The World Today for March 29, 2024

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The Return

SPAIN

A plan to forgive Catalan separatists in Spain might have seemed like a political masterstroke when it was first conceived, but the future for Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his minority government in Madrid is still far from certain.

The exiled leader of the Catalan separatist movement, Carles Puigdemont, recently announced that he might return to Spain from Belgium, where he serves as a member of the European Parliament, to run for president of Catalonia, reported Reuters.

Sánchez could hardly welcome the news. As the Associated Press described, Sánchez offered Catalan separatists the amnesty after Catalan parties offered to support his bid to remain in power after a general election in July.

The amnesty forgave anyone who participated in Catalan independence activities between November 2011 and 2023, according to the Jurist. Puigdemont fled Spain in 2017 after organizing a referendum on Catalan succession that the Spanish central government did not recognize. The referendum prompted Spanish authorities to impose direct rule on the region, prompting protests and clashes.

Writing in the New York Times, author Omar Encarnación portrayed the amnesty as a bold, brave move that would advance “peace and reconciliation” in the Southern European kingdom.

But soon after the amnesty was announced, the current president of the autonomous region of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, called for a snap vote for local leaders after he failed to pass a regional budget by one vote. Now Sánchez might need to delay the adoption of a budget for the central government as the Catalan members of his ruling coalition campaign – potentially with Puigdemont – haggle for more power at home.

Sánchez pulled a rabbit out of his hat after the vote, deftly coming in second at the polls but outmaneuvering his opposition rivals, the conservative Popular Party, and far-right Vox political party, explained Word Politics Review. Popular Party leaders have characterized the amnesty move as a divisive example of Sánchez’s opportunistic style.

Aragonès, meanwhile, could not pass a budget in part because he could not convince separatists in the Catalan parliament that he was working hard enough to secure independence from officials in Madrid, Agence France-Presse noted.

The Catalan president is open about his hopes and dreams for his nation, however. “That new stage needs to be based on bringing about a jointly agreed referendum,” said Aragonès in a story in the Guardian. “And those best placed to stand up for an agreed referendum are those of us who’ve banked on dialogue and negotiation in an honest way.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Going Hair Neutral

FRANCE

France’s lower house of parliament passed a bill Thursday banning discrimination based on the texture, length, color, or style of an individual’s hair, a measure that if passed, would make the country the first country to ban such a form of discrimination, the Associated Press reported.

The bill’s supporters hope the measure sends a message of support to Black people and others who have faced hostility in the workplace and elsewhere because of their hair, the newswire wrote.

Authors of the proposal, which mirrors similar legislation in 24 US states, explained it was necessary to solidify existing laws against discrimination, citing a Black flight attendant for Air France who was prevented from doing his job because he sported braids.

Gauging hair-based discrimination is difficult in France because the country’s constitution bans collecting data on race, because of its fierce protection of the principles of secularism, France 24 wrote.

Those principles have led to French bans on the wearing of headscarves worn by some Muslim women in certain public institutions such as schools.

On Wednesday, that ban resulted in a case filed against a teenage girl, the BBC reported.

France’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the government would file suit against the girl for falsely accusing her high school principal of hitting her after the principal asked that she remove her headscarf in school.

On Feb. 28, the principal of Paris’s Maurice Ravel high school demanded three students remove their hijab. One of the teenagers, who refused to comply, told local newspaper Le Parisien that the principal “pushed” her and hit her “violently on the arm,” which the principal denied.

The pupil sued the principal for acts of violence, but the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, the principal received death threats via social media and he quit after decades as an educator, Franceinfo reported.

France’s schools have been on edge in recent years because of rising threats since the murders of two teachers in 2020 and 2023 by extremists. In 2020, Samuel Paty, a high school teacher, was decapitated after showing caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in class.

Stethoscopes and Strikes

SOUTH KOREA

Senior doctors across major hospitals in South Korea resigned en masse this week, in solidarity with striking medical interns and residents, who have been protesting for more than a month against a government proposal to boost medical school admissions, the Los Angeles Times reported.

On Monday, an unspecified number of senior doctors handed in their resignations, a day after representatives of medical professors and doctors at some 40 university hospitals met with governing party leader Han Dong-hoon to resolve the ongoing strike.

South Korea has been gripped by a doctors’ strike for five weeks, which has seen hospitals reduce their services, including canceling surgeries and other treatments. The walkout began over the government’s plan to increase medical school admissions by two-thirds.

Doctors oppose the plan, contending that it would strain resources and compromise medical services. But government officials countered that South Korea needs more doctors because of its increasing aging population and a poor doctor-to-population ratio – one of the lowest in the developed world.

In response to the strikes, the government has threatened to suspend the licenses of the striking doctors: Approximately 12,000 interns and residents are facing suspensions for their refusal to halt the strike.

While the senior doctors’ resignations will not immediately impact hospital operations, the ongoing strike has pressured President Yoon Suk Yeol to engage with medical professionals and suggest the softening of punitive steps against the striking junior doctors.

The government’s willingness to lessen punishment and engage in dialogue is seen as a response to the ruling party’s concern over next month’s parliamentary elections.

Opinion polls indicate most South Koreans back the government’s recruitment drive.

However, representatives from university hospitals – where the junior doctors train – have supported the strike, asserting the government’s proposal would jeopardize the medical system.

They welcomed the government’s softening stance but noted that the issue would not be resolved unless the entire plan is withdrawn.

Setting Up the Board

GEORGIA

Georgia’s parliamentary speaker signed off a law this week that will give the country’s legislature more power to pick members of the electoral commission, a move critics say favors the incumbents in the runup to elections in October, Reuters reported.

The bill will allow parliament – dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party – to nominate members of the commission from candidates chosen by parliament’s Speaker, Shalva Papuashvili.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili had initially vetoed the bill, but parliament overrode that veto last week.

Opposition parties have warned that the new law will further entrench Georgian Dream’s dominance over the election, at a time when the government has been accused of becoming more authoritarian.

The ruling party, in power since 2012, remains the most popular. according to opinion polls. However, it has lost ground since the 2020 parliamentary elections, when it secured a narrow majority.

The party is widely believed to be controlled by its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister and Georgia’s richest man.

Zourabichvili – who was elected with the support of the Georgian Dream – has accused the governing party of anti-democratic and pro-Russian tendencies.

Earlier this week, the party proposed a new bill that could severely restrict LGBTQ rights, banning gender changes, same-sex adoption, and public celebrations of same-sex relationships, Politico noted.

Echoing Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws, the draft legislation aims to “protect family values,” but critics called it a bid to court the Georgian Orthodox Church and secure votes in upcoming elections.

DISCOVERIES

Sweeping in the Season

It’s officially spring, which means it’s time to break out the mops and dusters in that annual modern ritual that fills many with dread: The spring clean.

Turns out, ancient humans did this, too, according to National Geographic.

One of the earliest known references to spring cleaning is found in the Jewish tradition of Passover, observed annually each spring. Then, all traces of leavened bread are removed from the home, symbolizing the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt.

Meanwhile, Catholics clean altars in churches on Maundy Thursday ahead of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which is held annually in March or April. And Nowruz – or the Persian New Year – sees millions engaging in “shaking down the house,” cleansing textiles to prepare for the nearly 3,000-year-old holiday that has Zoroastrian roots.

In East Asia, Chinese tradition involves pre-Lunar New Year cleaning to usher in good fortune, with post-celebration cleaning believed to sweep away luck, wrote CNN. In Thailand, meanwhile, during Songkran in April, people deep-clean homes, schools, and public spaces to purify them ahead of the Thai New Year.

Scholars say that many cultures see spring cleaning as a tradition to mark the vibrant growth of spring and the end of the dormant winter.

“With each sweep of the broom and polish of the surface, we honor a tradition that transcends time, uniting us with generations past in a shared pursuit of renewal and rejuvenation,” Danielle Patten of the London-based Museum of the House, told National Geographic.

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