- 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.
U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.
The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.
New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle
A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.
Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.
In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.
The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.
Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.
However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased.
In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.
High Court Ruling
The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.
If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.
Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.
U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe
The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.
More Information About Omicron
Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.
One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.
Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa — where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.
Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.
In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.
Studies on Vaccine Efficacy
Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.
On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.
According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses.
By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.
Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.
Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox
The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Camels Booted From Beauty Contest
More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.
The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.
However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”
Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.
An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.
“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”
While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.
In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.