would be possible to avoid a criminal case.
But the police in the coastal state of Goa, where the episodes occurred, reached Mr. Tejpal’s home in Delhi on Friday, and on Saturday a district court rejected a petition by his legal team for anticipatory bail, paving the way for his arrest. The public prosecutor in the case, Saresh Lotlikar, said Mr. Tejpal could not be properly interrogated unless he was in custody.
“The accused has been changing colors like a chameleon through different statements,” Mr. Lotlikar said, according to The Times of India.
If convicted, Mr. Tejpal faces a maximum of 10 years in jail. His lawyer Geeta Luthra emerged from court late Saturday, saying that he “has already joined the investigation” and plans to cooperate.
Almost two weeks ago the young woman, who has not been identified, in accordance with Indian law, approached Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, with allegations that Mr. Tejpal had assaulted her twice, at one point removing her underwear despite her protestations and manually penetrating her.
Ms. Chaudhury told staff members that there had been “an untoward incident” and that Mr. Tejpal had apologized and would step down for six months.
This seeming attempt to treat the case as an internal matter infuriated many journalists and activists, who are highly sensitized to the issue of sexual violence nearly a year after a gang rape that killed a 23-year-old student in Delhi.
After weathering widespread criticism, Ms. Chaudhury stepped down Thursday, saying in a letter that she did not want questions about her actions to “tarnish the image of Tehelka.”
The case has taken on strong political overtones, in part because Mr. Tejpal and his magazine have carried out investigations and sting operations that damaged Hindu nationalist figures and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
As Mr. Tejpal left the airport terminal in Goa’s capital city on Friday evening, he was greeted by a group of protesters from the opposition party, waving black flags and chanting slogans. A party activist also defaced Ms. Chaudhury’s home late on Thursday, spattering black paint outside it and painting the word “accused” beside her gate.
Mr. Tejpal has said the investigation, initiated by the Goa government rather than the victim, is being driven by his ideological opponents at the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In a bail plea, his legal team described him as “a foremost critic of right-wing majoritarian politics in the country” and said the inquiry was “being used to satisfy the longstanding grudge of the political executive against the works and ideological stand of the present applicant.”
His accuser responded angrily in a letter published on Friday. She said suggestions that partisan politics was behind her complaint were “the latest depressing indications that sections of our public discourse are unwilling to acknowledge that women are capable to making decisions about themselves for themselves.”
“It is not the victim that categorizes crime: it is the law,” the letter said. “And in this case, the law is clear: What Mr. Tejpal did to me falls within the legal definition of rape.”
She went on to say that by making a public complaint about the episodes, she had lost her job and “opened myself to personal slanderous attack.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting.
Thailand clashes: PM forced to flee as violent demonstrations escalate
Fighting between supporters and opponents of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra turns deadly in Bangkok
Staff and agencies in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Sunday 1 December 2013 05.48 GMT
A Thai government supporter was shot and killed early on Sunday at protests in Bangkok, raising the death toll to two as protesters invaded a police compound and forced the evacuation of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to a secret location.
Some reports said anti-government demonstrators had seized control of the broadcaster Thai PBS.
Police backed up by the military were attempting to protect government buildings amid the deadly street clashes between supporters and opponents of Yingluck and her billionaire brother, the ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Anti-government protesters on Sunday broke into the compound of a police sports club where the prime minister had been during the morning but she was able to leave the premises and went to an undisclosed location, an aide said.
In another area of the city police fired teargas at protesters near Government House, where Yingluck's office is located, a Reuters witness said.
On Sunday about 70,000 government supporters gathered near a sports stadium and by morning the surrounding streets were littered with broken glass and rocks from the unrest, a Reuters witness said.
Seventeen battalions of 150 soldiers each, along with 180 military police, all unarmed, were called in to boost security ahead of a deadline the same day set by demonstrators for the ousting of the government.
Fighting had intensified on Saturday after anti-government protesters attacked a bus they believed was full of government supporters. They also smashed the windshield of a taxi carrying people wearing red shirts, a pro-government symbol, and beat two people, one unconscious, police and witnesses said.
As darkness fell, gunfire erupted outside the sports stadium in Bangkok's Ramkamhaeng area, where the 70,000 backers of Yingluck and Thaksin had gathered for a rally in a show of support after a week of anti-government protests.
Around 8pm a gunman fired into Ramkamhaeng University, where hundreds of anti-government protesters had retreated after trying to block people from entering the stadium, witnesses said. One person was killed. It was not known who fired the shots.
Fighting raged in the area through the night. At around 2am, Kittisak Srisunthorn, 36, said he was shot in the arm while sitting with a group of red shirt guards. "I heard homemade bombs, gunshots. People started to throw rocks and glass bottles. There were around one hundred people gathered. I didn't see any police," Kittisak told Reuters.
Thousands of red shirts have begun to return by bus to their homes in northern Thailand but their departure is unlikely to defuse Thailand's worst political crisis since April-May 2010, a period of unrest that ended with a military crackdown. In all 91 people were killed, mostly Thaksin supporters.
Yingluck, who won a 2011 election by a landslide to become Thailand's first female prime minister, has called on the protesters to clear the streets and enter into talks to avoid confrontation, saying Thailand's economy was at risk after demonstrators occupied the finance ministry on Monday.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has told demonstrators laws must be broken to achieve their goals and has urged them to surround the headquarters of the national and city police, ministries and the prime minister's office at Government House. Shopping malls shut as Bangkok braced for violence on Sunday.
China, Japan and America
Face-off: China’s new air-defence zone suggests a worrying new approach in the region
Nov 30th 2013
THE announcement by a Chinese military spokesman on November 23rd sounded bureaucratic: any aircraft flying through the newly designated Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea must notify Chinese authorities in advance and follow instructions from its air-traffic controllers. America’s response was rapid. On November 26th Barack Obama sent two B-52 bombers to fly through the new zone without notifying China (see article). This face-off marks the most worrying strategic escalation between the two countries since 1996, when China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, ordered a number of exclusion zones for missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, leading America to send two aircraft-carriers there.
Plenty of countries establish zones in which they require aircraft to identify themselves, but they tend not to be over other countries’ territory. The Chinese ADIZ overlaps with Japan’s own air-defence zone (see map). It also includes some specks of rock that Japan administers and calls the Senkaku islands (and which China claims and calls the Diaoyus), as well as a South Korean reef, known as Ieodo. The move is clearly designed to bolster China’s claims (see article). On November 28th Japan and South Korea sent aircraft into the zone.
Growing economic power is bound to go hand-in-hand with growing regional assertiveness. That is fine, so long as the behaviour of the rising power remains within international norms. In this case, however, China’s does not; and America, which has guaranteed free navigation of the seas and skies of East Asia for 60 years, is right to make that clear.
How worrying China’s move is depends partly on the thinking behind it. It may be that, like a teenager on a growth spurt who doesn’t know his own strength, China has underestimated the impact of its actions. The claim that America’s bombers had skirted the edge of the ADIZ was gawkily embarrassing. But teenagers who do not realise the consequences of their actions often cause trouble: China has set up a casus belli with its neighbours and America for generations to come.
It would thus be much more worrying if the provocation was deliberate. The “Chinese dream” of Xi Jinping, the new president, is a mixture of economic reform and strident nationalism. The announcement of the ADIZ came shortly after a party plenum at which Mr Xi announced a string of commendably radical domestic reforms. The new zone will appeal to the nationalist camp, which wields huge power, particularly in the armed forces. It also helps defend Mr Xi against any suggestions that he is a westernising liberal.
If this is Mr Xi’s game, it is a dangerous one. East Asia has never before had a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time. China dominated the region from the mists of history until the 1850s, when the West’s arrival spurred Japan to modernise while China tried to resist the foreigners’ influence. China is eager to re-establish dominance over the region. Bitterness at the memory of the barbaric Japanese occupation in the second world war sharpens this desire. It is this possibility of a clash between a rising and an established power that lies behind the oft-used parallel between contemporary East Asia and early 20th-century Europe, in which the Senkakus play the role of Sarajevo.
Seas of troubles
Tensions are not at that level. Japan’s constitution bans it from any military aggression and China normally goes to great lengths to stress that its rise—unlike that of Japan in the 1920s and 1930s—will be peaceful. But the neighbours are nervous, especially as the establishment of the ADIZ appears to match Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
Chinese maps show what is known as the “nine-dash line” encompassing all the South China Sea. In the wake of the global financial crisis, perhaps believing its own narrative of Chinese rise and American decline, it began to overreach in its dealings with its neighbours. It sent ships to disputed reefs, pressed foreign oil companies to halt exploration and harassed American and Vietnamese naval vessels in the South China Sea. These actions brought a swift rebuke from America’s then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and China appeared to back off and return to its regional charm offensive. Some observers say that the government is using the ADIZ to establish a nine-dash line covering the East China Sea as well. They fear China’s next move will be to declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea, to assert control over both the sea and the air throughout the region.
Whether or not China has such specific ambitions, the ADIZ clearly suggests that China does not accept the status quo in the region and wants to change it. Any Chinese leader now has an excuse for going after Japanese planes. Chinese ships are already ignoring Japanese demands not to enter the waters surrounding the disputed islands.
What can be done? Next week Joe Biden, America’s vice-president, arrives in China. The timing may be uncomfortable, but it is fortuitous. Mr Biden and Mr Xi know each other well: before Mr Xi became president, he spent five days in America at Mr Biden’s invitation. Mr Biden is also going to South Korea and Japan.
America’s “pivot” towards Asia is not taken very seriously there: Mr Obama is seen as distracted by his domestic problems. Mr Biden could usefully make clear America’s commitment to guaranteeing freedom of navigation in the region. Japan and South Korea, who squabble over petty issues, need to be told to get over their differences. As for China, it needs to behave like a responsible world power, not a troublemaker willing to sacrifice 60 years of peace in north-east Asia to score some points by grabbing a few windswept rocks. It should accept Japan’s suggestion of a military hotline, similar to the one that is already established between Beijing and Washington.
The region must work harder to build some kind of architecture where regional powers can discuss security. If such a framework had existed in Europe in 1914, things might have turned out differently.
American and Delta notify China of flights through disputed zone
Airlines confirm compliance with government advice a day after China scrambles jets in answer to US and Japanese planes
Reuters in New York and Washington
theguardian.com, Saturday 30 November 2013 20.34 GMT
Two of the biggest US airlines, American and Delta, have confirmed that they have notified Chinese authorities of flight plans when travelling through an air-defence zone Beijing has declared over the East China Sea, in line with US government advice.
The US said on Friday it expected US carriers to operate in line with so-called notices to airmen issued by foreign countries, although it added that the decision did "not indicate US government acceptance of China's requirements".
On Friday, China scrambled jets after two US spy planes and 10 Japanese aircraft, including F-15 fighters, entered the zone, China's state news agency Xinhua said. The jets were used for effective monitoring, it quoted air force spokesman Shen Jinke as saying. US officials said flights were "routinely" transiting the zone. Earlier in the week, the US flew two giant B52 bombers through the zone without informing Beijing.
"These flights are consistent with long standing and well known US freedom of navigation policies," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said. "I can confirm that the US has and will continue to operate in the area as normal."
A US defence official said routine operations included reconnaissance and surveillance flights.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Delta Airlines said it had been complying with Chinese requests for flight plans for the past week. American Airlines said it was also complying, but declined to say for how long it had done so.
Airline industry officials said the US government generally expects that US carriers operating internationally comply with notices issued by foreign countries. In contrast, two major airlines in Japan, ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines, have agreed with the Japanese government that they will fly through the zone without notifying China. Neither airline has experienced problems.
China published coordinates for the zone last weekend. The area, about two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom, covers a group of uninhabited islands at the centre of a bitter row between Beijing and Tokyo. The islands are called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan. Beijing wants all foreign aircraft passing through the zone – including passenger planes – to identify themselves to Chinese authorities.
An official of the US administration said China's action appeared to be a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea, which could "increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents". "We urge the Chinese to exercise caution and restraint, and we are consulting with Japan and other affected parties throughout the region," the official said.
US vice-president Joe Biden is due to visit China, Japan and South Korea next week, and will try to ease tensions over the issue, senior US officials said.
Ties between China and Japan have been strained for months. Mutual mistrust over military intentions and what China feels is Japan's lack of contrition over its brutal occupation of parts of China before and during the second world war have added to tension.
"It's important for both sides to take a calm approach and deal with the situation according to international norms," Japanese defence minister Itsunori Onodera told state broadcaster NHK on Saturday. Onodera said the Japanese military had not noted any Chinese aircraft in the zone.
Although Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, it recognises Tokyo's administrative control and says the US-Japan security pact applies to them.
Teargas, bombs and death on the streets as clashes over Bangladesh's elections grow
Political turmoil has paralysed Bangladesh's capital – and some fear top western firms will pull out of the garment industry
Jason Burke in Dhaka
theguardian.com, Saturday 30 November 2013 13.44 GMT
The workers return long after the sun has set. Some walk across the concrete bridge which is the only link between the slum and the old city of Dhaka, then head towards the tenements on the far side. Others simply step off the high embankment beside the stinking river and, leaving the orange glow of three flickering street lights, disappear into the slum's narrow lanes.
In one alley, behind a mosque and a carpenter's workshop, is a row of tin shacks which are home to about 200 people. As elsewhere across Kamrangir Char, one of the biggest and poorest slums in the world, most of the men here work on construction sites or pedalling rickshaws. Women are employed as domestic staff for the city's growing middle class or, increasingly, in the booming garment industry which supplies tens of millions of cheap shirts, trousers, sweaters and socks to high street retailers in the west.
Sitting on a plastic chair outside his shack, Mohammed Jahangir is, like many of the 160 million inhabitants of Bangladesh this weekend, angered by the unstable south Asian nation's politicians. For most of last week Dhaka was paralysed by violent protests launched by the opposition party to mark its hostility to the current government's plan to hold an election in January without installing a neutral caretaker administration first. More than 20 people died as activists burned buses and threw makeshift bombs at police, who replied with teargas and live rounds. Most casualties were bystanders, caught in the crossfire.
"This is how our country is. This is how our leaders are. I am a registered voter, but I am not going to vote," Jahangir, a mason, says. "A poor man's vote never makes any difference."
His wife recently lost her 4,000 taka (£31) per month job as a timekeeper at a garments factory making trousers for a well-known western brand. Jahangir blames a downturn in orders from the west following the collapse in April of a huge complex in the north-west of Dhaka housing more than 3,000 garment workers. More than 1,100 were killed in the worst industrial accident for a decade. Many worry that the industry will now move elsewhere, worried in case more tragedies further tarnish carefully marketed brands.
"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer or they die. That's how it is here," Jahangir, 35, says.
More than four million people in Bangladesh work in the garment industry and economists estimate that at least as many again owe their jobs to the demand it creates. Four-fifths of exports from Bangladesh are garments. "If there is a pullout [of western buyers], it will be a catastrophe for Dhaka. It is not just a single-industry-based city. It is a single-industry-based country," said Professor Nazrul Islam, a local analyst.
In fact, the three months following the collapse saw Bangladesh garment exports increasing, not diminishing, and though a handful of brands have pulled out, more than 100 others have signed legally binding agreements committing them to the country for at least five more years. Primark, H&M and others all insist their commitment to Bangladesh is long-term. Srinivas Reddy, local director for the International Labour Organisation, believes the industry has reached "a turning point".
One reason brands are prepared to stay in Bangladesh and pay considerable sums to upgrade factories there is that the country plays a key role in their supply chains, with an almost unique capacity to deliver vast quantities of clothes quickly and cheaply. The Observer watched one woman in a Dhaka factory that produces clothes for a European retailer as she sewed buttons on to shirts at a rate of 600 an hour. One of 1,800 workers on the production line, she works six 10-hour days a week.
But western buyers are deeply concerned by the political turmoil. Though, by mutual agreement, the garment sector is spared the shutdowns that have brought Dhaka and other cities to a halt in recent months, the roads are not. Workers struggle to get to their jobs with transport paralysed and violent clashes on the streets. Trucks carrying garments from the big production zones around Dhaka are often targeted as they make their way down to the port at Chittagong for shipping to Europe. In the first nine months of 2013, 1,000 trucks were set alight along the route. "One truck and its load is a lot of money. So we are very scared about what is going to happen. The buyer doesn't want [their order] even a week late," said Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group.
There is little chance of the violence subsiding in the short term. Since it gained independence from Pakistan in a civil war in 1971, politics in Bangladesh has been turbulent. In recent decades it has been dominated by the battle between Sheikh Hasina, daughter of civilian independence leader and "father of the nation" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda Zia, widow of the military independence leader Ziaur Rahman. Both men were assassinated.
Hasina's Awami League won power in polls held in 2008, following a period of military-backed government. After years of relative calm, chaos returned to the streets this year with prolonged bouts of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. Many have been organised by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) and its current allies, the Islamist organisation Jamaat-e-Islami. Others have involved a movement of religious conservatives called Hefezat-e-Islam.
Senior Awami League officials and some analysts speak of a "contest for the soul of Bangladesh". One said last week: "This has been a country of practising Muslims who are tolerant and pluralistic with a state that is fundamentally secular. Now that is threatened by these conservatives."
The BNP, however, rejects the charge. "If you let [the religious conservatives] loose on the streets, they will create mayhem. It is better to bring them inside. The real problem is corruption," said Shamsher Chowdhury, the party's vice-chairman.
The opposition may boycott the polls in January. The Awami League and Hasina have said they are determined to hold the election whatever the level of chaos. Further demonstrations are planned for today and later this week.
Ahsan Mansur, director of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, said: "A compromise looks unlikely. I really can't see how or why. The Awami League thinks that if there is a fair election it will be out of power. The BNP think that, if there isn't a fair election, they will be out of power … The longer the hostilities continue, the more bloody and bitter the aftermath."
The violence on the streets echoes only distantly within Kamrangir Char's labyrinth of lanes. Only a mile or so from the site of bomb blasts, mechanics batter rusty metal scraps back into shape in a thousand dim workshops, porters push carts with vegetables, and children play badminton amid clouds of acrid smoke from the burning garbage by the riverside.
But for one community the politics have a direct impact. Negotiations are still continuing between garment factory owners, brands and unions over how much compensation will be paid to the survivors of the collapse in April and relatives of the dead. Campaigners have told the country's high court that they should receive 2,800,000 taka (£22,000) under international laws instead of the local legal minimum of 100,000 taka (£787) some factory owners have suggested.
A decision was unlikely until the instability subsided, said Jyotirmoy Barua, a lawyer representing the survivors and the bereaved. "We are waiting to get that [level of compensation] approved by the courts. But if anything goes on politically the high court doesn't sit, so we have to wait until everything in Bangladesh settles down."
Nobody believes that will be soon.
Arrests at West Papua flag-raising
Three organisers taken into custody in Port Morseby, with government accused of bowing to Indonesian pressre
theguardian.com, Sunday 1 December 2013 07.02 GMT
Three organisers of a pro-West Papua rally in Port Moresby have been taken into custody, with the governor of the Papua New Guinean capital accusing the country's government of bowing to pressure from neighbour Indonesia.
The PNG nationals Fred Mambrasar, Tony Fofoe and Patrick Kaiku said they were interviewed by police on Sunday afternoon after taking part in a march to mark the West Papuan national day of 1 December. The event culminated in the raising of the banned West Papuan morning star flag.
Powes Parkop, the Port Moresby governor, told Guardian Australia the three had been targeted "due to undue pressure from the Indonesian government". West Papua is a province of Indonesia but there is an independence movement that does not recognise the government in Jakarta.
"Clearly Indonesia has put pressure on the [PNG] government but we are an independent nation. Our constitution allows us freedom of expression and assembly. They will not intimidate us any more," Parkop said.
Mambrasar told Guardian Australia he expected they would be charged with unlawful assembly despite the event being endorsed and approved by the municipal government, led by Parkop.
At the rally Parkop addressed the crowd of approximately 1,000. "We have broken the silence. We won't be intimidated any more. I congratulate you all for turning up," he said.
"This is our ancestral land. The morning star flag deserves to be raised across our ancestral land. This will become a worldwide movement that cannot be stopped. I want to tell the Indonesian government that their claim to West Papua is based on fraud and lies."
Earlier the West Papuan activist Benny Wenda and the Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who attended the event, told Guardian Australia they had been threatened with arrest and deportation if they took part in "political activities" while in PNG on visitor visas.
Parkop said he personally intervened to make sure they were not arrested. "I have advised [PNG] immigration that Benny and Jennifer are here at my invitation," he said.
Guardian Australia sought comment from the PNG prime minister, Peter O'Neill.
Colombian FARC rebels say they taxed coca growers
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 29, 2013 19:40 EST
Colombia’s FARC rebels acknowledged Friday that they collected taxes from coca cultivators but rejected accusations of “narco-terrorism.”
“We saw ourselves forced to set up a system of fiscal contributions and transaction regulations with the farmers, taking into consideration their rights and protecting them from abuse from intermediaries and drug traffickers,” they said in a statement.
The remarks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia came on the second day of a renewed round of peace talks with the government aimed at ending their near 50-year conflict.
Considered Latin America’s longest-running insurgency, it has left hundreds of thousands of dead and displaced more than 4.5 million people.
Currently on the agenda at the talks, which began more than a year ago and are being held in the Cuban capital Havana, is ending drug trafficking in the country.
The discussions resumed Thursday after a three week break amid differences over coca cultivation, blamed by political leaders for drug-linked violence and killings.
“We want a country without cocaine but we are aware that this depends in particular on rules imposed at a global level by all countries that, in one way or another, are implicated,” said the statement read to reporters by chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez.
“Instead of directly attacking the structural causes of coca cultivation, the Colombian government has completely aligned itself with the imperialist strategy of the United States and the ‘war on drugs,’” he added.
The FARC also rejected allegations they were “narco-guerrillas” and pursued “narco-terrorism” by claiming these accusations came about due to “a need by the right to find a new enemy after the disappearance of the Soviet bloc.”
“At first, there was talk of ‘narco-guerrillas’ and then, once the terrorist discourse had established itself, the term ‘narco-terrorism’ emerged,” the FARC said.
The FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group, has 7,000 to 8,000 fighters.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
November 30, 2013
Honduras Election Results Challenged
By NICHOLAS PHILLIPS and ELISABETH MALKIN
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Xiomara Castro, the left-wing presidential candidate in last week’s elections, has rejected the official results and called on her supporters to march in the streets, adding new uncertainty to the country’s already polarized politics.
Calling the results “a fraud of incalculable proportions,” Ms. Castro said late Friday that her party, Libre, would not recognize the new government, which she described as “illegitimate.” She demanded a vote-by-vote recount from all 16,135 polling places in the election of last Sunday.
Libre’s challenge to the official results could lead to weeks of political unrest in this small country, where a 2009 coup ousted Ms. Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya. Many here and abroad hoped that the election would help to mend the rifts opened by the coup by bringing Mr. Zelaya’s supporters into the electoral process.
But Ms. Castro, in her first public appearance since election night, appeared to be ready for a protracted challenge.
Addressing “our people,” “our youth,” “our workers” and “businesspeople,” she said at a news conference, “I call on you to unite to defend our proposal.” She added: “This fight has just begun. They will never defeat us.”
With votes from about 95 percent of the polling places counted Saturday, the candidate of the conservative National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, had more than 36 percent of the total, a margin of almost eight percentage points over Ms. Castro.
But at the news conference on Friday, Ricci Moncada, Libre’s secretary for electoral affairs, read a list of alleged violations. She argued that the result for thousands of tally sheets did not correspond with the electronic results reported by the electoral tribunal.
Results from 2,805 of the polling places that could not be scanned properly had not been counted correctly, she said, and those votes would tip the results to Libre. She asked the attorney general to open an investigation.
The voting was monitored by a number of international organizations, including the European Union and the Organization of American States. Those observer missions expressed concern about the voter rolls and the transparency of campaign financing in what the European Union called a “long, costly and unequal” campaign, but concluded that the results were reasonably transparent.
Libre has not challenged the results of elections for Congress and for mayors. According to the official results, Libre will be the second- largest party in Congress after the National Party.
The remaining votes were divided among six other parties, with the traditional Liberal Party in third place and the new Anti-Corruption Party in fourth. That party’s candidate, Salvador Nasralla, who won more than 13 percent of the vote, has also contested the results.
Nicholas Phillips reported from Tegucigalpa, and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City.
November 30, 2013
A Rustic Paradise, Open for Development
By DAMIEN CAVE
GUADALUPE VALLEY, Mexico — The doors were locked. The lights were out. When Hugo D’Acosta and 60 of his neighbors reached Ensenada City Hall after being tipped off to a nighttime vote that would open their beloved wine region to Florida-style housing and golf courses, they had to shout just to get in.
But it was no use: In a fourth-floor meeting room, lawmakers quickly voted to permit urban and suburban development in the agricultural heart of northwestern Mexico, the Guadalupe Valley, despite angry opposition from those who have spent decades making it an international destination for wine, food and quiet.
“It will destroy everything,” said Mr. D’Acosta, 55, one of the valley’s premier winemakers. “We can put up plastic grapes to make it look pretty, but that’s it.”
Municipal council members argue that the new zoning regulations will preserve the valley and increase property values, spreading out the benefits of a boom. But the new rules subvert the state-approved regional plan they were supposed to clarify by allowing up to 10 times as much housing density while significantly weakening public oversight. Independent scientists say the arid valley simply cannot sustain the intensified development, creating what many here see as a threat to a national treasure and a vital test of Mexico’s young democracy.
The Guadalupe Valley is Mexico’s Tuscany. The vast majority of Mexico’s increasingly popular wine comes from vineyards here, along a narrow, 14-mile stretch of land with the warm days and cold nights that vintners crave. Over the past five years, as interest in the area has grown, dozens of new wineries, along with small hotels and award-winning restaurants, have popped up between the softly sloping mountains. Yet, for now at least, it is still much as it has always been: a ribbon of rustic beauty where most of the roads are dirt and the nights are brightened by shimmering stars.
Critics say the new rules, which apply to the entire wine region north of the city of Ensenada, could destroy all that. And it could happen quickly. Carlos Lagos, a major developer with close financial and personal ties to Ensenada officials, has already published plans for a 996-acre development, Rancho Olivares, which includes a nine-hole golf course, a spa, pools and more than 400 new homes.
Mr. D’Acosta and many others believe they are up against a familiar brand of Mexican corruption, especially with the local government again controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which led (and pilfered) Mexico for 71 years.
This time, though, a savvy resistance coalition has begun to emerge. On Monday, a little over a week after winemakers canceled the popular harvest festival in protest, about 300 supporters marched to City Hall. On Tuesday, at a public forum in a cramped university conference room in Ensenada, state officials, scientists and the municipality’s own planning experts all criticized the new rules.
“The valley should continue to be what it is now, an agricultural area, for wine and food and beautiful scenery,” said Javier Sandoval, director of urban planning at the Municipal Institute of Investigation and Planning, which advises the local government on development.
After comparing the new regulations with the regional program, he said the vote amounted to a breakdown in land management and procedure. “Technical expertise has been de-linked from government decisions,” he said.
Many longtime residents and new arrivals favor growth on a small scale. R. P. McCabe, an American novelist building a winery on a patch of hillside across from where Rancho Olivares would be, said he started coming here years ago because it reminded him of the Napa Valley of his youth — family-oriented, friendly. “I don’t want to see something rural, traditional and historic be taken away,” he said.
His neighbors to the north, Hector Perez, 40, who is building a winery, and south, Natalia Badán, 60, who grew up on a 12-acre farm that now produces wine and organic produce, said the Lagos development would hurt the entire valley. Ms. Badán called the new zoning decision “an aggression.”
“It’s opportunism,” she said. “They changed the rules in a dirty, disagreeable way to favor development that has nothing to do with what we’ve been working on.”
Mr. Lagos’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment.
By Damien Cave
Natalia Badán, the owner of Mogor Badán, a small winery and vineyard in Baja California, describes how new land-use rules could destroy Mexico’s premier wine region.
The regulations were supposed to be the final step of an 18-year process that involved scientific studies, public hearings and a published program for growth that prioritized agriculture and sustainability. Many features of the plan were innovative — it required that homes not be built in a straight line, for example — and a wide range of stakeholders were to be involved in major decisions.
Now, many of those groups, including an pro-winery association, have been cut from the process, according to Mr. Sandoval. The new rules also eliminate requirements for impact studies and legalize anything already built, and possibly anything built up to 360 days after the regulations are published, creating what Mr. D’Acosta described as an amnesty for anything-goes construction.
“It’s like inviting Mickey Mouse to the countryside,” he said, allowing Disney-style artifice to crowd out the authentic.
But the increase in density is the primary concern. “Urban development here will be fatal for the wine industry, completely fatal,” said Raúl Canino Herrera, a water treatment expert at the Autonomous University of Baja California.
It is not just a matter of limited water supply, he said; in the small towns here where most farm workers live, water flows only a few hours a day, often at a trickle. It is also a matter of quality. “Everything you use at home — detergents, chemicals — ends up in the water,” he said. “How are they going to make sure it stays clean?”
Raymundo de la Mora, a council member who voted for the new rules, said that water accessibility would still be taken into account, suggesting that water could be brought in. He did not deny that some officials would benefit from opening the area to more development, through property holdings or connections to developers, but he said poor landowners would be the main beneficiaries because the new regulations clarify what can be built. “We have given everyone certainty,” he said, adding that the regulations would preserve the valley’s beauty by codifying its growth.
“Until now, we didn’t have regulations that guaranteed organized growth and, above all, that conserve the Guadalupe Valley as part of the heritage of all Mexicans,” he said. “That is our priority.”
By Damien Cave
Raymundo de la Mora, a member of the Ensenada City Council who leads the commission for governing and legislation, defends the vote to increase development in the Guadalupe Valley.
Some poorer residents said that if welcoming development would mean more jobs, they were for it. Others, like Clemente Rodriguez, 58, a sod farmer watering his grass on Wednesday morning, said subdivisions like the one planned by Mr. Lagos probably would not be as bad as critics feared.
“The people complaining aren’t even from here,” he said. “They’re from France, England or wherever.”
But many of his Mexican neighbors said they expected the worst. The website for Rancho Olivares proclaims that it will be what critics fear: “a catalyst for unprecedented change.” And like Mr. D’Acosta and Ms. Badán, many residents of all ages and classes said they worried that Mr. Lagos and others with money and connections would trample anyone whose needs did not align with their vision of a more crowded, real-estate-driven valley.
“This is the reality,” said Jose Ramirez, 79, a retired farmer. “If you’re powerful and you come here and there is only one glass of water, you’re going to get it, and I’ll get nothing.”
Venezuela’s Maduro threatens shopkeepers in ongoing ‘economic war’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 29, 2013 22:05 EST
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro vowed Friday to arrest shopkeepers who defy government price controls, the latest salvo in a populist “economic war” ahead of key municipal elections.
Maduro delivered the warning in a nationally televised address that laid the ground for tougher enforcement of a three-week-old crackdown on actions seen as fueling Venezuela’s soaring inflation.
He urged authorities who find retail prices that have been raised “to act with all the severity of the law and, because they are crimes in flagrante, to proceed immediately to detain those responsible.”
Using new powers to rule by decree, the socialist leader also ordered lower rents for commercial spaces and barred property owners from asking for payments in foreign currency.
“We are going all out. We are taking measures with even more authority,” he said.
The latest declarations came with Maduro facing a key test of political strength on December 8, when municipal elections will take place in the midst of a burgeoning economic crisis.
It will be the first elections since Maduro succeeded his political mentor, late leader Hugo Chavez, in April elections whose tight results the opposition has refused to recognize.
Inflation is running at 54 percent a year, shortages of basic goods are widespread despite the country’s oil wealth and a hard currency crunch wreaking havoc on the import-dependent domestic economy.
Earlier this month, Maduro fired what he called his first salvo in an “economic war against the bourgeoisie and imperialism,” the latter a reference to the United States or US interests.
He ordered home appliance stores to slash prices and deployed National Guard troops to enforce the measure.
This unleashed a tumultuous early start to the Christmas shopping season with Venezuelans mobbing consumer electronic stores for windfall bargains.
The National Assembly then granted Maduro special decree-making powers, which he immediately used to impose price controls and cap profit margins at 30 percent.
Maduro was scheduled to hold a working meeting later Friday at the presidential Miraflores Palace that was expected to produce his next set of economic initiatives.
The federation of commerce chambers Fedecamaras, which represents private business and is frequently at odds with Maduro, urged him to stimulate production by guaranteeing respect for private property and access to hard currency.
Critics have blamed the government’s strict currency controls for exacerbating Venezuela’s price distortion and fueling a black market for dollars.
Fedecamaras president Jorge Roig said more than 200,000 businesses have had to shut their doors in the past decade.
He complained that only two percent of companies are receiving dollars at a preferential official rate of 6.3 bolivars to the US currency, though the government insists that greenbacks are being distributed to businesses.
“We need measures that are not improvised, which encourage production in Venezuela, which don’t think only in the short-term,” Roig said Thursday.
“We need measures that are part of a discussion with all businesses.”
Maduro countered that Fedecamaras was a “coup-monger,” recalling that the business group had backed Chavez’s ouster in a short-lived 2002 coup.
“We have forced them to get out of their lair,” he said. “It’s the same Fedecamaras… which headed the coup d’etat against comandante Hugo Chavez in April 2002.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]