The World Today for February 17, 2023

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Les Misérables


It’s an age-old battle in France: French leaders want more work out of their constituents. Workers, meanwhile, say “non.”

“We’re worn out by work,” pensioner Bernard Chevalier said in an interview with Reuters. “Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death.”

Numerous French leaders have tried to fiddle with the retirement age – politicians of all stripes agree something has to change. But such attempts usually produce a flood of strikes, protests, and outrage, as it did on Thursday.

The problem is, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to make the country more competitive internationally. He has proposed raising the retirement age by two years to 64, and hiking the number of years workers must remain on the job to receive a pension.

Now, as French citizens protest in the streets, unions hold strikes and lawmakers balk, the country’s economy and political system have been immobilized. Public transportation, schools, refineries and other businesses were shuttered twice over the past month. Other groups, like farmers protesting bans on pesticides, have entered the fray with their expressions of discontent, the Associated Press added.

“We live in a productivity-obsessed society that is preoccupied with economic growth and which has been destroying our planet for decades,” Rose, a 16-year-old high school student who recently took to the streets to condemn the proposal, told France 24. “Now we’re being asked to work for two more years so we can produce even more. This system is wrecking our planet – it’s normal to rebel against it.”

Macron and defenders of the policy say the country’s social welfare net is buckling under a system where too few young workers are generating funds to pay for payments to retirees, Al Jazeera reported. As Radio France Internationale wrote, Macron’s plan is to plug the French pension system’s structural deficit by 2030 with almost $20 billion in savings.

France has one of the earliest retirement ages in the Western world – most other European nations have pegged retirement at 65, and many like Germany have upped that age over the past decade. Meanwhile, France has one of the most generous pension systems, too.

Still, many Europeans retire earlier than their country’s official retirement age. For example, although the official retirement age is 67, German men retire at an average age of 63.1 years and women at 63.2, according to the OECD. In France, the average age at which men and women retire is 60.

Still, as the Economist noted, “Like the 35-hour working week, the lowering of the retirement age in France has become part of national mythology: the celebration of progress towards a better society in which the burden of work is eased.”

Macron’s plan is decidedly violating that national mythology, analysts say.

Still, French officials had hoped that momentum against the measure would have petered out after a few days of civil unrest. Instead, as the Local explained in an analysis, the government has lost public support. Polls suggest that two-thirds of the country dislike the measure.

Nationwide demonstrations have drawn more than a million people.

The Local warned that Macron’s governing coalition in parliament could get “cold feet” as the debates over the plan continue to rage. Already, for example, women’s advocates are carving out concessions for women who postponed career advancement to start families. And Macron is already making concessions.

Exacerbating the challenge is that Macron’s political party, Renaissance, failed to win a majority in legislative elections this past summer, the Financial Times reported. In coalition with two other parties he can count on 250 members of parliament – the largest bloc – but needs 289 votes to pass the laws, which Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne must still muster.

Macron and his friends will have to work much harder if they want their constituents to do the same.


Cash Crunch


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari extended the deadline to turn in older banknotes after cash shortages in the country sparked anger and riots just over a week before Nigeria’s highly anticipated general elections, Al Jazeera noted.

Last year, Nigeria’s central bank began circulating newly designed notes: 1,000 ($2.17) 500 ($1.08), and 200 ($0.43) naira. The deadline for returning old notes had already been extended until Feb. 10 – after which point they were to become illegal.

But Buhari extended the deadline to April 10 because many of the new notes were in short supply, leading to long lines and chaotic scenes at banks across the country.

On Thursday, local media reported that angry citizens vandalized ATMs in southern Nigeria to protest cash shortages, Agence France-Presse noted.

Most of Nigeria’s economy is still informal and many people rely on cash for transactions because they don’t have bank accounts or use banking apps.

Buhari and the central bank have defended the initiative, saying it will lead to more transparency and curb money laundering.

Even so, some politicians have criticized the timing of the new currency’s introduction in the run-up to the Feb. 25 elections, noting that campaigns are funded by cash that is mostly hard to trace.

Meanwhile, state governments have challenged the central bank in court, requesting that the scheme be suspended and Nigerians be allowed to use both the old and new notes until the banks can deliver enough cash.

Last week, the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling, saying that old notes are still legal tender until it reviews a challenge submitted by some state governments.

Weaponizing Taxes


Indian tax officials raided the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai this week, soon after the British broadcaster aired a documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, NPR reported.

Dozens of tax officials entered the broadcaster’s newsrooms, seizing laptops, financial documents and phones of employees as part of an income tax “survey.”

The searches came a few weeks after the BBC aired “India: The Modi Question,” a two-part documentary that examined the prime minister’s role in the 2002 communal riots in the western state of Gujarat, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslim.

The documentary raised issues about Modi’s actions – he was the state’s chief minister at the time – and claimed he was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” that enabled the violence, according to the Voice of America.

The Indian government condemned the documentary as “propaganda” and banned it from being shown in India. Officials ordered social media platforms to remove links to it, using the country’s emergency powers.

Although tax officials said the survey was not vindictive, journalists and human rights groups quickly criticized the government’s move as a “clear-cut case of vendetta.”

They noted that Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has previously used tax fraud cases against other media and human rights organizations that have criticized it in the past.

Amnesty International had to suspend operations in India in 2020 when authorities froze its bank accounts due to alleged financial irregularities.

Last year, India ranked 150th out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, its lowest ranking ever.

‘Death, Inside the Bones’


World-renowned Chilean poet and Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda died of poisoning just days after the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power, according to a recent forensic report that challenges the state’s long-held position about the writer’s death as having been “natural”, Quartz reported.

An international forensic team delivered the report to a top Chilean judge this week after examining bone and tooth samples from Neruda’s exhumed body.

Neruda’s nephew Rodolfo Reyes shared some of the details of the report, saying that scientists found clostridium botulinum while examining Neruda’s remains, a neurotoxin they said caused the poet’s death.

He added that the findings validate what he has been saying for 50 years – that his uncle was poisoned in a hospital shortly after the coup that removed socialist President Salvador Allende, NPR added.

The report – which will become available to the public next month – challenges the official version that Neruda died of prostate cancer. There have been suggestions that Pinochet poisoned Neruda – an ally of Allende – to prevent a political challenge from the left-wing writer, a critic and member of the communist party.

Public pressure over the cause of death increased in 2011 when the writer’s driver publicly recounted Neruda telling him that he had been injected with a foreign substance into his stomach just hours before his death.

Neruda’s relatives are hoping to open a criminal investigation into his death, which observers say would make him one of more than 40,000 political dissidents who were brutally tortured and murdered during Pinochet’s tenure.


This week, Russia said it breached areas of Ukrainian defenses in the eastern Luhansk region, while Ukraine’s military said it had countered most attacks, although admitting the situation remains difficult, Radio Free Europe reported. Fighting intensified on Wednesday as NATO defense ministers gathered for a second day to review the situation even as Ukraine begged Western countries to speed up the supply of weaponry. Meanwhile, as the one-year anniversary of the conflict approaches, Ukraine is bracing for a fresh offensive by the Russians.

Also this week:

  • According to a recent report released in the US, at least 6,000 Ukrainian children have spent the past year in Russian “re-education” camps, with hundreds being kept there for months in spite of set return dates, the Guardian wrote.
  • Moldovan President Maia Sandu outlined Monday what she described as a plot by Moscow to use external saboteurs to overthrow her country’s government, put the nation “at the disposal of Russia,” and derail its aspirations to join the European Union, the Associated Press reported. Russia rejected the accusations as “completely unfounded and unsubstantiated,” adding that they were based on the “classical techniques often used by the United States, other Western countries and Ukraine,” Newsweek added.
  • Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian private military company the Wagner Group, admitted to forming the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an infamous troll farm sanctioned by the US government for interfering in American elections, the Washington Post reported. Prigozhin – who according to US government estimates has sent 50,000 fighters to Ukraine, many of them recruited from prisons – boasted in November that he was intervening in the US midterm congressional elections and intends to do so in the future. Still, there is mounting evidence suggesting that the Kremlin has moved to curb what it sees as the excessive political clout of Prigozhin, including ordering him to desist from criticizing Russia’s defense ministry and stripping him of the right to recruit convicts from prisons, according to Reuters.
  • Russia’s state media watchdog has unveiled a program to scour the Internet for banned content, as the government continues its wartime censorship efforts, according to the Moscow Times. The web crawler, nicknamed Oculus, can recognize videos and photographs of demonstrators, “positive depictions” of LGBTQ+ culture, and memes attacking President Vladimir Putin.
  • Russia will reduce crude oil production by 500,000 barrels per day starting in March, just two months after the world’s major economies imposed a price cap on the country’s seaborne exports, CNN noted. The reduction is roughly equivalent to five percent of Russian oil output. The reduction in Russian oil supplies will increase competition for barrels from other sources, such as the Middle East, that the EU, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries presently require.
  • Meanwhile, the EU added Russia to its tax haven blacklist, the latest in a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Moscow since its invasion of Ukraine, Agence France-Presse added. Even so, the Swiss government said on Wednesday that confiscating private Russian assets would violate the Swiss constitution and the existing legal order, citing the findings of a working group formed by the Federal Office of Justice, Reuters noted. Switzerland froze Russian financial assets worth $8.13 billion in December to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
  • Argentina is concerned about the significant number of pregnant Russian women who have recently entered the nation to give birth in order to gain an Argentine passport for their child and accelerate their own claims to citizenship, noting that three Russian spies who were recently arrested in Slovenia were citizens of the South American country, the Associated Press wrote.


Dying for Love

Males of different species use sometimes ingenious and often odd wooing techniques on females: For example, crickets turn leaves into megaphones to boost their mating calls.

But Australia’s northern quoll takes it to a new level: The males go to dangerous lengths to find a mate, including sleeping less and exhausting themselves by walking long distances, NBC News reported.

The small carnivorous rodents, a marsupial species, are considered endangered due to habitat loss and other factors. Unfortunately, a new study found that the males’ extreme mating behavior is not really helping the species’ survivability.

Males are so-called “suicidal reproducers” that die after a single mating season, while females continue to live and breed for as long as four years.

To determine why the males die young, a research team fitted tiny backpacks with trackers onto both male and female quolls on the island of Groote Eylandt to monitor their behavior.

They then used an algorithm to analyze hours of recorded footage and found that males exhaust themselves so much they fail to find enough food or stay alert to avoid predators.

The exhaustion and sleep deprivation cause them to lose weight, as well as become more reckless and vulnerable to parasites.

While some animal species also put their energy into one breeding season – known as semelparity – the quoll is the largest mammal to do it.

“‘Live fast, die young’ is certainly the way of things for these species,” said Australian mammal researcher Jack Ashby, who was not involved in the study. “However, that maxim typically ends, ‘… and leave a good-looking corpse.’ This is definitely not what happens here.”

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