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« Reply #11250 on: Jan 14, 2014, 06:51 AM »

Sex, politics and François Hollande: how France plays by its own rules

Following revelations of an alleged affair, a British or US politician would be told to show contrition, or resign. Not in France – vive la différence

Jonathan Freedland   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 11.03 GMT   

Sex will succeed where wars in Syria and the Central African Republic, questions of racial tension and the future of the European Union have all failed. It will persuade the world to do what it has so rarely done before – and tune into a press conference by the president of France.

The Westminster press corps is already joking that it might as well put its feet up this afternoon. David Cameron's appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee is likely to be overshadowed by the main event in Paris, where François Hollande will face questions from the media. Journalists from the serious, establishment press will no doubt ask serious, establishment questions but someone, surely, will dare break what was for so long a taboo in the French media – and ask Hollande about his private life, specifically about last week's revelations in Closer magazine of an alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet. It may take a foreign reporter to do it.

Now if this were happening in, say, London or Washington the pre-event hype would have a single, clear theme: we would be saying that the embattled prime minister/president was fighting for his political life. His job would be deemed to be hanging by a thread. Some at least would be predicting resignation.

But this is France. So far the only political fallout from the Closer revelations has been a slight uptick in the opinion polls for the president. You read that right. Conforming to Gallic stereotype, French voters appear to think more of Hollande now that they know his bodyguard ferries him by motorcycle for alleged late-night trysts with his lover. His ratings have improved by two points. Meanwhile, the story has spawned a social media phenomenon: an online game in which players have to navigate the president, complete with motorcycle helmet, to his Julie.

Seeing that poll boost, The Telegraph's Michael Deacon joked on Twitter that Cameron's political adviser Lynton Crosby is "focus-grouping the idea as we speak." That's funny because we know the opposite is true. Political consultants might boast that theirs has become a global business, with Australians like Lynton Crosby able to ply their trade in Britain, just as US guru Stan Greenberg has advised candidates in South Africa, Israel and Germany. These political wizards would doubtless insist that the fundamental rules of winning elections are near-universal, as applicable in Berlin as in Boston. But even they would admit that there are some areas where very great differences remain – with sex a prime example.

So if this was a US president rather than a French one facing the press today, his advisers would be insisting on complete honesty – no Clinton-style, wagging-finger pretence that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" – and total contrition. They would urge the president to say he was seeking spiritual counsel and that he was praying for the forgiveness and understanding of his wife and the American people.

God and prayer would not feature at an equivalent press conference in Britain. Instead, the traditional advice would be that a politician caught being unfaithful has only one course of action available: to announce that he is leaving his wife or partner because he has fallen in love with someone else. This, remember, was the ultimatum delivered to the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, when his affair with his secretary had been revealed: announce your marriage is over or resign.

In France, there are other options. Hollande can seize the moral high ground, saying it is the press who should be ashamed for intruding on his private life, that he never chose to publicise his relationships (unlike his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy) and that France was a better place when it did not pry into the lives of others (unlike those prurient, curtain-twitching English). He could even go big picture and say that this is why the NSA scandal has so appalled people the world over: because the right to a private sphere is a sacred part of being human and that no one deserves to have that violated, not even a president.

In Britain such pomposity would bring howls of derision. Said in the White House, those words would bring calls for impeachment. But when it comes to sex and politics, no universal rules apply. In France, you might just get away with it.

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François Hollande to face media for first time since affair allegations

Sections of the French media have feigned indifference and blamed prurient 'Anglo-Saxon' press for the furore

Kim Willsher in Paris   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 10.51 GMT   

Will he … won't he? Hours before François Hollande gives a key press conference – with reports of his alleged secret liaison with an actor still making headlines – the question was, would he mention the scandal, or would he make journalists drag it out of him?

The French president had intended to use the occasion to outline his employment and growth boosting policies for 2014 and announce, among other proposals, an easing of charges and regulations for businesses. It was also to be a statesmanlike attempt to haul his popularity off rock bottom.

Closer magazine scuppered that with its seven-page "special" of the president apparently visiting actor Julie Gayet in an apartment a stone's throw from the Elysée Palace on Friday. The magazine, which also published photos allegedly of Hollande on his way to the secret trysts on the back of a scooter, claimed the affair had been going on for some months.

Sections of the French media have feigned indifference to the Hollande "affair" and blamed prurient "Anglo-Saxon" press for the furore. Tuesday afternoon's press conference is expected to be attended by around 600 French and foreign journalists.

The event will also be overshadowed by concerns for the president's official partner, Valérie Trierweiler. The shock of the revelation and very public humiliation has left her in hospital with depression, according to reports. Hollande has not denied Closer's claims but says it is an outrageous and illegal invasion of privacy.

As friends of Trierweiler told journalists she was taking a few days to reflect on their relationship, sympathy was in short supply for her.

François Rebsamen, head of the Socialist group in the upper house, admitted it was a "terrible shock to see the life of the person with whom you live exposed and presented to the French in this way", but added the first lady title should be banned.

"There shouldn't be a first lady, it's finished," Rebsamen told RTL radio.

"There's a more important consideration that the president of the republic should have and that is over the role and position of the person with whom he lives.

"There is no first lady in France. This practice is outdated, outmoded and must be banned."

He added: "It would be a step forward for democracy".

Trierweiler, 48, was taken to hospital on Friday suffering from what was described as "a severe case of the blues", hours after a French magazine published photographs of the president apparently paying secret visits to Gayet.

She was expected to be discharged on Monday, but her office announced she would remain in hospital because she was "still in need of a rest".

"She needs some peace," an Elysée spokesperson told Reuters.

Trierweiler has made no comment about the affair. Le Parisien on Monday reported she was ready to forgive Hollande, 59, but wanted to know "his intentions".

Le Parisien journalist Frédéric Gerschel, said to be close to Trierweiler, said Hollande had confessed to her face to face on Thursday evening, hours before Closer hit the news stands.

"The scene took place in the Elysée without blows or shouting. In a few words, the president acknowledged the existence of it [the affair]," Gerschel wrote.

"He denied nothing, not the escapades on his scooter with his bodyguard in the middle of the night, nor the frequency of the secret meetings, or the date when this 'love affair', as the foreign press has baptised it, started, several months previously," Gerschel wrote.

"After this explanation, that one imagines was delicate, the couple gave themselves a few days to reflect before clarifying the situation in the eyes of [public] opinion. This affair that should have remained private has quickly spilled out into the public domain. It's a veritable political-romantic tsunami."

Le Parisien quoted a friend as saying Hollande's confession of infidelity had struck Trierweiler "like a TGV hitting the buffers", adding: "Of course she'd heard the rumours that have been going around Paris for the past few weeks, but she chose to believe they were false. For her, they were always a couple."

Tuesday's press conference is the third since Hollande took power in 2012. He may divert attempts to hijack the press conference with questions about the scandal, by referring to it in his traditional opening address, then refusing to comment further.

Advisers argue that the French are more interested in serious issues including the economy and employment.

Le Figaro said it was essential for Hollande to address public spending, fiscal reform, schemes to reduce unemployment and the conflict in the Central African Republic, where France has 1,600 troops.


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French president’s security chief in trouble for not checking ‘love nest’ properly

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 16:21 EST

Francois Hollande’s security chief is in hot water for failing to properly check out a ‘love nest’ the French President allegedly used for trysts with actress Julie Gayet, Le Monde reported Monday.

As the Socialist leader, who had pledged a “normal” presidency, came under increasing scrutiny at home and abroad for his affair with a blonde 18 years his junior, attention in France has turned to the issue of whether his safety was compromised.

The apartment used by the couple was rented by a friend of Gayet’s, another actress named Emmanuelle Hauck.

Hauck was the girlfriend of Francois Masini, who had reportedly had close links to the Corsican mafia and was shot dead on the island in May last year.

Before that she was married to actor Michel Ferracci, who has also been linked by the French media to the mafia. Ferracci got an 18-month suspended sentence in November for his role in money laundering.

“The head of the group in charge of security of the president, Sophie Hatt, was been rocked by the scandal and has to provide explanations to her superiors,” Le Monde newspaper said Monday.

It said the mafia links had escaped officials in charge of Hollande’s security as well as the fact that the paparazzi had rented a flat in the area to photograph the movements of Hollande and Gayet.

The scandal broke over the weekend with a magazine, Closer, publishing photographs of Gayet, 41, arriving at the apartment building and others showing a helmeted man identified as Hollande also going there on a chauffeur-driven scooter.

Le Monde said Hollande was always accompanied by two policemen, who were personally chosen, during private visits and it was also the case during his trips to the borrowed apartment on the Rue du Cirque, near the presidential palace.

“But these police officers did not investigate the tenant’s past and her links to nefarious individiuals,” it said.

They also failed to notice the photographers who were stalking Hollande and who had rented an apartment nearby to photograph him, it said.

The pensioner owner of the ‘tryst’ flat who rented to Hauck, meanwhile, denied media reports that the flat belonged to a mafioso or was used for sexual escapades.

“I am profoundly shocked by all that is being said about me: that I am a former mafioso, the head of a (major) company or that the flat I lived in for 40 years was a brothel,” Jean-Pierre Discazeaux, 71, told AFP.

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Valérie Trierweiler to stay in hospital with 'severe case of blues'

Doctors say François Hollande's partner needs more rest to recover from shock of discovering his alleged infidelity

Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Monday 13 January 2014 20.10 GMT   

François Hollande's official partner, Valérie Trierweiler, is to remain in hospital "for an indeterminate time" until doctors decide she has recovered from the shock of discovering his alleged infidelity.

Trierweiler, 48, was taken to hospital on Friday suffering from what was described as "a severe case of blues", hours after a French magazine published photographs of the president apparently paying secret visits to an actress.

She was expected to be discharged, but her office announced she would remain in hospital because she was "still in need of a rest".

"The doctors say she needs more rest and they will decide when she will be able to leave," a spokesperson for her office at the Elysée Palace told Reuters. "She needs some peace."

Concerns about Trierweiler, who has been called France's First Girlfriend, and the scandal over Hollande's alleged relationship with Julie Gayet, 41, threaten to overshadow a planned press conference on Tuesday at which Hollande, 59, is due to announce how he intends to address France's economic woes, including high unemployment and low growth, in the next 12 months.

The occasion was also to serve as the traditional presidential new year good wishes to the press, no doubt the last people he now wishes to meet and greet after the celebrity magazine Closer revealed that he had been scootering across Paris for secret overnight trysts with Gayet.

Trierweiler has made no comment about the affair. Le Parisien reported on Monday she was ready to forgive Hollande but wanted to know "his intentions".

Le Parisien journalist Frédéric Gerschel, said to be close to Trierweiler, quoted a friend in his article, but Le Figaro reported that the "friend" was Trierweiler talking off the record.

Gerschel said Hollande had confessed to her face to face on Thursday evening, hours before Closer hit the news stands.

"The scene took place in the Elysée without blows or shouting. In a few words, the president acknowledged the existence of it [the affair].

"He denied nothing, not the escapades on his scooter with his bodyguard in the middle of the night, nor the frequency of the secret meetings, or the date when this 'love affair', as the foreign press has baptised it, started, several months previously," Gerschel wrote.

"After this explanation, that one imagines was delicate, the couple gave themselves a few days to reflect before clarifying the situation in the eyes of [public] opinion. This affair that should have remained private has quickly spilled out into the public domain. It's a veritable political-romantic tsunami."

Le Parisien quoted a friend as saying Hollande's confession of infidelity had struck Trierweiler "like a TGV hitting the buffers", adding: "Of course she'd heard the rumours that have been going around Paris for the past few weeks, but she chose to believe they were false. For her, they were always a couple."

Trierweiler had little cause for suspicion, the paper added, as the couple had spent New Year's Eve with her at La Lanterne, a presidential retreat in the grounds of the Versailles Palace, and had joined the Trierweiler family for Boxing Day.

Closer had claimed he spent the nights either side of the New Year with Gayet.

The Parisien source scotched rumours that the presidential couple had become estranged. "They are not living in separate wings of the Elysée as some have claimed. Despite the difficulties, they have had a long relationship and to see this splashed all over the front pages is quite violent."

The paper said there was no suggestion that Trierweiler had tried to harm herself, and that she had been taken to hospital as a "preventive measure". Trierweiler's advisers at the Elysée, where she has an office and small staff, say difficult decisions will have to be taken "rapidly". She is due to accompany the president on a visit to the US to meet Barack Obama on 11 February.

"She seems ready to forgive him, she doesn't want to slam the door in a huff, but she wants to know quickly what François Hollande's intentions are," a close friend told Le Parisien.

Hollande's advisers are said to be furious that news of her hospitalisation had leaked, believing it to be an attempt at "emotional blackmail".

Gerschel said Trierweiler realised her status needed "clarification" as she has an office at the Elysée, along with other state-funded perks, but no official role.

Earlier, the scandal took an unexpectedly sinister turn with claims – and denials – that the flat used for the president's meetings with Gayet was linked to the Corsican mafia.

French media reported that the apartment was loaned to the actor by a friend who was involved with two mobsters with connections on the crime hit Mediterranean island.

However the friend, Emmanuelle Hauck, denied that her ex husband Michel Ferracci, who was given an 18-month suspended sentence in connection with a money-laundering last November, had ever owned, rented or lived in the property and threatened to sue for defamation.

It was later revealed that after splitting from Ferracci, Hauck lived with François Masini who was shot dead last May in an apparent gangland killing.

The actual owner of the apartment, a 71-year-old pensioner living in Biarritz, said he was "extremely shocked" by the goings on at his property and was consulting his lawyers.

Hollande is expected to divert attempts to hijack Tuesday's press conference with questions about the scandal by making a brief statement referring to it, then refusing to comment further, arguing that the French are more interested in serious issues including the economy and employment.

Le Figaro said it was essential for Hollande to address public spending, fiscal reform, schemes to reduce unemployment and the conflict in the Central African Republic, where France has 1,600 troops.

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François Hollande's partner Valérie Trierweiler in hospital with 'exhaustion'

Journalist has been prescribed rest by doctors after learning of claims that French president was having affair with Julie Gayet

Anne Penketh in Paris
The Guardian, Sunday 12 January 2014 16.55 GMT   

Valérie Trierweiler, the partner of the French president, François Hollande, has been taken to hospital with "exhaustion" following claims that he has been having an affair, it has emerged.

After hearing of Hollande's alleged trysts with the actor Julie Gayet, Trierweiler, a journalist, was taken to hospital where doctors prescribed rest. Trierweiler's office told L'Express magazine she had been taken to hospital on Friday afternoon and was due to be released on Monday.

An unidentified Élysée official told Le Monde that Trierweiler was suffering a "severe case of the blues".

The news came as Hollande's former partner and the mother of his children, Ségolène Royal, told a French news channel on Sunday that France should "turn the page" on their president's alleged affair with Gayet.

Her sentiment was echoed by a poll, published in the Journal du Dimanche, which found 77% of French respondents believed the affair was a personal matter, while 84% said their opinion of Hollande was unchanged by the revelations.

The survey is the first carried out after the celebrity magazine Closer alleged the president had been meeting Gayet in a borrowed flat near the Elysée palace.

The magazine showed photographs of a man in a black helmet, alleged to be Hollande, being accompanied to and from the apartment by a bodyguard on a scooter on 30 and 31 December.

Hollande, 59, who is accompanied on official engagements by Trierweiler, reacted to the magazine's claims in a personal capacity with a threat to sue Closer on the grounds that it had invaded his privacy.

The article was removed from Closer's website following what the magazine described as a "very clear" legal injunction from Gayet's lawyers. Hollande has not denied the affair.

Amid whispers of an affair, the French media's rumour mill has reported the presidential couple have been living apart for months, with Hollande no longer staying at Trierweiler's apartment in the 15th arrondissement.

The status of the "first girlfriend", as she is known, has also been the target of criticism by conservative opposition politicians.

One, Daniel Fasquelle of the UMP, asked in a statement: "Is it normal that she remains at the Élysée at taxpayers' expense when the president has other relationships? Who is the First Lady of France today?"

The French public has been equally hostile. A poll on the website of the magazine Le Point showed a majority of readers want Trierweiler to go. Asked on Saturday whether Hollande should announce their separation, 89.2% of the 13,136 people who voted said 'yes', and 10.8% said 'no'.

Royal – Hollande's partner of 23 years and mother of his four children whom he left for Trierweiler - was drawn into scandal on Sunday during an appearance on France2's news programme.

"I don't want to feed the saga with a little sentence which is very, very far from French people's concerns," she said. When the presenter asked whether the issue was "not political", Royal said: "We should turn the page and get back to work."

It was not clear whether she was referring to Hollande, to herself and the president, to Trierweiler, or to the French public as a whole.

Stéphane Le Foll, France's minister of agriculture and a close confidant of the president, said he would not comment on the reported affair before or during a long-scheduled news conference on Tuesday.

The purpose of the press conference is to talk about France, he told RTL radio. Hollande would speak about "growth, unemployment and investment".

The Gayet scandal has come at an unfortunate time for Hollande, who hopes to rebuild confidence in the government's handling of the economy.

In a new year message, the socialist leader made overtures to French bosses – raising eyebrows among the leftist elements of his party – and is expected to flesh out details of a "responsibility pact" with employers who have complained that high taxation is hampering their hiring ability.

According to a poll published in Le Parisien on 4 January, only 31% of French people find him "competent", although 56% say he is "likeable".

Trierweiler has said she found it difficult to adjust to her role as "first girlfriend". It remains to be seen whether the president will respond to French media pressure to "clarify" his relationship with Trierweiler in the coming days.

Friends of Trierweiler have accused the interior minister, Manuel Valls – who is believed to nurture presidential ambitions – of "betrayal".

The news magazine Le Point suggested on its website that Valls must have known of Hollande's movements, and reported that the apartment where he allegedly met Gayet belonged to someone with connections to a criminal gang.

Gayet, who recently played the role of a seductress in the satirical political film Quai d'Orsay, is a 41-year-old Socialist party activist who expressed gushing support for the "humble" and "wonderful" Hollande before the 2012 election.

Anne Hidalgo, the party's candidate to succeed Bertrand Delanoe as Paris mayor, has listed Gayet as one of her support committee members – a list revealed by Le Parisien on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Journal du Dimanche reported that one of Hollande's first questions to aides following his election was: "How do I get out without being seen?"

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Francois Hollande, Julie Gayet … and a very British scandal about a very French affair

Once, news of a scandal at the Elysée palace might never have made the papers. Now, France's tradition of privacy and discretion is under pressure from the global celebrity media

Agnès Poirier   
The Observer, Sunday 12 January 2014   

On Friday morning, I woke up as my usual French self. Then, from under the duvet, I reached for my smartphone and learned from Twitter that the French edition of Closer magazine had published pictures purportedly revealing an affair between President François Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet. There had been rumours for months, as there inevitably are in the higher echelons of power. Gossip is like the background noise of a Parisian cafe: the little music of our lives, familiar and inconsequential.

At 7.18am, an angry Hollande made a statement to the news agency AFP deploring the attack on his privacy and declaring he might seek legal action. Good for him, I thought. His office stressed that this was the citizen, not the president, speaking.

End of story. I shrugged my shoulders and thought little more about it, much more concerned by the legal wrangles of the French interior minister, Manuel Valls, who is trying to ban the comedian Dieudonné from performing his antisemitic routine in theatres and clubs around France. For the past three weeks, France has been facing one relentless question: does freedom of speech stop where incitement to hatred begins? Gallivanting was definitely not on our minds that Friday morning.

An hour later, at the newsstand, I bought my usual hefty pile of French and international newspapers, and didn't even glance at Closer. Isn't it always the same: salacious and badly written stories with ugly pictures? Gossip is not news.

This was to prove a difficult stance to maintain. I was barely into my third espresso when I started receiving calls and emails asking me to comment. No, surely nobody was interested – or, to be really French about it, nobody should be interested.

I couldn't help noticing the painful truth that the world media seems interested in France only when it complies with the stereotypes and does what is expected of it: promiscuity, grandstanding in foreign policy, sex on the big screen, economic dirigisme, secular authoritarianism and xenophobia.

I didn't have much time to lament the power of cliches. An article on Closer's revelations and Hollande's dalliance quickly appeared on the BBC website and immediately shot to most-read item on the site. Things were getting serious: calls poured in from Washington, New York, London, Doha, Brussels. I was being too French about it, it seems; it was high time I started looking at this through British eyes.

I went out to buy Closer. It was a revelation – and I am not talking about Hollande's alleged affair. I belong to the generation that grew up under Mitterrand: a time when nobody would have dared to publish images showing the president going to a rendezvous and leaving the morning after. Well, let me rephrase: nobody would have dreamed of spending a whole night hiding outside a building to take such pictures.

I grew up in a country where the president embodied not just the state but also the nation. He may be a man, but he is also an institution. He is France – in other words, he is me and I am him. We may dislike the human being; we inevitably revere the symbol. Hence the deference – or at the very least, the inherent respect – accorded any French president by his compatriots.

That was then. Times have changed. Gossip magazines of the Closer kind, which did not exist in the Mitterrand era, are now a thriving force, with millions of readers. Trivia is of the essence. Every week, those publications put aside the money for the fines they will probably have to pay for breaching France's strict privacy laws. Tellingly, over the past 20 years, French judges have become less severe and the fines have got smaller. Revealing celebrities' intimacies has become "affordable", almost a fact of life. And politicians have had to learn that the hard way.

The best ally of France's gossip press in recent years has been a former president. In a clear break with tradition, the taboo-busting Nicolas Sarkozy ventured to stage his private life for political gain. He shamelessly used his ex-wife Cecilia and his new flame, Carla Bruni – whom he subsequently married after a few months of intense and overexposed courtship – as publicity props. Talk about a culture shock. We had to close our eyes whenever we saw them on television: Nicolas with Carla in tow and her coyness à la Bambi. Images of their now-famous amorous escape to the pyramids of Egypt were simply too embarrassing to watch.

Hollande obviously belongs to the old order of discretion, and would feel extremely uncomfortable in this new environment – as, probably, would a big chunk of the French electorate. While we may have gone a long way towards the 24-hour voyeuristic society that Britain and the US enjoy (or suffer from), the overall culture in France is still one that values privacy highly. As the rightwing politician Marine Le Pen declared, a couple of hours after Closer's revelations: "Everybody is entitled to their privacy and so is the president, providing this doesn't cost a penny to the taxpayer."

Reading Closer's report on Hollande's alleged affair is an education. Instead of being salacious, the tone of the article is more reminiscent of Barbara Cartland. There is talk of "passion", "stolen nights", "cooing" and "being in love". A picture of Hollande in a crash helmet that looks slightly awry carries a caption that reads: "François is so in love, he has forgotten to secure his helmet properly." This is less journalism than lowbrow romantic fiction.

Seven pages of pictures show the sequence of events that is supposed to prove the affair: Gayet arrives at a flat belonging to friends, near the Elysée palace, with a smile on her face. Half an hour later, the president's bodyguard comes in, allegedly to check the premises, and, a few minutes later, here comes a stout-looking man in a dark suit and a helmet, driven by a chauffeur on a three-wheeled scooter. The morning after, the same bodyguard comes in at 8am with a bag full of croissants.

I am now looking at this entirely through British eyes, and I suddenly understand why the world media has flocked to Paris. Imagine the head of state of the world's fifth biggest economy scooting through the streets of Paris at night to a rendezvous, and being delivered breakfast at 8am by his bodyguard. So simple, so organic, so carefree, so natural. And so terribly Parisian. Surely, the highest form of civilisation, and the envy of the world. What other head of state could actually do the same? None. And no other head of state could survive the revelation totally unscathed.

I think it is safe to say that this will not prove to be Hollande's political swansong. If a majority of the French people think it is a distraction the country doesn't need at a time of rising unemployment and social discontent, the affair won't affect his ratings – which are currently so low they could hardly sink further. It could even boost his image abroad.

I simply hope for the country that the lovers quickly find another love nest, so that the president can get on with the work of reforming France.
HOW L'AMOUR BECAME FAIR GAME

Twenty years ago, a French president could carry on any extramarital activity in the knowledge that privacy laws and a respectful press would keep his secret. Editors and politicians colluded to ensure the public would never know. Love lives were strictly off limits to the media. The pinnacle of this self-censorship came in 1994, when Paris Match magazine obtained photos of Mazarine Pingeot, then aged 20, illegitimate daughter of President François Mitterrand and his lover Anne Pingeot. In a move that still astonishes the British media, Paris Match had sought Mitterrand's approval before publishing the pictures.

Today, France's privacy laws remain as draconian as ever, but the celebrity press, battling with the internet and social media, has become much less respectful. The reason is largely financial: fines for breaking the privacy laws are paltry, and soon offset by boosted sales.

In 2008, Closer, whose circulation fell from 493,000 in 2008 to 341,000 in 2012-2013, was ordered to pay €30,000 to the former first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy, after showing her in a bikini looking at a picture of her successor, Carla Bruni. Last week's "Hollande" edition is a sellout.

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Magazine promises to remove claims of François Hollande affair from website

Editor of Closer says story will be removed following demand from lawyer representing actor Julie Gayet

Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Friday 10 January 2014 16.50 GMT   

François Hollande enjoyed a rare moment of support and sympathy from across the political spectrum on Friday after a celebrity magazine claimed he was having an affair with an actress.

Whether it was true did not matter. The blatant breach of France's draconian privacy laws prompted outrage and a show of unity that has until now eluded the French president, whose popularity has plummeted since he took office in 2012.

Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, who has never let a good word about Hollande cross her lips, was forced to admit she was shocked by Closer magazine. "Everyone has the right to have their private life respected," she said on Friday, adding "As long as it doesn't cost the taxpayer a centime."

Presidential affairs are the rule rather than the exception in France, but a largely compliant media and a tacit omerta have often ensured they do not become public knowledge.

Closer's special edition and seven-page article, with photographs, appear to have taken France's political class by surprise. The magazine claimed the president had been crossing Paris on the back of a scooter to make clandestine visits to Julie Gayet, 41. Photos apparently taken the following morning show Hollande's bodyguard arriving at the her flat with what Closer said was a bag of croissants.

In a statement from the Elysée Palace, Holland, 59, did not directly deny the report. Instead he accused the magazine of invading his privacy and said he was considering legal action against Closer, which caused a storm in 2012 after publishing paparazzi photographs of the topless Duchess of Cambridge on a private holiday in the south of France. The statement said Hollande "deeply deplores the attacks on the principle of respect for privacy, to which he, like every citizen, has a right".

There was no statement from Hollande's partner, the former Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler, 48, who is considered to be France's first lady. He has four children with the politician Ségolène Royal, who ran against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.

Rumours about the president and the actress are nothing new. Last March Gayet began legal action to identify who was behind internet rumours that she was romantically involved with the president. During Hollande's 2012 election campaign she took part in a political broadcast in which she raved about the Socialist candidate describing him as "humble", "incredible" and a man who "really listens".

On Friday afternoon, Laurence Pieau, editor of Closer, promised to remove the story from the magazine website, following a demand from Gayet's lawyer. It was not clear if any legal proceedings had been formally started, but Pieau said her magazine was under a "very clear injunction".

"Julie Gayet's lawyer contacted us to ask that we remove from our website all mention of this relationship and to do the same with Google," Pieau said, adding that she had not been asked to withdraw the magazine in which the photographs appeared. "We will withdraw the news , probably this evening [Friday] because it is a very clear injunction. However, we have had no contact with the Elysée." Pieau said there were no plans to withdraw the print edition. She added: "When Closer published the first photographs of François Hollande with Valérie Trierweiler in 2012, François Hollande had sought the removal of the magazine from the news stands but this was not granted. This time, the Elysée has not asked."

She said such demands were rarely successful except in cases of a threat to public order.

Earlier in the day, Pieau had dismissed the uproar over her magazine's report. "He's a normal president, a normal person. He's a president who's fallen in love and an affair. Everyone has to calm down over the photographs," she said.

The scandal highlighted the gulf between attitudes to privacy either side of the Channel. Professor Matthew Fraser, a media specialist at the American University of Paris, said: "French law is indifferent to the 'truth', unlike in the UK and America where the press is free to print something if it can be proved to be true. In France, it's illegal to invade personal privacy even if it's the truth, so it's more than a cultural difference, it's the law."

However, social media meant it was difficult for politicians and celebrities to hide behind French privacy laws, he added. "It's challenging, to put it mildly, for public figures to separate public and private in the age of social media. In the past, public personas were stage-managed through established media dominated by professional journalists. The public knew very little about the private identities of politicians. Only journalists knew. But the old rules are out. With social media, information is accessible and goes viral in a matter of minutes. You can't manage or control it."

In response to suggestions the scandal could actually improve Hollande's popularity with electors, Fraser was dubious. "In contrast to the conquests of Hollande's philandering predecessors, this affair seems almost comical – like a Feydeau farce – an impression that is made more vivid by the image of him in a motorcycle helmet scootering around Paris for secret assignations."


*************

François Hollande threatens legal action over affair claims

French president says he deplores attack on privacy by Closer magazine, which published alleged images of him visiting actor

Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Friday 10 January 2014 09.46 GMT   

The French president, François Hollande, has threatened legal action over claims he is having an affair with an actor.

The glossy celebrity magazine Closer published a special edition on Friday including a seven-page report on the leader's alleged relationship with Julie Gayet.

In a statement from the Elysée Palace, Hollande did not directly deny the report but accused the magazine of breaching his privacy. He said advisers were looking at what action to take against the magazine, which caused a storm in 2012 after publishing paparazzi photographs of the topless Duchess of Cambridge on a private holiday in the south of France.

The statement said Hollande "deeply deplores the attacks on the principle of respect for privacy, to which he, like every citizen, has a right". However, it did not directly deny the story of the affair.

Closer published photographs showing a man in a motorcycle helmet outside what it said was Gayet's Paris apartment, along with a man reported to be the president's bodyguard.

Subsequent photos taken in the morning show the man said to be the bodyguard arriving with what Closer said was a bag of croissants.

Hollande's partner is the former Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler, who is considered to be France's first lady. He has four children with the politician Ségolène Royal, who ran against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.

In March last year, Gayet, 41, began legal action to identify who was behind internet rumours that she was romantically involved with the president.

During Hollande's 2012 election campaign she took part in a political broadcast in which she described the presidential candidate as "humble", "incredible" and a man who "really listens".

In the past, the French media have been considerably more circumspect about the love lives of the country's leaders, who have taken refuge behind the country's strict privacy laws.

For many years, the last Socialist president of France, François Mitterrand, led a double life with his wife, Danielle, and lover, Anne Pingeot, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine. Although the existence of Mitterrand's second family was an open secret, nothing was ever published until Paris Match obtained photos of Mazarine, then aged 20, and got the president's permission to publish them.

The Closer story provoked a storm on Twitter, coming just hours after the banning of a show by the controversial comedian Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala, and the announcement that La Redoute, a mail order company, was laying off hundreds of staff.

Journalist Guy Birenbaum wrote in the Huffington Post that the idea of personal privacy in France was being dragged into the 21st century. What would have started as polite whispers during chic dinner parties now "becomes information, some days or some weeks later".

"Nobody powerful,(including the president) has the power these days to stop or block anything, and certainly not this "type" of thing," Birenbaum wrote.

"The era when twenty Parisian journalists "protect" the second family of a president of the republic for years on end has passed. With Twitter, François Mitterrand's secrets would have lasted a month, the "escapades" of Chirac, not more than three weeks ... it's a fact, not a cry of joy."

He concluded: "The happy set up of newspaper stories with pictures of Madame, Monsieur and their children, belong to the past."

Reaction to reports of the alleged affair brought a rare unity to France's political class.

Harlem Désir, head of the ruling Socialist party said: "It's nothing to do with political life, therfore I don't see why it should be a political debate. There should be respect for the private person and for the presidential role. I have no comment to make."

Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right Front National, agreed. "I agree with having respect for privacy, for everyone. As long as it doesn't cost the taxpayer a centime, I consider that everyone has the right to have their private life respected … any attack on this shocks me."

The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said: "As a citizen, the president of the republic, François Hollande, has requested that his private life be respected. He is right. I have nothing to add to what he has said."

Laurence Piau, editor of Closer, told Europe 1 television: "He's a normal president, a normal person. He's a president who's fallen in love and an affair. Everyone has to calm down over the photographs."

A history of French presidential infidelity

When François Hollande stood for election as president in 2012, he promised to be "Monsieur Normal".

And French history reveals that nothing could be more "normal" than a French president who is, as the Quai d'Orsay diplomats might say euphemistically, a bit of a ladies' man.

Think François Mitterrand, who had a secret double life and "hid" his lover and their daughter for more than two decades with the complicity of a handful of French journalists.

Think Jacques Chirac, whose chauffeur told of driving the president to assignations and described him as "Monsieur 15 minutes, shower included"; Chirac's roving eye drove his formidable wife Bernadette to distraction. "Remember, when Napoleon lost Josephine, he lost everything", she would declare.

Think Nicolas Sarkozy, who, during a brief separation from his second wife Cecilia, who later left him for good, reportedly sent a text message saying he intended to ask the female journalist he had taken on holiday to marry him if his wife did not return forthwith.

Even the seemingly upstanding Valéry Gistard d'Estaing, president from 1974-81, was rumoured to have as many mistresses as Paris has salons. In the infamous "Milk lorry" case of September 1974, d'Estaing was at the wheel of a borrowed Ferrari driving through Paris with a mysterious woman in the passenger seat, when he pranged it in a collision with a milk lorry at 5am. The woman's identity has never been confirmed, but she was rumoured to be a famous French actress.

And spare a thought for Félix Faure, French president from 1895-99, who died in the bed of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, but who still had a Paris metro station named after him.

The list of French royal mistresses goes back to King Clovis I in the sixth century, but among the most celebrated and influential were Diane de Poitier, Henri II's courtesan, and Madame de Pompadour, official chief mistress of Louis XV.

In their book Sexus Politicus, journalists Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois write that to be successful a French politician must also be seductive. "Far from being a fault, to cast yourself in the role of seducer is without doubt an important quality in our political life," they say.


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« Reply #11251 on: Jan 14, 2014, 06:54 AM »


Polish migrants have been let down by their government

Poland's politicians should have done more to help people building lives abroad. Now they indulge in an absurd war of words with David Cameron

Jakub Krupa   
theguardian.com, Monday 13 January 2014 13.26 GMT          

The UK: where a third are older than 65, 30% are black or Asian and the same number are single parents. Of all girls under-16 15% are pregnant. One in four is a Muslim; one in three an immigrant. Unemployment rocketed to over 20%. Are these figures actually accurate? What matters is that Brits believe they are, according to research by Ipsos Mori.

Similar misunderstandings apply to immigrants in the UK. Take Poles for example. According to the 2011 census, 579,000 reside in the UK, making up under 1% of the UK population. This tiny minority receive enormous attention from rightwing media and politicians. David Cameron's recent comments that Polish migrants are taking advantage of UK benefits has sparked much anger in Poland. The prime minister, Donald Tusk, and the opposition leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski (whose party sits alongside UK Conservatives in a European parliamentary group) immediately announced that they would veto any changes in EU migration rules.

This Polish-British conflict has become more absurd by the day. Last Thursday Tusk said he would auction a Van Persie Arsenal shirt he was given by Cameron as part of a national charity event. The day before, Jan Bury, a senior coalition MP, even called for a boycott of the British company Tesco, ironically itself founded by a son of Polish Jews, ignoring the fact that it employs more than 30,000 people in Poland, sells products from more than 1,500 Polish companies worth up to £330m and pays £100m in taxes each year. By the use of petty rhetoric, Polish leaders are not making it any easier for the thousands of often highly assimilated and hard-working Poles currently living in Britain.

But neither are British politicians. In this conflict no one cares that east European immigrants are 45% less likely to receive benefits than UK natives and make a positive net contribution, paying 34% more in taxes than they receive. They don't care that the problem of benefit fraud is tiny compared with the total benefits budget. The debate about "the truth about immigration" is not about numbers. It's all about identity.

It would be unfair to say that Polish immigration has been without problems. Successive Polish governments, overjoyed with the prospect of "returning to Europe" after communist rule, ignored the importance of cultural diplomacy and day-to-day support via institutions, as if being (becoming?) a "European" would solve everything. Polish postwar immigrants to Britain coined a phrase to describe their situation: "We have landed on Mars and to stay alive we had to build our Poland." Sixty years later, immigrants believed they had nothing to build – they were all "Europeans" now and expected the British to be the same.

But while the British are still struggling to formulate the relationship between their national and European identity, Poles have become an easy target. Polish uncertainties about their own identity result from their struggle as a small nation for the right to exist. This met a confronting sense of grandeur and establishment in Britain. Czech writer Milan Kundera puts it well in his most famous essay The Tragedy of Central Europe:

    "A small nation is one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment and it knows it. A French, a Russian, or an English man is not used to asking questions about the very survival of his nation. The Polish anthem, however, starts with the verse: 'Poland has not yet perished…'"

The British, though accustomed to immigrants, did not know a lot about these newcomers and their complexes. Hailing from the wild lands between mystical Russia and civilised Germany, speaking that awkward language, Poles were seen as strange eastern guests.

What is more, the fear of being "swamped" existed long before this present wave of eastern European immigration, revealing ingrained historical prejudices. Alongside the brightest, post-accession immigrants came many poorly educated, unskilled workers. A clash of cultures and identities has developed new prejudices. After 9/11 and 7/7, suspicions grew. The British no longer had patience for immigration in the name of imprecise "Europeanness" and started reasserting their Britishness.

Politicians on both sides have failed to respond creatively, aware that positive long-term migration policy does not guarantee votes. Negative spin and blaming each other are easier.

Is the anti-immigration and, therefore, anti-Polish discourse of politicians, the media and a large percentage of British citizens a justified one? Rationally, not. But it does not matter as long as people believe it.

Of course it is an ongoing challenge for British people to adapt, in an era when the meaning of being European is less clear than ever, but it is also disappointing that successive east European governments have done little to assist their citizens as they attempt to build lives abroad, too easily absolving themselves of responsibility for their migrants and leaving too much to the British. And nothing indicates that Romanians and Bulgarians have done much to escape this pattern.


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« Reply #11252 on: Jan 14, 2014, 06:56 AM »

Marine Le Pen Struggles With Father’s Legacy

By CELESTINE BOHLENJAN. 13, 2014
IHT
   
PARIS — Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s far-right National Front party, prides herself on being a lawyer, and a media lawyer at that. So she has no doubt that chilling anti-Semitic statements made recently by the provocative comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala are actionable under a French law that bans hate speech.

“What he said against Patrick Cohen is against the law, and Mr. Dieudonné knows that perfectly well,” she said last week during a two-hour interview with the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris. “So he must assume the consequences, and he should be sanctioned.”

Speaking in the middle of France’s feverish debate over what to do with Dieudonné, as he is called, Ms. Le Pen’s view seems clear-cut. But the Dieudonné affair promises to be tricky for the National Front, as it dances tip toe around the legacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms. Le Pen’s father and founder of the party, known for his own coded anti-Semitic commentary, and his chummy relationship with Dieudonné.

There can indeed be no ambiguity about Dieudonné’s recorded remarks about Mr. Cohen, a French radio journalist: “When I hear him talking, I say to myself: ‘Patrick Cohen ... the gas chambers ... what a shame”’ he said on stage in a Paris theater on Dec. 19.

Yet over the last decade, legal sanctions have done nothing to stop Dieudonné. Convicted eight times for making defamatory and anti-Semitic statements, he has managed to avoid paying 65,000 euros in fines — €37,000 of which were final judgments — apparently by declaring himself bankrupt. And his show went on.

Then last week, the government stepped up its legal action by ordering a restraining order on Dieudonné’s latest show, “The Wall,” as it headed off on a countrywide tour. Performances in several French cities were canceled before Dieudonné announced he was halting the show to “conform to the rules of democracy, or what’s left of it.”

Like others across the political spectrum, Ms. Le Pen is strongly opposed to the ban, which she sees as a dangerous and legally doubtful use of prior restraint and censorship.

“If political authorities start to ban shows in advance, because statements could be made during the event that would be outside the law, that makes me very afraid,” she said. “It would be a totalitarian excess.”

The problem for Ms. Le Pen is not the law but her father, a garrulous 85-year-old whose shadow continues to hover over the National Front, even as his daughter tries to shift it away from its historic moorings in France’s hard-core anti-Semitic political right.

In her interview, Ms. Le Pen took pains to distance herself from the toxic comic. “Mr. Dieudonné has nothing to do with the National Front,” she said. “He’s never been a candidate; he’s not a member. I’ve never met Mr. Dieudonné, never.”

However, she didn’t deny that he is a friend of her father, who, by the way, is godfather to one of Dieudonné’s children. “One can have a friendship for someone without sharing their ideas, or being condemned in their place,” she added.

If only it were so simple. In fact, her father’s views are not so far from those of Dieudonné, particularly about the Holocaust, a regular theme of the comedian’s routine. Mr. Le Pen once famously dismissed the Holocaust as “a mere detail of history.” In 2012, an appeals court upheld a three-month suspended sentence and a €10,000 fine against Mr. Le Pen for his statement that the Nazi occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane.”

When she took over the party in 2011, Ms. Le Pen tried to bury her father’s views by declaring the Holocaust to be “the ultimate act of barbarism.” Her work to sanitize the party’s image may in fact pay off in 2014, when the National Front looks set to make significant gains in two key elections.

But it is more difficult for Ms. Le Pen to deny her father’s political legacy, which she selectively defends, or his supporters, whom she is careful not to alienate. She may not like her father’s friends, but she clearly can’t protest too much.


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« Reply #11253 on: Jan 14, 2014, 06:58 AM »


Lampedusa sea disaster survivors released after UN condemns 'detention'

Eritrean asylum seekers finally leave Italian island months after Mediterranean maritime tragedy that killed more than 300

Lizzy Davies in Rome
theguardian.com, Monday 13 January 2014 13.59 GMT

Eritrean asylum seekers who survived disaster at sea only to be held in a reception centre on Lampedusa for more than 100 days have finally left the Italian island, with the UN condemning their extended stay as "not understandable and not acceptable".

Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, in southern Europe said the agency had sent a letter of protest last week to judicial authorities in Sicily over what it said amounted to a prolonged detention of people in urgent need of assistance.

In one of the worst tragedies of its kind in the Mediterranean, more than 300 Eritreans died when the boat carrying them from Libya caught fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October.

Survivors were taken to the island's centre for first assistance (CPA), a basic and often hugely overstretched first-tier reception centre where new arrivals are supposed to spend no longer than 48 hours.

In reality, asylum seekers often spend longer there, many of them sleeping outdoors during peak times for want of space.

But observers have been particularly angered by the length of time some survivors of 3 October were kept there, given the trauma they are likely to have suffered during and after the disaster.

The seven Eritreans who left the centre on Sunday, who include an 18-year-old woman "suffering psychological strain", were willing to give witness testimony and were waiting to be heard by investigators, said Sami. They are scheduled to be heard by a judge in the southern Sicilian city of Agrigento on Monday.

Sami said: "[The CPA on] Lampedusa should be a centre where people stay for no more than 48 hours, and it is now structured that they stay there for many months.

"But in this case it is even less understandable and acceptable that those people, who have already suffered and risked losing their lives in such a tragic way, have been basically detained for all these months."

The letter demanded that the Italian authorities ensure the situation never happens again. Six Syrian asylum seekers who also arrived in Lampedusa in October, meanwhile, are understood to still be at the centre.

The UNHCR argues that there is no need for potential witnesses to stay in the centre, the conditions of which have received widespread criticism in recent months. But the local authorities are understood to be concerned about potential disappearances before the information is properly heard and processed.

"As far as the judicial authorities are concerned, it is very good if the asylum seekers are transferred [to another centre off Lampedusa], as long as their witness testimony is guaranteed," the Agrigento prosecutor, Renato Di Natale, was quoted as saying last month.

Khalid Chaouki, an MP for the centre-left Democratic party, who spent Christmas inside the Lampedusa CPA, said the contrast was stark between the treatment given to the survivors of the 3 October disaster and the torrent of expressions of solidarity immediately after it.

"We cried with them, and now they are the only ones to whom we are denying liberty," he told La Repubblica in December. "They have to be traceable, and so they cannot leave [the centre]. But this is an absurd short-circuit: we thanked them because they gave evidence, and now we're not allowing them their freedom."


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« Reply #11254 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:04 AM »


Turkish police raid aid agency's offices in 'crackdown on al-Qaida'

One person held in raid on Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in Kilis, bordering Syria, amid police operations in six cities

Reuters in Istanbul
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 11.20 GMT   

Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, sponsored by IHH, which tried to break the Gaza blockade in 2010
The IHH came to international prominence when Israeli marines stormed its ship the Mavi Marmara when it tried to break the Gaza blockade in 2010. Photograph: Stringer/Turkey/Reuters

Turkish anti-terrorist police have raided the offices of an aid agency on the border with Syria as part of what local media said was an operation in six cities against individuals suspected of links to al-Qaida.

Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said police had raided its offices in the southern city of Kilis, and detained one person.

The IHH came to prominence in May 2010 when Israeli marines stormed its Mavi Marmara ship to enforce a naval blockade of the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists.

"IHH aid is delivered to Syrian babies, children and those who freeze in the cold … This is an operation to change perceptions (about IHH) and stop aid from being delivered inside Syria," the group said in a statement.

Turkey has maintained an open-door policy throughout the Syrian conflict, providing a lifeline to rebel-held areas by allowing humanitarian aid in, giving refugees a route out and letting the rebel Free Syrian Army organise on its soil.

But the rise of al-Qaida-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in parts of northern Syria near the border has left Ankara open to accusations it is lending support to radical Islamists.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly denied his country is providing shelter or backing to al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria.

Turkey's Dogan news agency said police were carrying out raids against al-Qaida suspects in six cities, including Istanbul as well as Gaziantep and Adana near the Syrian border.


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« Reply #11255 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:13 AM »


Iran and IAEA postpone nuclear talks until February

UN nuclear watchdog does not give reason for postponement of talks with Tehran that were due to happen next week

Reuters in Vienna
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 10.17 GMT   

The UN nuclear watchdog has said a planned meeting with Iran next week to discuss how to allay concerns over its nuclear programme had been postponed to 8 February, without giving a reason.

The talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are separate from – though still closely linked with – broader diplomacy between Tehran and six world powers over Iran's disputed nuclear activity.

In November, Iran and the IAEA agreed a co-operation pact, including six initial steps to be taken by the country over the following three months, including access to two nuclear-related facilities and the provision of information.

They said after a review meeting last month they would meet again in Tehran on 21 January to discuss the next steps under the framework agreement. An IAEA spokeswoman confirmed that the date of the meeting had been postponed.

The IAEA wants Iran to address allegations that it has researched how to develop nuclear bombs, a charge Iran denies. Tehran says the nuclear programme is entirely peaceful.

Separately, Iran and the six powers – the US, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia – said on Sunday the implementation of a 24 November landmark agreement to curb Tehran's atomic activity in return for some easing of sanctions would begin on 20 January. The IAEA will play a major role in verifying that Iran implements its part of the deal.

The IAEA's 35-nation governing board is due to hold an extraordinary meeting on 24 January to discuss the UN agency's extra work in monitoring the six-month agreement between Iran and the six states, two diplomats told Reuters on Tuesday.

The IAEA already regularly inspects Iranian nuclear sites to make sure there is no diversion of sensitive material for military purposes.

It will increase the frequency of such visits and see some additional facilities, including plants where Iran manufactures equipment for refining uranium. Enriched uranium can have both civilian and military purposes.

For its increased workload, the IAEA will likely need to send more inspectors to Iran and it has tentatively assessed that it will face extra costs of roughly €5m (£4.2m), which will be partly funded by voluntary member states contributions, diplomats have said.

***************

Obama urges Congress to give Iran’s diplomacy efforts a chance

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 19:19 EST

President Barack Obama urged the US Congress to give peace with Iran a chance Monday, as lawmakers lined up behind new sanctions despite warnings they could doom an interim nuclear deal.

Obama said that the six-month pact due to go into force on January 20 after being concluded at the weekend, offered a “door of opportunity” for Iran to have better relations with the outside world, after decades of deep antagonism with the United States.

But he said that if Iran fails to live up to the terms of the deal, which freezes aspects of its nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief, he would support new punitive measures to stop Tehran getting a nuclear weapon.

“My preference is for peace and diplomacy,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

“This is one of the reasons why I’ve sent a message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions. What we want to do is give diplomacy a chance and give peace a chance.”

The White House has previously warned that Obama will veto any bill enacted by Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, fearing it could prompt Tehran to walk away from the negotiating table or undermine its negotiators among regime conservatives back home.

But there are increasing signs that bipartisan support for the bill on Capitol Hill may be nearing the two-thirds majority required to override such a veto.

It is currently unclear if and when the bill will be brought up for a vote in Congress. The president will have a chance to press home his case for a delay in new sanctions when he makes his annual State of the Union address on January 28.

Lawmakers who support the bill say tough sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and stiffer measures would increase Obama’s leverage in talks between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 group of world powers.

Obama has insisted that Washington must test Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s willingness to honor a pledge to seek a peaceful nuclear deal, despite opposition from many hawks on Capitol Hill and deep reservations by America’s closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel.

His aides say that if new sanctions force the nuclear talks to collapse, Washington could be forced into another war in the Middle East to thwart the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Obama stresses that he has not taken the option of using military force off the table, but he has warned that such action may not be decisive and could unleash waves of unintended consequences across the Middle East.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said new sanctions would have the opposite effect to the one intended by key sponsors, Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

“It could, if they were to do it, actually weaken the sanctions structure that’s in place by undermining faith among our international partners and providing Iran the opportunity to say that we have been negotiating in bad faith,” Carney said last week.

In a Washington Post editorial, Menendez described the initiative as a “diplomatic insurance policy” against Iran. He said his bill would impose immediate extra sanctions on Iran if it became necessary but would not come into force while “good faith” negotiations were under way.

“Should Iran breach this agreement or fail to negotiate in good faith, the penalties it would face are severe,” he wrote.

New sanctions would further target Iranian petroleum products and the mining, engineering and construction sectors.

A senior US administration official told AFP that the first $550-million (400-million-euro) installment of $4.2 billion in frozen assets would be released under the interim nuclear deal early next month.

“The installment schedule starts on February 1 and the payments are evenly distributed” across 180 days, the official said.

Analysts say unblocking the funds would breathe new life into the economy and provide much-needed relief across Iran.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

*************

Hard-Liners in Iran Offer Mild Praise for Interim Nuclear Agreement

By THOMAS ERDBRINKJ
JAN. 13, 2014
IHT 

TEHRAN — Iranian hard-liners on Monday cautiously welcomed the completion of an interim nuclear agreement that will provide Tehran with some relief from Western economic sanctions in return for a suspension of certain nuclear activities for six months.

“This is the first step toward a cease-fire,” Rasoul Sanaeirad, a political assistant to the Revolutionary Guards, told the semiofficial Fars news agency on Monday. “It seems the Americans are determined to overcome the atmosphere of conflict.”

The agreement was reached on Sunday after seven weeks of negotiations over the details on how to put in place the compromises in principle outlined in November by Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany.
   
The agreement will now officially be carried out next Monday. According to the Obama administration, Iran will get around $7 billion in sanctions relief that will be doled out over the length of the pact. In exchange, Iran will comply with measures that the United States says will roll back its nuclear program.

Whether Iran is racing toward nuclear weapon capabilities is one of the most contentious foreign-policy issues challenging the West.

The mild praise for the agreement among hard-line groups, well entrenched in the country’s Parliament, judiciary, state television, Friday Prayer venues and security forces, was something of a surprise after weeks of criticism and warnings to negotiators not to “sell out” the country.

But on Monday, critics remained largely mute, with several prominent conservatives even heralding the agreement as a victory for Iran.

“God willing, everything will be O.K.,” said Hamid Reza Tarraghi, an analyst close to Iran’s leadership. “But naturally we must scrutinize the details of the agreement.”

One influential lawmaker in Iran’s hawkish Parliament said Iran’s negotiators, who are supervised by the government, had achieved a victory by getting the West to accept Iran’s use of a new generation of advanced centrifuges.

“At last the world powers accepted that operating such machines is not against the agreement,” the lawmaker, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, said on Monday in an interview with the Parliament’s news website, ICANA.

Generally speaking, Iran’s hard-line faction, a loose alliance of conservative clerics and military commanders, remains silent in the face of political defeats, only to counterattack at a later stage.

Perhaps preparing the ground for such an assault, the conservative Mashregh news agency accused the top negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, of withholding crucial information on the latest agreement. Noting that nobody had seen the actual text laying out the details of the agreement, it said that certain points had been changed since the Geneva agreement in November.

“If you want the support from the people, do not withhold information from them,” read an editorial, which also claimed the agency had information that changes had been made in the earlier agreement.

The road to a final agreement is likely to have some bumps on both sides, experts have said. The United States Senate is considering a package of additional sanctions that would be imposed if Iran if did not keep its commitments on the deal. In response, the Iranian Parliament is threatening to retaliate for any new sanctions by increasing the level of uranium enrichment to 60 percent, compared with the maximum of 5 percent it agreed to in the deal.

The lawmakers argue that Iran needs this level of enrichment — dangerously close to weapons grade — to fuel a fleet of nuclear-powered ships and submarines that it has yet to build.

“If the American president does not want to stop the Congress, it will be very easy for the Islamic Republic of Iran to leave the negotiations,” the lawmaker Mohammad Hasan Asafari told Fars on Sunday. “But at that time, the loser will be the Americans, and it will not be that easy for them to return to negotiations.”

For now, however, the agreement is being welcomed by most among Iran’s political elite.

“I am optimistic over the future,” said Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a former conservative member of Parliament who teaches political science at Tehran University. “This is a first step to overcome extremism in both our countries.”

*****************

Another Step Toward Nuclear Sanity in Iran

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
NYT
JAN. 13, 2014

If all goes according to plan, Iran will begin freezing and then rolling back its most worrisome nuclear activities on Monday under an agreement reached over the weekend with the United States and other major powers. This would be the most significant restraint ever on a program that has threatened international stability since it was first disclosed in 2002 and an undeniably important step toward the peaceful resolution of a serious dispute. Even so, dangerously misguided forces, including leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress, are working to sabotage it.

The broad outlines of the deal, to be replaced in six months by a more permanent one, were reached in November. Now the major powers and Iran have settled on detailed procedures for making it work. Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level sufficient for energy production but not enough to fuel a bomb. Its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent — a level alarmingly close to weapons-grade fuel — will be diluted or converted to a less threatening substance.

Iran also agreed not to install new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating or build new enrichment facilities. It will allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to have unprecedented, in some cases daily, access to some sites.

Once the agency confirms that Iran has begun to take the promised actions, the major powers will suspend certain sanctions so Iran can resume petrochemical exports, trade in gold and other precious metals, and imports of spare parts, especially for airplanes. The major powers will stop pressuring other countries to reduce oil imports from Iran and will facilitate humanitarian trade, making it easier for Iran to obtain needed medicines and make tuition payments for Iranian students abroad.

Iranian funds frozen in foreign banks amounting to $4.2 billion will be released in increments, beginning with a $550 million payment in February.

The most crippling sanctions will remain in force until a permanent agreement is in place. These sanctions have severely constrained Iran’s oil exports, foreign investment in Iran’s energy industry and Iran’s ability to engage in international financial transactions.

American officials have made clear that if Iran cheats, any sanctions that had been eased would be reimposed and tougher ones enacted. Nevertheless, these commitments have not dissuaded lawmakers like Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, from pushing legislation that would impose new sanctions. This would violate the interim agreement and set unworkable conditions for a final deal. Israel’s government and pro-Israel interest groups are pressing the same hard line.

President Obama has threatened to veto such a bill if it passes. But it would be far better if the critics, especially members of his own party like Mr. Menendez, came to their senses. There are no guarantees that the next six months will produce a final deal that permanently restrains Iran from a nuclear weapon, but the interim deal at least offers hope for one. Conversely, if negotiations fail — which would surely happen if Congress ties Mr. Obama’s hands — Iran is likely to embark on an even more aggressive search for a nuclear weapon. And that could leave war as the only option.

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« Reply #11256 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:16 AM »

Vaccination campaign eliminates crippling polio virus in India

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 14:37 EST

India marked three years since its last reported polio case Monday, meaning it will soon be certified as having defeated the ancient scourge in a huge advance for global eradication efforts.

India’s polio programme is one of the country’s biggest public health success stories, achieving something once thought impossible thanks to a massive and sustained vaccination programme.

Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, along with global groups who have been working to eradicate the virus, hailed Monday’s anniversary as “a monumental milestone”.

“We have completed a full three years without a single polio case and I’m sure that in the future there won’t be any polio cases,” Azad told reporters in the capital.

Smiling and flashing a V for victory sign, he added: “I think this is great news not just for India but the entire globe.”

With the number of cases in decline in Nigeria and Afghanistan, two of only three countries where polio is still endemic, world efforts to consign the crippling virus to history are making steady progress.

“In 2012, there were the fewest numbers of cases in endemic countries as ever before. So far in 2013 (records are still being checked), there were even less,” Hamid Jafari, global polio expert at the World Health Organisation, told AFP.

“If the current trends of progress continue we could very easily see the end of polio in Afghanistan and Nigeria in 2014.”

Success and caution

Despite the success, isolated polio outbreaks in the Horn of Africa and war-wracked Syria emerged as new causes for concern in 2013.

There are also reasons for caution in India, with the virus still considered endemic in neighbouring Pakistan, where vaccinators are being killed by the Taliban which views them as possible spies.

A fake vaccination programme was used by the CIA to provide cover for operatives tracking Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan by US special forces in May 2011.

Countries are certified by the WHO as being polio-free if they go 12 months without a case, and are then said to have eradicated it after a period of three years without new infections.

India will likely receive this endorsement only in March, which will trigger more exuberant celebrations than on Monday.

The wretched sight of crippled street hawkers or beggars on wheeled trolleys will remain, however, as a legacy of the country’s time as an epicentre of the disease.

In the absence of official data, most experts agree there are several million survivors left with withered legs or twisted spines who face discrimination and often live on the margins of society.

Million of vaccinators

The country’s success was built on a huge vaccination programme that began in the mid-1990s with the backing of the central government and a coalition of charities, private donors and UN agencies.

An army of more than two million vaccinators, supported by religious and community leaders, canvassed villages, slums, train stations and public gatherings in even the most remote parts of the country.

India reported 150,000 cases of paralytic polio in 1985, and it still accounted for half of all cases globally in 2009, with 741 infections that led to paralysis.

In 2010, the number of victims fell to double figures before the last case on January 13, 2011, when an 18-month-old girl in a Kolkata slum was found to have contracted it.

The girl, Rukshar Khatoon, is now attending school and leads a “normal life”, although she still suffers pain in her right leg, doctors and her parents told AFP.

“She can now stand on her feet and walk, but can’t run,” her father Abdul Saha said. “When her friends play, she remains a spectator.”

Saha, a father of four, said he had taken his son to get immunised but not two of his daughters. “It was a grave mistake,” he said.

Wider benefits

Jafari from the WHO highlighted the immense knock-on benefits for India, which is still afflicted by other preventable diseases, widespread malnutrition and poor sanitation.

“India has now set other important public health goals as a result of the confidence that the country has got from the successful eradication of polio,” he said, citing a new measles eradication goal.

Health Minister Azad said the next priorities were tackling non-communicable diseases such as a cancer and diabetes but he conceded that the government needed to spend more on improving health services.

“In proportion to the GDP (gross domestic product), unfortunately we don’t spend that much money, as much as we should spend,” he told AFP.


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« Reply #11257 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:18 AM »


Thailand protesters tighten Bangkok blockade

Capital remains calm with schools and businesses open as demonstrators stay on streets urging end to rule of Shinawatras

Kate Hodal and agencies
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 09.04 GMT   

Protesters trying to topple Thailand's government have tightened the blockade around ministries and a hardline faction has threatened to storm the stock exchange, while major intersections in the capital Bangkok remained blocked.

The protesters had planned to "shut down" the city of 12 million people, but life continued normally in most places, with school classes restarting, commuters heading to work and most businesses remaining open.

Thousands of people – many of them southerners from out of town – slept in the streets in tents or on mats in the open air. Although the capital was calm and the mood among the tens of thousands of protesters remained festive, analysts said the scope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis was narrowing.

"As anti-government protesters intensify actions, the risk of violence across wide swaths of the country is growing and significant," an International Crisis Group (ICG) report said.

A student group allied to the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the party of Suthep Thaugsuban, a career politician who stepped down as an MP to campaign against the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has threatened to attack the stock exchange. Faction leader Nitithorn Lamlua told supporters on Monday it represented "a wicked capitalist system that provided the path for Thaksin to become a billionaire".

A PDRC spokesman said the bourse was not one its targets. "We will not lay siege to places that provide services for the general public, including airports, the stock exchange and trains. However, we will block government offices to stop them from functioning," Akanat Promphan told supporters at a rally.

Jarumporn Chotikasathien, president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, told Reuters emergency measures had been prepared to secure the premises and trading systems.

Led by Suthep, the protesters are calling for an end to so-called money politics and corruption and the establishment of a new government free from the influence of the Shinawatra family.

Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 but is widely believed to be pulling the strings from Dubai. Yingluck reiterated her refusal to quit on Tuesday, telling reporters: "I've stressed many times I have a duty to act according to my responsibility after the dissolution of parliament … I'm doing my duty to preserve democracy."

Protesters have been demanding Yingluck's resignation since November, when her Pheu Thai party tried to push through a late-night amnesty bill that would have allowed for the return of her much-maligned brother. At least eight people have been killed in protests, with seven injured at the weekend.

Analysts have raised concerns about possible military intervention, with the army chief recently refusing to rule it out. But on Monday the protests were peaceful and festive, with singalongs and the sharing of food and drink. The protesters range from academics and businessmen to students, farmers and entrepreneurs, many of whom had travelled from the provinces. They were joined by celebrities and musicians.


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« Reply #11258 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:20 AM »


Trial of Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong may be imminent, says his lawyer

Human rights activist was detained in July after leading series of demonstrations urging officials to disclose their assets

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 11.59 GMT

Chinese authorities plan to hold a pretrial hearing for prominent activist Xu Zhiyong on Friday morning, his lawyer said, suggesting that his trial may be imminent.

"Xu Zhiyong's condition is normal, and he's hoping for a fair trial," Xu's lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said on Tuesday, adding that the exact date of the trial was still uncertain. If authorities bar Xu's defence witnesses from testifying – a common occurrence in politically sensitive cases – Xu will refuse to speak at the hearing, Zhang has said.

Xu is best known as the leader of the New Citizens' Movement, a loose-knit grassroots organisation that aims to promote human rights, government transparency and the rule of law. Xu was detained in July after leading a series of small-scale demonstrations urging officials to disclose their assets. Authorities responded by cracking down on the group – about 20 members were detained, and many are still awaiting trial.

Last month prosecutors formally accused Xu of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place", which, according to Zhang, carries a maximum five-year sentence. Xu denies the charge.

Xu, a former law lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, built a reputation for using the law to champion causes that seemingly dovetailed with official priorities, such as food safety and education equity. He became an international cause celebre in the late 2000s after offering legal assistance to families effected by a tainted milk formula scandal.

Before president Xi Jinping was anointed in March, authorities generally tolerated Xu's activism, and many experts view the case as a barometer of the new administration's line on dissent.

Eva Pils, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the court would probably use the hearing to screen defence witnesses so that the trial can proceed with as little resistance as possible. "I'm sure the authorities want this trial to happen in a particular way," she said. "And they probably want to minimise the impact, the scandal that could arise from it."

Pretrial hearings have been allowed since China revised its criminal procedure law in 2012, she said. They are optional and decided by courts on a case-by-case basis.

"The likelihood that the court will call witnesses that the defence has proposed is, of course, extremely low, as far as I can see," she said.


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« Reply #11259 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:22 AM »


Kim Dotcom to launch 'Megaparty' for New Zealand elections

Megaupload founder cannot stand as a candidate himself, but vows to 'activate non-voters, the youth, the internet electorate'

Associated Press in Wellington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 08.07 GMT   

Kim Dotcom has announced he is launching a political party in his adopted home of New Zealand to contest the country's general election this year.

The indicted internet entrepreneur says he is founding and funding the party, but will not be a candidate. Born Kim Schmitz in Germany, the 39-year-old is a New Zealand resident but not a citizen and cannot be a candidate under New Zealand law.

    My political party will activate non-voters, the youth, the Internet electorate. We are going to make politics exciting. More on January 20.
    — Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) January 11, 2014

Dotcom said he would launch the party on Monday, the second anniversary of when police stormed his mansion near Auckland and arrested him. The authorities also shut down Megaupload, the popular file-sharing site he founded. He has since started a new file-hosting site, Mega.

American prosecutors accuse Dotcom of facilitating internet piracy on a massive scale. Charged with racketeering and money-laundering, he is fighting US attempts to extradite him. Dotcom argues he cannot be held responsible for those who chose to use his site to illegally download songs or movies.

Dotcom said next week he will launch his party website, a mobile app, and will begin registering party members. New Zealand law requires political parties to have 500 paid members.

Dotcom said he had some good candidates but wanted to keep those and other details a surprise for the launch. "As you can imagine, everybody wants to know," he said.

Dotcom has been hinting about his plans for months on Twitter: "My political party will activate non-voters, the youth, the internet electorate," he wrote last week.

It's not clear what policies the party would promote. Dotcom has been outspokenly critical of both liberals such as President Barack Obama and conservatives including New Zealand's prime minister, John Key.

But some observers believe Dotcom could influence the election. Opinion polls in New Zealand show a fairly even balance between conservative and liberal voters. Under the country's proportional system, parties need to win just 5% of the vote to get a seat in parliament. Even if Dotcom's party didn not win a seat, it could still take votes away from other parties.

"Kim Dotcom could throw a real spanner in the works of this year's general election," Bryce Edwards, a political commentator and lecturer at the University of Otago, wrote on his blog. "His promised new party is far from certain to get into parliament, but depending on how well it tickles the fancies of some of the more radical, marginalised, and disillusioned voters and non-voters, the so-called Mega party could have a huge impact on who forms the next government."

Dotcom's extradition case has become entangled in the New Zealand legal system and has been the subject of numerous delays. US authorities say they expect the case to be heard in July although appeals after that could delay a final outcome until next year.

New Zealand's government has yet to set a date for the election. Many observers expect it will be held between September and November.


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« Reply #11260 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:23 AM »


Egypt constitutional vote marred by death and violence

Man killed in clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces in Bani Suef, hours after bomb exploded in Cairo

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo and agencies
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 10.25 GMT   

A man has been killed in clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi outside a polling station south of Cairo.

The polls opened for the first time in the post-Morsi era on Tuesday morning in a constitutional referendum that opposition activists claim they have not been free to campaign against.

The death of Mahmoud Sayed Gomaa, 25, in Bani Suef, came hours after a bomb exploded outside a courthouse in north-western Cairo shortly before polling stations opened.

Photographs from Imbaba, a working-class district, showed smashed windows and damaged pillars at the front of the local courthouse, apparently caused by the blast. A police official said there were no casualties and blamed it on pro-Morsi extremists trying to put people off voting.

The government and its supporters have positioned the constitution's successful passage as both the only means of creating a stable and democratic state and as an informal ratification of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi.

Fearing bomb attacks would discourage people from voting, the army promised to deploy 160,000 troops to secure polling stations.

"Let us all go out and vote with the same fervour we showed on 25 January 2011 and on 30 June, 3 July and 26 July 2013," the interim president, Adly Mansour, said on Monday in a speech that tied the poll to dates associated with the downfall of both Morsi and his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. "[Let's] continue the revolutionary path we have chosen, with a constitution that would act as a springboard for a modern democratic and civil state."

But opponents of the constitution, which replaces Morsi's Islamist-leaning 2012 version, argue the buildup to the election has been anything but democratic – with dozens of activists allegedly arrested for calling for a no vote. Egyptian streets are filled with thousands of "yes" posters, with very little space given to the no campaign either on billboards or in the media.

Strong Egypt, a moderate Islamist party that had previously been the only sizable group to organise a no campaign, has made a last-minute decision to boycott the poll. Officials claimed 35 of their activists had been arrested on the campaign trail and said participation was pointless in the face of such widespread intimidation. The Muslim Brotherhood has long said it would boycott the vote, having rejected the legitimacy of anything that followed Morsi's removal.

"It's a fake process," said Mohamed el-Baqr, a senior official at Strong Egypt, which opposed Morsi's constitution and later called for his early departure. "The choice on the ballot paper is effectively between a box for yes and a box for handcuffs."

According to Human Rights Watch, at least seven of those arrested face criminal charges. The seven are among thousands of dissenters detained in recent months from across the political spectrum.

Amid the focus on the symbolism of its enactment, the contents of the constitution have been largely ignored. Supporters praise it for largely removing pro-Islamist sections from Morsi's version and for potentially paving the way to better education, healthcare and women's rights. Opponents say it is not the revolutionary document they expected after the removal of two presidents. In particular they fear clauses that variously allow for civilians to be tried in certain contexts in army courts, curb workers' rights and limit religious freedoms to members of the three Abrahamic religions.

The text is opposed by most Islamist groups, with one notable exception: the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party, the second-largest group in Egypt's last parliament. Even though the party previously claimed even Morsi's constitution was not conservative enough, the Nour party has said it will support the new secular-slanted text on pragmatic grounds: to allow it to continue to play a role in the political scene.

"If we said no the constitution would pass by smaller percentage, but it would still pass, and the Nour party would have sacrificed their role in the roadmap," said Nader Bakkar, the party spokesman. Bakkar nevertheless said the party was not acting out of fear of being added to a crackdown on government critics.

The referendum will be monitored by hundreds of local observers and 83 overseas delegates from Democracy International, paid for by the US government. A spokesman for the group told reporters on Sunday that its "decision to observe should not be considered conferral of legitimacy" on the process. Another US-based group, the Carter Centre, will send only a small delegation after being deeply concerned by the "narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum".


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« Reply #11261 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:27 AM »


Malawi prepares for $100m 'cashgate' corruption trial

Foreign donors suspend $150m of aid until scandal allegedly involving civil servants, MPs and businesspeople is cleared up

Godfrey Mapondera in Blantyre
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 09.47 GMT

Malawi is braced for the mass trial of 100 civil servants, politicians and businesspeople involved in the alleged looting of more than $100m (£60m) from government coffers, a case that has become a litmus test for foreign donors backing the government of Joyce Banda.

The "cashgate" trial is scheduled to start on Wednesday under pressure from donors who bankroll 40% of the government's budget and who have said they will withhold some aid until it is clear that it is not being misused.

"We are under extreme pressure [to prosecute the cases]," said Bruno Kalemba, the director of public prosecutions. "There are lots of files on my desk that need to be dealt with. There are warrants of arrest and a lot of follow-ups. This has become an emotional issue."

The pressure for swift action has come from donors, who have suspended pledged aid worth $150m until Banda, who came to power in 2012 following the sudden death of president Bingu wa Mutharika, "cleans up the mess" of corruption and speedily prosecutes all suspects.

"We will not be able to resume support through government systems until we have a clear assurance, independently verified, that our resources are all being used for their intended purpose," said Sarah Sanyahumbi, a British diplomat who heads the donor grouping, which includes European countries, the European Union and the World Bank. Britain has withheld £17m of budget funds.

The British high commissioner to Malawi, Michael Nevin, said withholding the aid was not about punishing Malawi. "We want [the] government to put its house in order by implementing systems that will not allow pilferage of public funds," he said.

The case comes four months before elections in Malawi.

Some political pundits hope some of the suspects will be bold enough to link the president to the public looting. Speculation about her involvement has been rife since the scandal was revealed following the shooting of budget director Paul Mphwiyo in September.

Mphwiyo is reported to have been on the verge of exposing a corruption ring when unknown gunmen shot him outside his home on 3 September. He survived the shooting and had specialist treatment in South Africa. Mphwiyo will be the number one state witness during the trials.

Billy Banda, director of rights group Malawi Watch, said: "What Malawians can conclude is that the president's hands are not clean in this issue … somewhere and somehow the president's hands are there in this scandal."

He said Malawians would be interested to know how much the president knew about the looting, which her government has blamed on loopholes in the payment system. "There are so many questions that need to be answered."

A Catholic rights group has accused Banda of being "part and parcel" of the fraud scandal. Peter Chinoko, head of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in the Lilongwe archdiocese, said: "We have concrete evidence about the president's involvement."

Chinoko said the looting was aimed at sponsoring the campaign of Banda's ruling People's party, which was formed a year ago with no national grassroots support, before the 20 May local, national and presidential elections.

The information minister, Brown Mpinganjira, a key backer of Banda policies, has dismissed the claims by Chinoko, saying it was a "plan to blackmail the president so that she stops the investigations currently under way".

"The president is being threatened to embarrass and frustrate her efforts to fight corruption," Mpinganjira, a veteran politician, said. "This is a well-planned and calculated strategy by those that are trying to run away from the full force of the law to try and smear as many individuals as possible."

Joyce Banda has said she took a "political risk" to launch a fight against corruption five months before the elections. She said the fight against corruption "must come first, winning elections comes second to me".

One prominent figure on trial is businessman Oswald Lutepo, a senior official in Banda's party, who is accused of theft and money laundering and is alleged to have pocketed more than $6m from government coffers through ghost companies that did not provide any services to the state.

Lutepo is said to have donated 22 vehicles to Banda's party and paid a record bail bond of $100,000.

Malawians will also follow with keen interest the evidence of former justice minister Ralph Kasambara, who has been charged with the attempted murder of Mphwiyo, although police have yet to establish the link between the shooting incident and the scandal.

The president has publicly claimed that Mphwiyo's shooting was "a planned and targeted attack aimed at silencing him and the government in the fight against high levels of corruption and fraud".

She has insisted Mphwiyo will give the correct version of events leading to his shooting. She has conceded that corruption is deeply entrenched in Malawi, but said that it predates her tenure by years.

Nonetheless, the case represents a threat to her hopes of winning the presidency in May. Billy Mayaya, director of the National League for Democracy and Development, said the scandal meant her chances of winning were "very slim". "Malawians are angry at the massive looting of government resources and want answers as to who is really behind this rot," he said.

**************

Malawi aid freeze could hit health and education sectors

UK's suspension of sector budget support after 'cashgate' scandal will have huge adverse impact, warns expert

Mark Tran   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 11.56 GMT   

A freeze on all direct British financial aid to Malawi after reports of high-level corruption could have huge adverse effects on health and education, an aid expert has warned.

The Department for International Development (DfID) suspended aid to Malawi, where 40% of the national budget comes from donors, in November after the so-called "cashgate" scandal.

The affair broke in September after a failed assassination attempt on the government's budget director, Paul Mphwiyo, who it is believed was about to reveal a corruption syndicate in government. Police raids after the shooting found several high-level officials with piles of cash hidden in their homes and cars.

Several government figures were arrested and accused of exploiting a loophole in the government's payment system – known as the integrated financial managing information System – to divert millions into their own pockets. According to some estimates it totalled $250m (£152m).

In response to the scandal, DfID and other donors, including the EU and Norway, suspended aid that goes directly to the Malawian government under general budget support.

But DfID went a step further than other donors in suspending sector budget support, which involves money going to a sector-specific government bank account, for example, health or education, but with oversight from donors.

This allows donors to audit the health and education spending each year to ensure that money is going to where it should. With general budget support, donors do not keep tabs on the money.

An expert on Malawi said: "The consequence of DfID's actions may be huge adverse impacts on the health and education sectors in Malawi, as DfID is such a significant donor on the health and education sectors in Malawi."

DfID froze £17m in aid with immediate effect in November and said no further payments would be made until a team of independent investigators had completed an audit and all necessary actions had been taken.

The "cashgate" scandal is a blow to President Joyce Banda's efforts to win back donor confidence since taking office in 2012 and may affect her prospects in this year's presidential election. Her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, had fallen out with international donors, but Banda managed to rebuild relationships.

Maxwell Mkwezalamba, who replaced Ken Lipenga as Malawi's finance minister after the "cashgate" scandal, has pleaded for donors to be lenient and insists that the loss of budget support will spell disaster.

The aid insider, who did not wish to be named, said DfID had overreacted to the "cashgate" scandal, not only by stopping sector budget support but by also pulling out of a programme to enhance financial controls through a new public financial and economic management reform initiative.

"This programme includes actions to enhance financial controls in a way that would reduce 'cashgate'-type risks," he said. "On the donor side this programme is being led by the World Bank and is jointly funded by donors such as the World Bank, the EU, the German government and DfID.

"Only, because of 'cashgate', DfID has pulled out its funding from this important programme. Other donors see that it does not make sense to impede the progress of this programme so they are maintaining support. As a result, relations between DfID, on the one hand, and the World Bank and other donors, on the other, are reported to be acrimonious."

On this particular programme, DfID said: "As a multidonor trust fund, all payments to the public financial and economic management reform programme will now be paid directly by the World Bank to the suppliers. This will ensure this important reform programme continues."

As for the wider situation, a DfID spokesman said: "While there is no evidence that UK funds have been misused, it is clearly not possible to provide direct support to Malawi's government at this time. A team of independent auditors, with UK support, are conducting a full forensic audit. No UK funds will be paid until we are fully satisfied that taxpayers' money is safe."

While that may go down well with critics of UK aid, others say DfID has gone too far. "DfID's overreaction to "cashgate" is not typical of the wise policy decisions that are expected from DfID," said the aid expert. "It seems that British politicians are pulling their strings. The fear is screaming headlines in UK newspapers."

Britain, Malawi's biggest aid donor, had planned to provide £92m to Malawi in 2013-14. The bulk is spent through NGOs, civil society organisations and aid agencies.


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« Reply #11262 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:29 AM »

Same-sex couples who get married in Nigeria now face 14 years in prison

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 14:24 EST

Nigeria on Monday provoked international outrage after President Goodluck Jonathan ratified a controversial bill outlawing gay marriage and same-sex unions under threat of imprisonment.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” after Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2013, which proposes up to 14 years in jail for law-breakers.

The veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described it as “one of the world’s most homophobic laws” while advocacy groups called it “tragic” and a backward step in the fight for equality.

Jonathan’s spokesman Reuben Abati earlier confirmed to AFP that the head of state had signed the bill earlier this month after it was approved by parliament last year.

But he dismissed global concerns, saying the law was consistent with the attitudes of most people towards homosexuality in the highly religious west African nation.

“More than 90 percent of Nigerians are opposed to same sex marriage. So, the law is in line with our cultural and religious beliefs as a people,” he added.

The anti-gay marriage law follows similar legislation in Uganda that was condemned by US President Barack Obama as “odious” and compared to apartheid by South African peace icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The bill, passed by Uganda’s parliament but yet to be ratified by President Yoweri Museveni, had previously contained a clause advocating the death penalty.

Homosexuality is also illegal in Nigeria’s eastern neighbour, Cameroon, and punishable by up to five years in prison.

The influence of evangelical Christianity is strong in all three countries while Nigeria is almost evenly split between a largely Christian south and majority Muslim north.

International concern

Under the Nigerian law, anyone who enters into a same-sex marriage or civil union can be sentenced to 14 years in prison while any such partnerships entered into abroad are deemed “void”.

It also warns that anyone who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisations or who directly or indirectly makes a public show of a same-sex relationship will break the law.

Punishment is up to 10 years in prison, it adds.

“Only a marriage contract between a man and a woman shall be recognised as valid in Nigeria,” the law states.

Secretary Kerry said Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” by Nigeria’s new law which “dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression for all Nigerians”.

The act was “inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in its 1999 constitution”.

“People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love,” he added.

Amnesty International had urged Jonathan to reject the bill, calling it “discriminatory” and warning of “catastrophic” consequences for Nigeria’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Tatchell described the development as “a tragic day for human rights in Nigeria” and a “backward step that gravely intensifies the already existing harsh anti-gay laws” in the country.

“These laws were originally imposed by the British during the period of colonial rule,” he said in emailed comments.

Nigeria was breaking not just its own constitution but a raft of international agreements, he added.

Jasmine O’Connor, from London-based gay advocacy group Stonewall, said the law was a “real blow” to lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Nigeria and pledged its continued support.

But Senator Domingo Obende of southern Edo state, who sponsored the bill, said he was pleased the law was now on the statute books and Jonathan’s sanction was expected.

“We knew that the president of Nigeria is a traditional human being, he’s a very moral person and a Christian, so we knew he would sign,”he added.

He also warned the international community not to interfere in Nigeria’s affairs.

“It’s not a law to kill anybody. It’s a corrective measure. Traditionally, culturally, morally, Nigeria does not want this,” he added.


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« Reply #11263 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:30 AM »

Young Africans organize conference tackling unemployment ‘time bomb’

by Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 16:29 EST

Hundreds of young Africans began a five-day conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar on Monday focusing on the “time bomb” of youth unemployment across the continent.

Africa is one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing regions but growing joblessness has become a major threat to prosperity, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Alioune Gueye, head of the Network of Youth Leaders of Africa and the Diaspora, which organised the event, said “nothing is more tragic” than seeing parents educate their children only to watch them fail to find jobs.

“This is a time bomb that must be defused,” Gueye said as he opened the fourth Pan-African Youth Leadership Summit, co-organised by the United Nations, which this year will tackle youth unemployment.

The UN estimates that 20 percent of Africans — around 200 million people — are aged 15 to 24, with the youth population expected to double by 2045.

Africa’s economy is projected to grow by 5.3 percent in 2014, according to the 2013 African Economic Outlook, an annual report produced by the AfDB, UN Development Programme and other groups.

But growth is not translating into jobs for the young people who make up 60 percent of the unemployed or underemployed in Africa, the report says.

Recent estimates by the AfDB based on household surveys across sub-Saharan Africa and data from the International Labour Organization find that youth unemployment stands around 34 percent.

“Unemployed young people are a threat to the stability of our countries,” Gueye said.

He told AFP after his address that “when a young person isn’t working, he has to rely on his family. He wants to start a family but cannot do so. He becomes embittered and can fall into organised crime or terrorism.”

Senegalese Prime Minister Aminata Toure told the conference the global financial crisis had led to numerous problems related to youth unemployment.

“The time has come to tackle this breakdown, to make young people the future of the continent. That must be the top priority,” she said.

The conference will make policy recommendations on tackling youth unemployment which will be circulated to the African Union and United Nations.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #11264 on: Jan 14, 2014, 07:32 AM »

Joe Biden tells Israel: Seize the moment for peace

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 18:10 EST

US Vice President Joe Biden on Monday urged Israel to seize this moment in history to make peace with the Palestinians in talks with President Shimon Peres.

At a working meeting after the two leaders paid their last respects to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was buried on Monday, the talk turned to the US-led direct peace talks.

“The one place (in the region) where there’s a possibility for an island of stability … is between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people, in two secure states respecting one another’s sovereignty and security,” Biden said in remarks relayed by the White House.

“And the president believes and I believe that this is one of those opportunities, one of those moments in history where it has to be seized.”

At the end of July, US Secretary of State John Kerry coaxed Israel and the Palestinians into their first direct peace talks in nearly three years, with the parties agreeing to a nine-month timetable for reaching a deal.

So far, there has been little visible progress, and Biden admitted there were some “very difficult decisions” ahead.

But he expressed confidence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “up to” the task and expressed hope that the same was true of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

“Israel’s ultimate security rests in a genuine accommodation with the Palestinians that it is born out of secure borders that are peaceful,” he said.

The US vice president arrived in Israel early on Monday to represent Washington at Sharon’s funeral, with Peres hailing his timing.

“Your coming is timely, important and moving. You came not only on a sad day but during days that Israel has to take tough decisions,” he said in remarks relayed by his office.

“All of us are aware that we have to take the decision now, that it’s tough and difficult but we have an open window and God knows when it will happen again.”

Biden then went for a dinner meeting at Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, although there was no immediate word on the content of their talks.

The last time Biden visited Israel was in March 2010 on a visit which was overshadowed by an Israeli announcement of plans to build 1,600 new homes in annexed east Jerusalem as Washington was trying to revive peace talks.

The move infuriated the White House and deeply embarrassed Netanyahu.

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