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Thousands Paralyze France in Pension Reform Protests

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  • Massive worker strikes and protests have shut down schools, transportation services, and museums in France.
  • Though largely peaceful, there have been reports of protesters throwing projectiles at police, smashing windows, and setting fires.
  • The strike, which is expected to last into the weekend, is in protest of planned pension reforms proposed by President Emmanuel Macron. 
  • Under Macron’s policy, many workers fear they would need to work longer before accessing a pension that would ultimately give them less money.

Strikes Shut Down Trains, Flights, and Schools

Hundreds of thousands of French workers went on strike across the country on Thursday in protest of a proposed new pension reform system.

Under the new system, many unions worry people will need to work longer to see less money than they would under the current system. 

As of midday, French officials are reporting that more than 280,000 people have joined protests across the country; however, that figure doesn’t include counts from major cities like Paris and Lyon.

The protests, which are expected to continue Friday and likely to extend into the weekend, have shut down train lines and canceled flights.  

According to reports, 90% of high-speed and inter-city trains have been canceled. In Paris, only five of 16 of the city’s metro lines ran Thursday. Further, the international train company Eurostar said it will be operating with a reduced timetable until Tuesday.

Air France has also canceled 30% of domestic flights and 10% of short-haul international flights, that coming amid mass walkouts by air traffic controllers.

If all of that wasn’t enough to cripple transportation, one group is reportedly drawing over the QR codes on e-scooters like Bird so that people can’t use them. 

Additionally, according to the education ministry, half of primary school teachers and 42% of secondary school teachers are on strike today. The end result led to some school closing for the day. 

Tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower and museums were also closed, but more notably, many feared hospital staffing shortages as many medical workers walked out to demonstrate. 

For their part, several trade union leaders have promised to continue to strike until Macron abandons his planned pension overhaul.

Reports of Violence

In Paris alone, 6,000 police have been deployed. Reports indicate that 71 people have been arrested in Paris by 3:30 p.m. local time.

With those arrests, there have also been several reports of clashing between police and protesters, with protesters hurling projectiles at police. Police in several cities have since responded with tear gas. 

Videos of protesters setting fires to object in the streets have also surfaced. 

Because the protest in Paris is so huge, the city’s police chief told all businesses and restaurants along the major march routes to close. Later within the day, new reports surfaced that some protesters had smashed in the windows of some businesses.

French President Emmanuel Macron, however, was described by one senior official as “calm and determined” in the face of the strikes —

Macron is “watchful that public order be respected, watchful as to the difficulties for French people, and watchful also that the right to strike is respected,” the aide said.

Why is France Considering Pension Reform?

Currently, France has 42 different pension systems across both the private and public sectors. That means that people retire at different times and will see different benefits. 

Under different forms of the system, for example, aircrews and rail workers get to retire earlier, but people like lawyers and doctors pay a lower tax.

The official age of retirement in France is 62, which is one of the earliest retirement ages in wealthy countries, but that hurdle has already been raised from 60 within the last decade. 

Macron, who campaigned on the promise of pension reform, now says he wants to introduce a universal, points-based pension system. While Macron says such a pension system would help the country compete globally in the 21st century, such a system would mean that some of the most advantageous pension plans would be scrapped. 

Secondly, if a person were to retire before 64, they would end up seeing a lower pension. For example, if they retire at 63, they would see about 5% less.

French people, however, have generally supported pension reform, with one poll showing 75% of people saying they believed pension reform was necessary. Of those polled, only one-third of people said they thought the government could pull off reform.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times) (NPR)

International

Israel Relaxes Abortion Restrictions in Response to U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

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The reforms follow similar moves by France and Germany as leaders across the political spectrum denounce the court’s decision.


Health Minister Makes Announcement

Israel is easing access to abortion in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, Nitzan Horowitz, the country’s health minister and head of the small left-wing Meretz party, announced Monday.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s move to deny a woman the right to abortion is a dark move,” he said in the announcement, “oppressing women and returning the leader of the free and liberal world a hundred years backward.”

The new rules, approved by a majority in the parliamentary committee, grant women access to abortion pills through the universal health system. Women will be able to obtain the pills at local health centers rather than only hospitals and surgical clinics.

The new policy also removes the decades-old requirement for women to physically appear before a special committee that must grant approval to terminate a pregnancy.

While women will still need to get approval, the process will become digitized, the application form will be simplified, and the requirement to meet a social worker will become optional.

The committee will only conduct hearings in the rare case it initially denies the abortion procedure.

Israel’s 1977 abortion law stipulates four criteria for termination of pregnancy: If the woman is under 18 or over 40, if the fetus is in danger, if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest, or an “illicit union,” including extramarital affairs, and if the woman’s mental or physical health is at risk.

All of the changes will take effect over the next three months.

The World Reacts

Politicians across the political spectrum from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision since it was announced Friday.

On Saturday, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed support for a bill proposed by parliament that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the country’s constitution.

“For all women, for human rights, we must set this gain in stone,” she wrote on Twitter. “Parliament must be able to unite overwhelmingly over this text.”

Germany scrapped a Nazi-era law prohibiting the promotion of abortion Friday, just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In Israel, abortion is a far less controversial issue than it is for Americans. Around 98% of people who apply for an abortion get one, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Part of the reason for Israel’s relatively easy access to abortion is that many residents interpret Jewish law to condone, or at least not prohibit, the procedure.

In the United States, several Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Committee, Hillel International, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network have expressed opposition to the court ruling, and some Jews have protested it as a violation of their religious freedom.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (ABC News) (The Guardian)

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Flight Deporting Refugees From U.K. to Rwanda Canceled at Last Hour

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said the U.K.’s asylum policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.


Saved By The Bell

The inaugural flight in the U.K. government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda was canceled about an hour and a half before it was supposed to take off Tuesday evening.

A last-minute legal intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) halted the flight. Tuesday’s flight originally included 37 people, but after a string of legal challenges that number dwindled to just seven.

In its ruling for one of the seven passengers, a 54-year-old Iraqi man, the court said he cannot be deported until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings.

Another asylum seeker, a 26-year-old Albanian man, told The Guardian he was in a “very bad mental state” and did not want to go to Rwanda, a country he knows nothing about.

“I was exploited by traffickers in Albania for six months,” he said. “They trafficked me to France. I did not know which country I was being taken to.”

A final domestic effort to block the flight in the Court of Appeals failed on Monday. The High Court will make a ruling on the asylum policy next month.

Britains Divided by Controversial Policy

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel spoke to lawmakers after the flight was canceled, defending the asylum policy and saying preparations for the next flight will begin immediately.

“We cannot keep on spending nearly £5 million a day on accommodation including that of hotels,” she said. “We cannot accept this intolerable pressure on public services and local communities.”

“It makes us less safe as a nation because those who come here illegally do not have the regularized checks or even the regularized status, and because evil people-smuggling gangs use the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains to fund other appalling crimes that undermine the security of our country,” she continued.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, told CBC the policy sets a “catastrophic” precedent.

“We believe that this is all wrong,” he said. “This is all wrong. I mean, saving people from dangerous journeys is great, is absolutely great. But is that the right way to do it? Is that the right, is that the real motivation for this deal to happen? I don’t think so. I think it’s… I don’t know what it is.”

An Iranian asylum seeker in a British detention center who was told to prepare for deportation before being granted a late reprieve was asked by ABC whether he ever thought the U.K. would send him to Africa.

“I thought in the U.K. there were human rights,” he said. “But so far I haven’t seen any evidence.”

The Conservative government’s plan was announced in April, when it said it would resettle some asylum seekers 4,000 miles away in Rwanda, where they can seek permanent refugee status, apply to settle there on other grounds, or seek asylum in a safe third country.

The scheme was meant to deter migrants from illegally smuggling themselves into the country by boat or truck.

Migrants have long made the dangerous journey from Northern France across the English Channel, with over 28,000 entering the U.K. in boats last year, up from around 8,500 the year prior. Dozens of people have died making the trek, including 27 who drowned last November when a single boat capsized.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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Ryanair Draws Outrage, Accusations of Racism After Making South Africans Take Test in Afrikaans

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Afrikaans, which is only spoken as a first language by around 13% of South Africa, has not been the country’s national language since apartheid came to an end in 1994.


Airline Won’t Explain Discrimination

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, has received widespread criticism and accusations of racism after it began requiring South African nationals to complete a test in Afrikaans to prove their passport isn’t fraudulent.

The airline told BBC the new policy was implemented because of “substantially increased cases of fraudulent South African passports being used to enter the U.K.”

Among other questions, the test asks passengers to name South Africa’s president, its capital city, and one national public holiday.

Ryanair has not said why it chose Afrikaans, the Dutch colonial language that many associate with white minority rule, for the test.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and Afrikaans ranks third for usage below Zulu and IsiXhosa. Only around 13% of South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language.

“They’re using this in a manner that is utterly absurd,” Conrad Steenkamp, CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council, told reporters. “Afrikaans, you have roughly 20% of the population of South Africa understand Afrikaans. But the rest don’t, so you’re sitting with roughly 50 million people who do not understand Afrikaans.”

“Ryanair should be careful,” he continued. “Language is a sensitive issue. They may well end up in front of the Human Rights Commission with this.”

Ryanair’s policy only applies to South African passengers flying to the United Kingdom from within Europe, since it does not fly out of South Africa.

The British government has said in a statement that it does not require the test.

Anyone who cannot complete the test will be blocked from traveling and given a refund.

Memories of Apartheid Resurface

“The question requiring a person to name a public holiday is particularly on the nose given that SA has a whole public holiday NEXT WEEK commemorating an historic protest that started in response to language-based discrimination,” one person tweeted.

South African citizen Dinesh Joseph told the BBC that he was “seething” with anger when asked to take the test.

“It was the language of apartheid,” he said, adding that it was a trigger for him.

Officials in the country were also surprised by Ryanair’s decision.

We are taken aback by the decision of this airline because the Department regularly communicates with all airlines to update them on how to validate South African passports, including the look and feel,” South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.

Any airline found to have flown a passenger with a fake passport to the U.K. faces a fine of £2,000 from authorities there. Ryanair has also not said whether it requires similar tests for any other nationalities.

Many people expressed outrage at Ryanair’s policy and some told stories of being declined service because they did not pass the test.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (BBC) (Al Jazeera)

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