French PM offers to meet opposition, unions amid pension crisis

President Emmanuel Macron inflamed public anger by sending his already unpopular plan to raise the retirement age by two years, from 62 to 64, through parliament without a vote. (AP)
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Updated 26 March 2023

French PM offers to meet opposition, unions amid pension crisis

  • PM pledged not to use constitutional powers to adopt legislation without a vote again except for on budget bills

PARIS: French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne plans to meet with opposition leaders and trade unions in the hope of ending weeks of protests against a new pension law, her office said on Sunday.
Demonstrations against the pension reform, which will raise the retirement age by two years, turned violent after the government pushed through the legislation this month without a final parliamentary vote.
President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out scrapping or delaying the legislation, tasking his prime minister with finding fresh support in parliament after the government failed to find enough votes for the bill.
Borne will meet with political party leaders and also aims to restart dialogue with unions over labor issues, her office said, without mentioning the pension bill.
The prime minister added in an interview with AFP that the meetings with opposition and union leaders would take place in the week starting April 3.
She also pledged not to use constitutional powers to adopt legislation without a vote again except for on budget bills, AFP said.
It is unclear if the government’s attempt to draw a line under the pension crisis will calm a majority of the public hostile to the reform and demonstrators exasperated by the adoption of the legislation without a final vote.
Unions have scheduled a 10th day of nationwide protests against the pension law on Tuesday, after a previous day of action last Thursday saw the most violent clashes yet with police.
The head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, last week proposed that Macron pause the law for six months to seek a possible compromise.

Bangladesh in communications blackout as job quota protests turn deadly

Updated 19 July 2024

Bangladesh in communications blackout as job quota protests turn deadly

  • Mobile internet access blocked, online media, TV channels off air across the country
  • Print newspapers reported on Friday that deadly clashes broke out overnight

DHAKA: Bangladesh went into a nationwide communications blackout on Friday following clashes between police and students that have killed dozens of people in the past few days.

The government announced on Thursday night it was shutting down mobile internet for security reasons as student protestors demanding the removal of government employment quotas were on the streets after authorities sealed their campuses and dorms and suspended all educational institutions.

On Friday morning, television news channels were off air, and most online news websites could not be opened.

Morning headlines and top stories in local dailies estimated that between 24 and 37 people had been killed and hundreds of others injured since the clashes broke out on Sunday between the students, government supporters and security forces.

The actual death toll is feared to be higher, as already on Thursday, students reported 39 deaths. But on Friday, neither student representatives nor local hospital authorities could be reached for comment due to the blackout.

Riot police and at least 2,400 troops from the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh were deployed in the capital, where Dhaka Metropolitan Police banned all gatherings. The forces on the ground were assisted by monitoring helicopters of the Rapid Action Battalion — a counterterrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police.

University students have been demonstrating on campuses since the beginning of July against a rule that reserves a bulk of government jobs for the descendants of those who fought in the country’s 1971 liberation war.

The quota system was abolished by the government after student protests in 2018, but the High Court reinstated it in June, triggering protests.

Under the quota system, 56 percent of public service jobs are reserved for specific groups, including women, marginalized communities and children and grandchildren of freedom fighters — for whom the government earmarks 30 percent of the posts.

More than a fourth of Bangladesh’s 170 million population were people aged between 15 and 29. The unemployment rate is the highest in this group, contributing 83 percent of the total unemployed people in the country.

The quotas for well-paid government jobs hit them directly.

Dr. Rasheda Rawnak Khan, associate professor at Dhaka University, said the issue could have been solved long before the outbreak of the ongoing protests.

“It should have been solved in a prompt manner as the matter is related to the youths,” she told Arab News.

“Probably the state here failed to read the pulses of the youth.”

Why Saudi Arabia, UAE top young Indian globetrotters’ destination lists

Updated 19 July 2024

Why Saudi Arabia, UAE top young Indian globetrotters’ destination lists

  • Survey shows young wealthy Indians increasingly drawn to Gulf countries
  • Travelers are drawn to natural sights, adventure sports, and luxury

NEW DELHI: When Ajinkya Bhat traveled to Saudi Arabia, one of the most memorable views was the Edge of the World — a geological wonder in the desert northwest of Riyadh.

Located some 100 km from the capital, it is a 1,131-meter cliff at the end of the 800 km Tuwaiq Mountain range. It earned its nickname because of an uninterrupted view of the horizon from its top.

Bhat saw it first a few years ago and during his latest trip in March drove to the mountains specifically to see the landscape again.

“The first (time), I went to see the sunrise. This time, I went to see the sunset,” the 32-year-old from Pune told Arab News.

“Saudi has lots of raw natural landscapes … really good beaches. East coast, west coast, center — they have lots of different things. Tourists can go and check it out.”

But it was not just the landscape that drew him to the Kingdom. Bhat’s first trip was about the Formula E championships, which Saudi Arabia has been hosting since 2018, making nature, adventure, and a tad of luxury some of his main criteria for a good trip.

“It’s a good place for vacation … Saudi ticks all the boxes,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Europe and the US.”

Bhat is among an increasing number of wealthier Indian travelers below the age of 35 choosing the Middle East as their destination for a foreign trip, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE taking the lion’s share of those choices.

Saloni Aneja, a 29-year-old from Chandigarh, visited the UAE in January and said she found everything she needed on her vacation.

“You have adventure, water parks and a lot of shopping complexes and different things … You have a lot of things to see, for example, the Museum of the Future. It’s a great thing,” she told Arab News, as she was already planning her next trips.

“Nowadays, the young generation, the youth, believe that we should travel the world, we should not just save the money and keep it in the locker, we should travel and explore,” Aneja said.

“I would definitely like to explore different parts of the world … I would love to visit Saudi Arabia.”

The “Future of Travel” report on the spending trends of India’s young globetrotters released last month by the marketing agency FINN Partners shows that travelers were increasingly choosing the two Gulf countries over others.


“The Middle East region as a whole really continues to excite and capture very young Indian travelers with a blend of luxury and rich history,” Thomas Morris, the agency’s senior partner, told Arab News. “We found that 55 percent of Indians under 35 have already visited the UAE. For Saudi Arabia, it was 45 percent.”

The respondents were under 35 years old, living in big Indian cities, had “the propensities to travel internationally,” and the means to do so.

“One of the key findings is the willingness of young Indian travelers to spend on what we term a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, 42 percent indicated they’re willing to pay more for these experiences,” Morris said.

“When we look specifically at the UAE and Saudi Arabia, we see that they are particularly drawn to firstly luxury and secondly adventure sports — being in the deserts of the UAE or ziplining or going and trekking in AlUla and Saudi Arabia.”

According to his observations, these qualities made the young travelers different from the previous generation, who prefer to plan their trips with all details and in advance.

“The next generation, they are impulsive, they are willing to jump on opportunities as they arise, and I think this is something that the UAE and Saudi really tapped into — these kinds of international micro-adventures,” he said, adding that in the case of Saudi Arabia, what also helps attract younger Indians is the current marketing strategy, which is drawing more and more visitors from India.

With a series of initiatives last year, including the sponsorship of the Indian Premier League — the men’s T20 franchise that is the world’s most-watched cricket league — Saudi Arabia hosted over 1.5 million Indian inbound travelers in 2023, or 50 percent more than in 2022.

By 2030, the Saudi Tourism Authority plans to welcome 7.5 million visitors from India, which by that time is expected to emerge as the No. 1 inbound tourist market for the Kingdom.

“This new generation are digitally savvy, they are making a lot of decisions based on what they see on social media, and Saudi Arabia is really successfully tapping into that,” Morris said.

“They want to be the focus destination for Indian travelers, and they are investing significantly for that to happen.”

Jatin Kumar, a 32-year-old from Haryana, visited Saudi Arabia in March.

“Saudi Arabia is developing now and bringing more tourists, building attractive things,” he said.

“I went to Riyadh, I went to Jeddah, I went to Dammam … We got to know a lot of Saudi culture … I really liked it.”

Top UN court says Israel’s settlement policy in occupied territories violates international law

Updated 19 July 2024

Top UN court says Israel’s settlement policy in occupied territories violates international law

  • Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in 1967 war

THE HAGUE: The top United Nations court said Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and east Jerusalem violates international law, as it delivered a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state, a ruling that could have more effect on international opinion than it will on Israeli policies.
International Court of Justice President Nawaf Salam was expected to take about an hour to read out the full opinion of the panel, which is made up of 15 judges from around the world.
In part of the opinion, he said the panel had found that "the transfer by Israel of settlers to the West Bank and Jerusalem as well as Israel’s maintenance of their presence, is contrary to article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The court also noted with “grave concern” that Israel’s settlement policy has been expanding.
The court also found that Israel's use of natural resources was “inconsistent” with its obligations under international law as an occupying power.
Friday’s hearing comes against the backdrop of Israel’s devastating 10-month military assault on Gaza, which was triggered by the Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel. In a separate case, the International Court of Justice is considering a South African claim that Israel’s campaign in Gaza amounts to genocide, a claim that Israel vehemently denies.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state.
Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory, whose future should be decided in negotiations, while it has moved population there in settlements to solidify its hold. It has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not internationally recognized, while it withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but maintained a blockade of the territory after Hamas took power in 2007. The international community generally considers all three areas to be occupied territory.
At hearings in February, then-Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki accused Israel of apartheid and urged the United Nations’ top court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought by the Palestinians is illegal and must end immediately and unconditionally for any hope for a two-state future to survive.
Israel, which normally considers the United Nations and international tribunals as unfair and biased, did not send a legal team to the hearings. But it submitted written comments, saying that the questions put to the court are prejudiced and “fail to recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” address Israeli security concerns or acknowledge Israel-Palestinian agreements to negotiate issues, including “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements, and borders.”
The Palestinians presented arguments in February along with 49 other nations and three international organizations.
Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael think tank in The Hague, said that if the court rules that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem breach international law, that is unlikely to change Israeli policies but it would “isolate Israel further internationally, at least from a legal point of view.”
He said such a ruling would “worsen the case for occupation. It removes any kind of legal, political, philosophical underpinning of the Israeli expansion project.”
It would also strengthen the hand of “those who seek to advocate against it” — such as the grassroots Palestinian-led movement advocating boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
He said it also could increase the number of countries that recognize the state of Palestine, in particular in the Western world, following the recent example of Spain and Norway and Ireland.”
It is not the first time the ICJ has been asked to give its legal opinion on Israeli policies. Two decades ago, the court ruled that Israel’s West Bank separation barrier was “contrary to international law.” Israel boycotted those proceedings, saying they were politically motivated.
Israel says the barrier is a security measure. Palestinians say the structure amounts to a massive land grab because it frequently dips into the West Bank.
The U.N. General Assembly voted by a wide margin in December 2022 to ask the world court for the advisory opinion. Israel vehemently opposed the request that was promoted by the Palestinians. Fifty countries abstained from voting.
Israel has built well over 100 settlements, according to the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now. The West Bank settler population has grown by more than 15% in the past five years to more than 500,000 Israelis, according to a pro-settler group.
Israel also has annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be neighborhoods of its capital. Palestinian residents of the city face systematic discrimination, making it difficult for them to build new homes or expand existing ones.
The international community considers all settlements to be illegal or obstacles to peace since they are built on lands sought by the Palestinians for their state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government is dominated by settlers and their political supporters. Netanyahu has given his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a former settler leader, unprecedented authority over settlement policy. Smotrich has used this position to cement Israel’s control over the West Bank by pushing forward plans to build more settlement homes and to legalize outposts.
Authorities recently approved the appropriation of 12.7 square kilometers (nearly 5 square miles) of land in the Jordan Valley, a strategic piece of land deep inside the West Bank, according to a copy of the order obtained by The Associated Press. Data from Peace Now, the tracking group, indicate it was the largest single appropriation approved since the 1993 Oslo accords at the start of the peace process.

Zelensky makes ‘historic’ address to UK Cabinet

Updated 19 July 2024

Zelensky makes ‘historic’ address to UK Cabinet

  • Zelensky gave members of the new Labour government a rundown of the latest situation in Ukraine
  • The Ukrainian president and Starmer had a one-on-one meeting beforehand, in which he thanked Britain for its sustained backing for Kyiv

LONDON: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday received a standing ovation from senior ministers as he became the first foreign leader to address the British cabinet in person since 1997.
Zelensky gave members of the new Labour government a rundown of the latest situation in Ukraine after a red-carpet welcome at Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s 10 Downing Street residence and office.
He and Starmer had a one-on-one meeting beforehand, in which he thanked Britain for its sustained backing for Kyiv since Russian forces invaded in February 2022.
“Thank for the invitation, for the privilege, for me to be here,” he told Starmer, who led Labour to victory in elections two weeks ago and has reaffirmed UK support for Ukraine “for as along as it takes.”
Zelensky on Thursday urged European leaders to remain united against Russian aggression, as he seeks more military help, including much-needed air firepower to push back Russian troops.
At Cabinet, dressed in his trademark army fatigues, and flanked on either side by Britain’s Union flag and the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine, he renewed his call for help in boosting his country’s “long-range capability.”
“If the restrictions on using Western weapons against Russian military are lifted, we can strike further than just near the border,” he told ministers.
That would allow Ukraine to “not only protect ourselves from any Russian offensives but also secure our frontline positions and cities from Russian bombs,” he added.
International support
NATO member states, including the UK, have been hesitant about Ukraine using Western-supplied weapons such as missiles on targets inside Russia, for fear of escalating the conflict.
Britain has signalled that Ukrainian forces could use UK-supplied Storm Shadow missiles for defensive strikes.
“We’re providing weapons to Ukraine for their defense of their sovereign country. And that does not preclude them hitting targets in Russia,” Defense Secretary John Healey told BBC radio.
“But that must be done by the Ukrainians, it must be done within the parameters and the bounds of international humanitarian law,” added Healey, who visited Ukraine within days of his appointment.
The last foreign leader to address the British Cabinet in person was US president Bill Clinton in 1997 after Labour’s Tony Blair swept to power, also in a landslide win over the Conservatives.
Zelensky’s “historic address,” as Starmer called it, came as 44 countries and the European Union agreed to target Russia’s so-called “shadow fleet” of tankers seeking to evade sanctions on Russian oil.
The 600 or so vessels — most of them old and unsafe — transport 1.7 million barrels of oil per day, providing funding for the Russian war effort, but also allegedly carrying weapons.

Britain will resume funding to UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

Updated 19 July 2024

Britain will resume funding to UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

  • Britain was one of several countries to halt their funding to UNRWA following accusations by Israel

LONDON: Britain’s new Labour government said on Friday it would resume funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA and called on Israel to allow more aid to enter Gaza.
Britain was one of several countries to halt their funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) following accusations by Israel that some agency staff were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that triggered the Gaza war.
British foreign minister David Lammy told parliament he was reassured that the agency, which provides education, health and aid to millions of Palestinians, had taken steps to “ensure it meets the highest standards of neutrality” and the government would now provide 21 million pounds ($27.1 million) in new funding.
Lammy said malnutrition in Gaza was now so severe that mothers could not produce breast milk for their children and the rates of diarrhea were 40 times their normal rates and polio had been detected.
“Humanitarian aid is a moral necessity in the face of such a catastrophe, and it is aid agencies who ensure UK support reaches civilians on the ground,” he said.
“UNRWA is absolutely central to these efforts. No other agency can deliver aid at the scale needed.”
Other countries including Japan, Germany, Italy, Australia and Canada have resumed funding to the agency.
Israel accuses UNRWA of complicity with Hamas, saying the militant Islamist group was embedded within the UN agency’s infrastructure.
A review, led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, published in April said Israel had not provided evidence for its accusations that hundreds of are members of militant groups.
In February, Britain’s then-foreign minister David Cameron said he wanted an “absolute guarantee” that UNRWA would not employ staff who were willing to attack Israel.
Cameron was replaced by Lammy as foreign minister following the Labour Party’s July 4 election win.