The World Today for February 14, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

The Lesser Evil

As France’s first-round presidential elections in April inch closer, three candidates have emerged. All of them are mired in scandal.

Former frontrunner and conservative François Fillon, prime minister from 2007 until 2012, had been leading in the polls until a newspaper report revealed that he’d paid his wife, Penelope, around $900,000 over 15 years for work she purportedly didn’t perform. He’s also accused of spreading the wealth to his college-aged children.

While Fillon claims the accusations were baseless, party elites from his conservative Republicans are scrambling for a plan B: 68 percent of French voters think Fillon should step down. But he’s made clear he won’t stop unless formal charges come to pass.

The centrist former economic minister Emmanuel Macron moved to the top spot in polls after Fillon’s fall. But his golden boy image, youth and charisma aren’t helping him with a more salacious scandal than Fillon’s.

Earlier this week, rumors emerged that Macron had had an extramarital affair with French radio magnate Mathieu Gallet. He brushed off the claims.

“If you’re told I lead a double life with Mr. Gallet it’s because my hologram has escaped,” Macron announced to supporters, Reuters reported.

Despite his troubles, pro-EU Macron is still the heavy favorite for May’s second-round elections.

Still, the candidate on everyone’s radar is the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, whose fiery, populist, anti-European rhetoric and vehement sentiments against Islam have lifted her party from obscurity.

“We do not want to live under the rule or threat of Islamic fundamentalism,” said Le Pen after officially declaring her candidacy earlier this week. “They are looking to impose on us gender discrimination in public places, full body veils or not, prayer rooms in the workplace, prayers in the streets, huge mosques … or the submission of women.”

Le Pen, the successor of her estranged father’s party, has piggybacked off of the election of President Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum, speaking to working-class citizens insecure about the safety of the world’s sixth largest economy in an increasingly globalizing world.

But Le Pen, who pegs herself as the people’s candidate, is under investigation for fraud herself, Politico reported last month.

Similar to her competitor Fillon, Le Pen’s party stands accused of misallocating funds to parliamentary assistants while in the European Parliament.

Three imperfect candidates in turbulent times for Europe. French voters will have to choose for themselves who among them represents the lesser evil.

WANT TO KNOW

No Dice

Moscow piped in on behalf of national security adviser Mike Flynn on Monday, saying he never improperly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

“We have already said there have not been any such talks,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov about conversations between Flynn and Kislyak involving rolling back sanctions imposed by President Obama, Russian news agency, TASS reported.

“Obviously every ambassador informs (Moscow) about all the contacts he has so the information gets to us, but we are not willing to comment on internal discussions being held in Washington,” he added.

But Russia’s unusual comments about a diplomatic interaction – it goes against diplomatic protocol to detail such meetings – were not enough to save Flynn’s job. Late Monday, Trump’s national security adviser resigned in an attempt to quell controversy over “misleading statements” about his potentially illegal contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, the Washington Post reported.

Vice Squad President

The US accused the vice president of Venezuela of drug trafficking and imposed sanctions that make it illegal for anyone in the United States to do business with him, while freezing any assets he has in the US.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said evidence from a multi-year investigation indicates that Vice President Tareck El Aissami has played a “significant role in international narcotics trafficking,” CNN reported.

The Treasury Department alleged El Aissami facilitated shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms of narcotics from Venezuela to Mexico and the US on multiple occasions. It also alleged that the vice president and former interior and justice minister coordinated drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, and provided protection to a Colombian drug lord.

“OFAC’s action today … demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” CNN quoted the acting director of OFAC as saying.

He’s not behind bars, of course. But analysts say the move signals Trump plans to take a tough line as he deals with crisis-plagued Venezuela.

Calming Dissent

A Hong Kong court found seven police officers guilty of police brutality on Tuesday in a case involving the beating of a handcuffed democracy activist during a public protest in 2014.

District court judge David Dufton said in a written summary that all seven officers were “guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm,” but were found not guilty of the more serious charge of causing grievous bodily harm, Reuters reported.

China takes a tough line against dissent – recently barring Hong Kong legislators from taking office after they used an oath-taking ceremony as an opportunity to express support for the returned colony’s future independence. But police brutality is rare. The case sparked outrage and increased sympathy for the student-led protests, which paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for 79 days and posed one of the greatest challenges to the central government in Beijing in decades, the agency said.

The guilty verdict may help to assuage local residents’ fears that the city is losing its freedoms. But it remains to be seen what sentences will be handed down.

DISCOVERIES

Attention Hog

Due to increased attention from parents, first-born children appear to have greater reasoning skills than their siblings.

Published recently in the Journal of Human Resources, the study analyzed the mental capabilities of nearly 5,000 children from before birth through age 14.

Scientists sought to analyze the so-called birth-order effect, a sociological principal claiming that children born earlier make greater economic and educational strides than their siblings.

The results confirmed the principle, the Guardian reports: Firstborns indeed scored higher on an array of comprehension tests, including vocabulary.

But researchers claim it’s not because first-borns are naturally smarter than their siblings. Rather, the study found that parents participated increasingly less in mentally stimulating tasks like arts and crafts as they had more children.

“Our results suggest that broad shifts in parental behavior are a plausible explanation for the observed birth order differences in education and labor market outcomes,” said Ana Nuevo-Chiquero of Edinburgh University’s school of economics.

So first-borns aren’t necessarily smarter. They’re just attention hogs.

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