At least 200 refugees die in ferry accident while fleeing South Sudan
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 7:07 EST
At least 200 South Sudanese drowned in a ferry accident on the White Nile while fleeing fighting in the city of Malakal, an army spokesman said.
“The reports we have are of between 200 to 300 people, including women and children. The boat was overloaded,” army spokesman Philip Aguer said.”They all drowned. They were fleeing the fighting that broke out again in Malakal.”
Violence broke out in South Sudan on December 15 and quickly spread across the country, often in ethnic-based attacks. A precise death toll is not known, but the International Crisis Group has estimated that nearly 10,000 people have died. The UN says nearly 400,000 people have fled their homes.
On Tuesday, fighting continued up and down the Nile.
Heavy fighting was reported in Malakal, the state capital of oil-producing Upper Nile state in the north. Rebel forces staged a fresh attack to seize the town, which has already changed hands twice since the conflict in South Sudan began on December 15.
“There is fighting anew in and around Malakal,” United Nations aid chief for South Sudan Toby Lanzer said, adding that the peacekeeping base had been swamped with almost double the number of people seeking shelter, rising from 10,000 to 19,000.
The army reported heavy fighting reported further south near Bor, as the government sought to retake the town from rebels, the largest in their control.
“We are marching on Bor, there was very heavy fighting late on Monday,” Aguer said.
However, he rejected rebel claims to have captured the river port of Mongalla, situated between Bor and the capital Juba in the south of the country.
“We are north of Mongalla, we remain in full control there,” Aguer said.
He also confirmed fighting south of the capital, around the town of Rajaf, on Monday.
U.S. Presses Syrian Opposition to Join Talks
By MICHAEL R. GORDONJAN. 14, 2014
PARIS — Secretary of State John Kerry told the Syrian opposition that support for the group could be reduced if it decides not to attend the upcoming peace conference in Switzerland, Western officials said on Tuesday.
Mr. Kerry and a team of senior American officials met on Monday with Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, the president of the Syrian opposition coalition that the West is backing, and other opposition officials.
That rebel coalition has been concerned that its influence within Syria, which is already limited, would be undermined further if it participated in a drawn-out peace conference that did not lead to any results.
The United States has sought to assuage the opposition’s concerns by emphasizing that a number of “confidence building” measures might be instituted before the meeting, such as opening humanitarian aid corridors to besieged areas and establishing local cease-fires that might preclude the Syrian government’s bombardment of the northern city of Aleppo.
Mr. Kerry has also hinted that the Obama administration might move soon to restore the flow to the opposition coalition of nonlethal assistance that was recently cut off because of concerns that some of it had been captured in Syria by an Islamist group.
The opposition coalition plans to decide later this week whether to attend the peace conference, which is scheduled to begin in Switzerland on Jan. 22. The goal of the conference in the American view is to establish arrangements for a transitional administration that would govern Syria if President Bashar al-Assad could be persuaded to yield power. One worry of the opposition is that no deadline has been established for achieving results.
Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said that Mr. Kerry had delivered a message about the stakes involved but did not state directly that the United States had already decided to cut off aid if the opposition did not attend.
“Secretary Kerry made clear privately, as he has many times publicly, that there are high stakes at play for the SOC and that the international community strongly believes that it is in their interests and the interests of the Syrian people for them to send a representative delegation to the conference,” Ms. Psaki said, using the abbreviation for the Syrian opposition coalition. “He did not indicate that the United States was planning to cut off assistance.”
Mr. Kerry is flying to Rome on Tuesday for meetings at the Vatican and will then head to Kuwait for a meeting on Wednesday of donors who are providing humanitarian assistance to Syria.
Mr. Kerry’s argument to the opposition is that they could lose aid and that the Assad government would benefit if it did not attend. But a decision on specifically what aid might be cut does not appear to have been made.
Mexico asks civilian ‘security forces’ to leave cartel fight to the goverment
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 13, 2014 20:46 EST
Mexico’s government urged vigilantes on Monday to quit their growing armed struggle against a drug cartel and go home, saying federal forces will handle security in their embattled western towns.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong made his plea after the “self-defense” forces seized another town in the troubled western state of Michoacan, gaining ground in their struggle against the Knights Templar gang.
But a vigilante leader, Estanislao Beltran, told AFP that the civilian militiamen were not ready to drop their weapons in their year-long battle in a lime and avocado growing region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country.
“We can’t abandon our weapons because the moment that we do, organized crime will come after us and our families,” Beltran said from Nueva Italia, the latest town to be seized on Sunday.
Admitting that Michoacan faced a security “crisis,” Osorio Chong signed a new security pact with Governor Fausto Vallejo for federal forces to take over the responsibilities of state and local police.
“The self-defense groups are asked to return to their places of origin and resume their normal activities,” Osorio Chong said after the emergency security talks in the state capital, Morelia.
But he did not say how many forces would be used for the new effort, which comes eight months after President Enrique Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops and federal police to Michoacan in an mission that has failed to contain the unrest.
The turmoil in Michoacan has become the biggest security crisis of Pena Nieto’s 13-month-old administation. He inherited a drug war that has claimed more than 77,000 lives in the past seven years.
The vigilantes formed almost a year ago, arguing that local police were unwilling or unable to curb the cartel’s violence and extortion rackets.
Ignoring repeated government warnings that their expansion would not be tolerated, the civilian militias seized Nueva Italia, which was considered a Templar bastion.
The vigilantes say they have now surrounded the gang’s presumed headquarters, the city of Apatzingan, which they have made their next target.
Apatzingan was a ghost town on Monday, with stores closed in the city of 123,000 people which is a vital trade hub for the region’s lime, avocado and mango exports.
The Templars and some officials have accused the self-defense forces of being a proxy force for the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge the vigilantes deny.
But analysts say the government has tacitly allowed the vigilantes to do security work for them, a risky tactic that could replicate Colombia’s experience with violent paramilitary militias.
Osorio Chong invited the vigilantes to join the regular police forces and warned authorities would “not tolerate” people using illegal weapons.
The security pact includes the creation of an academy to train local police as well as $18.7 million in funds for prevention programs to “rebuild the social fabric,” Osorio Chong said.
For his part, the state’s much-criticized governor announced that he would now regularly work from Apatzingan and other towns of Tierra Caliente.
In Nueva Italia, vigilantes armed with assault rifles manned checkpoints to protect the town from any cartel counter-attack after they seized the town in a shootout that wounded two militiamen on Sunday.
“We can’t give up our weapons when they (the authorities) have not even captured one of the (cartel) leaders,” said Beltran, the vigilante leader.
Soldiers were nowhere to be seen around Nueva Italia on Monday but many stores reopened in the town of 32,000 people.
Jorge Vazquez, another leader of a vigilante group that controls the town of Aguililla, said the Templars had abandoned Nueva Italia but could fight back.
He said it was unclear when “the war will start, when they will begin to fight”.
“It looks like they have merely retreated to the mountain and they have not used the firepower that they possess,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Why you can’t travel at the speed of light: A short history of Einstein’s theory of relativity
By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Monday, January 13, 2014 8:53 EST
Albert Einstein is famous for many things, not least his theories of relativity. The first, the special theory of relativity, was the one that began the physicist’s reputation for tearing apart the classical worldview that had come before. Special relativity, a way of relating the motion of objects in the universe, led scientists to re-evaluate their assumptions about things as fundamental as time and space. And it led to important revelations about the relationship between energy and matter.
Special relativity was published by Einstein in 1905, in a paper titled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. He came to it after picking on a conflict he noticed between the equations for electricity and magnetism, which the physicist James Clerk Maxwell had recently developed, and Isaac Newton’s more established laws of motion.
Light, according to Maxwell, was a vibration in the electromagnetic field and it travelled at a constant speed in a vacuum. More than 100 years earlier, Newton had set down his laws of motion and, together with ideas from Galileo Galilei, these showed how the speed of an object would differ depend on who was measuring it and how they were moving relative to the object. A ball you are holding will seem still to you, even when you’re in a moving car. But that ball will seem to be moving to anyone standing on the pavement.
But there was a problem in applying Newton’s laws of motion to light. In Maxwell’s equations, the speed of electromagnetic waves is a constant defined by the properties of the material through which the waves move. There is nothing in there that allows the speed of these waves to be different for different people depending on how they were moving relative to each other. Which is bizarre, if you think about it.
Imagine someone sitting in a stationary train, throwing a ball from where he’s sitting to the opposite wall, a few metres further down the train from him. You, standing on the station platform, measure the speed of the ball at the same value as the person on the train.
Now the train starts to move (in the direction of the ball), and you again measure the speed of the ball. You would rightly calculate it as higher – the initial speed (ie, when the train was at rest) plus the forward speed of the train. On the train, meanwhile, the game-player will notice nothing different. Your two values for the speed of the ball will be different; both correct for your frames of reference.
Replace the ball with light and this calculation goes awry. If the person on the train were shining a light at the opposite wall and measured the speed of the particles of light (photons), you and the passenger would both find that the photons had the same speed at all times. In all cases, the speed of the photons would stay at just under 300,000 kilometres per second, as Maxwell’s equations say they should.
Einstein took this idea – the invariance of the speed of light – as one of his two postulates for the special theory of relativity. The other postulate was that the laws of physics are the same wherever you are, whether on an plane or standing on a country road. But to keep the speed of light constant at all times and for all observers, in special relativity, space and time become stretchy and variable. Time is not absolute, for example. A moving clock ticks more slowly than a stationary one. Travel at the speed of light and, theoretically, the clock would stop altogether.
How much the time dilates can be calculated by the two equations above. On the right, Δt is the time interval between two events as measured by the person they affect. (In our example above, this would be the person in the train.) On the left, Δt’ is the time interval between the same two events but measured by an outside observer in a separate frame of reference (the person on the platform). These two times are related by the Lorentz factor (γ), which in this example is a term that takes into account the velocity (v) of the train relative to the station platform, which is “at rest”. In this expression, c is a constant equal to the speed of light in a vacuum.
The length of moving objects also shrink in the direction in which they move. Get to the speed of light (not really possible, but imagine if you could for a moment) and the object’s length would shrink to zero.
The contracted length of a moving object relative to a stationary one can be calculated by dividing the proper length by the Lorentz factor – if it were possible for an object to reach the speed of light its length would shrink to zero.
It is important to note that if you were the person moving faster and faster, you would not notice anything: time would tick normally for you and you would not be squashed in length. But anyone watching you from the celestial station platform would be able to measure the differences, as calculated from the Lorentz factor. However, for everyday objects and everyday speeds, the Lorentz factor will be close to 1 – it is only at speeds close to that of light that the relativistic effects need serious attention.
Another feature that emerges from special relativity is that, as something speeds up, its mass increases compared with its mass at rest, with the mass of the moving object determined by multiplying its rest mass by the Lorentz factor. This increase in relativistic mass makes every extra unit of energy you put into speeding up the object less effective at making it actually move faster.
As the speed of the object increases and starts to reach appreciable fractions of the speed of light (c), the portion of energy going into making the object more massive gets bigger and bigger.
This explains why nothing can travel faster than light – at or near light speed, any extra energy you put into an object does not make it move faster but just increases its mass. Mass and energy are the same thing – this is a profoundly important result. But that is another story.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
In the USA...United Surveillance America
House and Senate Negotiators Agree on Spending Bill
By JONATHAN WEISMANJAN. 13, 2014
WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators reached accord on a trillion-dollar spending plan that will finance the government through September, reversing some cuts to military veterans’ pensions that were included in a broader budget agreement last month and defeating efforts to rein in President Obama’s health care law.
The hefty bill, filed in the House on Monday night, neutralized almost all of the 134 policy provisions that House Republicans had hoped to include, with negotiators opting for cooperation over confrontation after the 16-day government shutdown in October.
Measures to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and reverse clean water regulations did not survive the final negotiations.
Republicans also relented on their efforts to strip financing to carry out the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare lives another day,” said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The compromises may be difficult to accept for conservative Republicans, many of whom campaigned in 2010 vowing never to vote on a phone-book-size bill they have not had time to read. And because many of them will balk, the bill will have to have bipartisan support to pass.
Republican and Democratic leaders said they believed they would easily get majorities in the House and Senate, but not without loud protests from both the right and the left.
Republicans do get to point to some conservative victories. The bill would cut $1 billion from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, which Republicans have long targeted, fearing the administration would use it to bolster the law’s online insurance exchanges.
The legislation also would impose new requirements for the Internal Revenue Service in reporting its activities to the public and Congress after the agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups’ applications for nonprofit status. The $11.3 billion appropriated for the I.R.S. is down $503 million from the level enacted in 2013.
No money would be given to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s high-speed rail projects, or to Mr. Obama’s preschool development grants program. And some new regulations supported by liberals would be blocked, including a standard for energy-efficient light bulbs and livestock and poultry controls.
Conservatives also succeeded in prohibiting the Obama administration from transferring inmates to the United States from the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Otherwise, the bill’s winners and losers seem to follow no patterns. The National Institutes of Health, long a congressional favorite, would get $29.9 billion, down $714 million from the level approved by Congress for 2013. Still, the N.I.H. would end up with $1 billion more than it did last year after the across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, severely curtailed its research grants.
In contrast, Head Start, which also suffered last year, would see a $612 million increase, enough to restore the sequestration cuts.
The military budget would total $572.6 billion, $20 billion less than House Republicans wanted. The bill also explicitly prohibits the Postal Service from cutting Saturday mail delivery or closing rural post offices.
Despite the concern over security after the 2012 attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, the spending bill earmarks less to embassy security, construction and maintenance than it allotted for fiscal 2013 — $2.67 billion, down by $224 million.
Specific areas of the country would benefit from provisions. They include $128 million for an expanded border crossing station at San Ysidro, Calif., between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. But the final bill allocates less than the $226 million for the project that had been requested by the Obama administration.
The spending bill’s costs were set in a deal last month by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, leaders of the Budget Committees.
But the final bill restores part of that accord’s most controversial spending cut — a one-percentage-point reduction in cost-of-living adjustments to the pensions of working-age military veterans. Under the bill, that cut will not apply to disabled veterans. Lawmakers in both parties have pledged to eliminate the reduction.
The final plan would raise spending on programs at Congress’s annual discretion by $25 billion over the limit originally set by the House, but it cuts spending by $25 billion from the limit approved by the Senate.
Correction: January 14, 2014
An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly the level of funding for the National Institutes of Health in a new congressional spending bill relative to what they received after across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The amount would be $1 billion more, not $1 million more.
Older Pool of Health Care Enrollees Stirs Fears on Costs
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and ROBERT PEAR
JAN. 13, 2014
WASHINGTON — People signing up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s federal and state marketplaces tend to be older and potentially less healthy, officials said Monday, a demographic mix that could threaten the law’s economic underpinnings and cause premiums to rise in the future if the pattern persists.
Questions about the law’s financial viability are likely to become the next line of attack from its critics, as lawmakers gear up for the midterm elections this fall. Republicans quickly seized on the government’s progress report on Monday as evidence that the health insurance law would not work.
But administration officials expressed optimism that more young people would sign up in the months ahead, calling the latest enrollment numbers “solid, solid news” for the health care law. They said that interest in obtaining insurance through the marketplaces was increasing sharply across all age groups and that youth outreach efforts would become more aggressive as the March 31 open enrollment deadline approached.
Nearly 2.2 million people picked a health insurance plan through the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act through Dec. 28.
“We’re pleased to see such a strong response and heavy demand,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services. “Among young adults, the momentum was particularly strong.”
Of those who signed up in the first three months, administration officials said, 55 percent are age 45 to 64. Only 24 percent of those choosing a health insurance plan are 18 to 34, a group that is usually healthier and needs fewer costly medical services. People 55 to 64 — the range just below the age at which people qualify for Medicare — represented the largest group, at 33 percent.
The latest figures about enrollment add pressure on the Obama administration after a disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov website in October. Senior officials said they understood the stakes and were working to increase sign-ups. The White House recently hired Marlon Marshall, the deputy national field director for Mr. Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, to run a campaign-style effort aimed at increasing sign-ups, especially among young people.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the House speaker, John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, predicted that the White House would fail to meet its goals and said that insurance premiums would rise.
“There’s no way to spin it: youth enrollment has been a bust so far,” Mr. Buck said. “When they see that Obamacare offers high costs for limited access to doctors — if the enrollment goes through at all — it’s no surprise that young people aren’t rushing to sign up.”
The demographic information, which had not been broadly available until Monday, also offers the first concrete evidence about whether the national health care experiment will work the way it has in Massachusetts, where a government marketplace also offers insurance to people who do not receive it through their employers. Officials said they were optimistic because the pattern of sign-ups among young people looked similar to the one they had seen in that state, which had a surge in sign-ups as the deadline approached.
Over all, officials said that 2.2 million people had signed up by Dec. 28 for health insurance through HealthCare.gov and the state-based websites. Administration officials have previously said they hope to see seven million people enrolled in private health plans through the federal and state exchanges by March 31.
Of those who signed up, about 54 percent are female and 46 percent are male. Nearly 80 percent of those who selected a plan qualified for federal subsidies to reduce their premiums, officials said. Federal officials said they did not know how many people selecting plans were previously uninsured or how many have paid premiums. People are required to pay their share before coverage takes effect. Officials also did not know the race or ethnic origin of those who signed up.
The age breakdown was the most highly anticipated data being released because of what it could say about the health of those who will be insured. Under the law, insurers can no longer deny coverage or charge higher premiums because of a person’s medical history or pre-existing conditions. As a result, White House and health policy experts have repeatedly said that insurers need to sign up large numbers of younger people to balance the financial risks of covering older Americans who require more medical care.
Larry Levitt, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, has said that “the mix of enrollment is much more important than the total number.”
“If you assume that sicker individuals are likely to come in first, then a smaller pool is likely to be a sicker pool,” Mr. Levitt said. “The best guarantee of a diverse pool is a big pool, because that means you are probably reaching younger and healthier people.”
Mr. Levitt said that people enrolling early included some with the greatest needs: people who had been locked out of the individual insurance market because of serious illnesses and those coming from federal and state programs for people with pre-existing conditions.
The report from the administration showed that older Americans accounted for a large share of those choosing health plans in a handful of states, including West Virginia and Wisconsin, where 66 percent were age 45 to 64. In Maine, 64 percent were in that age bracket, and in Arkansas their share was 63
Robert Laszewski, a consultant who works closely with insurers, said, “You need healthy people of all ages,” and so far, he said, “the program is not ramping up fast enough to guarantee a good balance of healthy and sick people, which you need to sustain the program.”
Robert E. Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, said “it’s too early to know” if the enrollment of younger and healthier people was adequate to keep premiums stable in coming years. Insurers will need to see enrollment numbers for the full six-month period, he said.
Many people who bought insurance on their own have received notices saying their policies were being canceled or discontinued because the policies did not comply with coverage requirements of the new health care law. Those expecting high medical bills had the strongest motivation to overcome the obstacles to buying insurance on the federal exchange.
Caroline F. Pearson, a vice president of Avalere Health, a research and consulting company, said that “early enrollment is skewed toward older individuals.” She added: “Sicker, older folks tend to sign up first because they are more motivated. They are likely to have health care costs early in the year.”
Anne Filipic, the president of Enroll America, a nonprofit group trying to expand coverage, said, “We know from our research that when uninsured consumers learn about the financial help that is available to them, they are eager to enroll.”
Health plans in the marketplace are separated into four categories — bronze, silver, gold and platinum — indicating the generosity of coverage, or the share of costs paid by insurance for an average enrollee. Of people choosing plans so far, 60 percent selected silver plans and 20 percent signed up for bronze plans. Thirteen percent chose gold plans, and 7 percent platinum coverage.
In December, for the first time since the marketplaces opened, the number of people selecting plans in the federal exchange exceeded the number signing up through state exchanges.
For the first half of the enrollment period, through December, the federal exchange, which serves 36 states with about two-thirds of the nation’s population, accounted for 56 percent of those selecting plans. The other 44 percent were in state exchanges.
Mitch McConnell Laughs at the Unemployed as He Promises to Vote No on UI Benefits
By: Jason Easley
Monday, January, 13th, 2014, 4:41 pm
In a recent radio interview, Sen. Mitch McConnell laughed at the unemployed who recently lost their benefits as he promised to vote no on any UI extension. Listen to how heartless the Senate Republican leader really can be.
Lars Larson: I hope you vote no on extending unemployment benefits…
McConnell: ha ha ha ha
Larsen: …at least for the long term unemployed, I appreciate it.
McConnell [still slightly laughing]: ya.
McConnell: Thanks Lars.
At the 8:21 mark of the audio, McConnell finds it funny that he is going to vote no on extending unemployment benefits. McConnell has so little compassion for the 1.3 million long term unemployed workers and their families that to him voting no and throwing them into poverty is a tickle the funny bone moment.
Politico ran a story today that highlighted the hard choices that these decent people are facing, “Some who lost their benefits say they’ll begin an early and unplanned retirement. Others will pile on debt to pay for school and an eventual second career. Many will likely lean on family, friends and other government programs to get by.”
Mitch McConnell finds it funny that he is forcing people into early retirement, or making them pile up debt in the hopes of going back to school to find a second career, or even worse, forcing them to rely on public assistance to survive. The unemployed aren’t lazy. They aren’t undeserving. They are hard working Americans who lost their jobs because of the kind of Wall Street and big bank greed that Mitch McConnell is a staunch defender of.
If Sen. McConnell is so completely devoid of empathy and compassion that he laughs at jeopardizing the economic well being of millions of Americans, he doesn’t belong in the United States Senate. Mitch McConnell is so far inside the beltway conservative bubble that damaging the lives of millions is a moment of high comedy. This isn’t the behavior of a leader, a senator, or a decent caring human being.
18,000 Kentuckians lost their unemployment benefits on December 30, and Mitch McConnell is laughing at them. Kentucky needs a senator that understands and empathizes with the struggles of the folks back home. Kentucky and the United States of America will both benefit if voters decide to ditch Mitch this November.
Sen. McConnell’s disturbing lack of compassion is hurting this country, and it is time for him to go.
Behind The Smoke and Mirrors, Republicans Have No Plan To Extend Unemployment Benefits
By: Sarah Jones
Monday, January, 13th, 2014, 11:34 am
Today the Senate is set to vote on the Democrats’ unemployment benefit extension, which means that Republicans will be finding new ways to avoid voting yes on something that used to be bipartisan (Republicans voted five times to extend unemployment under Bush), while trying to stick within their talking points of not alienating the vulnerable out loud.
Republicans claim they are going to offer a conservative policy to fight the war on poverty. They don’t have one right now, except to say NO to anything that the Democrats offer, including paid for extensions of unemployment benefits.
This is becoming rather predictable from Republicans. After all, for years they’ve been claiming they were going to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare, but then it turned out that they had no replace plan. They ran on “replace” but they had no replace.
This should have been big news, but apparently the media doesn’t find policy very interesting. It’s all a he said/she said scenario, and the loudest whinger wins. So don’t expect them to tell you what’s behind door number 2, the GOP’s War on Poverty. Republicans will think about actual policy tomorrow. All they know is they are against any actual solutions presented to them, and they must keep moving the goal post without admitting that they just can’t offer any help to the unemployed because it might help Obama.
Yes, like Scarlet O’Hara, Republicans will think about policy tomorrow. Only tomorrow never comes.
“Tomorrow” they will think about a policy to help the poor that their far right party will allow. This policy can’t include any kind of social safety net like food stamps or welfare or unemployment or affordable health insurance because all of these things are the work of the Socialist Devil himself, according to the GOP base. And this is an election year. They mustn’t do anything to rouse the rabid beast.
The GOP War on Poverty is also just like the Republican job plan. Their alleged jobs plan is Keystone XL, which is just another plan to provide welfare to oil companies, passed off as a jobs bill. Keystone might help a few people temporarily — it will not create more than 2,500 temporary jobs for two-years — but this doesn’t make it a failure since it was designed to help the oil companies, not the poor/jobless/vulnerable. Additional Republican “jobs plans” include overhauling the No Child Left Behind education law and repealing the Affordable Care Act, both of which will help corporations. It will trickle down, Republicans say.
Someday it will trickle down. Sure, millions have died waiting, but one fine day, it will finally trickle down. Have faith.
As we await the vote on unemployment today, the question the alert are asking is: If Republicans vote no on unemployment benefits, what is their plan?
Republicans said they couldn’t support unemployment benefits because they weren’t paid for, and then Reid came up with a way to pay for them and now Republicans are busy moving the shell around, ducking and dodging from the fact that they have no plan. According to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Republicans are opposing the Democratic proposal because the extension is too long, “We’re very much opposed to that length of extension. There’s room for compromise but a year is just too long.”
Once again, the party of no has no plan.
The Republican Party can’t legislate. They are too dysfunctional to legislate, assuming that legislating was their goal. But even though they are being paid to legislate, passing actual working legislation is not the goal of Republicans.
Republicans have admitted their goal, and it hasn’t changed. The goal is to obstruct everything Obama does and to hold the economy hostage until they get back into power, so they can hand unregulated goodies back to the top 2%.
So there is no Republican plan for the War on Poverty, except to keep finding less insulting ways to blame the poor, while offering lame excuses for their failure to act until they can get the reins back into the hands of the very people who caused this economic collapse.
Republican Deregulation Culture to Blame For Water Poisoning West Virginia Chemical Spill
Monday, January, 13th, 2014, 10:14 am
Among the long list of things Republicans hate, rules or directives made and maintained by the government to protect the health and safety of the population rank nearly as high as their hatred for women, taxes, equal rights, democracy and the U.S. Constitution. Americans have heard Republicans talk about regulations a lot more than usual over the past couple of weeks to revive their thirty year contention that gutting regulations is one-half of their strategy to create jobs updated in 2014 to wipe out poverty, create full employment, and end income inequality. The idea that eliminating regulations will create jobs and end poverty is nearly as absurd as Marco Rubio’s assertion that marriage is the be all, end all solution for poverty borne of income inequality, low wages, and lack of jobs.
The Heritage Foundation sums up the Republican Party’s stance on regulations, regardless their intrinsic protective value, as “government meddling in virtually every aspect of American life.” It is code for regulations that prohibit big business from having a free hand to inflict harm on the people in the pursuit of unrestricted profits are “government meddling.” Over the past five years the nation has seen the effects of deregulation, or regulation violations, firsthand whether it was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, a West Virginia mine explosion, and a chemical spill last Thursday that gave West Virginia residents another up-close-and-personal view of deregulation’s effects.
On Friday, officials said up to 5,000 gallons of an industrial chemical used in coal processing leaked from a ruptured chemical storage tank owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River just upstream of the intake pipes used by the largest water utility in the state, West Virginia American Water. It turned out that the chemical spill was larger than originally estimated (7,500 gallons) and it has kept over 300,000 West Virginians without safe water for four days as of Sunday. On Saturday the president of West Virginia American Water Company said it would likely still be “several days” before tap water in the nine affected counties would be safe for anything besides flushing toilets. Water company president Jeff McIntyre said, “We don’t know that the water is not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” but one can assume that since at least 122 people went to local hospitals reporting nausea and vomiting, with 5 being admitted at two hospitals, the water is not safe.
The ruptured chemical holding tank, and “inch wide holes in a retaining wall,” should have failed an inspection if one were conducted, but the Department of Environmental Protection officials said the owners of the tank that ruptured, Freedom Industries, are “exempt from inspections or permitting because the company only stores chemicals, and does not produce them.” The chemicals were produced by Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. According to one county official, the ruptured tank was part of a decades-old Pennzoil refinery “dating back to the 1930s or 1940s,” and Charleston’s mayor believes the chemicals went through the holes in the retaining wall after leaking from the ruptured tank. It is highly probable that since the inch-wide holes in the retaining wall were big enough for anyone to see, Freedom Industries knew the 70 to 80 year-old tanks were in desperate need of replacement and did not want to spend the money to repair them because regulations did not require them to. The tragedy in West Virginia is precisely the deregulation and getting “government out of the way” Republicans are fighting for under the guise of ending poverty and creating jobs, but it underscores why regulations, particularly environmental regulations, need to be strengthened; not eliminated.
West Virginia’s Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, vowed that he was going to “look into tighter regulation of chemical storage facilities,” but with Republicans in deregulation mode, pushing to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, and fighting to rollback regulations on businesses, looking into tighter regulations is about all Tomblin will be allowed to do. Republicans are in no mood to strengthen regulations on a company with a name like Freedom Industries that provides chemicals to the dirty coal industry, or any other industry for that matter. It is contrary to their ideology that companies, particularly dirty energy companies, should be required to spend one penny to protect the environment or a water supply serving over 300,000 Americans.
The chemical spill prompted President Obama to declare a federal emergency on Friday, and FEMA had brought in 1.4 million liters of water for residents with an additional 1.6 million liters expected to come in over the course of the weekend. Around the region schools were closed, restaurants locked their doors, hotels refused reservations, and store shelves were quickly stripped of bottled water. Traffic was congested as drivers waited to fill jugs from tankers delivered by the National Guard leaving Republicans with only one question to answer. Which domestic program or demographic they will impose cuts on to pay for the emergency relief efforts or reimburse businesses? There is not the slightest chance that Republicans will hold a company named Freedom Industries serving the dirty energy sector accountable to lift a finger or spend one penny to compensate victims of the spill.
Republicans have always loathed regulations, particularly those affecting their big-money donors’ ability to conduct business without regard for the health and safety of the people. Republicans do hate regulations that affect their donors, but they champion regulations that control women and deny gays’ equal protection under the Constitution because they are bible regulations. Suffice it to say that where the health and safety of the population is concerned, Republicans never met a regulation they did not hate passionately and work tirelessly to eliminate and they are not about to change just because 300,000 West Virginians were left without water. They still call for gutting regulations after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion claimed 29 lives, the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers, and the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas killed 15 and injured 160, so they will be unfazed over a preventable tragedy that only sent over 122 people to the hospital because they were giving speeches calling for the end of regulations the same day President Obama declared a federal emergency in West Virginia.
Forget 2016 Christie Will Be Facing Impeachment If He Knew About Bridge Closures
by: Jason Easley
Sunday, January, 12th, 2014, 3:51 pm
The man leading the Bridgegate investigation, John Wisniewski, said on Face The Nation that Gov. Chris Christie could be impeached if he knew about the closures of the George Washington Bridge.
WISNIEWSKI: Good morning, Bob. And thanks for the opportunity to be here. I don’t think it’s credible for a governor to have his chief of staff, his communication director, his deputy chief of staff, all involved, his chief counsel all involved in email communications on the day this took place and the days after talking not only about the problems that were created in Fort Lee, but also talking about how to spin it to the press. I don’t think so it’s possible for all of those people to be involved and know and for the governor to absolutely have no communication. Remember, this was in the midst of his re-election campaign. Any governor running for re-election is going to want to know about problems that come up, if for no other reason, to know how to respond when asked a question. So these people got an e-mail from the executive director of the Port Authority saying that laws were broken. His chief counsel knew; his deputy chief of staff knew; his incoming chief of staff knew. It’s just strange credibility that they didn’t look at those documents and say, “We ought to let him know about it.”
SCHIEFFER: So, at this point, though, and you’re very early in your investigation, you don’t have any proof that he did know. But, from what you’re saying, if it proves that he did know, then what? Has a crime been committed here?
WISNIEWSKI: Well, whether he knew or not isn’t the issue of the crime. I mean, clearly, in my opinion, when you use the George Washington Bridge for what the e-mail showed to be a political payback, that amounts to using public property for a private purpose or for a political purpose, and that’s not legal. And so that constitutes a crime. Now, whether or not he was knowledgeable about it; whether he authorized it; whether he was involved in trying to spin it or cover it up, we don’t have any direct communication, e-mails, documents, that directly go to him. But…
SCHIEFFER: But he — if it turns out that this is, as you define it, a crime, could he be impeached, or what would be the penalty?
WISNIEWSKI: Well, I think we’re a little early on that, Bob. I think you pointed out at the beginning we’re at the early stages of this. But, clearly, if it becomes known that the governor was involved and he knew about it and he knew about the cover-up and he was approving the actions taken by his senior staff, that raises serious questions that the assembly ought to look at and that ought to be considered in light of what our responsibility is. The assembly has the ability to do articles of impeachment. We’re way ahead of that, though. Right now, we know that there are senior staffers in the governor’s office, Bridget Kelly, who sent the e-mail, his deputy chief of staff, on August 13, to close the lanes down. She spent the rest of the day with the governor at the fire scene at the Seaside boardwalk. And so, again, you know, this senior aide, who was with him that day, who sent the order, never once communicated with him? It’s unbelievable.
This is why Republicans are so desperate to make the Christie scandal go away. Their potential leading candidate for 2016 is one document or testified statement away from being finished as a national politician and as the governor of New Jersey. It would almost be better for Republicans if the smoking gun was found now. They would have plenty time to move on if it comes out now.
If Christie is the Republican nominee, and the media gets a hold of evidence that implicates him in 2016, the GOP will be stuck with a nominee that will be dead in the water. Of course, that is assuming that Christie will win the nomination, and that he wouldn’t get blown out against Hillary Clinton. Neither of these things is a given right now.
Chris Christie’s explanation for Bridgegate defies logic, common sense, and everything that is known about the man and his administration. Chris Christie is both damaged goods, and a political ticking time bomb. If Republicans nominate him, they shouldn’t surprised when it all blows up in their faces.
Obama Calls Senate Dems to the White House to Plan Their Next Republican Takedown
By: Jason Easley and Sarah Jones
Monday, January, 13th, 2014, 12:31 pm
President Obama will be sitting down with Senate Democrats for a discussion about priorities, and odds are keeping the heat on Republicans in 2014.
Kasie Hunt, a political reporter for NBC News, tweeted that the White House has invited the Senate Democratic Caucus to meet with POTUS on Wednesday evening.
JUST IN: White House invites Senate Democratic Caucus to meet with President Obama on Wednesday evening.
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) January 13, 2014
This comes as the Senate faces a vote on the Democrats plan to extend long term unemployment benefits, paid for by sequester cuts. Senate Republicans are opposing what they originally said they wanted, and a showdown is brewing. The AP also reported this story and speculated that the focus will be on, “The meeting comes as the White House is pressing members of the president’s party to hold off on a bill that would ratchet up sanctions on Iran…The president may also give lawmakers insight on his decisions for making changes involving the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.”
It is crack reporting like this that makes one wonder if the AP follows politics. Those issues will probably be discussed, but the focus of the meeting is likely to be on extending unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage, and 2014 election strategy.
The 2014 priorities/strategy is likely to center around populist economic issues like job creation, extending unemployment benefits, and raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage bill is due to arrive on the Senate floor in late January/early February.
The president is also likely to discuss with Senate Democrats the priorities that he will outline in his State Of The Union address later this month. The White House will be looking to coordinate with the Democratic majority in the Senate to turn those priorities into legislative action.
Democrats have four powerful issues to use against Republicans in 2014. The Democratic focus should be on jobs, income inequality, raising the minium wage, and extending unemployment benefits for those who can’t find a job.
The White House may call this a meeting about priorities, but it is actually a 2014 strategy session. If the media can’t see this gathering for what it is, they are lazier and more clueless than could be imagined.
Robert Gates Smacks Down the GOP, ‘I agreed with all the president’s decisions on Afghanistan.’
By: Jason Easley
Sunday, January, 12th, 2014, 1:27 pm
Robert Gates smacked down Republicans who are using his book to criticize President Obama by saying,’I agreed with all the president’s decisions on Afghanistan.’
RITA BRAVER: I think what people are troubled by is that you criticize President Obama on actions, particularly on his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, while it’s still going on, and people are saying, ‘Look, that’s just not right.’
ROBERT GATES: I make very explicit in the book that I agreed with all the president’s decisions on Afghanistan, the ones that he made in 2009 and subsequently. My one concern was that over the course of 2010 and early 2011, the president began to have reservations about whether it would all work. That didn’t seem like an unfair thing to say.
This is something that I noticed while reading excerpts of the book. Gates does criticize some aspects of Obama’s presidency, but he is also evenhanded. He offered plenty of praise for the president too. The media and Republicans jumped on the negative, and left out the positive. If Gates had disagreed with President Obama and thought his leadership was so poor, he would have resigned or taken his concerns public.
Gates did neither. I think his book will be an instructive and interesting read, but the media narrative about the book was wrong. The Republican narrative that Gates’ book proves that Obama is a president who is jeopardizing our national security is equally wrong. The gossipy mainstream press isn’t interested in an evenhanded account of what Robert Gates experienced. They would rather seize on the juicy gossip, and polarize everything through their hyperpartisan lens.
Robert Gates is a Republican, but he is another Republican like Colin Powell who doesn’t seem to fit the direction that the current Republican Party is moving in. Gates is so fed up with Washington that he moved the whole way across the country to get away from DC. Robert Gates has set the record straight, and he is not going to let the purpose and meaning of his book be warped for partisan political gain.
01/15/2014 11:50 AM
'The Americans Lied': Trans-Atlantic 'No-Spy' Deal on the Rocks
By Veit Medick and Annett Meiritz
Last summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised her citizens a pact which would prohibit US spying on German citizens. But since then, Washington has shown little interest in pursuing such a treaty. Now, officials in Germany fear the deal is dead.
Failed talks? Hardly. The negotiations "are continuing," says Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). "We are still talking," says the German government. In other words, nothing has yet been decided. The No-Spy deal is still alive.
But the statements coming out of Berlin and Pullach, where the BND is headquartered, reek of forced optimism. Nobody wants it to look as though efforts have been abandoned toward a deal which would see the US agree to swear off spying operations in Germany. Yet despite the assertions, most of those involved are slowly coming to the realization that a surveillance deal between Washington and Berlin isn't likely to become reality. The US government is still digging in its heels.
On Tuesday, the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung quoted one source who is familiar with the talks as saying "we won't get anything." The paper also reported that the US is refusing to promise that it won't monitor members of the German government and other politicians in the future.
The current gloominess is a stark shift from the confidence on display in the middle of last year. To be sure, Germany was in the middle of a general election campaign. But in the summer of 2013, National Security Agency head Keith Alexander had told his German counterpart, BND chief Gerhard Schindler, that a far-reaching deal was possible, though he also acknowledged that it was ultimately up to the White House to give the green light. German officials began speaking of the treaty as though it were a done deal.
Since then, however, news broke that the US had monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone and that the US undertakes far-reaching surveillance activities from the roof of its embassy in Berlin. Washington has thus far refused to tell Berlin exactly when it tapped into Merkel's phone and has denied German experts access to its roof-top spying operation. The German government has informed Washington that it considers the surveillance post to be a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and it is considering taking legal action.
The mood, in short, has dramatically worsened, and US stonewalling on a No-Spy deal isn't helping. "The Americans lied to us," one high-ranking official told the Süddeutsche in reference to the treaty.
It is an extremely uncomfortable situation for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. For months, her staff, together with high-ranking officers within German security agencies, have sought to move the project forward. Sources in the government now believe that a thin declaration of intent, in which both countries pledge to obey the laws of the other, is the most that can be hoped for.
Merkel will have to take charge of the issue if she wants to achieve anything at all. She will have the opportunity to speak personally with US President Barack Obama in Washington next week. It seems likely that the chancellor will do all she can to return with something concrete. Should the two NATO allies not be able to reach agreement on a treaty preventing them from spying on one another, it would be the clearest indication yet that trans-Atlantic relations are in trouble. And it would be embarrassing for her domestically.
After all, her pledge to work towards a No-Spy deal was key to ensuring that the swelling debate over the American National Security Agency's mass surveillance practices didn't derail her re-election campaign last year. It was a message to voters that she and her conservatives were doing all they could to protect the data of German citizens. Both her then-chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, and then-Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich used every chance they got to promise as much.
Should she fail, it will be a black mark on her credibility and make clear just how little influence Merkel has in Washington.
Overstepping Its Bounds
The revelations of widespread NSA surveillance in Europe and Germany have already hurt Merkel. Since the affair began last June, the Chancellery has been in the awkward position of not really knowing what is coming next and has seemed helpless. Interior Minister Friedrich, for his part, complained of "anti-Americanism" spoke of a "super basic right of security," and, in an interview with SPIEGEL, seemed extremely eager to counter concerns that the US was overstepping its bounds.
German government representatives seeking answers returned home from Washington empty handed and questions sent to Washington have been ignored or returned with unsatisfying responses.
Domestically this week, the issue has returned. The opposition has placed NSA surveillance and the No Spy treaty on the parliamentary agenda for Wednesday and difficult questions are sure to be asked. Members of the governing coalition, which pairs Merkel's Christian Democrats with the center-left Social Democrats, are becoming concerned as well. Stephan Meyer, domestic affairs expert for Merkel's conservatives in parliament, has even suggested that economic sanctions should be considered. "It is time," he said. "The US has to be candid."
Thomas Oppermann, floor leader for the SPD, also said that "a failure of the treaty would be unacceptable." Still, he insists that he remains optimistic. "I am hopeful that the chancellor's visit to the US will help us achieve a deal in the end."
His meaning, though, is clear. Merkel must deliver.
01/13/2014 06:18 PM
Hidden Homophobia: Is Germany Really as Liberal as It Seems?
By Anna Kistner, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Ann-Katrin Müller and Simone Salden
Germany last week celebrated the coming out of former professional football player Thomas Hitzlsperger. But discrimination remains a fact of life for gays and lesbians in the country. How truly liberal is German society?
A gay couple that was seeking to open a restaurant near the Bavarian town of Freying received an anonymous letter early last year. "Stay away. We don't need people like you here," it read. Additional threats followed, including a faked obituary and an open, though anonymous, letter claiming that one of the two was HIV-positive and that there was a danger that diners could be infected. The restaurant was never opened.
Can a story like be really be true? In Germany of all places, a country that was last week enraptured by the coming out of former professional footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger and where it seemed like the entire country supported him?
Hitzlsperger made his announcement in the influential weekly Die Zeit, unleashing a tidal wave of media backing. "Respect" blared the left-wing Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung. Its conservative counterpart Bild chose the exact same headline, marking one of the very few times when the two publications have concurred. Everyone in the country seemed to be in agreement when it came to Hitzlsperger's courageous step.
Yet the jubilation was so great that it at times seemed a bit too much for the occasion. A former football player came out. Is that really such a monumental event? Of course its progress when it is made clear that homosexuality exists in the world of football as well. No player the caliber of Hitzlsperger had thus far gone public with his homosexuality.
But the rejoicing sounded suspiciously self-serving and smug: "We are so amazingly liberal that we can even get excited about a gay professional football player," the message seemed to be. "Germany is so much better than Russia, where homosexuals are openly discriminated against, and superior to France, where hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest gay marriage."
One could almost feel the relief at the fact that the positive reaction to Hitzlsperger's announcement was large enough to cover up the normal hostilities, clichés, stereotypes and discrimination against gays that exist in Germany. But they were there. Even as Bild pronounced its "respect" for Hitzlsperger, the paper's columnist Franz Josef Wagner wrote in an open letter to the former German national team player: "Nobody thought that you are gay. You were athletic, a power-player." The prejudice was clear, even as it was hidden behind the admiration.
Cause for Celebration?
Wagner's bias came despite Hitzlsperger telling Die Zeit that "it is pure nonsense that homosexuals are 'unmanly.' One is confronted by this preconception again and again."
While Hitzlsperger was being celebrated across the country, the main churches in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg announced last Friday that they were opposed to a plan to include lessons on homosexuality in the school curriculum.
This parallelism comes closer to the German reality. Another element to consider is Chancellor Angela Merkel's strict opposition to adoption rights for homosexual couples. How great really is the cause for celebration in Germany?
Secondary school teacher Gabriel Stängle is likewise concerned about public school students in Baden-Württemberg. The 41-year-old, lives in the Black Forest and launched an online petition in November of last year that had been signed some 90,000 times by last Friday evening. His campaign is entitled: "Future -- Responsibility -- Learning: No Curriculum 2015 under the Ideology of the Rainbow." Stängle's primary concern is what he describes as sexual "reeducation."
Stängle is angry with the state government -- a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the Green Party -- which is currently developing an educational program for public schools which will include the "acceptance of sexual diversity." Students are to learn the "differences between the genders, sexual identities and sexual orientations." The goal is to enable students to "be able to defend equality and justice."
Stängle sees this as being in "direct opposition to health education as it has been practiced thus far." Completely missing, he writes, is an "ethical reflection on the negative potential by-products of LSBTTIQ (which stands for "lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgender, intersexuals and queer people) lifestyles, such as the increased danger of suicide among homosexual youth, the increased susceptibility to alcohol and drugs, the conspicuously high rate of HIV infection among homosexual men, the substantially lower life-expectancy among homo- and bisexual men, the pronounced risk of psychological illness among men and women living as homosexuals."
'Open and Tolerant'
Most of the petitions' signatories live in the rural, conservative regions of Germany's southwest and the majority wishes to remain anonymous. Some signed with handles such as "The Gay-Hater."
Baden-Württemberg Education Minister Andreas Stoch (of the SPD) finds the petition to be "wrong and discriminatory." The claim that his ministry wishes to reeducate students is "completely absurd," Stoch says. "We want to educate children to be open and tolerant."
Peter Hauk, floor leader for Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in the state parliament, on the other hand, says he can "understand the fears." He is bothered by the fact that the state government has elevated sexual diversity to a "guiding principle." Education, he says, must be oriented towards Christian and Western educational and cultural values, as is enshrined in Article 16 of the state's constitution.
The churches agree. Children and youth should not be influenced as they search for their sexual identity, reads a joint statement released by Catholic and Protestant churches in Baden-Württemberg. "Functionalization, instrumentalization, ideology and indoctrination must be defended against," the statement reads. That, of course, has long been the churches' strategy: avoid influencing people, particularly when it comes to sexual orientation. At least as long as heterosexuality was the predominant order of the day.
The well-respected Frankfurt-based sexologist Volkmar Sigusch, on the other hand, sees the Baden-Württemberg plan for its curriculum as a "long-overdue step toward educating children and youth about the cultural normality in our country." The issue of sexual diversity "badly needs to be (normalized) so that children can develop sexually in an atmosphere free of fear."
It looks a lot like Baden-Württemberg is sliding into a culture war -- despite the onset of the age of Hitzlsperger.
It's a situation that has been seen before. During last year's Christopher Street Day -- the name given in Germany gay pride parades and events -- the Baden-Württemberg government flew the rainbow flag over the state capitol building for the first time. But this show of solidarity with gays and lesbians went too far for the deputy head of the state's CDU chapter, Winfried Mack. He criticized the move as "undignified and dumb" adding that only the state flag should be raised above the capitol.
The Meaning of 'Gay'
Baden-Württemberg, of course, is not the only German state where such examples can be found. One need only look at how the meaning of the term "schwul," or gay, has evolved over the years in Germany. Originally it was used condescendingly or even in hostile ways. Those uses are still around, but today gay is more of a neutral synonym for homosexual and is even used this way by openly gay men.
But there is a second development which has seen "gay" come partly decoupled from its sexual meaning while still maintaining a negative connotation. An example from a schoolyard in Berlin: A student doesn't want to tell his classmates that he enjoys reading books at home because such a hobby is considered "gay." Feminine or uncool is the meaning here, just as the word "gay" can be used in English.
At the beginning of 2013, the city of Zweibrücken in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate published a calendar that was designed to keep young men and women away from drugs and alcohol. The slogan "sober (is) cool, drunk (is) gay" was used. "This calendar is homophobia funded by public money," said a spokesperson for the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany. The city answered by saying that it was youth slang and was not directed at homosexuals. The calendars were destroyed, however.
There are further examples. In 2012, the Bund der Historischen Deutschen Schützenbruderschaften, a group that is comparable to a socially conservative fraternity in the US, banned its annually chosen "king" from openly showing his homosexuality in a parade. The king's partner had to walk in the second row while the king, the group said, should bring a woman "because of Christian tradition."
There is also the case of Tanja Junginger, who had a temporary contract with a Catholic kindergarten in the city of Neu Ulm. After she came out as a lesbian, her contract was not extended due to her alleged "unnatural lifestyle."
Furthermore, gay men in Germany are still not allowed to donate blood despite there being no medical reason to exclude homosexuals from doing so.
Are they all simply isolated cases? Of course German society has become more tolerant on the whole, particularly in large cities. When gay couples kiss at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, few take notice anymore. It is normal. But there remains a quiet, widespread and diffuse bigotry, and it is present in the political classes as well.
"To be honest, I still have a problem with complete equalization," Chancellor Merkel said during the election campaign last year in response to a question regarding adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples. "I am not sure when it comes to the good of the child," she said.
How Liberal Is Germany?
Merkel had voiced her discomfiture with the issue before. Then too, however, she failed to mention any concrete reasons for her unease. She is certainly not homophobic and she maintains a good and friendly relationship with former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the first high-level politician in Germany to have come out as gay. It is likely more of a diffuse feeling that two men or two women cannot be as good at parenting as a man and a woman. The granting of full adoption rights for gay couples in Germany was not included in the coalition agreement she recently concluded with the Social Democrats. The SPD was in favor, but was not inclined to put up a large fight over the issue.
Merkel, of course, praised the coming out of Thomas Hitzlsperger last week. But, wonders Sönke Rix of the SPD, "What are Ms. Merkel's praiseworthy words worth when inequality still exists? (German conservatives) should consider whether they should use the current debate to rethink their outmoded position. Political action rather than laudatory words are needed." She notes that the current coalition agreement certainly wouldn't stand in the way. On the contrary: "The existence of unequal adoption rights for homosexuals is discrimination," Rix says. One could approach the issue on that basis, she continues.
German conservatives do have some prominent homosexuals in their party, such as the former Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust and the healthcare expert Jens Spahn. Still, Merkel's government only extended tax benefits to homosexual couples of the kind available to heterosexual couples last year after being forced to do so by the German Constitutional Court. Skepticism of same-sex relationships is one of the last refuges of conservatism in Merkel's party. It isn't openly homophobic. But the words of the party's former parliamentary floor leader Friedrich Merz said it best: "I have nothing against gays," he said "as long as I don't have to participate." It is unknown whether he was ever asked to do so.
The debate about how homosexuals are treated is not solely about homosexuals. The issue has become a measuring stick for the liberalness of a society. Lobby groups, of course, are partially responsible for that shift, but there is a kernel of truth in the approach. How liberal a society is can be seen in instances where people are susceptible to discrimination. And by that measure, Germany's society is far from being liberal to its core.
Russian culture minister moots quota for foreign movies
Vladimir Medinsky has called for a cap on non-Russian made films, harking back to Soviet days of only six per year
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 11.15 GMT
Russia's culture minister Vladimir Medinsky is considering introducing a cap on the number of movies imported to the country each year, saying that "without [it], it is impossible to help the Russian film sector".
In the Soviet era, only six non-Soviet films could be exhibited each year, and Medinsky has cited this to defend his stance on quotas. It is unclear exactly what percentage of film releases he intends to be home-grown, but he said that "20% is a reasonable figure".
His suggestion comes as Russian films have performed badly in recent years at the domestic box office, from a 30% market share in 2005 to just 15% in 2012, when no Russian films were in the top ten biggest hits. But the country has seen its biggest ever box office success in recent months, with the film Stalingrad taking $66m (£40.17m) since October.
Medinsky is a controversial figure for his Myths About Russia history books which aim to present Russia in a more positive light – including denials that Soviet troops occupied the Baltic states and Poland during the second world war. "If we do not squeeze out the poison of dirty myths, they will be passed on, like a baton, to future generations," he has said, and believes that screenwriters of historical films should be "told what's good, and what's bad".
There were fears that Russia's film industry would be able to make fewer international co-productions, thus strengthening revenue abroad, following the 2012 restructuring of the Russian Cinema Fund. This independent body received an annual budget of $170m (£103m) a year to fund films and promote them overseas, but it was taken over by the culture ministry itself, leading to worries that its international standing would be damaged. But Medinsky is now talking up the international remit of the fund, reasoning: "All international activities are given to the fund – it has more resources."
By 2017, the ministry intends to double the amount now given in state subsidies to film-makers, but expects a greater proportion of revenue as a result, with the returns fed back into the film industry. Of the $156.9m (£95.5m) distributed last year via subsidies, the ministry will claim back $22.9m (£13.9m), Medinsky told Gazeta.ru this month. The move means that Russian producers will likely gravitate towards surefire commercial projects, and away from more marginal fare.
01/14/2014 04:36 PM
Welfare for Immigrants: EU Wants Fortress Germany to Open Up
By SPIEGEL Staff
Brussels is demanding that even foreigners who have never worked in Germany should have access to the country's unemployment benefits if they hail from an EU member state. The EU is firing Germany's already overheated immigration debate.
Lazlo Andor knows from personal experience just how advantageous it can be to go abroad. The Hungarian politician studied economics at universities in Washington and Manchester and then worked as a professor in New Jersey for almost four years. Today he's the commissioner responsible for social affairs on the European Commission in Brussels. The social democrat is fond of saying that the right to live and work anywhere one wants in Europe is "one of the cornerstones of EU integration."
Last Friday, he sent a strong message to the German public. In a 40-page position paper for the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the EU's highest court, Andor's staff argues that access to Germany's social system be simplified for other EU citizens.
The arguments Andor's experts put forth in the paper -- under headings like the "right of free mobility" and "access to social benefits, regardless if a person has paid into the system" -- could add further fuel to an already overheated immigration debate here in Germany. Since the Christian Social Union (CSU) party -- the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- began a crusade against what it calls "poverty immigrants" and "benefit tourists" last year, using the kind of populist language more typically heard at a pub, German politicians have been discussing the creation of new instruments in an effort to keep undesired foreigners out.
Among the ideas being touted are an increase in deportations of foreigners or taking the fingerprints of Bulgarian or Romanian nationals who have entered the country. Now the European Commission is calling for Germany to change its social security laws in the opposite direction in order to ensure easier access to the country's Hartz IV benefits for the long-term unemployed that are at the center of the dispute.
Brussels Attacks 'Blanket Rejection' for Benefits
Officials with the Commission, the EU's executive body, said last week they in no way want to water down "clauses designed to protect against benefit tourism." At the same time, they also reiterated that they consider one of the central provisions of German social security law to be illegal. The idea that Germany can reject social support to EU nationals without a job runs counter to current EU law, they argue.
If the European Court of Justice, which must soon make an initial ruling on the issue, backs the Commission's arguments, it would mark a setback to the campaign by the CSU. Instead of the CSU's "those who cheat, are out" slogan, the guiding principle behind the next reforms to Germany's Hartz IV unemployment benefits would be: "Those who want to come to Germany, can't be denied entrance."
It's no wonder, then, that CSU party boss Horst Seehofer quickly responded to the news by firing fresh broadsides at Brussels. "The European Commission comes up with a proposal almost every week that threatens either German jobs or the acceptance by the population of the European idea," Seehofer said. "The European Commission's disregard for the facts of life in Europe is cause for despair."
German Laws Contradict European Principles
It's possible the Bavarian governor, a man known for his populist bent, will once again strike a chord with public opinion. But when it comes to the facts of the issue at hand, Seehofer is wrong. The attempt to use blanket social security rules to keep out immigrants from Eastern Europe not only makes little sense economically -- it's also the wrong way of engaging in a justified effort to combat abuses of the social system. Germany's laws on this front clearly contradict European principles.
Legal experts have long held this view. "If the German state had really wanted to wall off its social security benefits from other EU citizens, it would have needed to act a lot earlier," says Thorsten Kingreen, a professor of social law at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria.
The train left the station during the late 1990s when the European Court of Justice, in a series of rulings, began to continuously expand social rights in the EU. "Since 1998, member states have no longer been permitted to discriminate against citizens of other member states when disbursing social benefits," says Kingreen. The EU implemented this legal interpretation of its Free Movement Directive a decade ago, and Germany is the only country in which it hasn't become reality.
EU citizens who come to Germany to find work have no automatic right to unemployment benefits, even if they are legitimately seeking a job. That leads to an absurd situation in which an asylum seeker who has entered the country illegally has the right to demand the basics needed to survive, but a French or Bulgarian national who has traveled to the country on a perfectly legal job hunt does not.
A Matter of Time
Given that context, it is hardly a surprise that German social courts have expressed doubts about national regulations. In law firms and offices of government ministries around the country, rulings are piling up that seek to bestow greater rights to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe on the German labor market.
Whether European justices will ultimately side with critics or not could ultimately depend on how they decide to classify the German social benefits being looked at. The decisive question is whether Hartz IV unemployment payments are social benefits or a labor market policy instrument. In terms of social welfare benefits, member states still have the right to be tight-fisted, at least for the time being. This does not, however, apply to instruments of the labor market.
Germany has already laid its groundwork on the issue. Hartz IV was not registered in Europe as social welfare. Rather, it was registered as Germany's implementation of the Migrant Workers Regulation. "By doing so, Germany has already stripped itself of any excuses," says Kingreen. "It is only a matter of time before the European Court of Justice scraps our blanket exclusion clause."
Germany Needs Immigrants
The existing barriers to entry for immigrants in Germany are legally unsustainable. To tighten them even further as the CSU would like to do is doubly dangerous. Instead of having a deterrent effect on people seeking to abuse the social system, it might instead scare away the kind of well-educated workers that Germany so urgently needs. And with its graying and shrinking population, the only option Germany has left for filling vacant jobs and keeping the coffers of the nation's social welfare system flush is immigration.
It has only been thanks to the influx of people from Poland, Romania, Spain and elsewhere that Germany's population has risen slightly over the past three years. At the end of 2013, an estimated 80.8 million people lived in Germany, about 300,000 more than the year before.
And even though critics of immigration in Bavaria might hold a different view, the reality is that skilled foreign workers don't necessarily find Germany to be an attractive place to work and live. Indeed, some local mayors in Bavaria who are today toeing the CSU party line may find themselves traveling this year to Bulgaria or Romania to recruit trainees from those countries to Germany.
'We Need More Not Fewer Immigrants'
But it will be very difficult today to make up for past failures and lost time. When Eastern European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, Germany was one of the few countries that took advantage of EU rules allowing member states to restrict access to their labor market for citizens from the new EU member states for seven years. Instead, millions of well-educated workers skipped Germany altogether and made their way to Britain, Spain and Ireland.
When those countries obtained full access to the labor market in 2011, a debate similar to the one simmering today about Romanians and Bulgarians ensued. Prominent Munich-based economist Hans-Werner Sinn, for example, issued a loud warning against Eastern European immigrants, who he claimed would overrun prosperous Germany, lamenting the phenomenon as "immigration into the social welfare system."
'Germany Profits from Immigration'
That isn't the way things turned out in the end. Of the 400,000 Romanians and Bulgarians who live in Germany according to the federal government's Central Foreigners Register, the bulk are employed, including around 60 percent of 15- to 65-year-olds, estimate researchers at IAB, the research institute for the Federal Employment Agency. And that's only one example.
Those statistics also show that only 7 percent were unemployed, and only 10 percent received Hartz IV welfare benefits for the long-term jobless or financial benefits to help them make ends meet, indicating that they are a lot less needy than the average among the foreign population in Germany. The fact is that immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria have an above-average interest in education and training, they have fewer children than Germans and, as a result, they make use of less money from the government's family allowance.
Indeed, most economists in Germany offer similar assessments of the issue. "We need more not fewer immigrants," says Clemens Fuest, the head of the Mannheim-based Center for European Economic Research (ZEW). "This may not have been the case as recently as the 1990s, but today's immigrants are on average better qualified than German workers," says Michael Hüther, head of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, a think tank that is aligned with employers' associations. Meanwhile, Marcel Fratzscher, president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin, is convinced: "Even if there are individual cases of immigration to take advantage of our social system, Germany still very much profits from immigration."
To be sure, in larger cities like Frankfurt, Duisburg or Munich, there are large groups of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria who present a significant financial burden for these municipalities. Close to a year ago, the German Association of Cities, even warned that the influx of Romanians and Bulgarians threatened "social balance and social peace." But last week, Ulrich Maly, the mayor of Nuremberg and president of the organization, softened the organization's tone, conceding, "We are not dealing with a national challenge."
Germany's True Scandal
The real social scandal in Germany is the more or less open exploitation of foreigners who come to the country just to work -- and not some supposed massive influx of welfare recipients. Lured by dubious middlemen, many immigrants are often forced to peddle themselves as cheap day laborers in Germany's major cities, earning far below minimum wage.
Orhan Efraimova is one. Last spring, the 38-year-old Bulgarian climbed into a van with eight other men. He left his home country with two pairs of pants, three shirts and the hope of a better life. When the driver finally dropped him off at the market square in Hamburg's Wilhelmsburg neighborhood, he was told that he should just take a seat in one of the nearby cafes. "The bosses," he said, would quickly recognize men like him who were hungry for work and would take them with them.
He soon obtained the business license he needed in order to work legally in Germany. Normally, if a person applies for the document at the local city offices, it costs €20. But Efraimova's "boss" charged him €150 ($205) for the document, plus an additional €200 just for registering him. Since then, he has been working in bogus self-employment --in jobs that should be a staff positions under German law -- at different construction sites, sorting canned foods or packing pallets. In the beginning, he earned €35 a day and later €45, but "never more than €50," he said.
Efaimova pays his employer €250 a month for a mattress in a 15-square meter room that he shares with six other Bulgarians and rats. "I'm actually content," he says, adding that only a few things bother him. Since his arrival in Germany, he has only managed to wire €250 to his family back at home. In Germany, he laments, there are "simply too many holidays."
Those really wanting to do something to address the true problems linked to poverty migration ought to be pushing for more effective rules prohibiting wage exploitation and forms of self-employment that should actually be full-fledged employee positions. At issue here is the need for regulations applying to both Germans and other Europeans that are as harmonized to the extent possible across the EU.
Of course, this isn't the kind of message politicians are keen to hear. Many would rather go on stirring up sentiment against immigrants as well as the European Union. Andreas Scheuer, the CSU's new general secretary, accuses the European Commission of giving "free admission to the German social safety net." He predicts it will lead to a serious influx of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania.
Germany Should Roll Out Red Carpet
Even on the side of the center-left Social Democrats, some politicians have remained conspicuously silent about the issue. During the coming weeks, municipal elections are slated in Bavaria, populous North Rhine-Westphalia and nine other states. Many politicians will likely avoid the possibility of frightening voters with the prospects of an uptick in immigration to Germany.
The only politicians speaking openly about the issue are those who still have some time to go before they have to face their voters again, like Torsten Albig, the SPD governor of the state of Schleswig-Holstein.
"No one in Schleswig-Holstein or Bavaria wants our companies to go under because of a lack of skilled workers or to have to be cared for by robots because there are no caregivers left," he says. "That's why we need to open our doors, roll out the red carpet and extend our hands to all immigrants."
REPORTED BY MELANIE AMANN, SVEN BÖLL, MARKUS DETTMER, ÖZLEM GEZER, ANN-KATRIN MÜLLER, MICHAEL SAUGA AND CHRISTOPH SCHULT
01/14/2014 05:15 PM
Deceptive Labeling: Brussels Plans Tougher Organic Food Rules
By Christoph Schult
The European Commission plans to tighten rules on the booming organic food sector due to concerns that many products aren't as pure as claimed. More rigorous checks are needed and loopholes must be removed, says a draft paper seen by SPIEGEL.
The European Union's official seal for organic foods features a red strawberry glistening in the sunlight, with a farm in the background. Anyone who buys yoghurt containing the label expects to getting a pot full of natural goodness.
But appearances can be deceptive. An organic strawberry yoghurt doesn't necessarily contain any fruit at all. A gap in the EU rules on organic food allows producers to use artificial aromas.
Many consumers have long had their doubts about how genuine supposedly organic products are. Now the European Commission has delivered proof. "In the long run, standards that are not trustworthy can jeopardize public confidence and lead to market failure," says the draft of a new EU directive seen by SPIEGEL.
EU Farming Commissioner Dacian Ciolos wants to introduce stricter rules for the production and sale of foods bearing an official organic label. He wants to remove the many exceptions that lead to an organic product not consisting 100 percent of organic ingredients. "Organic production rules are watered down by exceptions and unclear provisions" the EU officials wrote in a paper.
• Today, Farms are still allowed to engage in organic as well as conventional farming, but the Commission plans to forbid that to reduce the danger of fraud and contamination.
• Pesticides: There is no guarantee at present that organic products are free from pesticide residues. In the future, the producers must guarantee that the pesticide content is no higher than in baby foods. That should be self-evident, but so far there are no rules on this. If the regulations don't become stricter, forbidden substances in organic products will become an increasing problem, the Commission warns.
• Poultry and pork: At present only 20 percent of the feed used in poultry and swine farming must come from near the farm, but in the future that is to increase to 60 percent. In addition, protein in animal feed must be 100 percent organically produced. So far, up to five percent of feed could be used that didn't come from organic production.
The Commission also plans to sharply increase controls. Until now, controllers mainly checked the farms, and the rest of the production chain wasn't supervised as heavily. Wholsesalers rarely get visited, and retailers and sub-contractors aren't checked at all. The Commission wants to change that.
The existing system of legal exceptions from production requirements will also be reformed, because "it is abused by some member states," the Commission says. The fewer controls are carried out, the greater the incidence of fraud. Experts such as the consumer organization Foodwatch see the main reason for this as the speed at which the organic food sector has grown in recent years. Sales have surged to €7 billion ($9.6 billion) in 2012 from €2.1 billion in 2000 in Germany alone. Organic food has become a mass market.
Domestic producers are unable to meet demand and imports from non-EU countries are increasing. Chile, for example, produces more organic apples than Germany. Argentina and Egypt export organic onions to Germany, while Canada and Argentina export linseed and Israel exports organic carrots and peppers. Protein feeds, which are so important for livestock farming, come from countries including Russia.
These imports should be strictly controlled, but EU importers have largely been relying on controls in the countries of origin. There are 63 different import standards for organic products. Under the new plan, there will only be one in the future.
"We would welcome a tightening of the rules," says Foodwatch spokesman Martin Rücker.
But there is also resistance to the European Commission's proposals. Representatives of the International Foundation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) have criticized the plans in talks with politicians and officials. They fear that the changes will entail too much administrative effort for organic food producers. They also worry that a complete legal overhaul might shake consumer confidence and force organic operators to farm and produce under legal uncertaintly for years as the new framework is hammered out.
"IFOAM EU believes the opportunity presented by the review must be used to bring the regulation and the implementing rules up-to-date to match the dynamic developments of the sector and meet the specific needs that have been identified," says IFOAM EU Director Marco Schlüter. "The current legal framework offers a solid base and sufficient room for improvement."
France: the new sick man of Europe
François Hollande offers little to assuage the fears of those who think France is the most vulnerable country in the eurozone
Larry Elliott, economics editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 14 January 2014 20.39 GMT
More Harold Wilson than Margaret Thatcher. A social contract rather than capitalism red in tooth and claw. Such was François Hollande's pitch to the French people and the financial markets as he outlined his plan to reinvigorate the eurozone's second biggest economy.
The backdrop was familiar to students of British politics in the 1970s: rising unemployment, weak growth, a disaffected business community, low productivity and high taxes. Hollande did not use the phrase but everybody knew the subtext of his address: France is now seen as the sick man of Europe.
Hollande's solution was to offer French business a deal. Public spending will be cut by €50bn (£41.5bn) and the use of state resources made more efficient. Red tape will be cut. The social costs that businesses face will be cut by €30bn. But in return, firms will have to expand their workforces, guarantee to offer decent wages and provide better training. Back in 1982, Hollande's socialist predecessor François Mitterand performed a screeching U-turn when he replaced Keynesianism in a country with a strong franc policy. This was not one of those moments. Instead, it was a warning that France could be an economic backwater in a decade's time, coupled with some modest proposals for putting things right. There was little to assuage the fears of those who think that France, rather than Italy or Spain, is the most vulnerable country in the eurozone.
Hollande has three interlocking problems. Problem number one is that France is becoming less competitive within the eurozone and the wider global economy. Business costs are high and productivity is weak. France's industrial base has been subject to less hollowing out than Britain's but the recent deterioration in the French trade deficit tells its own story.
In the postwar decades, the solution would have been to devalue the franc so as to make French exports cheaper. But problem number two is that membership of the single currency has ruled out this option, and France has been finding life inside the single currency a slog. Monetary policy has been too restrictive for France's needs, particularly given the heavy exposure of its banks to the crisis-ridden countries of southern Europe. Credit growth has been depressed, while the recent hardening of the euro has not helped matters. Paris has been putting pressure on the European Central Bank to provide more stimulus, so far to no avail.
As a result, France has yet to recover all the output lost during the great recession of 2008-09 and after a short-lived recovery from a double-dip recession now appears to be at risk of stagnating once more. Unemployment at 10.8% is double the level in Germany and a quarter of those aged under 25 are out of work. Departure from the euro is not an option unless the single currency implodes, something that looks only the remotest of possibilities. But if the euro were to split into a hard core with Germany at its heart and an outer core of struggling nations, most economists would see France as a likely candidate for the second group.
Germany faced a similar challenge in the early years of monetary union. It responded by pushing through some painful reforms to its labour market and to welfare provision. Real incomes of German workers were cut over several years in order to bring down costs, improve profitability and make the economy more competitive internationally. Thatcher imposed the same sort of regime in Britain in the 1980s, although less consensually.
Hollande's third problem is that there is no stomach in France for a German-style package of reforms, nor has there been a deep-enough crisis to make a Thatcherite approach politically sellable. France has many things going for it: an excellent health system, much better infrastructure than Britain; a way of life (for those in work) that is as good as anywhere in the world. There is no appetite for wrenching change. Hence, the small-scale, incremental nature of Tuesday's reforms and the way in which they were packaged. According to the president, it is possible to make savings without a slash-and-burn approach to public spending.
A committee of the great and good will be established, in classic French fashion, to oversee public spending to ensure the savings do not turn the country into an imitation of the US. Instead, the model is Sweden, a country that has high levels of tax and public expenditure but has a better growth record and lower unemployment than France.
But Sweden is not a member of the euro and is able to run its own independent economic policies. France therefore has a pretty stark choice: implement structural reform or do nothing and hope that something comes up. For all the familiar reform-or-die rhetoric, Hollande is firmly in the Mr Micawber camp.
François Hollande's press conference – a very French affair
Journalists posed clever questions about president's alleged relationship with Julie Gayet, but the subject remained off limits
The Guardian, Tuesday 14 January 2014 20.14 GMT
They do things differently in France – of course, and never more so than at François Hollande's eagerly awaited press conference in the gilded surroundings of the Salle de Fetes at the Élysée Palace.
Faced with a packed room of 600 journalists, the beleaguered president succeeded in devoting almost the entirety of the three-hour event to his plans for reviving France's flagging economy, and perhaps three minutes to the questions most people wanted answered: where does his alleged affair with actress Julie Gayet leave France's first lady, Valérie Trierweiler, and how does he plan on resolving his tangled private life?
Hollande set the tone for the proceedings by pointedly refusing, in a 20-minute opening speech, to refer to the matter.
Asked in an exceedingly roundabout way whether Trierweiler was still the first lady, Hollande made clear his view that matters pertaining to his private life should be resolved in private, and said he would be taking no further questions on the subject (although he did promise to sort out his situation before his visit to Washington), and that was pretty much that.
There were one or two mild-mannered attempts to come at the question sideways, by asking about changes to France's strict privacy laws, for example, and a brave bid by the Associated Press to come at it head on ("Does the president's image matter?"). All received the same curt treatment.
Would he get away with this in Britain or America? Might Jeremy Paxman – who famously asked the same question 12 times – or Jonathan Oliver, the former Mail on Sunday reporter who asked Tony Blair, following the suicide of David Kelly: "Have you got blood on your hands, prime minister?" have refused to toe the line? Possibly not. But, outraged tweets by Anglo-Saxon hacks notwithstanding, this was France.
It's not so much that French journalists don't do their job: there are many excellent French political journalists, who deliver many excellent scoops (although private lives, think Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are always off-limits). But there is a certain undeniable deference to the president, the living embodiment of the republic. In that respect, it's a bit like quizzing the Queen. One is invited to an audience with the president and journalists' questions during rare presidential interviews – such as his annual Bastille Day TV appearance – are rarely more than friendly prompts for him to make whatever point he wishes. Once, when Patrick Poivre d'Arvor dared allude to one of Jacques Chirac's many financial scandals, the then president accused him, live on air, of gross impertinence. They do things differently in France.
Hollande's private life is the least of his problems
The president should be regretting not his personal follies but the failure of the French economic model
The Guardian, Tuesday 14 January 2014 20.00 GMT
Of course it matters. A president is not just a professional figure. He is a head of state, briefly the embodiment of his people. If the Queen were sneaking off on a scooter each night to see a toyboy in Pimlico, Britons might regard it as a "purely private affair". But they would be aghast and agog. President Hollande's love life may be private. But is it really of no interest or concern to the French people? Pull the other one.
Behaviour, style, personal relationships may seem tangential to government as a business, but they cannot be divorced from government as an art. Most of the "unanswered" questions swirling around Hollande's press conference struggled to drag his private life into the public domain. Was there a security risk? Was the president vulnerable to attack or kidnap? Was a bodyguard with him at all times? The answers to these questions were trivial.
They were proxies for a different fascination, one that is bound to envelop the private lives of public figures. We all seek in the lives of celebrities some echo of our joys and sorrows. Personal emotion and behaviour may have no imprint on public action. But such is the secrecy of power that we crave any glimpse of the "man behind the mask". In a democracy, "the public interest" is to some degree whatever interests the public.
Hollande has swatted aside his ever deferential press corps with "no comment" on his private life. But he is asking his people to behave differently, to agree a "responsibility pact" to set aside decades of self-indulgence that is in part the legacy of his own French socialist movement. They must come together to liberate employment and accept a reduction in spending and business taxes. His apologists might argue that this is just a matter of laws and austerity. But he is asking for a change in outlook and behaviour. People are less likely to respond if they see the man asking as a fool or an object of ridicule.
I have always seen France as in some sense Britain's twin. They are two countries with the same population, the same GDP, the same life expectancy and the same murder rate. They share much of their history. French workers pour into London for jobs, while one in five Britons spends at least a week a year in France. Finance flourishes in London, but Europe's second economy, tourism, flourishes in France, whose coast and countryside are not just more extensive than Britain's but also better conserved.
France has seemed a strangely somnolent giant. After the war it relaxed while Germany strove. Paris played Athens to Bonn's Rome. Its leaders were largely responsible for designing the common market as a comfort blanket, not a spur to efficiency. They guarded its agriculture and industry from global competition and isolated its social costs, particularly immigration from Africa, in sprawling suburbs and southern cities. France did well out of Europe.
The result is often impressive. I drove last autumn from Toulouse across the south-west to Montpellier, as I had previously driven from Paris to Lyon and across to Bordeaux. Everywhere were signs of the huge investment France has made in its industrial and civic infrastructure: Airbus in Toulouse, IBM in Montpellier, Dassault and EADS in Bordeaux and industrial estates around Paris and Lyon. Seemingly immaculate factories surrounded carefully beautified towns.
The prosperity and pride of French cities is in glaring contrast to Britain's former industrial regions. London's postwar contempt for provincial Britain is ever more grotesque when seen from continental Europe, as if urban renewal meant nothing but a motorway, a hypermarket and a shed estate. France knows such places must appeal culturally to new people and new money. Paris has protected its charm to be Europe's premier visitor destination, while France's glorious valleys and sweeping uplands are becoming the resort of an entire continent. I have never seen how France could fail.
It fails at present only when you enter any commercial premises and hear the same wail. Service is dreadful because taxes are high and employing anyone is prohibitively costly. Unemployment is now 11%, and the young and the rich are leaving for England and elsewhere. In almost any small restaurant, only family members are employed. France has sabotaged its industry with protection and its services with regulation.
In their immaculate history of recent Anglo-French relations, That Sweet Enemy, Robert and Isabelle Tombs chart the nervousness with which each country has viewed the other as the EU evolved. To Margaret Thatcher, an early enthusiast for the common market, the cohort of French énarques around François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors offered a different economic model. As she said: "It was clear from the start they had competing visions of Europe." Theirs was what Tombs called "the last full-blooded, leftwing economic experiment anywhere in the world".
Thatcher – and John Major and Tony Blair after her – were convinced the French model would not work. They were largely right. As its economy ailed, France sought comfort in joining the euro, and thus denied itself the currency flexibility that might have protected it from nemesis. In 2005 the people of France could not face further European union, and voted initially against the Lisbon treaty. At the time, the future president Nicolas Sarkozy wrote that "the limits of the model" had been reached, and that France must reduce its "stifling" public spending, reduce public debt and "become less afraid of the outside world", according to the Tombs.
When Sarkozy came to power in 2007 he promised what he had preached, "to break with the ideas, habits and behaviour of the past". He brought into play the long-delayed disciplines of "French Thatcherism". But he failed, giving Hollande the opportunity to promise relief from such disciplines and a return to the escapism of dirigisme and debt. It was a promise the electorate eagerly believed and, as a questioner asked at the conference, the result was "18 wasted months".
It is this waste that Hollande should have regretted, whatever woes may surround his personal affairs. He has already declared the French state "too heavy, too slow, too costly", but he needs to move mountains if he is to convert platitudes into action. He may plead his entitlement to a private life. But his private life has made his public one immeasurably harder.
France: Roma Evictions Increase
By SCOTT SAYARE
JAN. 14, 2014
French authorities sharply accelerated the eviction of migrant Roma squatters in 2013, razing the unauthorized encampments of nearly 20,000 Roma, according to a report by rights groups on Tuesday. The evictions were double those of 2012, according to the French Human Rights League and the European Roma Rights Center. President François Hollande took office in 2012 pledging to break with the strict policies of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. But Mr. Hollande has reinforced those policies, demolishing at least 165 Roma camps last year, according to the report. French officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Reform EU or Britain quits - George Osborne lays down ultimatum
Membership withdrawal threat after Tory MPs sign letter calling for dismantling of Europe's core principles via veto powers
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 15 January 2014
George Osborne will today deliver a stark warning to Britain's European partners that the UK will leave the EU unless it embarks on whole-scale economic and political reform.
The chancellor's comments come as the Tory leadership tries to regain the initiative on Europe, after 95 MPs signed a letter calling for the dismantling of the core principles of the EU.
In a speech to a conference organised by the pro-reform Open Europe thinktank and the Fresh Start group of Tory MPs, Osborne will say: "There is a simple choice for Europe: reform or decline. Our determination is clear: to deliver the reform, and then let the people decide."
Tory backbencher Bernard Jenkin won the support of about 100 MPs for a letter to David Cameron calling for the British parliament to be given a veto over all EU laws.
Such a move would dismantle the rules of the European single market which were drawn up by Margaret Thatcher's ally, Lord Cockfield, to prevent France imposing protectionist measures by denying member states a national veto.
Jenkin suffered a blow when Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Commons Treasury select committee, said he had been wrongly listed as a supporter. But Osborne will make clear that Cameron will push for wide-ranging reforms if he wins the general election next year with a mandate to renegotiate the terms of British membership.
Osborne will tell the conference: "The biggest economic risk facing Europe doesn't come from those who want reform and renegotiation – it comes from a failure to reform and renegotiate.
"It is the status quo which condemns the people of Europe to an ongoing economic crisis and continuing decline."
Osborne will say the EU suffers from a chronic lack of competitiveness and that the European economy has stalled over the last six years while the Indian economy has grown by a third and the Chinese economy by 50%.
He will say: "Make no mistake, our continent is falling behind. Look at innovation, where Europe's share of world patent applications nearly halved in the last decade. Look at unemployment, where a quarter of young people looking for work can't find it. Look at welfare.
"As Angela Merkel has pointed out, Europe accounts for just over 7% of the world's population, 25% of its economy, and 50% of global social welfare spending. We can't go on like this."
Osborne is expected to say that Cameron will press for a realignment of the rules of the single market to ensure the 18 members of the eurozone cannot outvote the 10 EU members, such as Britain, which have not joined the single currency.
Tory divisions will be highlighted at today's conference as MPs from the Fresh Start group challenge Jenkin's letter.
Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, said the Tory party risks "becoming its own worst enemy" as the likes of Jenkin table unrealistic demands.
Persson said: "There is a huge debate in Europe about what the EU's defining mission should be in future – the single market or the euro?
The chancellor should clearly set out that the UK cannot accept an EU dominated by euro countries preoccupied with shoring up their currency at the expense of those who cannot join for democratic reasons. If the EU becomes a political extension of the euro, it'll be hard for the UK to remain a member.
"As our conference clearly shows, there's growing momentum for reform across Europe. However, the Tory party risks becoming its own worst enemy when it comes to achieving a new settlement in Europe."
David Mowat, the Tory MP for Warrington South, who will address the conference, said that the Fresh Start group was proposing a constructive set of proposals to help the prime minister in his negotiations if he won the election. "The letter is a different initiative," he said.
The Fresh Start group, led by the No 10 policy board member Andrea Leadsom, will focus on three areas of reform at the conference.
The areas include delivering Cameron's proposal to keep Britain apart from moves to create an "ever closer union" in the EU; completing the single market, especially with services; and delivering William Hague's plan of bumping up the EU's "yellow card" system to a "red card" one.
This would mean that a third of national parliaments could block EU laws if they can reach an agreement.
PM calls for world’s support as 52 die in Iraq bombing
Wed, Jan 15, 2014, 11:19
Bomb attacks hit the Iraqi capital Baghdad and a village near the northern town of Baquba today, killing at least 52 people, police and hospital sources said.
In the deadliest incident, a bomb blew up in a funeral tent where mourners were marking the death two days ago of a Sunni Muslim pro-government militiaman, police said. It killed 18 people and wounded 16 in Shatub, a village south of Baquba.
Two years after US troops left Iraq, violence has climbed back to its highest levels since the Sunni-Shia bloodshed of 2006-2007, when tens of thousands of people were killed.
The army is locked in a standoff with Sunni militants who overran Falluja, a city west of Baghdad, more than two weeks ago in a challenge to prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
They are led by the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting in western Iraq and Syria to carve out a cross-border Islamist fiefdom.
“The battle will be long and will continue,” Mr Maliki said on state television on Wednesday, calling for world support. “If we keep silent it means the creation of evil statelets that would wreak havoc with security in the region and the world.”
Mr Maliki has ruled out an assault on Falluja by the troops and tanks ringing the city of 300,000, but has told local tribesmen to expel ISIL, which has exploited anger among minority Sunnis against a government they accuse of oppressing them.
Al Qaeda loyalists are pursuing a relentless campaign of attacks, mostly aimed at security forces, Shi’ite civilians and Sunnis seen as loyal to the Shia-led government.
Half a dozen car bombs exploded across the Iraqi capital on Wednesday, mostly in Shia districts, killing 34 people and wounding 71, police and medics said.
The Baghdad bombings followed attacks that killed at least 24 people the day before, as well as coordinated assaults by militants on a highway bridge and police station near Falluja.
A suicide bomber in an explosives-laden fuel tanker blew it up under the bridge near the town of Saqlawiya, about 10km north of Falluja, causing the bridge to collapse and destroying one of two army tanks parked on top, police said. Gunmen then attacked and destroyed the second tank.
Simultaneously, dozens of militants stormed a police station in Saqlawiya, forcing its occupants to surrender. Army helicopters later attacked the gunmen in the police station.
The wrecked bridge spans the main highway leading west from Baghdad across the vast Sunni desert province of Anbar towards Syria and Jordan. Police said the truck bomber had driven from Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar. Reuters
Manmohan Singh’s Harder Path
By MANU JOSEPH
JAN. 15, 2014
NEW DELHI — Very little of his face is public knowledge. Most of it is shrouded in hair and glasses, and the rest does not convey much. His speech has the quality of a background hum, as if it were a form of silence. He can make the bravado of capitalism sound as melancholic as the laments of socialism. He appears to be in a perpetual trance of good-natured subordination. This is a type of man who has no recourse to the useful deceits of articulation. And, constricted by decency, he lacks the means of sly backdoor channels to deliver news favorable to him.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been this way since Indians came to know him in the 1990s as finance minister, a hero of economic reforms and the mascot of incorruptible middle-class scholarship. But now the nation is pretending that his flaws as a public figure are a sudden revelation. He is the most ridiculed Indian today. He is accused of not being an alpha male, of not reaching out more to the people, of presiding over a government that appears to be incompetent and has been rocked by corruption charges. And, of playing the part of an installation of the Gandhi family, which runs the Indian National Congress party like a fief.
This month, he held a rare news conference at which he announced that he would not seek office if his party returned to power after the impending general elections.
“Any senior clerk on retirement would have turned in a more sentimental performance than Manmohan did in stating he would not pursue a third term,” wrote the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “He appeared like a sad, tired squirrel pointing out nuggets of his performance,” he added.
Reacting to the decline of his own stature, Mr. Singh said during the news conference, “History will be kinder to me than the contemporary media.” A man who says this is usually masquerading hope as prophecy. But there are good reasons why Mr. Singh might be right. For nearly a decade, his innocuous nature and integrity succeeded in providing stability to two successive governments and the Congress party. Also, despite the odds against him, he pushed through important legislation.
Mr. Singh has not changed over the years. It is the middle-class perception of him that has, a perception largely influenced by the mainstream media. The chief accusation against him by political observers is that he has been unable to break out of the mold of being an employee of the Gandhi family, and that he never resigned on principle even though he was presented with several instances when the Congress party overruled or embarrassed him or diminished his dignity. Remarkable, then, that the relationship between Mr. Singh and the Gandhi family is similar to that between the editorial head of almost any Indian news organization and its owner.
Every editor in Delhi has a Manmohan Singh in him. In a nation where the preeminence of ethics in both politics and journalism is absolute in theory but ambiguous in practice, the prime minister and the editor occupy roles that require relentless negotiations with a higher authority from whom they derive their powers. Both have to fight for their independence, as it is not easily granted, and find ways to influence “management” to do what is right. Both make compromises for the sake of long-term benefits. And the only card they possess but cannot use too often is the threat to quit and walk away in a huff.
It is not known whether Mr. Singh ever threatened to quit, because this is a form of heroism that is usually staged in private. What is clear is that he never did quit, even though he had good reasons to. “I have never felt like resigning at any time,” he said. “I have enjoyed doing my work.”
A man who quits his job on principled grounds may appear glorious to most people. But many times the more difficult path is not what appears heroic.
Mr. Singh chose the difficult path — to endure the blows and achieve the ambition he once stated in a speech: “For the short period, we mortals occupy the places we do, let us strive to do our best, for India, for the world, for humanity.”
Danish tourist gang-raped in Delhi
Police say 51-year-old was attacked after asking for directions as sexual violence against women in India gets more attention
Associated Press in Delhi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 08.12 GMT
A Danish tourist was gang-raped near a popular central shopping area in Delhi after she lost her way and asked for directions back to her hotel, according to police.
The attack on Tuesday is the latest case to focus international attention on rape and violence against women in India.
The 51-year-old woman was also robbed and beaten in the attack, which happened in the afternoon near Connaught Place, said police spokesman Rajan Bhagat. The woman managed to reach her hotel in the evening and the owner called police. No arrests have been made.
"When she came, it was miserable," said Amit Bahl, owner of the Amax hotel. He said the woman was crying and "not in good shape".
"I am really ashamed that this happened," said Bahl.
The problem of sexual violence in India has gained widespread attention since the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in December 2012. Public fury over the case has led to more stringent laws that doubled prison terms for rape to 20 years and criminalised voyeurism and stalking.
But for many women, particularly the poor, daily indignities and abuse continue unabated and the new laws have not made the streets any safer. Ranjana Kumari, director of India's Centre for Social Research, said India's conservative, patriarchal traditions lead men to use rape as a tool to instil fear in women.
"This mindset is not changing," she said. "It's a huge challenge."
Experts say the rapid growth of India's cities and the yawning gulf between rich and poor are exacerbating the problem of sexual violence, with young men struggling to prove their traditional dominance in a changing world. Cultural stigmas, police apathy and judicial incompetence have long made it difficult for women to even report rapes.
Still, there has been a surge in the number of rapes being reported recently, suggesting that women are emboldened to speak up. Between January and October last year, 1,330 rapes were reported in Delhi and its suburbs, compared with 706 for all of 2012, according to government figures.
Last March, a Swiss woman who was cycling with her husband in central India was gang-raped. These cases threaten India's lucrative tourism industry. Last year, the tourism ministry launched a campaign, I Respect Women, to reassure travellers.
'If girls look sexy, boys will rape.' Is this what Indian men really believe?
A shocking series of brutal attacks has led to a national debate on sexual violence. The Observer asked a group of young men in Goa for their views. The talk revealed a disturbing mindset
Gethin Chamberlain Baga, Goa
The Observer, Sunday 24 March 2013
"Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man fucking crazy." Papi Gonzales leans back in his chair and surveys the other young Indian men around the table in his beach bar, seeking approval. They nod in agreement, eager to make their own points. "When the girls look sexy and the boys can't control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens," said Robin Shretha, one of the waiters.
Since a 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in December and later died in hospital from her injuries, the issue of rape has been hugely prominent in India. Last week headlines were dominated by the gang rape of a Swiss woman on a cycling holiday in Madhya Pradesh. In the same week a British woman leapt from her hotel window in the northern city of Agra at 4am to escape the unwanted attention of the hotel manager, who was trying to get into her room.
According to government figures, a rape takes place in India every 21 minutes. The number of reported rapes rose by 9% in 2011 to 24,000. Yet conviction rates are falling, down to 26% in 2011.
The recent cases have led to worldwide outrage, and demonstrations led by women have filled the streets of major cities. But what do India's young men think? The Observer gathered a group in the western region of Goa to hear their views. They were: Abhijit Harmalkar, 28, a driver; his brother, Avinash, 24, a factory worker; Bhivresh Banaulikar, 26, an auditor; Brindhavan Salgaonkar, 20, a factory worker; Robin Shretha, 21, a waiter; and Papi Gonzales, 32, the owner of the bar.
One word to describe their views would be "unreconstructed". Others would be "alarming" and "frightening". Plenty of Indian men have joined the recent demonstrations. Plenty of Indian men are committed to the cause of women's rights. But this discussion revealed the deep moral conservatism of some young Indian males, coupled with confusion about gender roles in a society where economic modernisation is outstripping social attitudes.
We are getting the blame, these men claimed, while no one is paying attention to the actions of young women, who need to understand that they should not be out on their own at night. "Our culture is different," said Abhijit Harmalkar. "Girls are not allowed outside after six [pm] because anything can happen – rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that's why. Then men cannot control themselves."
Banaulikar nodded. "I have a sister. If she is out late at night, then I would be worried. After 7pm I would be worried. Men can't control themselves."
The men sit around a table in a bar overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is an idyllic scene: coconut palms edge the beaches, the sea is a deep blue, the temperature in the mid-30s. It is mid-morning, but already there are a few western tourists wandering along the beach – the men bare-chested in shorts, many of the women in bikinis. Groups of local men watch the women, discreetly taking pictures with their phones. When night falls, nearby bars will be packed with young people. This bar is only a couple of miles from where the body of British teenager Scarlett Keeling was found five years ago. The 15-year-old had been raped and murdered. An on-off court case against two men has dragged on for years. No one believes that those responsible will face justice, and there appears to be no impetus among those in authority in the state to bring it to a conclusion. The truth is that in India there are many people who think a 15-year-old western girl out drinking in bars in the early hours of the morning was asking for trouble.
This collection of young men is a small, random sample, and plenty of Indians would find their views abhorrent. Foreigners thinking of visiting India – particularly young women – will find these views not only repulsive, but dangerous. Though this is a small sample, it is telling that they speak so openly, and it is clearly the case that other young Indian men would express similar thoughts – even if large numbers of their compatriots would find them shocking.
Sometimes the women lead the men on, those around the table said. Sometimes men are frustrated that women who have earlier flirted with them then ignore their advances. This is not how they themselves behave, but this is what happens, they said. "The Indian girls who come here, they don't behave, maybe there are some boys and the rape happens," said Shretha. "But sometimes they are not behaving sexy, not talking to the boys, and the boys are angrier and they think, 'I'll rape'.
"If they find them in a blind place, they are going to combine together with friends and they are going to rape them. If they [the women] talk nicely, they are OK. If they behave rudely, then they [the men] are going to be angry."
This group, while expressing these views, still maintain that the idea that women are second-class citizens in India is out of date. Everyone is equal now, they said, with women going out to work and making money too. "Before, for many years, girls were neglected, boys got opportunities. Girls did not get opportunities, but now it is equal. It is a new generation, no difference between girls and boys," said Shretha. Their notion of "equality" is impossible to square with the casualness with which they understand and even expect young men to visit sexual abuse on women.
The trouble is, they claim, that this new assertiveness among women is causing confusion for the men. "The main thing is the bank balance. Women are in love with the bank balance," said Gonzales. "And a nice shiny car. Then everything is OK," said Salgaonkar. "You should not blame the boys every time," said Banaulikar. "If you have four girls, sometimes one is a prostitute type," said Avinash Harmalkar. "The others don't know their friend is a prostitute. It is common in college life," he claimed.
Such attitudes are not unusual. Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of president Pranab Mukherjee, himself an MP with the ruling Congress party, dismissed protesters after the Delhi rape as "dented and painted women". And religious guru Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim was not blameless, asking provocatively: "Can one hand clap?" Maybe if there were more prostitutes, there would be fewer problems for young women, the men suggested. "It keeps men happy," said Gonzales. "In Bombay, there are 20 places that I go sometimes. There are hundreds of places there. In Goa there are no places like that. And when we see the goras [whites] showing their bodies off, the Goan people react badly."
One answer, said the men, would be for the women's families to be stricter, preventing them going out at night. That is the traditional solution to keeping girls safe. "In Indian culture, our generation has grown up with respect for families," said Gonzales. "That's why we are scared of our parents. We behave as we are told to behave. Mum and Dad shout 'do this, do that' and we listen. But in the next generation everything has changed."
"Parents should stop the girls going out late at night," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Parents should set them free to live their own life, but parents should be strict about late nights, then this kind of crime will not happen." None of the men could understand why the medical student and her boyfriend had taken a bus in Delhi alone at night, the bus on which they were attacked. "At night-time no one goes in the bus," said Salgaonkar.
"You don't go as a single boyfriend and girlfriend in a late bus at 8.30pm. At that time anything can happen, because no one is in the bus," said Harmalkar. As for men who assault women on crowded buses, which happens frequently, they do so because they have the safety of numbers, he said, and because they don't understand that what they are doing is wrong. "They can't have a girlfriend. If they had a girlfriend they wouldn't act like this. In fact, if they had a sister they would not do this," said Salgaonkar. It was not the rape itself that provoked such anger, he said, but the violence. "The boys who raped her also violated her with a steel rod. If it was only sex, they would not have been so angry."
No one around the table had a simple solution, though Banaulikar said that the only way to stop rape was to keep young people busy and off the streets. "In my job I am always busy," he said. "I don't have time to do these things. If you keep them busy, you can stop them. It is the jobless men who are doing these things.
"If they see others doing this stuff, they copy them. It is the same for the girls. In the daytime she is a good girl, but no one knows what she does at night, and she persuades her friends to do the same." Parents should teach the difference between right and wrong, they said, and also schools.
Then there was the world of higher education, seen by these men as little more than dens of iniquity. "College life is different," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Anything can happen there. Girls and boys know everything about sex. The girls go from boy to boy."
Banaulikar added: "Some girls are doing things for money. They use the boy and then throw them away. So some boys are taking revenge. If someone wants to have sex, no one can stop them. And if you do not want to have sex, people will say you are not a man."
For anyone interested in the promotion of women's rights in India, this was an alarming, even frightening discussion. Last week the lower house of parliament passed new rape laws, which include the death penalty for the most extreme cases, and introduced punishments for stalking and assaulting women. But the all-male conversation by the sea in Goa ended on a note that did not offer much hope for the thousands campaigning on the streets for an end to sexual violence. "Nothing will be changed," said Avinash Harmalkar. "Things like this happen every day and nothing will be changed. Only if the world ends will anything change."
Indian diplomat seeks dismissal of visa charges, arguing permanent immunity
Lawyer for Devyani Khobragade, who left US amid bilateral storm, makes submission as countries work to mend ties
Jason Burke in Delhi and agencies
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 05.12 GMT
Devyani Khobragade is accompanied by her father, Uttam, as she arrives in Mumbai. Devyani Khobragade is accompanied by her father, Uttam, as she arrives in Mumbai. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty
A lawyer for Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who left the US last week after indictment for visa fraud and underpaying domestic staff, has asked a US judge to throw out the charges against her.
The arrest of Khobragade, 39, led to the worst diplomatic row between the United States and India for decades and prompted a range of retaliatory measures against US diplomats in Delhi.
Though John Kerry, the US secretary of state, expressed regret shortly after the incident, this fell short of the apology demanded and high-level visits by American officials were postponed to avoid further tension. Following Khobragade's effective expulsion from the US, India asked Washington to withdraw a member of the diplomatic security service.
Amid public outrage, politicians, officials and commentators repeatedly said that India's pride and soveriegnty were at stake.
In recent days both Washington and Delhi have adopted a more conciliatory stance and a senior US diplomat met India's ambassador to the United States on Tuesday with the aim of repairing damage to bilateral ties.
William Burns, deputy secretary of state, hosted a "productive" lunch meeting with Indian Ambassador S Jaishankar, a statement from the US state department said.
Simultaneously Indian press reported meetings between top officials of each nation's security services.
The return to India of priceless missing 10th century statues seized by US customs officers is also being seen as a “peace offering”.
Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on 12 December and accused of paying her housekeeper, who had been flown in from India, substantially less than the US minimum wage, forcing her to work 15 hour days seven days a week and lying to US visa officers about the salary to be paid to the 42-year-old woman.
The charges against Khobragade, who has denied all wrongdoing, mean that the mother of two cannot return to the US, where her US-born husband and children remain, without fear of arrest.
The diplomat's US lawyer argues that his client's accreditation as a member of India's mission to the United Nations, granted by the state department as part of a deal allowing her to leave the country, gives her absolute immunity from prosecution, even for incidents that allegedly occurred before her accreditation.
Officials at the US state department have said they do not believe her immunity is retroactive.
Analysts say that deep goodwill between India and the US remains despite the breakdown over recent weeks.
But though steadily improving since a nadir in the 1970s, relations have long been rocky. Despite co-operation on a wide range of issues including counterterrorism, regional security and defence there remains deep suspicion of Washington in Delhi. Many US officials see India as a difficult partner.
Critics accuse Obama of failing to pay sufficient attention to ties with a country viewed as a key potential strategic counterbalance to China and an engine to boost the US economy, while American hopes of building a more robust business relationship with India have run into bureaucratic and political hurdles.
The arrest of Khobragade touches a range of sensitivities in India. Almost all middle-class households in India employ at least one, and often several, members of staff who will undertake tasks from cleaning and cooking to childcare and driving.
With few Indian diplomats paid wages that would allow them to legally employ local staff to perform such functions in postings in the west, the practice has long been for Indian workers to be flown out and paid rates that, if illegal in the US and elsewhere, would be generous at home.
In the aftermath of the Khobragade affair Indian officials are mulling a plan to put diplomats' domestic servants on the government payroll. However politicians will be concerned about public reaction at a time when anger at India's embedded “VIP culture” of privilege is under scrutiny.
There have been several previous incidents involving senior Indian diplomats in the US and domestic staff brought from India. In 2011 the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, was accused by his maid of forced labour and sexual harassment, charges he called "complete nonsense" and that were later dropped.
A year earlier a US judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay and suffering "barbaric treatment" in their luxury Manhattan apartment.
Shots fired in Bangkok protests
Two wounded and explosives thrown at former prime minister's residence as 'shutdown' of Thailand's capital continues
Associated Press in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 06.53 GMT
Thousands of anti-government protesters march in Bangkok on Wednesday, after shots were fired at demonstrators overnight
Shots have been fired in Bangkok in an apparent attack on anti-government protesters that wounded at least two people and raised tensions in Thailand's deepening political crisis.
Most of the Thai capital remained unaffected on Wednesday by the latest wave of rallies. But the shooting was the latest in a string of sporadic violent incidents. Bangkok's emergency services office said one man was hit in the ankle and a woman was hit in the arm in the shooting, which occurred on a street leading to an upmarket shopping district that has been occupied since Monday by camping demonstrators trying to oust the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her government.
Sompong Pongsattha, a 56-year-old resident who witnessed the attack in the Pathumwan district, said about 30 gunshots were fired from an unknown location toward a protest barricade over the course of about two hours. He said only a few demonstrators were there at the time and the wounded woman had to be carried to another intersection to be taken to a hospital.
In another incident over Tuesday night a small explosive device was thrown into a residential compound owned by former Abhisit Vejjajiva, the previous prime minister, shattering windows and slightly damaging a roof, according to police colonel Chumpol Phumphuang and Abhisit's opposition Democrat party. No injuries were reported and Abhisit was not home at the time.
In the west of the city several people poured gasoline on a tour bus that had been used by protesters and set it ablze, police said.
On Tuesday Yingluck insisted she would not quit while the protesters reiterated vows not to negotiate, leaving no way out in sight. "I've stressed many times I have a duty to act according to my responsibility after the dissolution of parliament," Yingluck saod. "I'd like to say right now I am not holding on [to my position] but I have to keep political stability. I'm doing my duty to preserve democracy."
The protesters are boycotting the February poll because they know Yingluck's party would win as it did in 2011. Instead, they are calling for an unelected "people's council" to amend laws to fight corruption in politics, while an appointed prime minister would help administer the country for up to two years.
Suthep called on supporters Wednesday to shut down all government offices and cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her cabinet "in the next two or three days." He also threatened to "detain" Yingluck, saying: "If they are still being obstinate, then we will capture them one by one because the people are not interested in fighting for years."
Later on Wednesday the prime minister said elections due on 2 February would go ahead despite intense pressure for a postponement by her opponents. Yingluck had proposed to meet on Wednesday with rivals to discuss a proposal from the election commission for a delay but Suthep and the Democrat party refused to take part.
After a meeting with members of her cabinet, candidates who registered for the poll and a top electoral official Yingluck said that there was no legal way for the election commission to delay the vote.
Chinese police detain suicide bomber's daughter
Daughter of farmer Dang Zhaofei, who blew up bus in Shaanxi province, is said to be 'major suspect in case'
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 15 January 2014 12.09 GMT
Police at bus bomb scene
Police at the scene of the explosion on a bus in Pucheng county, Shaanxi province, China. Photograph: Xinhua/Landov/Barcroft Media
Police in north-west China have detained the daughter of a suicide bomber who blew up a bus this month, killing five people and injuring 24.
The explosion occurred on the evening of 5 January on a long-distance bus carrying 47 passengers in Pucheng county, Shaanxi province, according to Xinhua, China's official newswire. Police quickly identified one of the blast's casualties as its perpetrator, a 45-year-old local farmer named Dang Zhaofei.
On Monday, they detained his daughter as a "major suspect involved in the case", Xinhua reported, without revealing details about her role in it. Pictures online showed the turquoise bus sitting on a broad road with its windows blown out, surrounded by detritus.
The bombing was probably an expression of despondency, state media reported. Dang's life went off the rails when his son drowned in July 2008 – he was heavily in debt from operating a fruit wholesale business, and his relationship with his wife had begun to sour, it was reported. Dang's wife was on the bus with him when the bomb exploded, but she was not included on an official list of injured passengers, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
In an unrelated incident, an explosion tore through an underground gambling den in south-west China's Guizhou province on Monday afternoon, killing 15 people and injuring another eight. According to state media, the illegal casino was located in a makeshift tent halfway up a desolate hillside in Laoshan Village, a remote corner of county-level Kaili city in one of the country's poorest areas. The survivors were in stable condition, state media reported on Tuesday.
Eight suspects were detained, three of whom turned themselves in, the Guizhou police department announced via its official microblog account. The Kaili propaganda department said the blast was being treated as a criminal case.
According to an investigation by the independent newspaper Beijing Youth Daily, the casino opened only one or two months ago – it was originally located near the village, but soon moved far up the hillside. Villagers began spotting BMWs and other luxury cars with out-of-town licence plates parked in the hill's vicinity. Gamblers inside played Gundilong, a game that involves three dice and a large box.
Li Long, a villager in Longyang township, told the newspaper that on the afternoon of 13 January, she was taking a nap in her home 1.2 miles (2km) from the village when she heard a loud noise. Soon afterwards, the town filled with police cars and sobbing relatives of the deceased. In a nearby hospital, Li witnessed wounded victims telling doctors that they had been in a car crash, ostensibly to dissociate themselves from the incident.
"My husband called and said he was dying and had been blinded," Pan Shasha, the wife of a 26-year-old victim whose eyes were injured in the blast, told Xinhua. "He said: 'I have only my last breath,' and he asked me to take care of our child."
China to regulate fishing in disputed South China sea
The Philippines and Vietnam have condemned the rules, saying they infringe on their own 200-mile exclusive economic zones
Associated Press in Manila
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 12.07 GMT
China has insisted it will regulate fishing in the disputed South China sea under its laws despite protests by neighbouring countries, a Philippine official said on Tuesday.
Chinese rules that took effect this month require foreign fishermen to seek Beijing's approval to operate in the disputed waters.
Department of foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said the Philippines had asked China to clarify the edict and had been told by Beijing that it was "an implementation of China's fisheries law" and that the region was under Chinese jurisdiction.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, putting it at odds with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, which also claim parts of the busy waters.
Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi has said the fishing regulation and other moves by China in recent months are "illegal and invalid" and seriously violate Vietnamese sovereignty.
The US has criticised the Chinese regulation as "provocative and potentially dangerous". China has asked Washington to stay out of the dispute.
The Philippines and Vietnam are among the most vocal critics of China's claims over the disputed waters, saying they infringe on their own 200-mile exclusive economic zones.
China and rival claimants have beefed up their forces and stepped up patrols in the disputed territories, increasing the risk of confrontation.