January 08, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

FRANCE

Giving and Taking

French President Emmanuel Macron’s move in late 2018 to increase fuel taxes to fight climate change sparked unrest among the so-called “yellow vests,” who staged demonstrations against the tax and high living costs in general.

Macron responded with a crackdown that some criticized as heavy-handed. “At almost any protest in France now, clouds of tear gas and LBD gunshots or grenade explosions are everywhere, and protesters say the prospect of losing an eye scares people away from marching,” Foreign Policy recently wrote.

Now it appears Macron is taking a different tack.

Mass transit and many other public services have slowed down amid nationwide strikes in response to Macron’s pension plans, according to the Local.

Macron aims to modernize France’s generous social welfare benefits to make the country more business-friendly, seeking to extend retirement age from 62 to 64, for example, and consolidate more than 40 separate pension systems into one. Workers feel as if the changes herald more cuts in the future.

Ballet dancers canceled 11 scheduled performances recently but performed excerpts from Swan Lake on the steps of the Paris Opera in protest against proposed pension cuts. The dancers fear they won’t be able to retire at 42 under Macron’s plan, reported Classical FM digital radio. King Louis XIV introduced their special benefit in 1698.

Macron quickly reversed course, announcing that only new recruits at the opera would come under the new pension system, France 24 reported. The concession was one of many for police, firefighters, rail workers and others who are not on strike, but government officials insisted they were still moving ahead with restructuring the pension system.

The president surely thinks he’s being flexible. His rivals pounced on what they saw as a weakness. “It’s obvious that his plan is coming apart,” union leader Yves Veyrier said in Agence France-Presse, calling for Macron to drop his proposals. “You can see that it doesn’t work for different sectors, whether it’s pilots, firefighters, opera dancers.”

Even his former mentor, economist Jacques Attali, has expressed doubts about Macron’s agenda. “This is a necessary reform, but it only makes sense if it’s perfectly fair and credible over time,” he told the Telegraph. “That is not the case.”

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has been the administration’s point person on the reforms. But Macron has come under pressure for not speaking out, the Guardian reported, forcing him to make the issue central to his televised New Year’s Eve address. In his speech, he stood by his reforms but said he would seek a compromise.

His pension plan might change so much as to have failed, but Macron is living up to his pledge of disrupting French complacency.

WANT TO KNOW

SYRIA

Jockeying for Position

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Syria on Tuesday amid heightened tensions in the Middle East, following the killing of an Iranian general by a US drone strike earlier this week, Reuters reported.

Putin met with Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the recent developments in the area and plans to “eliminate terrorism” in the Idlib region, one of the last pieces of territory held by anti-Assad insurgents.

Russian and Iranian support helped Assad maintain power and win back nearly all of Syria’s territory, after rebels tried to overthrow him during the Syrian civil war that began nearly nine years ago.

The visit comes a few days after the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was one of the key figures during the civil conflict and the architect of Iranian military operations in the Middle East.

Analysts believe that Putin’s visit – his second since Moscow’s direct intervention in the conflict – is intended to reinforce Russia’s position in Syria, since Iran’s position has weakened after the death of Soleimani.

Iran and Russia have cooperated to beat back the anti-Assad insurgency. However, occasional tensions between them have led analysts to believe that the two nations are vying for influence in Syria.

SPAIN

Minority Rule

Spain’s caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday allowing him to form a minority government with the far-left Podemos party, the BBC reported.

His victory was made possible thanks to abstentions from Catalan and Basque lawmakers.

This will be the first time that Spain has a coalition government since democracy was restored in 1978 after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

The new coalition aims to raise income taxes for those who earn more than $145,000 annually and reverse some labor market reforms that made it easier to fire workers.

Sanchez also promised Catalonia’s largest separatist party, the ERC, that his government will hold a formal dialogue on the future of Catalonia.

Following two inconclusive elections last year, Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) came first in the November elections but failed to secure a majority of seats in parliament.

His coalition with Podemos, however, only resulted in 155 seats in the 350-seat fragmented parliament, which could make the passing of legislation difficult.

PHILIPPINES

Falling Short

The vice president of the Philippines announced earlier this week that President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs has failed to curb the country’s drug problem and needs to be reformed, Al Jazeera reported.

Vice President Leni Robredo said Duterte’s brutal crackdown only seized about one percent of the estimated supply of methamphetamine in the last three years.

She added that the government also failed to capture the big suppliers, arguing that the campaign should be more strategic, better organized and closely supervised in all aspects by the president.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo rejected Robredo’s claims. Panelo said that the president’s program has closed many drug laboratories and arrested important drug lords. However, he did not provide a list of names.

Duterte vowed to get rid of the country’s drug problem when he came to power in 2016, but his policy has led to the deaths of thousands of people.

Official government data reveals that more than 5,500 people have been killed during government operations between July 1, 2016, and November 30, 2019.

Human rights advocates argue that the death toll is at least 27,000 as of June 2019.

DISCOVERIES

Do the Boogie-Woogie

Chimpanzees are very enthusiastic dance partners, according to a new study.

Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto University discovered that chimps would clap their hands, tap their feet and sway their bodies along once music started playing, Sky News reported.

During a series of experiments, the team studied seven chimps who were exposed to six two-minute piano compositions for six days.

The apes showed a very strong sense of rhythm, but male chimpanzees were revealed to be more energetic dancers than their female counterparts.

Scientists further tested the monkeys’ musical inclinations by exposing a 39-year-old male chimp, Akira, to four two-minute musical excerpts for 24 days.

Akira really found his jam: His movements were more expressive and he would stay longer in the area where music was playing.

While the results revealed that chimps got moves, the authors noted that the study also sheds light as to how humans came to appreciate melodies.

Researchers believe that urge to dance is much older and dates back to the common ancestor from which all humans and chimps descended.

“These results suggest that prerequisites for music and dance are deeply rooted and existed in the common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees, approximately six million years ago,” the team wrote.