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'Citizens' insurrection': Huge protests in France aim to kill Macron pension plan

01/31/23 6:06 PM

Hundreds of thousands of enraged workers across France walked off the job and hit the streets Tuesday to protest President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular plan to raise the nation's official retirement age from 62 to 64.It marks the second time this month that French workers have mobilized against Macron's attack on the country's pension system. Nationwide strikes and marches on January 19 brought out between one million and two million people, and labor unions aimed to match or exceed those numbers on Tuesday, with roughly 250 demonstrations planned around the country.Longtime leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon predicted Tuesday morning that "a historic day" of protests would help defeat Macron's proposal once and for all, as massive crowds rallied in cities and towns outside Paris—prior to a major march that shut down the French capital on Tuesday afternoon.“It's not often that we see such a mass mobilization," Mélenchon said from the southern city of Marseille. "It's a form of citizens' insurrection."On the small western island of Ouessant, about 100 people gathered early in the day for a protest outside the office of Mayor Denis Palluel.In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Palluel noted that the threat of having to work longer to qualify for a full pension dismayed mariners on the island who have grueling ocean-based jobs."Retiring at a reasonable age is important," he said, "because life expectancy isn't very long.""Retiring at a reasonable age is important because life expectancy isn't very long."Despite widespread opposition to pushing back France's retirement age—approximately three-fourths of the population is against such a move, according to recent polling—many lawmakers remain determined to fulfill Macron's election pledge to overhaul the nation's pension system.On Monday, Macron described his effort to hike the retirement age as "essential." Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, for her part, asserted this past weekend that raising the retirement age to 64 by 2030 is "no longer negotiable.""Strikers and protesters intend to prove otherwise," Agence France-Pressereported Tuesday. "Labor unions and left-wing legislators fighting in parliament against Macron's plans are counting on protesters to turn out massively to strengthen their efforts to kill the bill."As they did earlier this month, strikes on Tuesday upended multiple aspects of daily life, including electricity production, transportation, and education."TotalEnegies says between 75% and 100% of workers at its refineries and fuel depots are on strike, while electricity supplier EDF said they're monitoring a drop in power to the national grid equivalent to three nuclear power plants," Euronews reported.According to AP: "Rail operator SNCF reported major disruptions, with strikes knocking out most trains in the Paris region, in all other regions, and on France’s flagship high-speed network linking cities and major towns. The Paris Metro was also hard hit by station closures and cancellations."France's Education Ministry, meanwhile, reported that around a quarter of the nation's teachers were on strike Tuesday, down from 70% during the first round of protests.Macron's proposed pension reform, the text of which Borne presented to the National Assembly earlier this month, faces an uphill battle.For one thing, the New Ecological and Social People's Union (NUPES)—a coalition of four left-wing parties recently formed by Mélenchon—won 131 seats in last June's parliamentary elections, helping to prevent the neoliberal alliance Ensemble from securing the absolute majority it needed to ram through Macron's unwanted austerity agenda.According to AFP, even the president's own allies from his ruling alliance have expressed concerns about some aspects of the legislation."We can feel a certain nervousness from the majority as we begin our work," Mathilde Panot, head of the left-wing France Unbowed party in the National Assembly, told the news outleton Tuesday. "When we see this opposition growing, I understand why they are wavering."However, journalist Marlon Ettinger, citing French Communist Party MP André Chassaigne, warned recently that "the government might try to pass the reform through a social security financing bill (known as PLFRSS), which would allow for a series of constitutional delays that would significantly limit the amount of time deputies can discuss the bill. It would also block the possibility for the opposition to present their own counterproposals."In addition, "although Macron has no popular assent, nor a parliamentary majority for his reform, he does have constitutional tools he can use to push the package through," Ettinger explained in Jacobin. "One, known as 49.3 (after the article of the Constitution which grants the president this power), essentially lets him bypass the National Assembly. The constitution of the current Fifth Republic grants the president these authoritarian powers to hedge against any popular sentiment that might make its way into the lower house. The use of 49.3 would suspend the debate in the National Assembly, then send the bill directly to the Senate, which is controlled by Les Républicains."Aware that such anti-democratic maneuvers are on the table, Mélenchon and other opponents of the assault on France's pension system have called on Macron to withdraw his proposal for good.

'Hands off Africa!': Pope blasts foreign plundering of Congo

01/31/23 9:29 AM

Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa's natural resources for the "poison of their own greed" as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world's attention on their forgotten plight.

'Men only' rule finally lifted by Shetland Viking festival

01/31/23 6:38 PM

Women and girls have finally been allowed to take part in a torchlit procession on Tuesday at a festival in Shetland celebrating the Scottish islands' Viking past.The committee in charge of the "Up Helly Aa" festival in Shetland's main town of Lerwick announced last year that it was time to lift a ban on women taking part in the traditional procession.The event, which marks the end of the Christmas season, is popular among tourists.It traditionally involves around 1,000 male participants known as guizers, who wear Viking dress and divide into squads to parade through the town.The procession is led by the Guizer Jarl, or chief guizer, and culminates in the participants using their flaming torches to set ablaze a replica Viking longship.The modern event, first held in 1881, is known for its festive parties that often involve traditional Shetland dancing and copious alcohol consumption.Rural "Up Helly Aa" processions on Shetland, which lies in the middle of the North Sea some 400 miles (640 kilometers) from Edinburgh, started allowing women to take part in 2015.But the town of Lerwick's committee initially stood firm against allowing female participants to get involved in celebrating the island's Norse heritage.This year -- despite the lifting of the gender restrictions -- there are no women in the main Jarl squad which leads the procession. However, women are taking part in other historic costumed squads involved in the event.Festival organizers said it was not necessarily a surprise that there were no female participants for the 2023 Jarl Squad, since it was formed back in 2021, before the lifting of gender restrictions was announced in June 2022."It is expected that females participating in the Jarl Squad will evolve in the coming years, but we'll see females participating in some of the other 46 squads from the 2023 festival," the "Up Helly Aa" committee said ahead of the event.The torch-lit processions and longboat burning are an echo of pagan Norse rituals -- the Shetland and neighboring Orkney Islands were ruled by the Norse for about 500 years until they became part of Scotland in 1468.© 2023 AFP

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