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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

South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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Toyota Largely Pulls Olympic Sponsorship Ads Amid Calls for Games To Be Canceled

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Locals in Japan are particularly worried about the spread of COVID-19 among athletes at the densely packed Olympic village, something that has already happened despite assurances that it wouldn’t.


Tainted View on Olympics

The Olympic Games continued to face controversy Monday after Toyota, one of the event’s largest sponsors, announced that it would not air any commercials featuring the Olympics in Japan.

The news may come as a surprise since companies often view their ties to one of the world’s largest sporting events as a major selling point and public relations win. However, Toyota’s decision to distance itself instead highlights a growing trend among brands and locals who view the Games as a semi-toxic subject, especially in Japan where most of the population would like the Games canceled or postponed.

The controversy around the Olympic Games largely revolves around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to host the Games despite rising cases in Japan, concerns about new variants of the virus, and low vaccination rates due to a slow rollout.

Despite Toyota’s recent decision, the company has provided invaluable support to organizers of the Games, including over 3,000 vehicles to transport athletes, crews, and staff. Additionally, the company continues to showcase individual Olympic athletes that it directly sponsors in competitions on its website.

Cardboard “Anti-Sex” Beds

Growing COVID concerns have many on edge, often causing jokes to be taken seriously and spread as misinformation. One such case involved the decision by organizers to use cardboard beds for athletes. Paul Chelimo, from the United States’ track and field team, joked on Twitter, “Beds to be installed in Tokyo Olympic Village will be made of cardboard, this is aimed at avoiding intimacy among athletes.”

“Beds will be able to withstand the weight of a single person to avoid situations beyond sports. I see no problem for distance runners, even 4 of us can do.”

While many understood the statement to be a joke, outlets quickly ran with the sentiment that the beds were actually designed to prevent sex between athletes. Headlines from publications like the New York Post, for instance, read, “Athletes to sleep on ‘anti-sex’ cardboard beds at Olympic Games amid COVID.”

The situation was largely put to rest after Irish gymnast Rhys McClenaghan posted a video jumping on the beds to prove they were perfectly suited for any activity. Officials at the Games went on to clarify that the decision to use cardboard was because it was a cheap, sustainable option that was easy to dispose of after the games without creating much waste.

The fact that the cardboard beds might prove awkward for athletes to use for sex could be a happy accident for the Olympic organizers, as they’ve made it clear that they don’t want attendees having sex to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. They’ve even gone so far as to threaten athletes who have sex during the games with penalties.

In an effort to further dissuade athletes from hanging outside of their dorms or with others, the use of alcohol has largely been banned. Athletes are allowed to have it in their rooms but are supposed to enjoy it while alone.

For many, proof that the Games can’t be protected against COVID-19 has already presented itself, despite assurances from organizers like IOC president Thomas Bach — who said there was “Zero” risk of transmission between athletes and Japanese staff. At least 61 people at the Olympic village have reported contracting COVID since arriving, including at least one U.S. athlete and Japanese workers at the village.

Non-political Games Rocked by Political Tit-for-Tats

The Games have also been rocked with other problems, especially involving Japan and its neighbors.

Korea was forced to take down flags that it had hung from its Olympic Village dorms that read “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people.” The phrase was borrowed from Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who said, “I still have 12 battleships left,” prior to a lopsided 16th-century naval victory against Japan in the Imjin War.” The phrasing drew outrage from right-wing Japanese groups who asked the International Olympic Committee to have Korea remove the quasi-political statement.

Korea agreed, but only if Japan agreed to use the Rising Sun flag, a standard used by Imperial-era Japan and the Japanese Navy. It’s also one that is often viewed by many East Asians as a symbol as controversial as the Nazi flag is for Westerners.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Associated Press) (ABC News)

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