December 17, 2013
Uprooted in Central Africa, Too Terrified to Go Back
By CARLOTTA GALL
BANGUI, Central African Republic — The wounded man sat in an armchair in front of a shack on the edge of the airport runway, his arms and head heavily bandaged.
“I kept repeating, ‘I do not have weapons,’ ” he said. His attackers said nothing, he recalled: “It was only machete cuts.”
The man, Abdon Seredangaru, 25, a primary-school teacher, was one of the many hundreds attacked in three days of mass killings this month here in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. More than 450 people were massacred in the city, according to the United Nations, and 150 others nationwide. Hundreds more, like Mr. Seredangaru and his family, narrowly escaped death.
The family of eight is among the 40,000 people camped at Bangui’s airport, seeking safety alongside the French troops who have controlled it since their deployment last week to stem the country’s sectarian violence, which has alarmed officials around the world. The Africans live in the open on a road that runs beside the runway and have erected rough shelters where women cook on open charcoal fires.
People wander through the camp in a constant stream: women with children tied on their backs, teenagers carrying water, men fetching food and hawking wares.
The arrival of French troops, and a contingent of African Union troops airlifted in by the American military, has brought some stability, and everyday life is slowly returning to the capital. Crowds jostled at the banks downtown as women in colorful dresses and high heels turned up for work.
But for the people at the airport, there has been no easing of the fear. They are city residents who fled their neighborhoods and dare not go back, saying militia fighters remain there. A few had tried to return home but had been chased out again, bringing more people with them to the camp, said Lindis Hurum, a coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, the medical relief organization.
“They are urban people, they are qualified people — they don’t want to be here,” she said. “It is cold on the ground, they have no food, and their money is running out.”
“It is going to get worse here,” she added.
Next to Mr. Seredangaru sat his father, Maurice, 68, an upright man in a gray suit. On his lapel, he wore a badge that declared him the chief of his district. His bald head was patched with a white dressing.
“I dodged several machete blows,” he said. “They struck me on the head and across my fingers.”
Four men burst into their house on Dec. 7. The invaders were members of Seleka, the mostly Muslim rebel force that has controlled the country since overthrowing President François Bozizé in a coup in March. The rebels have become a law unto themselves, perpetrating massacres and looting across the country, forcing thousands of people from their homes.
Over the last few months, Christian militias called anti-Balaka, or anti-machete, have sprung up in the countryside in self-defense, though they have been accused of committing reprisal killings of their own. On Dec. 5, they tried to seize control of Bangui.
Townspeople woke to furious gunfire before dawn. Some even began celebrating in some neighborhoods when they heard that the anti-Balaka had taken the city. But the Seleka rebels were far better armed and repulsed the attackers within a couple of hours. They then went into the Christian neighborhoods to pursue suspected collaborators. They ended up killing anyone who dared to venture out, according to residents who managed to flee to the airport.
Hector Nguerepayo, 25, who was going to check on his aunt, was killed in the street, said his father, Simplice, a philosophy teacher who found him later in a city morgue. “We don’t know what happened,” Mr. Nguerepayo said, his face blank with shock and sleeplessness. “He was shot twice, in the chest and in the head.”
He left behind an 18-month-old son, and his wife was expecting another, Mr. Nguerepayo said. Another son stood silent beside him. “We are living here in the camp now. We cannot go home.”
The Seredangarus had thought of fleeing to the airport as many neighbors evacuated, but they were well known and respected in the neighborhood. “I thought we could stay,” Abdon Seredangaru said.
His father said friends and relatives had visited their home to check on them after the first bloodletting. That was enough to ignite suspicions among the Seleka, who were still jumpy and on a killing spree.
The rebels who attacked them demanded that they hand over the weapons and money they had received from the Bozizé government. When the two said they had no weapons, the conversation was over.
“He slashed me on the head with a machete,” the son said. “I put my arms up to cover my head. He cut me three or four times on the head, and twice on the hands. There was blood everywhere.”
One attacker beat him with a baseball bat, on his shoulders and arms. Then one moved in wielding the rebels’ favorite weapon, a curved sickle that they use for cutting throats and decapitating their victims. He sliced the younger Mr. Seredangaru across the back of the head, cutting him deep in the base of the skull. Mr. Seredangaru fell forward, unconscious.
The militia left, and his father bound his wounds and dragged him out of the house into the bush grass. There the father called for help on his cellphone.
Now they live in a small hut made from sticks and sacks on the edge of the runway. Gray military planes bank low overhead. “The calm has not returned,” the elder Mr. Seredangaru said. “Until they are disarmed, we cannot go back.”
“How long will we be here? That is a question mark,” his son said.
The Seleka rebels have been confined to barracks but not yet disarmed. Meanwhile, the anti-Balaka militias are camped a few miles beyond the city edges. They are far less well armed yet seem intent on pushing into the city.
Some of them mingled in the crowd at the airport camp. They looked like peasants, small and wiry, poorly dressed, and wore amulets tied across their bodies. They had no visible weapons. Just one man carried a quiver of steel-tipped arrows.
Some ventured into the city on Monday night and set up a barricade at an intersection. French troops chased them away shortly after dawn and had departed by the afternoon, leaving the intersection wide open again.
December 17, 2013
As Pressure Builds, Egypt’s Police Experience a New Feeling: Fear
By KAREEM FAHIM and MAYY EL SHEIKH
CAIRO — For six hours, heavily armed officers fired fusillades of buckshot and tear gas at students who were the latest front of anger toward Egypt’s military-backed rulers.
But as night fell and the students scattered last week, it was the police who seemed defeated, certain that the end of one protest simply marked a pause before the next. As two of the officers clad in black riot gear trudged away from the gates of Cairo University, one described the students as “bullies.”
“I’m not going back,” he told a friend.
Since the military ouster more than five months ago of President Mohamed Morsi, the interim leaders have leaned heavily on the police, sending them to stamp out dissent and stabilize the streets in a strategy that so far has come up empty.
Over the last three years of revolt, protesters have refused to be silenced, even when the authorities use deadly force.
And Egypt has also become far more dangerous for the authorities, with more than 150 police officers killed since mid-August alone. The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.
“Before, it was dramatic to lose an officer,” said one senior police official who serves in southern Egypt. Now, he said, “the likelihood has become normal.”
Between the attacks, including by armed jihadists, and the nonstop protests, the police, already poorly trained and equipped, have been stretched thin. On Thursday, at least one officer was killed and 20 were injured when a bomb detonated at a police camp in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, in the kind of attack that has become commonplace.
Officers have been pulled from their regular details to watch over demonstrations or secure suddenly vulnerable public buildings. They have also been called on to ensure compliance with a new law that criminalizes unauthorized gatherings — a law that the senior officer called “unenforceable.”
In a sign of the growing anger, hundreds of officers held a rare protest this month, the first by officers since the military takeover, demanding higher wages.
The new pressures on the police have served to highlight their abysmal reputation, which has long been haunted by allegations of corruption and torture. Complaints about police abuses helped fuel the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, but since then, none of Egypt’s leaders have made any serious effort to overhaul the department.
After the military takeover, the police boasted of a new era in their relationship with the public. The department’s failings persisted — and even grew worse — but the police won support from Egyptians weary from years of instability and crime.
There was little uproar, for instance, during the deadly crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s supporters, Islamists cast by officials as enemies of the state. But as other demonstrations flared, including by non-Islamist activists, police officials dismissed them as the work of conspirators, and spoke confidently about their ability to contain the unrest.
The students, though, have been harder to dismiss, and the forcible response to the protests has drawn more criticism of the police.
The protests intensified after the police were accused of killing a Cairo University student, Mohamed Reda, with birdshot last month. The Interior Ministry has reacted defensively to the charge that its officers are using excessive force.
As Egypt’s leaders struggle to quell the protests, two senior officers spoke about the growing toll on the force.
Friends and relatives on the force have been killed and their police stations have come under attack, they said. They complained that the public did not seem to notice their sacrifices, but they also faulted the military-backed government for relying so heavily on them to resolve its own political confrontations.
Many officers’ families have been torn by the same arguments that divide the rest of society. And relatives have grown increasingly worried for the officers’ safety, after a campaign of attacks by jihadist groups singling out the police and the army.
Those lethal strikes began soon after the security services violently dispersed two Islamist sit-in demonstrations in August, gunning down hundreds of people.
Two weeks later, witnesses said they saw gunmen wearing balaclavas open fire on a small police post on the outskirts of Cairo, killing an officer, as well as a furniture deliveryman who was nearby.
The senior officer stationed in southern Egypt, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said men besieged the encampment where he was stationed on the morning the Cairo sit-ins were stormed.
The Interior Ministry had given him no warning about possible retaliation, he said. As he and the 20 officers he commanded were overwhelmed, he called the ministry for help and received none, he said.
“May God be with you,” he quoted an official as saying.
He and his colleagues hid on top of a water tower for a time, and then he took shelter in a home near the base. Since then, he has sent his family back to their hometown, worried for their safety.
“People think we’re robots,” he said. “We have families.”
Another officer, Maj. Haitham Abbas, complained that the entire force had been tarnished by the response to the unrest, giving the example of a colleague who works in a unit that guards tourists:
“They told his son at school: ‘Your father is a murderer. He kills people in the streets,’ ” the officer said. “He probably never even pulled his gun out.”
Major Abbas said his normal duties included securing the Nile, but these days he is frequently asked to respond to protests — “so much that I don’t have time to do my original job, though it’s important.”
“The government must find a legitimate mechanism to change instead of having people march in the streets every time they have a complaint,” he said.
12/17/2013 01:26 PM
From Icon to Exile: The Price of a Nude Photo in Egypt
By Takis Würger
Egyptian Aliaa Elmahdy became an icon of the Arab Spring after she posted a nude photo of herself online. Then she fled to Sweden after receiving death threats from Islamist extremists. What and whom did her statement serve?
When this story is published, Aliaa Elmahdy will have wiped away the traces of her former life and will be living in a location unknown to us. She will continue to flee and fear the day when one of the men from her native Egypt tracks her down and stands in front of her to take her back.
For the last two years, 22-year-old Egyptian Aliaa Magda al-Elmahdy has been a hunted woman because she used the delayed-action shutter release of her digital camera to take a photo of herself, which she then posted online. She is only wearing stockings and shoes in the photo.
The image made Elmahdy an icon of the Arab Spring. Millions of people saw the photo in the first few days after it was released. Even at the time, it wasn't clear whether viewers were interested in the message or her naked skin, but nevertheless, Elmahdy was a star for a few weeks. She gave an interview to CNN, but then she received death threats, forcing her to flee from her country and go into hiding.
Some say that Elmahdy ridiculed the laws of Islam, and that she is a whore and a disgrace to Egypt. Muslims from around the world have sent her death threats. A radical Muslim attempted to have her Egyptian citizenship revoked. Since then, though, Elmahdy has been a hero for many others.
Her story raises several questions. Was the photo an act of protest or therapy? Is she a hero or naïve? Elmahdy remained silent for a long time. But now she is providing the answer that could be the key to many questions, the answer to the question: Who is Aliaa Elmahdy?
Most recently, she lived in a Swedish village that could be reached after driving for an hour through a coniferous forest. It's a place that rarely sees outsiders. It was difficult to contact Elmahdy. Many people have attempted to write her emails or messages on Facebook. But Elmahdy ignores messages from strangers, because most strangers berate her.
Beaten and Caged
Elmahdy has chosen a café for our rendezvous. She sits with her back to the window and orders a glass of strawberry juice. She doesn't like to look people in the eye.
She says that she grew up in Heliopolis, an affluent neighborhood of Cairo. When she thinks about it today, she says, she misses the smell of the sun on the streets, the cats climbing through the garbage, and kushari, an Egyptian dish made of macaroni, rice and lentils that her mother used to make for her. Her parents, she says, were not strictly religious and didn't go to the mosque. Her father and mother are cousins. Her mother is a bookkeeper and her father an officer in the Egyptian army. She says that her father had been beating her for as long as she could remember.
Sometimes he would hit her, she says, for contradicting him or not wearing a headscarf, and sometimes for no reason at all. Her mother would stand there and say: "Beat her, but don't injure her." Once, when Elmahdy came home from school, her father told her that she was disgusting because she was too small. Once he crushed her glasses with his fist. This is her version of her story. Her parents aren't speaking to the press.
Elmahdy attended a private school, and when she came home from classes, her parents would lock her into the house. She wasn't allowed to go outside because they feared that she would lose her virginity if she did. She was kept like a precious calf, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder one day.
She asks for a pad of paper. "I don't know how you say this in English," she says. She draws a rod with a sharp tip, a weapon that looks like a spear. "He hit me with that."
Her parents told her that a decent woman shouldn't pose for photos, wear flowers in her hair, stand with her legs apart, show the skin of her legs or wear tight clothing or lipstick.
At 13, Elmahdy decided that there could be no God. She learned to lie and draw up a fake class schedule, just to gain a few moments of freedom for herself. She says it was easy to lose her virginity.
After graduating from high school, Elmahdy was accepted at the American University in Cairo, where she studied art. Her parents picked her up from the campus every day. When her mother said that she wanted to check to see if she still had her hymen, Elmahdy grabbed a kitchen knife and said that she wanted to move out. Her father changed the locks in the house to keep her inside.
Elmahdy says that she felt suffocated at home. It was as if she couldn't get any oxygen into her lungs.
Once, when she was alone, she placed a camera onto a stack of books in her room, painted her lips a pale red and undressed. She slipped into a pair of strapless stockings and stuck flowers into her hair. She took photos in various poses. She says that she took the photos for herself, as a form of silent protest against her parents. Then she forgot about them.
Liberation and Censorship
A few weeks later, Elmahdy walked left the classroom in the middle of a lecture. She was carrying a backpack into which she had packed a few articles of clothing that morning. She took a bus into downtown Cairo, where she walked along the banks of the Nile and breathed deeply. She knew that she would never return to her parents' house. She had proven that she would not allow herself to be kept like an animal. First she lived with a female friend, and then she moved in with a man. She was 19 and felt liberated.
It was 2011, and the Egyptian people were rebelling against their dictator. Elmahdy went to Tahrir Square a few times. She experienced her personal liberation in parallel with the liberation of her country, and she must have felt as if the two things were related. That was where her misfortunes began.
In October 2011, she transferred some photos from her digital camera to her laptop. She found the naked photos she had taken of herself and picked out the most attractive one. Although she knew that nudity is a taboo for some people in her country, Elmahdy decided to post the image on her Facebook page.
When someone opens a Facebook account, he or she is required to click on a box to indicate acceptance of the site's "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities." A statement in a section marked "Safety" reads: "You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."
Facebook was created in the United States, and it bans photos like the one Elmahdy took of herself. Apparently nudity is still a taboo in some places in the West. For the first time, it became apparent to Elmahdy that the world is a more complex place than she would have liked.
The Facebook administrators deleted the photo a few hours after Elmahdy had posted it. But Elmahdy, determined that no one would ever forbid her from doing anything again, posted the same photo on her blog, so that everyone could see it.
The Making of an Icon
Wars and revolutions like the one in Egypt demand symbols: photos like Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier" from the Spanish Civil War, the image of a Vietnamese girl running away out of a village that had been bombed with napalm, or that of a boy raising his arms in the Warsaw ghetto. Photos like these simplify the world. They reduced politics to emotions: fear, horror, hope.
But does anyone know the name of that Vietnamese girl? What these icons have in common is that they are bigger than the fate of the individual. And something else, too: They depict victims.
Elmahdy's photo felt like a rebuttal. She wasn't a victim. She also differed from the Vietnamese girl and the falling soldier because she had taken her own photo and published it herself. Elmahdy soon realized that the photo was making a bigger and bigger impact.
Supporters of the Egyptian revolution, both the liberals and the deeply religious, distanced themselves from the photo. It was a young art student's personal act of protest against mistreatment at the hands of her parents. Every detail -- the flower, the pose, the stockings -- relates to a rule her parents had made. Those who didn't know that, and hardly anyone did, saw their own message in the photo. The image lends itself to multiple interpretations, and therein lies its power. The photo only became an icon because the West made it into one.
It appeared in newspapers in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Denmark. In Germany, it was printed in SPIEGEL and in the newspaper Die Zeit. It corresponded to the notions many Europeans had initially had about the revolution in Egypt. They called it the Arab Spring and thought that what was happening in North Africa could be compared with the French Revolution. They hoped that when the protests were over, people would be more enlightened and build democracies, and that women would find their way to a more self-confident role in society.
Kidnapping and Flight
Elmahdy says that she liked the attention, but that she was also receiving messages from men on Facebook who threatened to kill her. The threats were unsettling, but it was also an exciting time. She had no idea what it meant when her cat disappeared a few weeks after she had published the photo.
A man called her to say that he had found the cat. She was alone when she went to see him, but the man was waiting for her with a friend. The friend locked the door to the apartment, and the man tried to pull Elmahdy's pants off, saying that it was what she deserved for posting a naked picture of herself. But when Elmahdy kept fighting off the men, they stole her wallet and mobile phone and released her the next morning.
After that night, Elmahdy sensed that the photo could destroy her life if she stayed in Egypt. Ten days later, she boarded a plane in Cairo and fled to Sweden. That was in March 2012.
Elmahdy had become a threat, because she was encouraging other women to imitate her. In the CNN interview, when asked how she sees women in the "New Egypt," she said: "I am not positive at all unless a social revolution erupts."
Islam, Women and the West
The role of women is the most fateful point of contention between Muslims and the rest of the world. The lives of women serve as a symbolic setting for this culture war.
Some pious Muslims are worried that their women will become like US singer Miley Cyrus. And people in Europe and the United States look to Egypt with concern, because they believe that it is their duty to rescue the veiled woman from the oppressive clutches of a male-dominated society.
In the West, it's easy to play the moral teacher when talking about women's rights in Egypt. But we should remind ourselves that, until 1958, it was illegal for a married woman in Germany to open her own bank account without her husband's consent. Less than 100 years ago, women were not allowed to vote in Germany. And women have only been permitted to serve in combat units in the German armed forces since 2001.
The conflict between the cultures is being waged with blunt instruments, a conflict over headscarves in German classrooms, burqas in France, high heels in Afghanistan and women driving cars in Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan, the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl, in the head because she had fought for the right of girls to go to school. Dutch activist and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali lives under police protection because she criticized the violence committed against women by Muslim men in a short film.
And now Muslim preachers of hate have also set their sights on Aliaa Elmahdy. One person wrote on the Internet: "Her body should roast in hell."
Eager for Punishment to Set an Example
One of the men who accuse Elmahdy of committing sins is Mahmoud Abdul Rahman. He is a 32-year-old lawyer who works as a bookkeeper in the Egyptian finance ministry. Some 3,500 kilometers (2,190 miles) away from Elmahdy's hiding place in Sweden, we meet with Rahman in a café in the old section of Cairo. At the beginning of the interview, he says that he knows how strange his arguments must sound for a person from Europe. When he hears the call of the muezzin, Rahman interrupts the conversation to pray.
He believes that Sharia law should be applied in Egypt. He says that he loves Egypt the way he loves his mother, and that his love would be even greater if all women in the country wore veils.
There is a dark spot on his forehead. It comes from placing his head onto the floor five times a day to pray.
When he returns to the table in the café after praying, and says that men must protect women because they are weak, the lights suddenly go out in the entire neighborhood.
"I was sad when I saw Aliaa naked for the first time," says Rahman. When he found a video online last spring in which she was standing naked in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Stockholm, holding a Koran in front of her genitalia, Rahman knew it was his duty to God to take action. He sat down at his desk at home and wrote a letter to the Egyptian attorney general, asking that charges be brought against Elmahdy for waving around a Koran while she was naked. He wrote: "I ask Your Excellency to undertake all legal actions to deprive her of her Egyptian citizenship." The next morning, Rahman went to the office of the attorney general and filed his complaint. He hasn't received a response yet and doesn't know whether his letter will lead to a trial.
Rahman says that Elmahdy must be punished as severely as possible because he fears that if she is not, his daughters could imitate her actions one day. There are tears in his eyes when he pulls his mobile phone out of his pocket and shows us pictures of his daughters. He says that his wife died of a heart attack a month ago, and that it is now up to him to raise his two little daughters.
There is a film on the Internet that depicts reporters from the ARTE television network visiting Rahman at home. In the film, Rahman's wife speaks with the reporters and, referring to Elmahdy, says: "She stood there naked with the Koran. What did the Koran do to her?" Rahman's wife didn't make the impression that she wanted to be liberated.
The positions are irreconcilable in the dispute between Elmahdy and Rahman. Elmahdy invokes her personal freedom and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rahman invokes God. Perhaps it would be easier for Elmahdy if she knew that Rahman is waging his war on his own, but Egypt's Salafist bloc, the "Party of Light," captured about a quarter of votes in the country's parliamentary elections about a year ago. Elmahdy will not change the centuries-old traditions of these people with nude portraits.
Searching to Join a Cause
After fleeing from Egypt, Elmahdy applied for political asylum in Sweden, where she hardly left her apartment for six months. She kept the curtains drawn, and whenever she heard a loud noise, she was afraid that her pursuers had come to get her. Sitting behind her closed curtains, she wondered what would become of her.
She no longer had a family, was no longer a student, and she had no job or home to return to. She had no friends in Sweden. Her boyfriend, who she sees only occasionally, lives in Norway. Her life is in tatters.
It would be understandable if Elmahdy were to change her name and try to forget the past. Instead, she decided to do the opposite. She searched for an organization to join and found the group Femen, which originated in Ukraine and fights against religion and for more equality for women. The women of Femen became famous for their topless protests. They are trying to construct icons in series.
Elmahdy joined the Femen women in a topless protest for the rights of homosexuals in Russia. On another occasion, she snuck into a Stockholm mosque disguised in a burqa, undressed and staged a protest against Sharia. Elmahdy had learned that only a small group of people knew about these protests in advance, which made her feel safe from her pursuers. Once, the Femen activists set fire to a flag with the Muslim profession of faith on it. Elmahdy says: "I fundamentally do not respect religion if it is misogynistic."
Searching for Meaning in Nudity
When she published her nude photo in 2011, it was difficult to do justice to Elmahdy because no one knew what she stood for. Today, it is difficult to do justice to her because she seems to stand for so many different things: for gays, for hatred of Islam, for the right to free expression, but also against the right to free exercise of religion. She seems to have lost her way in the clash between cultures.
On a fall day in 2013, Elmahdy made an appearance at a book fair in the Swedish city of Göteborg. Security guards had been hired for protection. There was a panel discussion on a small stage in which four women talked about feminism. The moderator asked whether bare breasts could be hiding the real message. Elmahdy placed her microphone on the table, pulled up her sweater and stood topless in front of the moderator and the audience. The audience members held their smartphones above their heads and snapped her picture. "The body is merely a symbol," Elmahdy said to the moderator.
When asked what she achieves with her protests, Elmahdy replies: "People become more courageous and express their feeling. The goal is to break the taboo."
A taboo performs a function. It is based on an understanding that people tacitly accept, and it binds a society together. A taboo can be bad, but it can also be good. In Cairo, Göteborg and Berlin, it is a taboo to undress on the street. It doesn't mean that women are being oppressed, or men, for that matter.
Elmahdy's supporters respect her for her courage, most of all, but perhaps we should ask ourselves what she has achieved with her protests. In Egypt, some men are now confusing feminism with nude photos. There are Arab feminists who say that Elmahdy has down more harm than good to women's equality in Egypt. In Sweden, the operators of a mosque filed a complaint against her for harassment of the public, while visitors to a book fair came away with souvenir photos of a topless woman. There is probably only one person who derives at least some benefit from Elmahdy's displays of nudity: Elmahdy herself.
When asked what her message to Egyptians like Rahman is, she replies: "Egypt is not your fucking country, and who are you to decide, who gets citizenship."
Perhaps Elmahdy was never interested in results, or in achieving something concrete with her protest. Her great achievement is the message she sent to her parents and the Salafists with the help of the photo. The image of Elmahdy in the nude says: I'm still alive.
Destroying a Life with Defiance
Rahman receives the message from Elmahdy in Cairo with a smile and says that he too has a message for her: "If you have problems, I can stand by your side. We Egyptians must stick together. I wish you the best."
When asked whether she regrets taking the photo, Elmahdy replies that she had to do it because she wouldn't have been herself otherwise. Her words illustrate the tragedy of her story. From the beginning, people expected Elmahdy to be something other than what she is, and when she finally had the confidence to be herself, she destroyed her life in the process.
There has been much speculation over what the look on Elmahdy's face meant when she undressed and gazed at the camera. The liberal Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote: "Those who look at the picture lustfully and spit on it should look at her expression. A prostitute never has an expression like that." The Frankfurt daily Frankfurter Rundschau wrote: "The 22-year-old student Elmahdy isn't looking at the camera lasciviously, but curiously and defiantly." And the German monthly magazine Cicero wrote: "She doesn't have a particularly sexy look in her eyes. It's more of an inquiring gaze."
After the conversation in the café, Elmahdy is standing on the shore of a lake outside the Swedish village. She watches the ducks, and when she discovers a playground, she climbs onto a jungle gym and sits on a swing. The icon of the Arab Spring giggles as she swings back and forth. What was the meaning of her gaze in the photo? "It means that I am not ashamed to be the woman I am."
From now on, Elmahdy could very well change her address every few months. Fleeing from others threatens to become the focus of her life. But unlike the screaming child on the photo from Vietnam, little of Elmahdy's deed will remain in the world's collective memory. The symbolic power of the image will gradually fade away. The photo hasn't changed anything -- not Islam, not Egypt, not the city of Cairo and not even Elmahdy's parents. Before long, her naked breasts will be nothing more than naked breasts.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Antarctica could be rich in diamonds, geologists say
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 13:13 EST
Australian geologists on Tuesday opened up the tantalising but controversial prospect that Antarctica could be rich in diamonds.
In a scientific paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a team said they had found a telltale rock called kimberlite in the Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica.
No diamonds were found in the samples, taken from Mount Meredith, and the study — focusing only on the region’s geology, not on mining possibilities — was not designed to quantify how many could be there.
But, it said, the mineral’s signature is identical to that in other locations in the world where diamonds have been found.
“The samples are texturally, mineralogically and geochemically typical of Group 1 kimberlites from more classical localities,” said the probe, led by Greg Yaxley at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Kimberlite, a rock that is rarely found near Earth’s surface, is believed to be formed at great depths in the mantle, where conditions are right for forming diamonds — carbon atoms that are squeezed into lattice shapes under extreme pressure and temperature.
The study suggested kimberlite was thrust towards the surface around 120 million years ago, when present-day Africa, the Arabian peninsula, South America, the Indian sub-continent, Australia and Antarctica were glommed together in a super-continent called Gondwana.
Outcrops of kimberlite studded the centre of Gondwana at this time.
The component continents then drifted apart, which explains why diamonds have been found in such diverse and distant locations, from Brazil to southern Africa and India, according to this theory.
Mining banned – for now
Independent experts were divided as to whether the discovery could unleash a diamond rush that would ravage the world’s last pristine continent.
A treaty protecting Antarctica was signed in 1961 and was updated with an environmental protocol in 1991 whose Article 7 expressly prohibits “any activity relating to mineral resources.”
The 1991 pact comes up for review in 2048, 50 years after it came into effect following ratification. It has been ratified by 35 nations.
Robert Larter, a geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said “the default assumption” was that the protocol will continue.
“Any change would require agreement of the majority of parties at a review conference, including three-quarters of the states which were Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties at the time of adoption of the protocol,” he said in comments to Britain’s Science Media Centre.
Teal Riley, a BAS survey geologist, said the discovery of kimberlite was “not unsurprising” given that the local geology in East Antarctica has a feature called cratons, a telltale of this rock.
“However, even amongst the Group 1 kimberlites, only 10 percent or so are economically viable, so it’s still a big step to extrapolate this latest finding with any diamond mining activity in Antarctica,” where extraction would be tougher and costlier.
But Kevin Hughes, a senior officer at an international panel called the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), was more cautious.
More than three decades from now, “we do not know what the treaty parties’ views will be on mining… or what technologies might exist that could make extraction of Antarctic minerals economically viable,” he said.
“An additional issue is that nations outside the protocol are not bound by its provisions, including the ban on mineral resource activities.”
Kimberlite takes its name from the town of Kimberley, in South Africa, which was created by a diamond rush.
In 1871, a cook found a huge stone while digging on a farm, and within a year 50,000 prospectors were there, digging feverishly and living in a makeshift tented city.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Tech firms meet Obama to press their case for NSA surveillance reform
A delegation of 15 from Silicon Valley, including Tim Cook and Marissa Mayer, visit White House for face-to-face talks
Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 December 2013 14.34 GMT
Senior executives from some the world’s largest technology firms were meeting face to face with Barack Obama on Tuesday to press their case for a major rollback of National Security Agency surveillance.
The White House is hosting the 15-strong delegation from Silicon Valley, which includes the chief executives of Apple, Yahoo and Google, less than 24 hours after a federal judge ruled that the NSA program to collect telephone metadata is likely to be unconstitutional.
Many of the senior tech leaders meeting the president and the vice-president, Joe Biden, have already made public their demand for sweeping surveillance reforms in an open letter that specifically called for a ban on the kind of bulk data collection that the judge ruled on Monday was probably unlawful.
Judge Richard Leon’s ruling, which will now be subject to an appeal, is the most significant legal setback for the agency since the publication of the first surveillance disclosures by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and it comes at a pivotal moment for the future of the NSA.
The president and his advisers are currently considering the recommendations of an NSA review panel set up in the wake of Snowden’s revelations.
Obama, a former constitutional lawyer who opposed excessive government surveillance as a US senator, must now grapple with the findings of a damning court ruling that concludes that mass collection of phone records probably violates the fourth amendment – which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures – and is “almost Orwellian” in its scope. Leon said James Madison, who played a key role in drafting the US constitution, would be “aghast” at the scope of the agency’s collection of Americans' communications data.
The decision by the tech giants to press their case in such a public and unified way is a significant moment in the debate over NSA surveillance. The industry is an increasingly influential voice in Washington. The tech sector is a vital part of the US economy and many of its most successful leaders are prominent Democratic political donors, including to the campaign that secured Obama’s re-election.
The White House said that in addition to discussing “national security and the economic impacts of unauthorised intelligence disclosures”, the meeting with executives cover technical aspects of the administration’s rollout of healthcare reforms and wider issues relating to the economy. However, the meeting is likely to be dominated by discussions about the NSA, particularly the phone metadata program and its collection of data.
Among those meeting at the White House are Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Senior representatives from Comcast, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and Netflix will also be in attendance. So too will Randall Stephenson, the chairman and CEO of AT&T, one of the telecom providers routinely required to provide the NSA with so-called metadata about its US customers.
With legislation to reform the NSA currently stalled on Capitol Hill, and unlikely to resurface until January, privacy advocates are focused on the White House, which could enact its own changes if the president is persuaded of the need. An intense lobbying effort has gone on for months, with senior figures in the intelligence community warning that any significant dilution of its powers will risk another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.
The review panel, which handed its findings to Obama on Friday, has reportedly proposed only limited reforms, saying the NSA’s surveillance tools should be amended in light of Snowden’s disclosures but essentially remain intact. One decisive factor in the president's considerations could be the White House’s recent appointment of John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.
Podesta, whose role as éminence grise to the president begins next month, has gone on the record saying Obama should establish a “national commission” to respond to the legitimate concerns raised by Snowden’s disclosures. Podesta added in an interview with Der Spiegel in July: “Surely we can meet our national security needs without sacrificing the respect for personal privacy that has long been a hallmark of American life?”
Specifically, Podesta expressed concern about the relevance of legal precedents being used to justify massive data collection on the digital era, a view apparently in sync with Monday’s damning court ruling. “In the United States, court decisions from the pre-internet days suggest that the information we give away voluntarily to these companies can be obtained fairly easily by the government,” he said.
“That legal rule may have made sense in an age before Facebook and iPhones, but we need a serious examination of whether it still makes sense today.”
Hours before Tuesday's meeting, Snowden released an open letter to Brazil, offering to shed light on US spying in return for political asylum. Snowden currently has temporary asylum. The White House has rejected the suggestion that administration might offer him amnesty.
The idea of an amnesty in return for Snowden securing data was floated by Richard Ledgett, the senior NSA official tasked managing the fallout from Snowden’s leaks – and a potential candidate to become the new director of the spy agency.
December 17, 2013
After Ruling Critical of N.S.A., Uncertain Terrain for Appeal
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — As Judge Richard J. Leon heard arguments last month in a challenge to a National Security Agency program, he said only one thing was certain.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to come out,” he said, “but I know it’s going upstairs.” He meant that appeals were inevitable, first to a federal appeals court in Washington and then to the Supreme Court.
On Monday, Judge Leon ruled that the program, which collects records of all Americans’ phone calls, is probably unconstitutional. He stayed his order to allow for that anticipated trip upstairs.
The appeal will face ideological crosscurrents, Supreme Court opinions pointing in opposite directions and unpredictable judicial voting. But it seems reasonably likely that the case, or a related one, will for the first time result in a definitive legal ruling on the constitutionality of one of the post-Sept. 11 government surveillance programs.
Similar cases, including one brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, are pending. Unlike in earlier cases challenging warrantless wiretapping programs, it is likely that judges will no longer decline to hear the new ones based on the objection that the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that information about them has been collected.
Judge Leon was dismissive of the government’s halfhearted argument on this point, saying it “defies common sense.”
The main initial critique of Judge Leon’s decision was that it blew past the closest Supreme Court precedent and tried to anticipate where the justices might be heading based on concurring rather than controlling opinions in a 2012 decision.
The next stop for the case is the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which, thanks to the recent overhaul of the Senate’s filibuster rule, has a majority of Democratic appointees among its active judges.
But it may be that nothing turns on that. Writing recently in Judicature magazine, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, who was appointed to the District of Columbia Circuit by President Ronald Reagan, noted with satisfaction that a recent empirical study had absolved his court “of the charge, so often leveled in the vacuous but vociferous political debates over the confirmation of a new judge, that the court is a political partisan.”
His own 2010 opinion in United States v. Maynard, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel with two judges appointed by a Republican president, tends to illustrate his point. The decision, which will be helpful to the challengers to the data collection program, was, curiously, mentioned only in passing by Judge Leon.
Judge Ginsburg said the collection of huge troves of data over long stretches of time, producing a mosaic of information, could cross a constitutional line.
“A person who knows all of another’s travels,” Judge Ginsburg wrote, “can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one fact about a person, but all such facts.”
Alexander A. Abdo, an A.C.L.U. lawyer, echoed that reasoning at the Nov. 22 argument in the New York case, four days after arguments in the case heard by Judge Leon. The telephone records collected by the security agency reveal, Mr. Abdo said, “who you call and when, whether you call your doctor, the domestic violence hotline, an abortion provider, an ex-girlfriend, a suicide hotline or a pastor,” he said. “And it reveals not just one of those details about every American, but every one of those details.”
The District of Columbia Circuit’s decision, Mr. Abdo said, “could serve as a model for this court.”
In 1979, in Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court said a robbery suspect could not expect that his right to privacy extended to the numbers dialed from his phone. The government says the Fourth Amendment analysis in the new cases should begin and end with that decision.
“The government’s position is that Fourth Amendment challenge is foreclosed by Smith v. Maryland, which held that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the noncontent information that’s held by third parties,” Stuart F. Delery, a Justice Department lawyer, said at the argument of the A.C.L.U. case.
The 2012 decision, United States v. Jones, an appeal from the Maynard decision, unanimously rejected the use of a GPS device to track the movements of a drug suspect over a month. The majority in the 2012 case said that attaching the device violated the defendant’s property rights.
In a pair of concurrences, though, five justices said the tracking raised concerns about the defendant’s expectation of privacy. “It may be necessary,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, citing the Smith case, “to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.”
But it is one thing for justices, even five of them, to indicate that a precedent had been undermined. It is another for a lower-court judge to make use of such musings. Indeed, the Supreme Court has cautioned against it.
“If a precedent of this court has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court in 1989, lower-court judges “should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to this court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.”
Last month, a federal judge in California took that approach in refusing to grant a new trial to a defendant convicted of terrorism charges based on asserted Fourth Amendment violations arising from the N.S.A. program. Judge Jeffrey T. Miller said he would not “blaze a new path and adopt the approach to the concept of privacy set forth by Justice Sotomayor in her concurrence in United States v. Jones.”
There will almost certainly be more decisions on the constitutionality of the program, in the A.C.L.U. case and in one brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They all present essentially the same issues, and it is hard to predict which will strike the justices as the most attractive vehicle for a decision.
If nothing else, Judge Leon’s decision was a powerful critique of the secret court that supervises the program. He noted that 15 judges of the court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, have issued 35 orders authorizing it, even as the government “repeatedly made misrepresentations and inaccurate statements about the program.”
Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University who is at work on a book on the Fourth Amendment, said that only Judge Leon’s work was worthy of a federal judge.
“Judge Leon’s reads as though there is a living, breathing, thinking person behind it,” he said. “Right or wrong ultimately, it is full of detail, real-world fact and serious consideration. The FISA court opinions are lifeless. They read like a machine wrote them.”
December 17, 2013
Senate Asks C.I.A. to Share Its Report on Interrogations
By MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the C.I.A. for an internal study done by the agency that lawmakers believe is broadly critical of the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program but was withheld from congressional oversight committees.
The committee’s request comes in the midst of a yearlong battle with the C.I.A. over the release of the panel’s own exhaustive report about the program, one of the most controversial policies of the post-Sept. 11 era.
The Senate report, totaling more than 6,000 pages, was completed last December but has yet to be declassified. According to people who have read the study, it is unsparing in its criticism of the now-defunct interrogation program and presents a chronicle of C.I.A. officials’ repeatedly misleading the White House, Congress and the public about the value of brutal methods that, in the end, produced little valuable intelligence.
Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, disclosed the existence of the internal C.I.A. report during an Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. He said he believed it was begun several years ago and “is consistent with the Intelligence’s Committee’s report” although it “conflicts with the official C.I.A. response to the committee’s report.”
“If this is true,” Mr. Udall said during a hearing on the nomination of Caroline D. Krass to be the C.I.A.’s top lawyer, “this raises fundamental questions about why a review the C.I.A. conducted internally years ago — and never provided to the committee — is so different from the C.I.A.’s formal response to the committee study.”
The agency responded to the committee report with a vigorous 122-page rebuttal that challenged both the Senate report’s specific facts and its overarching conclusions. John O. Brennan, one of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers before taking over the C.I.A. this year — and who denounced the interrogation program during his confirmation hearing — delivered the agency’s response to the Intelligence Committee himself.
It is unclear what the agency specifically concluded in its internal review.
Mr. Udall, whose public criticisms of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone data has raised his profile in Congress and won him praise from privacy advocates, said he would not support Ms. Krass’s nomination until the C.I.A. provided more information to the committee about the interrogation program.
Ms. Krass did not respond directly to Mr. Udall’s statements about the internal C.I.A. review. Dean Boyd, an agency spokesman, said the agency was “aware of the committee’s request and will respond appropriately.”
Mr. Boyd said that the C.I.A. agreed with a number of the conclusions of the voluminous Senate investigative report, but found “significant errors in the study.”
“C.I.A. and committee staff have had extensive dialogue on this issue, and the agency is prepared to work with the committee to determine the best way forward on potential declassification,” he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is the Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman, said recently that her committee would soon vote to adopt the report’s executive summary and conclusion, which would then be subject to a formal declassification process before it was publicly released.
Republican members of the committee, angry about what they see as a biased and shoddy investigation by their Democratic colleagues, are planning to make public a rebuttal of their own.
The Senate report, which took years to complete and cost more than $40 million to produce, began as an attempt to document what was perhaps the most divisive of the Bush administration’s responses to the Sept. 11 attacks. But it has since become enmeshed in the complex politics of the Obama administration.
President Obama ended the detention program as one of his first acts in the Oval Office, and has repeatedly denounced the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods under the program. During a speech in May, he said that the United States had “compromised our basic values by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.”
And yet Mr. Obama has repeatedly resisted demands by human rights groups to seek prosecutions for the lawyers who approved the interrogation methods or the people who carried them out, and the White House has been mostly silent during the debate over the past year about declassifying the Senate report.
For all his criticisms of the counterterrorism excesses during the Bush administration, Mr. Obama has put the C.I.A. at the center of his strategy to kill militant suspects in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Human rights groups have tried to pressure the White House to intervene to get the Senate report declassified.
“Whether it’s stalling or concealing, the C.I.A. is trying to avoid reckoning with its past abuse,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International USA. “And that’s what makes declassifying the Senate’s report so crucial right now.”
Ms. Krass is a career government lawyer who works at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the arm of the department that advises the White House on the legality of domestic and foreign policies.
The office was particularly controversial during the Bush administration, when lawyers there wrote lengthy memos approving C.I.A. interrogation methods like waterboarding and sleep deprivation, as well as signing off on the expansion of surveillance by the National Security Agency.
Under Mr. Obama, the office has approved other controversial practices, including the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric living in Yemen who was an American. Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011 by a C.I.A. drone strike, launched from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.
Much of Tuesday’s hearing was consumed by a debate about whether the White House should be forced to share Justice Department legal memos.
Under polite but persistent questioning by members of both parties, Ms. Krass repeatedly said that while the two congressional intelligence committees need to “fully understand” the legal basis for C.I.A. activities, they were not entitled to see the Justice Department memos that provide the legal blueprint for secret programs.
The opinions “represent pre-decisional, confidential legal advice that has been provided,” she said, adding that the confidentiality of the legal advice was necessary to allow a “full and frank discussion amongst clients and policy makers and their lawyers within the executive branch.”
Senator Feinstein appeared unmoved. “Unless we know the administration’s basis for sanctioning a program, it is very hard to oversee it,” she said.
Still, it is expected that the committee will vote to approve Ms. Krass.
Texas police can get search warrants based on the ‘prediction of a future crime,’ judge notes
By Travis Gettys
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 8:09 EST
An appeals court in Texas ruled last week that police may obtain a search warrant based on the prediction of a future crime.
Officers in Parker County took Michael Fred Wehrenberg and some associates into custody in summer 2010, after watching his home for about a month as part of a drug investigation.
A confidential informant told police that Wehrenberg and others were “fixing to” cook methamphetamine, and investigators searched the house while he and his friends stood outside in handcuffs.
Police said they found pseudoephedrine, stripped lithium batteries and materials used to make meth and then asked a judge to grant them a warrant to search the house.
They did not mention in the warrant application that officers had already gone into the house, and instead only based their request on information supplied by the confidential informant.
After obtaining the warrant, police seized the items they’d already found, and a trial court denied a request by Wehrenberg’s attorneys to exclude those materials as evidence, citing federal “independent source doctrine” that allows the use of illegally seized evidence identified beforehand by a third party.
Wehrenberg pleaded guilty to one count of possession and one count of intent to manufacture meth and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The Second Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling, saying the trial judge should have excluded the illegally seized evidence, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – which has the final say – agreed with the trial court.
The CCA ruled that the state’s “exclusionary rule” bans illegally seized evidence from trial, but federal precedent allows it to be introduced if it was first confirmed by an independent source.
The court’s lone dissenting justice, however, wrote that the warrant was obtained only as a result of the officers’ illegal search and could easily have been secured before they went into the house.
“Had the officers entered the home and found the occupants only baking cupcakes, the officers would not have bothered to then obtain the warrant at all,” wrote CCA Judge Lawrence Meyers. “It was only after unlawfully entering and finding suspicious activity that they felt the need to then secure the warrant in order to cover their tracks and collect the evidence without the taint of their entry.”
Meyers said the confidential informant’s tip that Wehrenberg was “fixing to” cook meth wasn’t independent evidence but a prediction.
“Search warrants may now be based on predictions of the commission of future crimes,” the judge lamented.
Court finds S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley violated civil rights by arresting Occupy protesters
By David Edwards
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 12:44 EST
A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) could be sued for violating the civil rights of Occupy Columbia protesters who were removed from the Statehouse grounds and arrested in 2011.
A month after the activists set up tents on the Statehouse grounds in October of 2011, Haley ordered the Bureau of Protective Services to arrest anyone who camped at the site past 6 p.m. in the evening. Officers eventually placed zip ties on the wrists of a number of protesters and took them to Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
Trespassing charges against the protesters were dropped two weeks later.
In the Monday ruling, the court found that Haley had violated the civil rights of the protesters because there was no regulation in place preventing camping on the Statehouse grounds.
The state Budget and Control Board, which is chaired by Haley, eventually did create emergency regulations against camping.
“In light of the case law from this circuit and from the Supreme Court, it was clearly established on November 16, 2011, that arresting Occupy Columbia for protesting on State House grounds after 6:00 p.m. was a First Amendment violation,” Circuit Judge Stephanie D. Thacker wrote.
“It is not disputed that South Carolina and its state officials could have restricted the time when the State House grounds are open to the public with a valid time, place, and manner restriction,” the court said. “However, as explained above, at the time of Occupy Columbia’s arrest, no such restrictions existed.”
Just hours before the arrests in 2011, Haley had complained that she had seen “toilet paper in the bushes, sleeping bags.”
“Protest and do whatever you want to do during daylight hours. As of 6 o’clock, everyone’s property needs to be off,” she warned. “We go by the rule of law. We are not California, we are not NY, we are SC and we believe in the respect of property and citizens.”
How the wealthiest Americans use this one weird trick to avoid $100 billion in taxes
By Travis Gettys
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 15:42 EST
The wealthiest Americans have avoided paying about $100 billion in taxes through a loophole that essentially makes estate taxes voluntary, according to the attorney who devised the legal maneuver.
Under current law, the wealthy must pay taxes on estates valued at more than $5.25 million for an individual or $10.5 million for couples, with the top rate capped at 40 percent.
But many billionaires get around these taxes by shuffling their company’s stock in and out of trusts, which allows them to give away millions of dollars to their heirs while avoiding taxes on gifts valued at more than $14,000.
For example, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has given at least $7.9 billion to his heirs and avoided about $2.8 billion in gift taxes since 2010, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Hundreds of executives have used the same strategy, and Richard Covey, the attorney who pioneered the technique, said it has cost the federal government about one third of all estate and gift taxes collected since 2000.
According to the Tax Policy Center, only about 3,780 households — about 0.14 percent of all estates — will owe any estate taxes this year, averaging about $3.8 million on estates worth $22.7 million, which is an effective rate of 16.6 percent.
Congress created the loophole to stop another scheme developed in 1984 by Covey, an attorney at Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP in New York, called a grantor retained income trust, or GRIT.
Covey had figured out how to make large gifts appear small by having fathers, for example, create trusts for their children with instructions that the trust must pay back income to the father – and the value of that potential income would be subtracted by the father’s gift tax obligation.
The trusts usually invested in growth stocks that paid low dividends so most of the returns still ended up going to the heirs, but Congress passed legislation in 1990 to stop what was determined to be an abusive practice.
The new legislation replaced the GRIT with the GRAT – or grantor retained annuity trust – which was intended to allow parents to keep stakes in gifts to their children while outlawing the abuse Covey had devised.
But the attorney said the new law created an even larger loophole.
Covey saw that his clients could avoid gift taxes if they put money into a trust with instructions to return the entire amount to themselves within two years, because they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on gifts to themselves.
If the trust’s investments earn enough, the extra money goes to the heirs tax-free. If they don’t make much, the only costs are lawyer’s fees of about $5,000 to $10,000, Covey said.
Three years after the new law went into effect, Covey created a pair of $100 million GRATs for Audrey Walton, the former wife of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s brother.
The IRS, which had banned such trusts through regulation, demanded taxes from Walton and took her to U.S. Tax Court, which found in Walton’s favor.
Since then, other lawyers have refined the technique to generate even more savings for their clients.
Former Aetna CEO John W. Rowe, for example, puts corporate stock options into a GRAT, while Goldman Sachs banker Stacy Eastland recommends a husband funding GRATs with the proceeds from an options bet with his wife.
President Barack Obama has included proposals to shrink the GRAT loophole in each of his budget plans, but he hasn’t pressed Congress to do anything about it, and congressional committees working to overhaul the tax system haven’t addressed estate or gift taxes.
Covey said wealthy donors to each party want to keep the loophole large enough to funnel their wealth through to their heirs.
But Covey, now 84, admits the technique he pioneered has made a mockery of the tax code.
“You can certainly say we can’t let this keep going if we’re going to have a sound system,” he said with a shrug.
How Washington’s Elections Watchdog Became Completely Dysfunctional
December 17, 2013
The United States has 50 different state electoral systems — more if one includes US territories and the District of Columbia — with disparate laws, different methods of counting the vote and very lax regulations on campaign financing. In some states, partisan officials oversee the process. Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University and an international elections monitor, has written that when judged by international standards the US would rank near the bottom of electoral democracies.
Making matters worse is that the nation’s elections watchdog, the Federal Election Commission, has been anything but aggressive in enforcing the relatively weak federal standards that we do have.
Today, the Center for Public Integrity’s Dave Levinthal published an important report looking at the roots of the agency’s dysfunction.
The report is the result of a six-month investigation by CPI that included “analysis of thousands of records and interviews with more than 50 current and former commissioners, staff members and associates.”
The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.
Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.
Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.
As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.
Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to “prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.”
Mitch McConnell Guns for Social Security and Medicare as a Reward for the Suck Budget
By: Sarah Jones
Wednesday, December, 18th, 2013, 9:07 am
Post “embrace the suck” budget, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hinted yesterday at a big fight coming with the debt ceiling, saying he can’t imagine that the debt ceiling increase will be a “clean” one.
Republicans see the budget deal as a win for them that gives them more leverage, not less.
To wit – Republican whisperer Robert Costa (who will be reporting for the Washington Post starting in 2014) tweeted that the upcoming debt ceiling limit could get “wild” because Mitch McConnell needs to get his hands on entitlement reform:
As Ryan moved toward a small deal on budget, McConnell was eyeing a larger deal, deal w/ entm ref for seq. Didn't want to buckle on $967b
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 18, 2013
and in casual convos, some Sen GOPers even speculate O may be more than willing to deal on energy, spending if Ocare probs continue
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 18, 2013
For now, tho, it seems to all be about time. It's only mid Dec, shutdown is off table, and DL not until Feb, leaving 2+ mo's to negotiate
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 18, 2013
Yes, Republicans think that for giving a bit on their sequestration cuts, which in and of themselves were dirty pool, they now get entitlement reforms. For their suck budget, they want everything! Everything Mommy and Daddy. EVERYTHING. NOW. Or else the country gets it again!
Of course, if Republicans were really going after “entitlements”, the country would cheer. It would be great to see the oil companies thrown off the dole, along with WalMart and the other free market losers who insist on stealing money made by actual citizens just so they can pad their profit margins.
But when Republicans say “entitlements” they mean the things that the American citizens work for and pay into, like Social Security and unemployment. Those are “entitlements” of which you are supposed to feel ashamed, while the oil companies are “entitled” to your money because they are a corporation. There’s no shame in being a greedy blood sucker giving nothing back to your country in the GOP. In fact, it’s apsirational.
When you hear people claiming that Obama is going to give on energy and spending, remember that in the above tweet, Costa said Republicans think that. I shouldn’t have to remind you of the folly that lay in putting stake in what Republicans “think” is going to happen (see Ohio, 2012, unskewed polls, etc) or claim has already happened (see Jonathan Karl or Lara Logan).
Republicans are smoking more of their Obama hate crack if they think that “problems with Ocare” — like their bizarrely juvenile attempts to Breitbart the navigators — is going to make Obama willing to “deal” with them. You see, these dramas exist only on Fox News and in Darrell Issa’s carefully constructed traveling circus act.
Did Republicans see the concessions Democrats gave them? No. They moved the goal post to the right, pummeled Democrats in the press over ginned up controversy regarding the ObamaCare website, and used that phony leverage to drive Democrats into a bad deal just so Dems could save the country from Republicans bitter jihad against everyone who didn’t vote for them, collateral damage be damned.
Republicans are like any sociopath — the more they get the more they want and they never stop pushing, demanding, taking, stealing, blaming, conniving, and plotting. If you think you can find common ground, just know that you are the prey/victim and you are not playing the same game so you will lose.
There is no point in trying to appease Republicans or compromise with them, unless it’s an election year.
Mitch McConnell wants to fight for “entitlement reforms” in an election year because he’s afraid of his Democratic challenger Alison Grimes. He needs to win the support of the conservative base and get them motivated to vote. But he has to walk a fine line as he guns for Social Security in the debt ceiling fight, banking on short term memories.
Wait until Mitch McConnell wins his primary and has to walk back his big tough guy words about Social Security. In fact, the ads already began before he came out guns half cocked. In late October, a Democratic group began running an ad against McConnell in Kentucky over the GOP shutdown:
“$24 Billion Dollars…up in smoke. Washington at its worst. And now? Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party in Washington are demanding painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Kentucky seniors could pay $6,000 more a year. Cutting Social Security and Medicare may be Mitch McConnell’s plan. Tell him, its not yours!”
Oh, yes, 2014 is going to be entertaining.
SHAME: Millions of Americans Are Going Hungry and Republicans Plan to Make Even Worse
Tuesday, December, 17th, 2013, 8:19 pm
Conservative Christians adamantly claim America was founded on the bible and is Christian by design, but Christian America’s legacy over the past three years will be they precipitated Republican efforts to drive tens-of-millions of their fellow citizens into poverty and hunger; just because they could. 2013 was a very bad year for working-poor Americans, children, senior citizens, and Veterans, but they should count their proverbial blessings because by all accounts, 2014 is shaping up to be an incredibly worse year. America is the richest nation on Earth, but it is, as one writer put it, rich in name only or RINO, because while the wealthiest 1% of Americans’ fortunes increase dramatically, millions of Americans are going hungry and Republicans plan to make the hunger crisis much worse.
In a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors titled the 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, food insecurity and poverty is rising significantly with no end in sight for the richest nation on Earth’s hunger crisis. Of the 25 cities in the survey, 83% reported an increase in demand for emergency food assistance over the course of 2013, and fully 72% reported that declining federal aid means they will have substantially fewer resources to meet the demand in 2014. One director of food initiatives said, “What we’re seeing is the reduction in federal resources impacting folks in Boston, and since close to 32% of the budget for the Greater Boston Food Bank comes from federal and state funding, when there are cuts in that funding it impacts their ability to provide for their constituents.”
It is important to note that in 2012 alone, the Department of Agriculture reported that 50 million Americans suffered from food insecurity, and when the 2013 numbers are released they predict the numbers will be even more dramatic. Since the November 1 food stamp cuts ($5 billion) went into effect, food banks around the country began reporting stark increases in the number of Americans seeking emergency food assistance. The true travesty of the increase is that many hungry Americans seeking emergency food assistance are employed and some earn too much to qualify for food stamps. One non-profit reported that 59% of their clients suffered from the November 1st cuts to food stamps, and 41% worked at poverty-level jobs; there were no numbers for senior citizens who were unable to go to food banks or how many suffered from sequester cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels. There were also no numbers for children affected from cuts to Head Start or food stamps.
These depressing figures will only get worse in 2014 when 1.3 million unemployed Americans lose jobless benefits on December 28, and that number will increase as benefits run out for other out-of-work Americans over the coming months and throughout 2014. The November food stamp cuts affected all 48.8 million recipients and increased their hunger, but Republicans are calling for at least $39 billion more. Compassionate conservative Paul Ryan’s request for $135 billion in his Path to Prosperity budget was revised down to $90 billion in a farm bill iteration of sheer heartlessness. Ryan justifies his disregard for hungry Americans because “you have to get savings in some of these areas” all the while claiming he “wants people to dream again, but you don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.” You also do not dream when you go to bed hungry and lay awake hoping there is adequate food the next day.
It is a sad commentary that while many Americans are making plans to celebrate Christmas, millions of their fellow citizens will wonder how to feed their children when schools close for the winter break and free and reduced-price school lunches and Head Start breakfasts disappear. Still, while some Democrats celebrated the budget agreement that left 99% of sequester cuts in place and eliminated unemployment benefit extensions, and conservatives complained the budget failed to cut enough spending from safety nets, 50 million Americans will face more hunger, steeper poverty, and no hope for 2014 except more hardship, less food for their children, and no hope of earning more than poverty wages; especially in the South. In fact, in Texas, a celebrated right to work for less state, child poverty increased by 47% and across the South food assistance that working families, children, and seniors depend on will be slashed well in excess of the $5 billion in November by politicians they support in every election.
It is incomprehensible that in the richest nation on Earth there is a hunger crisis affecting one in six Americans facing food insecurity every day of their lives. Tens of millions of Americans go to work every day for poverty wages and return home wondering how they will feed their children. Senior citizens and disabled Americans live day to day knowing their Meals on Wheels face steeper cuts due to the sequester Republicans kept in place for nine more years. With steeper cuts to federal programs food banks can hardly keep up with the increasing demands since the November food stamp cuts, and they know Republicans will cut billions more to, as Paul Ryan says, “find savings in some of these areas.”
It is possible most Americans are unaware there is a hunger crisis in America, but that seems unlikely. One wonders how much more the people can take; especially in the Southern states where poverty and hunger is rampant. The top 14 states with the highest child poverty rates are in the South, and nationally nearly 25% of children live in poverty ranking America number two behind Romania with only a slightly higher rate among the world’s developed nations. Republicans are surely to blame for America’s hunger crisis, but the media share the blame for not reporting that the richest country is home to 50 million Americans who lack “access to adequate food limited by a lack of money” and a political party determined to use a debt ceiling crisis to increase America’s hunger crisis.
47% of Poor Whites Made Collateral Damage in GOP War on ObamaCare
By: Sarah Jones
Tuesday, December, 17th, 2013, 2:32 pm
There’s a lot of fail here, so hang on tight.
You probably remember Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s loathing and contempt for the 47%. Well, it’s back. And true to form, that 47% is a lot of the Republican base.
Sure, Republicans are hurting poor Southern blacks and Hispanics with their refusal to expand Medicaid, per their intentions. More poor uninsured adults reside in the South than in other regions, and the South is where the majority (11 of the 25) of states have rejected Medicaid expansion portion of ObamaCare, meant to help the poor. Nearly 80% of the people being screwed over by the GOP poutrage live in the South.
But they are also hurting 47% of poor whites, according to a new Kaiser study released today. Nationally, 2.2 million uninsured adults who fall into the “coverage gap” created by the Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid are white non-Hispanic – that’s 47%.
These are people whose incomes are above Medicaid eligibility limits but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits. And here’s one for the Tea Partiers—only 27% of those being screwed over nationally are black and 21% are Hispanic.
The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray…
To wit, from Kaiser (my bold):
Nationally, about half (47%) of uninsured adults in the coverage gap are White non-Hispanics, 21% are Hispanic, and 27% are Black (Figure 3). However, the race and ethnicity of people in the coverage gap also reflects differences in the racial/ethnic composition between states moving forward with the Medicaid expansion and states not planning to expand. Several states that have large Hispanic populations (e.g., California, New York, and Arizona) are moving forward with the expansion, while other states with large Black populations (e.g., Florida, Georgia, and Texas) are not. As a result, Blacks account for a slightly higher share of people in the coverage gap compared to the total poor adult uninsured population, while Hispanics account for a slightly lower share. The racial/ethnic characteristics of the population in the coverage gap vary widely by state (see Table 1), mirroring the underlying characteristics of the state population.
Nonelderly adults of all ages fall into the coverage gap (Figure 3). Notably, over half are middle-aged (age 35 to 54) or near elderly (age 55 to 64). Adults of these ages are likely to have increasing health needs, and research has demonstrated that uninsured people in this age range may leave health needs untreated until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65.5
So the GOP took aim at blacks and ending up hitting 47% of poor whites, over half of whom are middle aged or elderly – their base. This is exactly what we discovered after Mitt Romney made his comments about the 47%. Those people were his base.
Mitt Romney thought he was talking about lazy, poor, and probably in his mind, black Obama supporters when he claimed that there are, “47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing,” but the truth is that the majority of food stamp recipients are white.
Republicans are well aware of this reality but they don’t care – and apparently neither does their base, who are so misled by the talking points on Fox “News” that they’ll find a way to blame the black guy for being nothing but collateral damage to the Southern Strategists.
We can thank the activisty conservative Supreme Court for this fail, since a June 2012 Supreme Court ruling made the Medicaid expansion optional for states. This is not how ObamaCare was designed to work. The Republican sabotage and the collateral damage continue.
Approval Ratings for ACA and President Obama Climb In Latest ABC News Poll
By: Justin Baragona
Tuesday, December, 17th, 2013, 10:07 am
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll was released on Tuesday. Overall, the poll had good and bad news for the President. However, what should be noted is that the President is still viewed in a far more favorable light than Congressional Republicans. Also, despite all of the negative press that the implementation of the health care law has received by the mainstream media, approval for the law surged from the previous month’s poll results.
President Obama’s approval rating came in at 43%, which is a tick higher than last month’s, which was at 42%. The good news here is that the President is not seeing any further dip in his ratings. The approval rating is not necessarily good, as he is currently carrying a net negative of 12%. However, considering the endless media coverage of the ‘botched’ rollout of the ACA that followed the Republican-led government shutdown, it could definitely be worse. Also, just for a little context, the President’s rating today is nearly identical to where it was in late 2011, when he was hovering in the low-40s while Congress was doing its best to obstruct every move he made.
Meanwhile, public approval for the ACA shot up six points from November. Overall, 46% of people approved of the law against 49% opposing it. This is remarkable considering how much Republicans and its compliant media machine spent hammering away at the website ‘glitches and the cancelling of junk insurance policies that didn’t comply with the new requirements of the law. It appears that as more and more people sign up for coverage or notice that nothing has changed with their policies that they have through their employers, the more they realize that this is actually a good thing that is happening, not the end of the world as we know it.
As for a generic Congressional vote in 2014, 47% of people responded that they’d vote Democrat compared with 45% who said Republican. That is a modest two-point lead for the Democrats. However, this has definitely tightened from the last poll that asked this question, which was in October. (The question wasn’t asked in the November poll.) On October 20th, Democrats held a nine-point advantage. Of course, the government shutdown had just ended and Republicans were reeling until they were able to get the media to focus on the ACA website issues and change the narrative a short time later.
Another notable poll result was regarding the recent budget deal reached in Congress. 50% of respondents approved of the plan compared to 35% who opposed it. This seems pretty much in line with conventional wisdom. Generally, the feeling is that conservatives and liberals hated the budget deal for general ideological reasons. However, in general, people just want to have a long-term budget in place and not see Congress move from one self-induced crisis to another. Basically, most people don’t want to see another government shutdown.
Congress itself still has an awful approval rating of 16%, but that is four-points up from October. Neither Congressional Democrats or Republicans came out smelling good in the poll. Democrats, though, did have a ten-point advantage over Republicans, as their approval rating was 34% to the Republicans 24%. Democrats had a net negative of 30% while Republicans were at 49% due to a disapproval rating of 73%
President Obama did fare well when it came to voters’ views on certain issues. 52% of respondents felt that he understands the problems of everyday people. Also, 59% of people felt that the economy is improving, which is the highest result the poll has shown on that question. More people (46%) feel that President Obama will protect the middle class than Republicans (40%.) They also trust the President to handle the implementation of the health care law over Republicans by a 42-37 margin.
Guardian Weekly year in review 2013: Austerity takes its toll on Europe's confidence
The eurozone faces a lost decade with low growth and rising political friction over the course it should take
Guardian Weekly, Thursday 19 December 2013 00.01 GMT
To listen to the sermons from top people in Brussels and in some European Union capitals, the euro is safe, the storm has been weathered, the existential questions about the viability of the single currency have been banished. Good job.
But four years after Greece went hypercritical, triggering a eurozone sovereign debt crisis and a reshaping of how the EU works, the social, economic and political costs of the upheaval are coming home to roost. There are no quick fixes.
Austerity, the main policy response, has been savage. It is taking its toll. The eurozone is mired in stagnation, on the brink of deflation, gross domestic product remains 3% below 2008 Lehman Brothers levels. Growth is so anaemic, low fractions of a decimal point, that at current levels it will take the eurozone until 2021 to return to 2008 GDP levels.
In the words of a recent study from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the eurozone faces a lost decade. Youth unemployment rates are catastrophic, more than 50% in Greece, Spain and Croatia, commonly around 25% around large swaths of Europe. And if there is recovery to speak of, it looks like jobless recovery.
Berlin, running the eurozone show increasingly and certain to shape the policy responses of the next few years in what is chancellor Angela Merkel's third and probably final term, is ridden with angst about France, and the lack of reforms being undertaken by the lacklustre François Hollande, France's least popular president ever. More chaos and paralysis is foretold for Italy. The eurozone's second- and third-biggest economies are in trouble, and Germany, the unassailable number one, is worried about being dragged down with them.
But politically, the sharp edges of the crisis have blurred, allowing leaders to revert to their preferred mode of muddling through, criticised often as complacency. In 2014 Ireland will be the first of the bailed-out countries to move back into the bond markets to finance itself, also prompting trumpeting of assertions in Brussels and elsewhere that the medicine is working.
The year ended with a summit dominated by Germany – its reluctance to foot a large part of the bill for banking failure across the eurozone as part of a new regime of European banking supervision and Merkel's drive to entrench structural reform across the eurozone through a new system of Brussels-administered "binding contracts".
The new banking regime is the biggest policy response of all by national governments in four years. But Berlin has been waging a rearguard action against it for 18 months, leaving the likely outcome as a complicated fudge mainly concerning who pays for bank failure across the eurozone.
Both these issues – banking union and Merkel's contracts – will dominate the agenda in 2014, which will be a very big year in Europe. In the wake of years of crisis that have shaken Europe to the core and raised existential questions, 2014 will bring a major shakeup in the political forces ascendant across the EU, in the people running things, in how the EU's rival institutions cope with and against one another.
The political costs of the crisis are likely to be demonstrated in elections for the European parliament in May. They promise to be the most momentous ever held for the Strasbourg chamber. The worry of the elites across the continent is that the chamber will be captured by a motley crew of Europhobes dedicated to the destruction or subversion of the institution they have conquered.
As a result of years of austerity, soaring unemployment and the "renationalisation" of European politics, anti-EU populists will do well in the elections, from Britain to Greece. France could be the big one, with Marine Le Pen's Front National tipped to win the election nationally.
The mavericks and populists will not win the election. But they could secure symbolic victories, take around 30% of seats, shape the agenda, cause the mainstream parties to trim their policies towards the far-right, and benefit from the perceived leadership failings among the mainstream in Europe.
The fallout from the elections will also affect the next bout of horse-trading. October will see the appointment of a new European commission, a new president of the European council chairing EU summits and mediating between national leaders, and a new foreign policy chief.
There will be a battle between the new parliament and national leaders over who should make these key appointments and there will be the usual multidimensional scrapping over the plum jobs.
While these games preoccupy Brussels, Europe's real world is one of deepening social and economic impact from years of austerity and euro crisis, of the political costs of minimal growth, effective deflation and mass unemployment.
The British question will move up the agenda. Will the UK be the first country, and a big one, to quit the EU? This will concentrate continental minds. Merkel is now Europe's undisputed leader. The year should show if she really has an idea of what she wants her European legacy to be and whether she can get there.
France's President Hollande cuts an increasingly sorry figure on the European stage. He needs a new deal with Germany but there is little sign of that happening. French weakness and Italian messiness will reinforce the prevalent sense of worry about European decline.
Guardian Weekly year in review 2013: Pig Putin keeps Russia in an icy embrace
The Russian president has scored a number of foreign diplomatic coups but his domestic policy has become increasingly polarised
Guardian Weekly, Thursday 19 December 2013 00.01 GMT
When Pig Putin kicks back on New Year's Eve with a glass of Russian-made champagne, and reflects on the year behind him, he is likely to feel rather pleased with himself at the way his foreign policy initiatives have gone in 2013. Although there has been a steady increase of tension with Europe and the US, leading to a number of crisis points, the Kremlin has been able to score a number of diplomatic victories, many of them utterly unexpected.
From the extraordinary effort that saw the Pig take to the pages of the New York Times as the voice of restraint and international law, persuading the US not to launch a military attack on Syria and succeeding in getting a dubious plan to remove chemical weapons from the country off the ground, to the equally surreal spectacle of Russia taking the moral high ground over surveillance and spying by sheltering Edward Snowden from the long arm of US retribution, the Kremlin has scored points in the unlikeliest of places.
As the year drew to a close, Pig Putin pulled off another spectacular, prising neighbouring Ukraine from the embrace of the European Union and yanking it back towards Moscow. At a summit in Crimea in September, the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine spewed dark threats about what would happen if Ukraine ignored Russia, and was laughed out of the room. Two months later, his wishes were fulfilled.
It's almost funny when you think about it – all those European bureaucrats beavering away over the minutiae of the trade deal, and then along comes Putin with a sack of cash and scuppers the whole thing in a matter of minutes. Not even a sack of cash, in fact, but the promise of a sack of cash. And indeed, not so much as the promise of a sack of cash, but the threat of a lack of a sack of cash in the case of noncompliance.
Whether any of these things will actually prove to be long-lasting victories, or whether they are merely point-scoring that will bring Russia more headaches in the long run, is an open question. What the Russians lack is soft power, as the response on the streets of Ukraine to news of the deal illustrated again. Even with the disasters that have befallen the EU in recent years, it turns out that moving closer to Brussels is still an attractive prospect for many in eastern Europe, as a symbolic aspiration and a beacon of values, whereas the Kremlin's icy embrace simply is not.
More generally, relations with the US and Europe spiralled, with the values gap ever bigger and the rhetoric on both sides ever more spiky, while still refraining from going entirely over the precipice. The US banned Russian officials implicated in the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky from travelling to America; Russia, aware that a reciprocal ban would hardly be devastating for US officials, added in a ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens for good measure.
The Russia-Netherlands year of culture was marred by all manner of political obstacles. The Pig was booed and jeered over Russia's controversial new anti-gay legislation when he travelled to Amsterdam,the countries traded accusations that their respective deputy ambassadors were beaten up in each others' capital cities, and the Netherlands took Russia to an international tribunal over its seizure of the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise. Britain should watch out – 2014 is the Russia-UK year of culture.
At home, Pig Putin has pulled back from a full-scale crackdown, with laws branding NGOs as "foreign agents" only partially implemented, opposition leader Alexei Navalny spared jail and allowed to run in Moscow mayoral elections, and no mass arrests of opponents, though harsh trials of those arrested after a Moscow protest the day before his inauguration drag on interminably. The so-called Bolotnaya protesters receive little media attention, but the Kremlin has been genuinely shocked by the negative publicity that its laws against "homosexual propaganda" have received, and is furious that the gay issue could dominate the Pig's pet project, the Sochi Olympics in February.
Pussy Riot and Arctic 30 amnesty is a Pig Putin masterstroke ahead of Olympics
Amnesty law is attempt to defuse international criticism of human rights crackdown before 2014 Sochi Winter Games start
Luke Harding and Francesca Ebel
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013 17.25 GMT
The "amnesty" for Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace Arctic 30 is a classic PR masterstroke. Ordered by Pig Putin – nothing of this nature happens without him – it soothes international opinion, while keeping those who pose a real threat to his regime firmly behind bars.
Ever since Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Pig Putin has made clear that the Games are his pet project. Back in 2007 he wowed the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala with a speech in English and French. Some seven years – and $50bn later – the Games are ready. In February the eyes of the world will turn to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It will be a moment of triumph for Putin, back in the Kremlin for a third time, unlikely to leave any time soon, and a swaggering figure on the world stage.
But in recent months several issues have threatened to take the shine off his image-boosting pagaent. There has been growing international criticism of Putin's post-2012 crackdown on human rights, the worst since the Soviet era. New Russian laws outlawing "gay propaganda" have created negative headlines from Stockholm to Seattle. And the arrest of 30 Greenpeace campaigners, after they boarded a Russian oil rig to draw attention to the plundering of the Arctic, has seen protests outside Russian embassies.
The wide-ranging amnesty law passed by the Russian parliament on Wednesday defuses some of this. It should see the Arctic 30 home in time for Christmas. Their trial on charges of hooliganism is likely to be shelved. Within a matter of days they should receive exit visas. The probable release of Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, towards the end of their two-year sentences, will delight their many international fans.
There is no amnesty, however, for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch in jail since 2003. Nor is there clemency for the "Bolotnaya 27", who took part in mass anti-Pig street protests in May 2012. Despite little evidence against them, they face up to 13 years in prison. One participant has been sent to a psychatric facility. These continued detentions send an unambiguous message to those who nurture faint hopes Putin might somehow be toppled from power. It reads: protest against the Kremlin and pay a heavy price.
Despite talk of a boycott, there will be no repeat of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when the US refused to participate, or the Los Angeles Games four years later, the subject of a similar Soviet-led boycott. But at least four countries including France, Germany, the US, and Georgia have signalled they will not be sending top-level delegations to Sochi – a snub of sorts to Putin, and a repudiation of his anti-gay rhetoric.
On Tuesday the White House announced that Barack Obama, vice-president Joe Biden, and first lady Michelle Obama will not be attending. Nor will any ex-presidents. It is the first time since 2000 senior US leaders have been missing from an Olympic event. Instead the tennis great Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes representing the US for the opening and closing ceremonies. The other is Caitlin Cahow, a hockey player. The delegation "represents the diversity that is the United States".
Obama's move is carefully calibrated. It signals US displeasure but stops short of a full-blown boycott that could escalate tensions with the Kremlin, at a time when Washington still badly needs Moscow's help on Syria, Iran and other thorny international problems.
France's François Hollande and Germany's president, Joachim Gauck, have also announced they will skip Sochi. The French foreign ministry says there is no "political significance" to Hollande's decision. "It's a very simple matter. Only ministers attend the winter games. This isn't a matter for the president," a spokesman said.
Gauck – who visited the London games in 2012 – has not explicitly given his reasons and has said he will welcome German athletes on their return from Sochi at a reception in Munich. Chancellor Angela Merkel has not yet said if she will go.
These absences reflect western unease at the human rights situation in Russia generally. Since returning to the Kremin in 2012, Pig Putin has presided over the worst clampdown on human rights since the Soviet period. The Duma has enacted new laws compelling non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents". Opposition demonstrators who took part in anti-Pig protests face long stretches in jail. There have been sh ow trials against a dead man – the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who exposed massive official corruption, and died in prison in 2009 – and against the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Pig Putin's tough stance on gay rights is part of a wider political strategy to shore up the Kremlin's conservative base. It follows opposition street protests which began in 2011-12, largely centred on Moscow and led by the country's restive middle classes.
All of this poses a dilemma for David Cameron, who has not yet said whether he will attend the Sochi Olympics. On Wednesday Downing Street said the prime minister's travel plans were not usually decided this far in advance. The culture secretary Maria Millar will likely travel to Russia, together with sports minister Helen Grant, and Lord Coe, the chairman of the British Olympic Association. Cameron is not a fan of boycotts – viewing them as left-wing posturing – and could be expected to attend, given that the UK hosted the last Olympics.
Since taking office, Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague have engaged in a pragmatic attempt to "reset" relations with the Kremlin, which have been in the diplomatic freezer since the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Putin and Cameron watched the judo together at the London Games, sharing a bonding moment. In May Cameron held talks with Putin at his summer residence in Sochi. Afterwards the prime minister announced that Britain would resume cooperation with Russia's FSB spy agency, over the Winter Olympics. This was remarkable, given that British officials believe the FSB played a leading role in Litvinenko's death.
If Cameron does fly to the Black Sea resort he could end up sitting next to the presidents of Belarus, Venezeula and Kazakhstan. He is also likely to feature in Russian state propaganda.
Denis MacShane, the former Labour Europe minister, said on Wednesday that the prime minister should make a principled stand and boycott Sochi. He admitted, however: "I'm not holding my breath. We have a foreign policy that can be summed up in three words, 'commerce über alles'. Somehow Paris and Berlin seem to be able to speak out on human rights in Russia in a way that Cameron is frightened of."
12/18/2013 02:43 PM
Merkel Speech: Chancellor Urges Reforms to Preserve Euro
In the first parliamentary speech of her third term, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Europe needs to take more action to make its single currency crisis-proof and urged states to undertake binding economic reforms.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday called on European countries to agree to binding economic reforms to correct flaws in the makeup of the single currency.
In her first parliamentary speech since her re-election for a third term on Tuesday, she warned that Europe needed to take further action to make the euro zone crisis-proof.
"Clearly the euro-zone debt crisis is not yet overcome. One cannot emphasise this often enough. But we are seeing first successes and we are convinced it can be overcome permanently," she told the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
She said Ireland's successful exit from the bailout program last week and progress elsewhere showed that her approach of seeking reforms in return for aid had been the right one.
More European Control
"I know that pushing through treaty changes in the member states can be difficult, but if you want more Europe, you have to be prepared to develop it further," Merkel said. "In a world that is constantly changing, we can't stand there and say that at some point we agreed the Lisbon Treaty and there's no need to change it again. This won't work."
Germany wants closer economic policy coordination and will push at a summit of European Union leaders on Thursday and Friday for members to agree binding contracts with the European Commission to implement further reforms.
It is also pushing for changes to the Lisbon Treaty to give greater European control over policy. Germany's closest ally in Europe, France, opposes such a move, as do other member states.
"European unity remains one of the most important tasks of the grand coaltion," said Merkel. "Germany is only strong if Europe is strong."
Criticism of EU Green Energy Probe
She said she would fight an EU probe announced on Wednesday into exemptions from a green energy surcharge for some 2,000 German companies. The European Commission is examining whether the exemptions, totalling some €5 billion and granted to heavy energy users like the steel industry, were unfair and should be repaid.
The German government would not tolerate a weakening of German industry or job losses, she said. "Germany wants to remain a strong industrial location, we need competitive companies," she said. "This is about companies and when it's about companies, it's about jobs."
She said Germany's new Economy and Energy Minister, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, would make this very clear to the European Commission. "As long as there are countries in Europe where electricity is cheaper for industry than it is in Germany, I cannot see how we are distorting competition."
Turning to Ukraine, Merkel said the offer of an EU association agreement with the country would remain on the table, but that the government would have to guarantee "what we expect of every country: sensible guarantees of demonstration rights and adherence to basic democratic rules."
The first world war: Look back with angst
A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war
Dec 21st 2013 |
AS NEW YEAR approached a century ago, most people in the West looked forward to 1914 with optimism. The hundred years since the Battle of Waterloo had not been entirely free of disaster—there had been a horrific civil war in America, some regional scraps in Asia, the Franco-Prussian war and the occasional colonial calamity. But continental peace had prevailed. Globalisation and new technology—the telephone, the steamship, the train—had knitted the world together. John Maynard Keynes has a wonderful image of a Londoner of the time, “sipping his morning tea in bed” and ordering “the various products of the whole earth” to his door, much as he might today from Amazon—and regarding this state of affairs as “normal, certain and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement”. The Londoner might well have had by his bedside table a copy of Norman Angell’s “The Great Illusion”, which laid out the argument that Europe’s economies were so integrated that war was futile.
Yet within a year, the world was embroiled in a most horrific war. It cost 9m lives—and many times that number if you take in the various geopolitical tragedies it left in its wake, from the creation of Soviet Russia to the too-casual redrawing of Middle Eastern borders and the rise of Hitler. From being a friend of freedom, technology became an agent of brutality, slaughtering and enslaving people on a terrifying scale. Barriers shot up around the world, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The globalisation that Keynes’s Londoner enjoyed only really began again in 1945—or, some would argue, in the 1990s, when eastern Europe was set free and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began bearing fruit in China.
In this section
The driving force behind the catastrophe that befell the world a century ago was Germany, which was looking for an excuse for a war that would allow it to dominate Europe. Yet complacency was also to blame. Too many people, in London, Paris and elsewhere, believed that because Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners after America and there was therefore no economic logic behind the conflict, war would not happen. As Keynes put it, “The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of [the Londoner’s]…daily newspaper.”
Playing your role
Humanity can learn from its mistakes, as shown by the response to the economic crisis, which was shaped by a determination to avoid the mistakes that led to the Depression. The memory of the horrors unleashed a century ago makes leaders less likely to stumble into war today. So does the explosive power of a modern conflagration: the threat of a nuclear holocaust is a powerful brake on the reckless escalation that dispatched a generation of young men into the trenches.
Yet the parallels remain troubling. The United States is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power. The parallels are not exact—China lacks the Kaiser’s territorial ambitions and America’s defence budget is far more impressive than imperial Britain’s—but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard.
Which, by and large, it is not. The most troubling similarity between 1914 and now is complacency. Businesspeople today are like businesspeople then: too busy making money to notice the serpents flickering at the bottom of their trading screens. Politicians are playing with nationalism just as they did 100 years ago. China’s leaders whip up Japanophobia, using it as cover for economic reforms, while Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism for similar reasons. India may next year elect Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who refuses to atone for a pogrom against Muslims in the state he runs and who would have his finger on the button of a potential nuclear conflict with his Muslim neighbours in Pakistan. Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart. And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.
I have drunk and seen the spider
Two precautions would help prevent any of these flashpoints sparking a conflagration. One is a system for minimising the threat from potential dangers. Nobody is quite clear what will happen when North Korea implodes, but America and China need to plan ahead if they are to safeguard its nuclear programme without antagonising each other. China is playing an elaborately dangerous game of “chicken” around its littoral with its neighbours. Eventually, somebody is bound to crash into somebody else—and there is as yet no system for dealing with it. A code of maritime conduct for the area is needed.
The second precaution that would make the world safer is a more active American foreign policy. Despite forging an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, Barack Obama has pulled back in the Middle East—witness his unwillingness to use force in Syria. He has also done little to bring the new emerging giants—India, Indonesia, Brazil and, above all, China—into the global system. This betrays both a lack of ambition and an ignorance of history. Thanks to its military, economic and soft power, America is still indispensable, particularly in dealing with threats like climate change and terror, which cross borders. But unless America behaves as a leader and the guarantor of the world order, it will be inviting regional powers to test their strength by bullying neighbouring countries.
The chances are that none of the world’s present dangers will lead to anything that compares to the horrors of 1914. Madness, whether motivated by race, religion or tribe, usually gives ground to rational self-interest. But when it triumphs, it leads to carnage, so to assume that reason will prevail is to be culpably complacent. That is the lesson of a century ago.
The Economist’s country of the year
Earth’s got talent: Resilient Ireland, booming South Sudan, tumultuous Turkey: our country of the year is…
Dec 21st 2013
HUMAN life isn’t all bad, but it sometimes feels that way. Good news is no news: the headlines mostly tell of strife and bail-outs, failure and folly.
Yet, like every year, 2013 has witnessed glory as well as calamity. When the time comes for year-end accountings, both the accomplishments and the cock-ups tend to be judged the offspring of lone egomaniacs or saints, rather than the joint efforts that characterise most human endeavour. To redress the balance from the individual to the collective, and from gloom to cheer, The Economist has decided, for the first time, to nominate a country of the year.
But how to choose it? Readers might expect our materialistic outlook to point us to simple measures of economic performance, but they can be misleading. Focusing on GDP growth would lead us to opt for South Sudan, which will probably notch up a stonking 30% increase in 2013—more the consequence of a 55% drop the previous year, caused by the closure of its only oil pipeline as a result of its divorce from Sudan, than a reason for optimism about a troubled land. Or we might choose a nation that has endured economic trials and lived to tell the tale. Ireland has come through its bail-out and cuts with exemplary fortitude and calm; Estonia has the lowest level of debt in the European Union. But we worry that this econometric method would confirm the worst caricatures of us as flint-hearted number-crunchers; and not every triumph shows up in a country’s balance of payments.
Another problem is whether to evaluate governments or their people. In some cases their merits are inversely proportional: consider Ukraine, with its thuggish president, Viktor Yanukovych, and its plucky citizens, freezing for democracy in the streets of Kiev, even though nine years ago they went to the trouble of having a revolution to keep the same man out of office. Or remember Turkey, where tens of thousands protested against the creeping autocracy and Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister-cum-sultan. Alas, neither movement has yet been all that successful.
Definitional questions creep in, too. One possible candidate, Somaliland, has kept both piracy and Islamic extremism at bay, yet on most reckonings it is not a country at all, rather a renegade province of Somalia—which has struggled to contain either. As well as countries yet to be, we might celebrate one that could soon disintegrate: the United Kingdom, which hasn’t fared too badly, all things considered, since coming into being in 1707, but could fracture in 2014 should the Scots be foolhardy enough to vote for secession.
And the winner is
When other publications conduct this sort of exercise, but for individuals, they generally reward impact rather than virtue. Thus they end up nominating the likes of Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khomeini or, in 1938, Adolf Hitler. Adapting that realpolitikal rationale, we might choose Bashar Assad’s Syria, from which millions of benighted refugees have now been scattered to freezing camps across the Levant. If we were swayed by influence per head of population, we might plump for the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands, the clutch of barren rocks in the East China Sea that have periodically threatened to incite a third world war—though that might imply their independence, leading both China and Japan to invade us. Alternatively, applying the Hippocratic principle to statecraft, we might suggest a country from which no reports of harm or excitement have emanated. Kiribati seems to have had a quiet year.
But the accomplishments that most deserve commendation, we think, are path-breaking reforms that do not merely improve a single nation but, if emulated, might benefit the world. Gay marriage is one such border-crossing policy, which has increased the global sum of human happiness at no financial cost. Several countries have implemented it in 2013—including Uruguay, which also, uniquely, passed a law to legalise and regulate the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. This is a change so obviously sensible, squeezing out the crooks and allowing the authorities to concentrate on graver crimes, that no other country has made it. If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced.
Better yet, the man at the top, President José Mujica, is admirably self-effacing. With unusual frankness for a politician, he referred to the new law as an experiment. He lives in a humble cottage, drives himself to work in a Volkswagen Beetle and flies economy class. Modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving, Uruguay is our country of the year. ¡Felicitaciones!
Italy's rage against Europe is not justified
Italians are unfairly blaming the EU for their ills – their country's problems started well before the introduction of the euro
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 10.31 GMT
Only 10 years ago, Italians greeted the first euros dispensed from cash machines as a cause for national celebration. At the time Italy was the most loyal and enthusiastic founding member of the EU. According to Eurobarometer polls at the time, 70% of its citizens (the highest percentage among EU countries) believed that EU membership was a good thing. For many Italians Europe was seen as the only and last hope to counterbalance the power of inept and often corrupt politicians; the institution that would force Italy to become a "normal" country.
In the decade that has elapsed, the love affair has turned sour. Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi, the leaders of two of the three main political parties, have based their political campaigns on the idea that Italy should leave the euro. Even the newly elected leader of the Democratic party, Matteo Renzi, seems to share some of the scepticism that brands Europe a construction dominated by technocrats. And now the Pitchfork movement – which takes its name (I Forconi) from the pitchforks that are normally reserved for farmers but are now used to haunt politicians – is directing its anti-austerity rage towards "Europe". Some protesters have replaced the Europe flag on the main door of the European parliament's office in Rome with the Italian one.
Ten years after welcoming the euro, only 38% of Italians still think that to be part of the EU is a good thing (only in Britain does the EU fare worse in terms of public approval). The consequences of such a drastic disillusionment both with traditional politics and with Europe in one of the EU's strongholds are serious. Chances are that most people won't bother to vote at the next European elections and that the majority of future MEPs will come from parties that challenge even the parliament's mere existence. Paradoxically this will make Europe's democratic deficit even more acute and exacerbate the contradiction between monetary union and political fragmentation to the point of explosion.
Nobody can deny that Europe needs profound reforms. Yet are national politicians and public opinion right in thinking that the union and the euro deserve all the blame for the economic crisis?
The numbers show – at least as far as Italy is concerned – that the rage is not justified: Italy's economic stagnation started about 20 years ago, well before the introduction of the euro and the global financial crisis that erupted in 2007. Since the introduction of the single European currency, the country has witnessed a permanent drop of about seven percentage points in interest rates paid on its huge debt. This has allowed Italy's treasury to save about €70bn a year, whereas a return to the lira would almost certainly bring the country to default and to the point where it would not be able to pay public sector salaries and pensions.
And while most Italian politicians busy themselves asking Europe – and Angela Merkel – to "shift from austerity to growth" and, therefore, to allow for more public investment, nobody seems to notice that Italy has not been able to spend the funds that the European commission has already allocated to its poorest regions to promote economic growth.
It is easy to identify what is happening in Italy as the standard reaction of a political system that is having a hard time coming to terms with internal reforms. An external enemy is created and blame transferred, thus avoiding that otherwise necessary hard work of change.
The challenge is mostly up to Renzi: it is true that Europe needs to become more political and that in order to do so, Europe needs Italy's ideas and energy. However, in order to change Europe, Italians need first and foremost to change themselves, to manage the risks and face the hard choices that are associated with transformation. This is the only way to regain the credibility that leadership requires.
Swedish 'pirate' hit with £403,000 damages for sharing single movie
Former moderator of film piracy site who distributed 517 other films and TV shows via BitTorrent ordered to pay record sum
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 11.50 GMT
A 28-year-old Swedish man has been ordered to pay £403,000 in damages for uploading a single pre-release film to a BitTorrent site.
The movie, Beck – Buried Alive, was shared on of Sweden’s oldest piracy BitTorrent sites, Swebits, which shut down a week after the man was arrested in 2011.
"The high damages shows what damage creators and rights holders suffer through illegal file sharing of a movie. Going forward, we have a number of processes which we can use to seek compensation for piracy of one or more films," said Henrik Pontén, a lawyer for anti-piracy firm Legal Alliance.
Sweden’s “worst ever” individual movie pirate
The 28-year-old, described by rightsholders as Sweden’s “worst ever” individual movie pirate, was a moderator and uploader for the Swebits BitTorrent tracker site from 2008 to its closure.
An investigation carried out by Rights Alliance with Nordisk Film discovered the 28-year-old Swede had distributed 517 other movies and TV shows on the site, for which he was handed a suspended jail sentence and ordered to complete 160 hours of community service.
The Swedish District Court handed down the record 4.5m Swedish Krona restitution, which far exceeds the $150,000 statutory damages permitted per pirated title in the US. The damages in included the cost of licensing the movie from the rightsholders for distribution. The video quality of the pirated film – described as being poor enough to have damaged the its reputation – was also taken into consideration.
26th Martin Beck movie
The movie, originally released in 2009 in Germany before landing in Sweden in 2010, is the 26th movie in the Swedish language series featuring the fictional police detective Martin Beck, who has featured in films, books and a radio series produced by the BBC.
"To receive such a harsh penalty for doing something that millions of other Swedes displays how outdated current legislation is. The only way forward is a radical reform of copyright law that allows the sharing of culture," said Gustav Nipe chairman of the Pirate Party’s Young Pirate youth organisation.
• In December, notorious BitTorrent site the Pirate Bay switched web addresses for the sixth time this year to avoid court-ordered blocking
Labour shouldn't emulate France's economic disaster
Ed Balls's plan B has lost all credibility as the UK is doing better than expected – and France's alternative to austerity doesn't work
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 13.06 GMT
Business confidence is falling. Unemployment has risen to 10.9%, a 16-year high. Only months after escaping one recession, the nation is on the brink of another. Time to adopt Labour's plan B? No, because this is France – plan B is already in place, and the bad economic news is its grisly fruit.
At one time, it seemed as if the British left would never stop talking about a grand economic alternative to austerity. There was even a "march for the alternative" – though none of its proponents were very specific about exactly how the alternative would work. The most you could get out of them was this: austerity would be stopped; the rich would be made to pay far higher taxes; the deficit could look after itself, or else it would be magically paid off by a plan-B boom.
Those halcyon days are over. Ed Balls, the personification of plan B-ism, has stopped shouting the words "too far, too fast". He's even ditched his flatlining gesture. The British economy isn't fully recovered, and there are plenty of problems – not least the rising cost of living, and the major task of eliminating the rest of the deficit. But the idea that trying to live within our means would cause downturn and disaster has been demolished by reality. Today, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that the number of people out of work fell by 99,000 in the three months to October. The unemployment rate now stands at 7.4% of the working-age population, down from 7.6% in the three months to September – a four-and-a-half-year low.
Plan B has lost all plausibility, because the dire forecasts of its supporters have not come true. That isn't to say we should forget its existence. "The alternative" isn't just a relic of the British political past – it's a fact of life in modern-day France, and we should study it in detail.
The Hollande government has raised taxes by €60bn in two years, loading more costs onto business in particular. Tax on high earners is being hiked to 75% – so they are fleeing to London, Monaco or, in one eccentric case, Russia. At the same time, the power of trade unions and the president's unwillingness to pursue regulatory reform means France's red tape mountain is largely intact. The result is the current fiscal and economic crisis.
The economic resurgence Hollande, Balls and others promised has not come to pass. The public finances continue to be founded on unaffordable debt. So the French government is now trying to move to plan A. The early draft of the 2014 budget proposes €15bn of spending cuts and €3bn in tax rises – a ratio strikingly similar to Osborne's 4:1 formula that the March for the Alternative once denounced.
There is no glee to take, even for deficit hawks like myself, in the disastrous French experiment with plan B. It has inflicted the huge human cost of yet another downturn, yet more unemployment, and yet more debt on a country which could instead be on the road to recovery.
But there is a lesson to learn. When someone promises that you can get out of a serious debt problem by borrowing more, they are lying or they have been lied to.
We in the UK have not had it easy, but we were fortunate that in 2010 the electorate saw through the false promises of those who pretended there was no need to change the way we run the public finances. The French have been less fortunate, and are only now starting to come to the right conclusion the hard way.
When people next march through London preaching an "alternative" to hard decisions and balancing the books, we need only look at the experience of France to realise how wrong they are.
Bavarian town council revokes Adolf Hitler's honorary citizenship
Councillors nullify honours bestowed on Adolf Hitler and the president who appointed him, Paul von Hindenburg, in 1933
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 14.40 GMT
A Bavarian town council has voted unanimously to strip Adolf Hitler of honorary citizenship bestowed 80 years ago, after an outcry prompted by its decision last week not to adopt a resolution denouncing the 1933 decision.
The issue came up after an archivist discovered documents showing that Hitler and the president who appointed him, Paul von Hindenburg, had been given honorary citizenship of Dietramszell.
The council deadlocked in an 8-8 vote last week on the resolution, with councillors voting against, saying it was not up to them to rewrite history.
But the town administrator, Thomas Gerg, said on Wednesday the full council had voted 21-0 on Tuesday to adopt the resolution and nullify the honour bestowed on both men after hearing impassioned testimony from a woman who lost members of her family in the Holocaust.
Bavarian U-turn over academic reprint of Hitler's Mein Kampf blurs ethics
Preventing the proliferation of Mein Kampf may feel the right thing to do – but it risks impeding those trying to demystify it
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 14.15 GMT
Last week, a number of news headlines suggested that the German state of Bavaria was trying to "ban" Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. In fact, no such thing had happened. What had taken place was that Bavaria's minister president, the Christian Social Union (CSU) politician Horst Seehofer, had gone back on a commitment to fund a critical, academic edition of the book, set to be published just before copyright runs out on 1 January 2016.
The finance ministry of Bavaria, where the publishing house behind Mein Kampf was officially registered when it was liquidated in 1945, has owned the copyright to the work since the end of the war, and has in the past denied any requests for publication.
In 2012, however, the Bavarian parliament had announced that it would help fund a critically annotated academic publication of the book produced by the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, which has been worked on since 2009. A year ago, finance minister Markus Söder told the political magazine Cicero that "we want to make clear what rubbish is written in this book, and what fatal consequences it had", adding that "we have to demystify this book".
Now, after investing €500,000 in the project, the CSU seems to have had second thoughts about the Bavarian crest appearing in the academic edition, reportedly after complaints from Holocaust survivors.
This seemed politically inconsistent, but not quite the draconian measure it was made out to be. Perhaps, given Bavaria's status as the "birthplace" of national socialism, it was even the ethical thing to do. Most legal experts suggested that the publication of the academic edition would go ahead as planned, just with a bit less money.
But a small notice in German papers last Friday, which has so far passed by the English-language media, makes this tale a bit more interesting. It said that the Bavarian finance ministry last week threatened to take legal action against an academic at the Technical University of Berlin, who had uploaded a PDF of Mein Kampf to the university's website.
In Germany, academics' freedom to do their research, Wissenschaftsfreiheit, is embedded in Article 5 of the Basic Law, and Bavarian minister for education and cultural affairs, Ludwig Spaenle, had promised that "academic freedom would not be touched" by the political U-turn over the Mein Kampf question. But suing an academic seems to suggest otherwise.
Christian Gizewski a research professor at TU Berlin describes himself as a "general historian" specialising in ancient history. For years, he told me over the phone, he had wanted to "expose Hitler's prejudices and show that there was no sound historical basis to his ideology about race". The author of Mein Kampf, Gizewski said, never really tried to get his head around the history of the Jewish people or what Aryan really means. "He was a sweary demagogue, not a historian".
Initially, he uploaded a summary of Mein Kampf to his website hosted by TU Berlin. But, he said, it would have been unscientific to have a commentary on a book without specifying which edition it was referring to. Therefore, in 2011, he uploaded a PDF of Mein Kampf to his site. "It's very easy to find online already, after all."
No one complained for two years – until Thursday, when the Bavarian finance ministry rang and asked him to take the PDF off his website. "I tried to explain to them why I had academic reasons to upload the text, but they weren't interested", he said. "They just inferred that I was a Nazi".
On Friday, TU Berlin switched off the entire website for three days. On Monday, they switched his site back on, but without the PDF of Mein Kampf. A spokesperson from the university said that it considered Gizewski's action a breach of copyright.
But Gizewski argued that as a qualified academic he was perfectly within his right to reproduce a historical source text as long as he did not make a profit from it. He pointed to paragraphs 52 and 52a of German copyright law – which, for example, allow lecturers to photocopy books for seminars. He also said he he wanted to fight his corner if the case went to court: "I will keep on running this website."
"It should be in everyone's interest, that the whole work is taken apart back to front. Of course there are people who will abuse this book, but surely we have to distinguish between them and academics who look at it for sound academic reasons."
Gizewski could be accused of eccentricity (there is also a long letter to Social Democrat party members on his site, explaining why they should have voted against a coalition with Merkel's party), and perhaps of wilful mischief – he could have just linked to one of the thousands of other scans of Mein Kampf you can find on Google. But from talking to him there seems little doubt that he has a genuine academic motive.
At the very least, this episode illustrates the ongoing absurdity of the situation around the publication of Hitler's book in Germany. The Bavarian finance ministry can call up Christian Gizewski because he happens to live in Germany. But it can do nothing about the thousands of scans uploaded outside Germany that remain just a keystroke away for those within the country.
Spain's plan to reform abortion laws attacked as 'serious step backwards'
People's party sparks fury with plan to tighten laws by allowing abortion only in cases of rape or risk to mother's health
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 15.54 GMT
The Spanish government is expected to present sweeping reforms to the country's liberal abortion laws this Friday, ushering in changes that women's groups are already calling a "serious step backwards".
While the full draft of the reforms has yet to be tabled, the ruling People's party has said it favours returning to a system where abortion will only be allowed in the case of rape or when there is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.
In 2010, under the Socialist government, Spain relaxed its laws on abortion, giving women the right to an abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. In cases where the mother's health is at risk, or when the foetus shows serious deformities, Spanish women have until the 22nd week to end the pregnancy.
The new reforms are expected to make the procedure illegal in the case of foetal deformities and, in a reversal from previous laws, 16 and 17-year-olds will have to obtain permission from their parents to have an abortion.
The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, sailed to victory in the 2011 elections, buoyed by promises that included a scaling back of Spain's abortion laws. Hints earlier this year of the government's intention to follow up on its promise revealed a society deeply divided on the issue, as both pro- and anti-abortion camps poured on to the streets in noisy demonstrations. The polling agency Metroscopia last year found that 81% of Spaniards were against the reforms.
"These changes have more to do with politics and ideology than social realities today in Spain," said Francisca García of the Asociación de Clínicas Acreditadas para la Interrupción del Embarazo, the umbrella group that represents 98% of the country's abortion clinics.
"From all the data we've seen, the number of abortions in Spain is actually on the decline," she said. "The People's party is trying to satisfy the rightwing factions of its party."
Given the economic crisis that has gripped the country, "there is little public demand for this initiative. These are secondary problems compared to the crisis," said García.
According to the organisation, recent data it had analysed showed that of the 118,000 or so abortions that took place in 2011, nearly 100,000 would be illegal under the expected changes.
García worries the changes could lead to "abortion tourism", with women travelling to other countries in Europe to end their pregnancies. She said the restrictions also risked sparking a public health crisis as women who could not afford to travel turned to unlicensed, illegal clinics for abortions.
Changes to the law have long been championed by Spain's Catholic church, an influential force in a country where more than 70% of the population say they are Catholic. Madrid's archbishop, Antonio María Rouco Varela, has called for an urgent reform of the 2010 law, saying it had "led to a rise in the number of abortions to terrifying levels".
It was an issue that helped propel the People's party into power, said Benigno Blanco, president of the Foro Español de la Familia. "Now it is time for the government to complete its electoral promises regarding this law. There is popular demand to do this."
In 2009, when Spain's Socialist party first floated the idea of liberalising the abortion laws, he said, a quarter of a million Spaniards took to the streets to voice their discontent. "We saw some of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the country."
He added: "I believe the government is undertaking this reform because they know that many in Spanish society will see it positively."
The expected reform has angered many in the Socialist party, who started Spain's march towards liberalising abortion in 1985 with a law to decriminalise the procedure in the case of a malformed foetus, rape, or potential mental or physical damage to the mother.
Elena Valenciano, the deputy secretary general of Spain's Socialist party, spoke out against the Catholic church in April, accusing it of trying to diminish women's say over their own bodies.
"And women, that is to say mothers, don't they have a word in this? Ministers, judges, bishops, scientists are going to decide what we should do with our motherhood. Yes, they know. We obey and shut up. Amen," she vented on her Facebook page.
Women's groups across the country echo her views. "This is a fight for control over women's bodies," said Yolanda Besteiro, president of the Federación de Mujeres Progresistas.
"For so many generations, so many Spanish women have fought for equality," she said. "They have had some tremendous successes, including a past government that counted as many female ministers as male. But now it seems like their fight was worth nothing."
On Tuesday, 200 organisations across Spain – including Besteiro's – joined forces to launch a campaign targeting female parliamentarians, asking them to stand up for women's rights. "A reform of this type suggests a lack of respect and a lack of consideration of the rights of women," said Besterio.
It was the least they could do, she said, given the serious implications of the reform. "It will take us back 40 years," she said, her voice shaking with frustration.
"It will be like Spain was during the time of Franco. It's a step back to a time we thought was forgotten."
Olympic rules for protesting against Russia's anti-gay laws clarified
• Demonstrations to be kept away from accredited areas
• Sochi Winter Olympics to have 'protest zones' like Beijing
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013 19.05 GMT
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has made it clear to nations competing in February's Winter Games in Sochi that athletes will be free to speak out against Russia's controversial anti-gay laws, as long as they do so away from accredited areas.
The British Olympic Association (BOA) said it had received a letter from the IOC clarifying its rule 50, which says "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted". The IOC has been under pressure to clarify its position since Russia introduced the new laws, which prohibit the "promotion" of homosexuality to under 18s, earlier this year.
This prompted calls for a boycott of the Games from some, including the actor Stephen Fry, and led others to condemn the new laws. The BOA, which expects to send up to 55 athletes to the Winter Olympics, said it had received a letter from the IOC this week, after last week's executive committee meeting, clarifying the rules.
The IOC has also said that Sochi organisers will provide "protest zones", as in Beijing, where demonstrations would be permitted. Human rights groups are concerned not only about the anti-gay laws but a wider chilling effect on freedom of speech under Pig Putin. The BOA said it would not stand in the way of any athletes who wanted to speak out on gay rights or any other issue, as long as they comply with the Olympic charter.
"It's about finding a balance across three priorities: the requirement we comply with the Olympic charter, that we understand the laws of the country we're visiting, even if we don't agree with them, and recognising that we believe an Olympic team should reflect the values of the country they represent," said a spokesman. "In our case that means a commitment to freedom of expression. You won't find us taking a strong stance against any athlete exercising their right to freedom of speech."
This week the US President, Barack Obama, named former tennis player Billie Jean-King as one of two openly gay ambassadors to represent the US at the opening and closing ceremonies, in what was widely seen as a direct challenge to Putin's new laws. The British government has said that the sports minister Helen Grant, who is also equalities minister, will attend on its behalf.
The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, is also expected to attend. Thomas Bach, the new IOC president, said when he was elected in September that the organisation would have to take a realistic approach to the overlap between sport and politics.
IOC insiders confirmed that athletes would be free to speak openly in non-accredited areas and at press conferences, insisting that the policy had not changed from previous Games. However, the fact that it has emphasised the point before the Sochi Olympics, the most expensive winter Games in history at $50m, is seen as significant.
Appointing Billie Jean King to the Sochi Olympics 'US delegation' isn't enough
Obama, Hollande and other leaders could truly make a difference by condemning Russia's anti-LGBT rhetoric and actions
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 18.23 GMT
President Obama has been getting great press in the past 24 hours for his decision to include tennis legend – and out lesbian – Billie Jean King in the United States delegation attending the 2014 Winter Olympics. He's being lauded for sending a "clear message" to Russia about its treatment of LGBT people. Don't get me wrong, I'm a true Billie Jean King fan, but here's why I'm not joining the chorus praising Obama – or other leaders.
There's no mention of Russia's human rights abuses in the US president's announcement, or any suggestion of genuine political action. Just the use of the word "diversity" twice. It hardly qualifies as a "strong signal", but that hasn't stopped the American press from spinning it that way.
In the past 10 days alone, five western political leaders have said they'll be skipping the 2014 winter games in Sochi. There wasn't much response to the first public declaration, by Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk. But German President Joachim Gauck soon followed suit, as did European Union Commissioner for Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights, Viviane Reding. The next day's announcement by President Obama that he was "unlikely" to attend was followed closely by French President Francois Hollande's declaration that neither he nor any high-ranking French officials would appear.
None but Reding has publicly declared their decision to be a boycott of Sochi, or said anything about Russia's draconian anti-LGBT legislation. Still, the press has quickly, and perhaps mistakenly, concluded that the brutal oppression of LGBT Russians is these figures' primary concern – a conclusion that may make them seem more courageous than they really are, and handily covers for other agendas.
In the absence of any declarations or salient political responses to Russia's anti-LGBT laws from Germany, the US, France, or Poland, it seems reasonable to wonder if, in fact, something else is at play here. Fear of being caught on the wrong side of history? Or a desire to humiliate and isolate Russian President Pig Putin for doing virtually everything imaginable to tick off the west, from sheltering Edward Snowden to jailing protestors from Greenpeace to Pussy Riot, to supporting the Syrian and Ukrainian regimes, while posing as the voice of reason in the New York Times?
But why get into all of this nastiness when it's possible to stay home, remain silent, and have your behavior construed as moral rectitude?
Whatever the true feelings of any of these western leaders when it comes to LGBT rights, this much is safe to say: none of them is eager to have a photo op with Pig Putin right now. Not when his aggressive consolidation of power and quashing of any opposition is so blatant. And not at an event where there's so much potential for violence and bad press – all of it recorded in real time by dozens of broadcasters and blasted across the universe via Twitter and Facebook and through every imaginable online site.
All of the signs of potential danger are flashing yellow. Months ago, Pig Putin declared virtual martial law in Sochi, banning all protests, marches, and public gatherings for the duration of the Olympics. Unsurprisingly, the "protest zones" that the Pig unveiled recently, in an attempt, one supposes, to calm increasingly anxious corporate sponsors and western nations, will be something of a joke – more of a snare for catching dissidents than a venue for free speech. And who will be the brave political advisor to tell the president that having Russian security forces kill four alleged terrorists near Sochi earlier this week may in fact not be the kind of thing that makes the average American feel better about visiting?
And yes, it's a particularly bad time for world leaders to be seen with the Pig, now when the true implications of Russia's anti-LGBT laws and the atmosphere of violence they've encouraged have become so readily apparent. On Monday, Tonight Show host Jay Leno conveyed to his millions of viewers the same message that LGBT journalists and activists have been trying to get across for months, and that NBC, which has paid $4bn to broadcast in the United States, has been so eager to downplay: contemporary Russia looks increasingly like early Nuremberg-era Germany, with its insistence that Jews were a threat to the purity of its bloodline and the moral fiber of its children.
Each successive day's news makes it harder to ignore Russia's movement towards fascism – or the similarities between the Kremlin's venal campaign and what came to be Germany's Final Solution. Not with last week's call, by a Russian TV star before a cheering audience, for a Holocaust rerun – for his kids' sake. Ivan Okhlobystin, the star of a Russian copy of "Scrubs", told fans in the city of Novosibirsk on Sunday:
I'd burn them all alive in ovens. It's Sodom and Gomorrah, as a religious person I can't be indifferent to it, it's a living threat to my children.
It would be one thing if Okhlobystin were a lone outlier. But he isn't the only Russian celebrity to have made such pronouncements to an enthusiastic crowd. Last year, that honor fell to Russia's leading news anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, who said – before a live TV audience in the run-up to the enactment of the anti-LGBT laws:
I believe it is not enough to impose fines on gays for engaging in the propaganda of homosexuality among adolescents. We need to ban them from donating blood and sperm, and if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts in the ground or burn them, as they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life.
Will Kiselyov bring his same flare for Third Reich rhetoric to Russia's TV coverage of the Sochi Olympics this winter? Viewers will have a chance to see, now that he's been appointed head of the new Kremlin-dominated network that Pig Putin created last week, after liquidating RIA Novosti, and with it any pretense of an independent media outlet.
It remains to be seen whether there will be any truly brave, outspoken political opposition to Putin's witch-hunt. Certainly Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, are now under pressure to act. But more interesting is the question of whether others will prod Western leaders from Europe and the United States into genuine political engagement with Russia over its human rights abuses.
Imagine how the stakes will rise if Argentina's President, Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner – who took on her country's Catholic hierarchy and staked her reputation on making LGBT marriage legal years before Germany, France, or the United States – decides to offer political asylum to the thousands of LGBT Russians terrified that a new law will strip LGBT people with children of their parental rights?
What if Chile's President-elect Michele Bachelet puts the politicians responsible for the country's draconian anti-LGBT laws on a visa ban list?
It would certainly be a welcome change from what we're seeing now: these low-risk, high-gain gestures from Gaucke, Obama and Hollande. The kind that tap the gAyTM at reelection time and earn plenty of free publicity, but without the expenditure of any serious political capital.
Three former Irish bank executives appear in court on conspiracy charges
Denis Casey, Peter Fitzpatrick and John Bowe all granted bail by Dublin's district court and are due to appear again in March
The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2013
Three former Irish bank executives, including the ex-chief executive of one of the country's largest lenders, have been charged with conspiracy to defraud in the run-up to the country's banking crisis, a court heard on Wednesday.
Former chief executive of Irish Life and Permanent, Denis Casey, the lender's former finance director Peter Fitzpatrick, and former head of treasury at Anglo Irish Bank, John Bowe, were granted bail by Dublin's district court and are due to appear again next March.
All three replied "no" when the charges were put to them by police earlier on Wednesday, the court heard. They will be able to lodge an official plea ahead of their trial.
No one has so far been jailed for any part in the country's banking crisis that began in 2008 and eventually cost taxpayers more than €60 bn (£50bn), or about two-fifths of national output.
The charges came ahead of the opening of a trial next year of three other senior executives at Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalised in early 2009.
A representative of the Director of Public Prosecutions told the court on Wednesday there was "no factual connection" between the two cases.
All three men are accused of conspiracy to defraud between March and September 2008, that they conspired with each other to transfer €7.2bn between Anglo, Irish Life and Permanent and its Irish Life Assurance subsidiary, Dublin's district court heard.
Bowe faces a second charge of false accounting in December 2008, under the Theft and Fraud Offences Act, the court heard.
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA
Pig Putin's annual press conference: the key topics covered
Russian president addresses Khodorkovsky, Snowden, the 'Arctic 30', Ukraine and Pussy Riot in marathon conference
Shaun Walker in Moscow and agencies
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 11.53 GMT
Pig Putin his given his marathon annual press conference in Moscow. More than 1,300 journalists were accredited this year, with many waving signs, flags and banners in order to get the Russian president's attention to ask a question.
Over the course of four hours he was asked about everything from missile systems to regional bypass roads, and was presented with a furry toy yeti by one journalist. The Pig touched on many major themes:
Pig Putin said he would soon pardon jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who still has eight months left to serve of a more than 10-year jail sentence.
A lawyer for Khodorkovsky said however that the tycoon had not asked Pig for a pardon. Khodorkovsky was jailed on charges including theft and fraud but the president's opponents regard him as a political prisoner.
Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks
Pig Putin insisted that Russian intelligence has never worked with Edward Snowden – the former NSA contractor given temporary asylum in the country – and half-joked that he was "jealous" that US authorities were able to carry out such invasive surveillance programmes.
"Operationally, we are not working with him and never have done, and are not asking him any questions about how his agency worked on Russia," said Pig Putin.
"I won't hide it, this person is not without interest for me. I think that thanks to Snowden, a lot changed in the minds of millions of people, including in the minds of major political leaders."
He added: "For me it was always intriguing how he decided this, because he's quite a young guy. What does he have? He doesn't have anything. How does he plan to live? Where does he plan to live?"
The former KGB agent said people should remember that espionage was necessary for security reasons: "However much our American friends are criticised, I think their work was mainly directed at fighting terrorism. Of course, this has its negative aspects and on a political level the appetites of the special services need to be controlled. But overall, you have to understand that it is necessary."
The Pig insisted that Russia's $15bn bailout of the economically struggling country was driven by a desire to help a partner in dire straits.
"If we really say it's a brotherly nation, then we should of course act like close relatives and help them in this difficult situation," said Pig Putin.
Pig denied that Russia put any pressure on Ukraine not to sign the EU pact – a move that sparked massive street protests "It's not linked in any way to the maidan [protests in Independence Square], or to the EU association, we just see that Ukraine is in a difficult position and we need to help it."
Greenpeace 'Arctic 30' protest
The Pig was scathing about the Greenpeace Arctic 30, who had faced up to seven years in jail over their Arctic oil drilling protest but are set to be freed under an amnesty passed by the Russian parliament on Wednesday. He said it was good that Greenpeace would benefit from the amnesty "but we didn't do it for them".
Pig Putin said he supported environmental organisations, but said the Greenpeace protest against the Prirazlomnaya rig was unacceptable: "It was either an attempt at getting PR, or an attempt at blackmail and extortion, or they were carrying out somebody's order to stop our work."
Pig Putin was asked if he thought the two-year jail sentence given to members of the punk group, who are also due to be released under the amnesty law, was too harsh, and whether as a father himself he felt sorry for the two jailed young mothers.
"I felt sorry not for that, but for their disgraceful behaviour, which I think degrades the dignity of women … They crossed all boundaries."
the Pig praised the US's role in forging an interim deal to ease concerns about Iran's nuclear programme but said he hoped the blacklisting of additional Iranian companies under existing sanctions would not undermine progress toward a comprehensive agreement.
"As for sanctions, I am certain that this is a counterproductive decision," the Pig said. "I hope … movements in this direction will not be a barrier to all of us moving forward toward a solution to the Iranian nuclear problem."
French lessons for UK higher education
Despite its flaws, French higher education teaches a thing or two about social and political cohesion, says Louisiane Ferlier
Thursday 19 December 2013 07.00 GMT Guardian Professional
In their 2004 publication, Universality or Specialisation?, Christian Allies and Michel Troquet summed up the dilemma faced by the French higher education system. For France, the existence of an "international education market dominated by the English speaking world" has made adapting to competition particularly difficult.
Although Allies and Troquet adequately highlighted the complicated consequences of this choix cornélien, or predicament, almost 10 years later no clear strategy has been adopted. Neither the French ministry of higher education, its academic institutions, nor the academic community itself (that elusive mystical unicorn of a beast) have opted for universality or officially endorsed the specialisation that is evidently taking place.
Perhaps like no other, the French higher education system is fragmented. It is composed of a constellation of administratively independent institutions and offers a large range of curriculum from the highly selective classes préparatoires to the most universal of bachelor degrees. Rather than trying to redress the growing inequalities resulting from this fragmentation, French higher education has followed the specialisation route following the 1999 Bologna process.
The slant towards research and the curtailing of the general educational vocation of French universities, noted by Allies and Troquet, was at its peak under Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency. Taking into account these considerations, I'd like to reflect on what is left of universality in French universities and what British higher education can learn from it.
Universality is the hydra-like founding myth of European universities – try cutting one of its many heads and two will grow in its place.
The idea of a universal right to higher education is still alive and well in France. The low fees of the non-selective French universities are proud markers of its egalitarian system – as universities are seen as contributing to the common good, they are financed by the community. Yet, with around 25% of students enrolling who do not obtain their diploma and a high percentage of reorientations (transfers), they fail a considerable proportion of students in this idealistic mission. The British pragmatic imperative to lay the debt on the individual might be a more powerful incentive for students to succeed.
Universities are also seen as universal places of knowledge. French universities offer students as many courses, combined subjects, and joint curricula as possible. As opposed to the narrow subject specialisation imposed to undergraduates in Britain, it is possible for a French student to follow up to a third of his or her term's worth of courses in another department. Topping the lack of flexibility in British curriculum (poorly justified in employability terms), the growing closures of departments in British universities damages further their claim to universality.
Université Universelle is the name of a lobby group that has campaigned since 2011 to help foreign students study in France. This group brings together academics, writers and students alike and insists that French universities will lose their dynamism, creativity and attraction if they fail to recruit among foreign students. However, it seems to ignore other reasons for the lack of allure of French higher education.
Once upon an enlightened time, French was an academic lingua franca. Remnants of this golden age are: the poor level of English among several generations of French academics, a highly developed pride for our language (well-founded, naturally) and a large number of invaluable academic journals that now fail to find a readership outside of the Francophonie. Today's lack of reach for the French language and the still poor command of English in French academia, should be counted as factors in the failure of French higher education to attract universally, along with excessive red tape and incomprehensible fragmentation.
What lesson can French universities learn from all this? That universality should not only be defined as a programme but also develped on the existing strength of our system. The lesson for British universities comes from the Université Universelle group itself.
The past months have seen sporadic strikes in British higher education. What these revealed to me was that it is cankered by a lack of cohesion, a lack of idealism and a certain inability to organise itself or voice its concerns in an audible way to the general public. French education might not always deliver in statistical terms but it still offers powerful lessons in social and political cohesion. Perhaps Britain should appreciate this messy French way and try to find its own mystical unicorn: a cohesive intellectual community.
Louisiane Ferlier lectures in early modern intellectual history at Jesus College, University of Oxford