Netherlands Imam Gala Under Threat

Posted on February 19th, 2015 by MAO

Eagle-eyed Telegraaf journalist Alexander Bakker sends us advanced word of an interesting event happening next March 8 in Rijswijk (a suburb of The Hague), check it out:

Rohamaa
As you can probably make out, it’s going to be a sort of imam-extravaganza: the smaller-type bits there just under the date speak of “Readings | Films | Live translation | Anasheed* | Child-care.”

I won’t be there, unfortunately, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I can’t remark how the poster Bakker retweets reminds me too much of some WWE event; much better is this one:

Rohamaa2

I found this one, naturally enough, on the website for the event’s main sponsor, the Rohamaa Foundation (Rohamaa = رحماء = “merciful”). That second poster, just like the first one, takes care to note that there will be separate lecture-halls for males and females. The two posters also share the prominent slogan Zij Hebben Recht Op Ons or “They have a right to us,” meaning “They have a right to our help,” for it’s clear from their website that Rohamaa is mainly a charitable foundation channeling financial contributions and other assistance to hot-spots in the Arab world (and, Allah knows – Syria! – these places do stand in need).

The thing is, I feel quite confident in saying that the staging of such a clearly Islamic public event would not per se excite notice in the media – i.e. this sort of thing is normally “dog-bites-man” by now. But no, there is a problem: three of the headline imams are of the sort of reputation that the Dutch authorities have denied them a visa to come. In turn, this has prompted the local Rijswijk authorities (civil government, police, courts) to confer on the issue; the local government spokesman is unsure “whether there will be a decision.” What sort of “decision” could we be talking about here? The Telegraaf article does not say; but what could it be otherwise than to disallow the event?

Back to the Rohamaa website, and if you scroll down you can read (again, in Dutch) a press-release of two days ago telling of how the Foundation is “indignant” at the decision to deny those visas – apparently after they first had first been routinely granted, with no indication of anything untoward. Even more annoying: the top Ministry official in charge of the decision stated on TV that he knew nothing about the dossier.

Then this:

We fear that such decisions merely contribute to an increasingly polarized climate in the Netherlands. One could conclude from this that things in the Netherlands are measured by two different standards: freedom of expression is a great societal blessing, requiring guarding at all times, except when it has to do with certain minorities. This feeling has prevailed now for some time and is by this merely confirmed and enlarged.

Hear, hear! Vrijheid van meningsuiting, people! Freedom of expression!

* Anasheed is basically Islamic vocal music, mostly a capella.

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Seeing Freedom’s Light, Finally?

Posted on February 18th, 2015 by MAO

Back not so long ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, this weblog took up a brief examination of behavior on the part of the authorities which seemed to belie the commitment to freedom of expression which supposedly was what had been assaulted by the three Parisian killers, and for which – there can be no doubt – those many thousands of citizens marched in the streets of Paris (and other French cities, indeed other cities throughout the world) on Sunday, 11 January. Indeed, when it soon came to the gumshoes hitting the pavement there turned out not to be much loyalty to free expression, but rather to the enforcement of a quite lopsided expression regime under which it is quite OK to mock Islam, but beyond the pale – indeed, arrestable – to mock or denigrate those who mock Islam or to express any sort of sympathy or understanding for why those killers acted as they did.

This much was clear quite soon in France, but unfortunately the same syndrome was also evident in Denmark, where some 23-year-old guy (among others) who expressed approval of the Paris killings was arrested when the authorities found out, and his apartment thoroughly searched.

Now, as of last weekend, we saw the same variety of Charlie Hebdo terror strike Denmark itself, with the shootings at the public debate over blasphemy and the arts, followed by an assault at Copenhagen’s historic Grand Synagogue, that in the end left a total of two innocents dead and many wounded. And as sure as mushrooms pop up out of the ground after a rainstorm, there followed commentators ready to praise the “sacrifice” of gunman Omar al-Hussein:

AarhusAK
You see that the name of the Facebook account and its associated photo-avatar has been obscured, but the accompanying Jyllands-Posten article tells us most of what we’d like to know: 26 years old; head of a family; of Palestinian origin; and he doesn’t even live in Copenhagen but rather near Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, located on the Jutland peninsula. He’s identified simply as “AK,” and if he doesn’t win any style-points for originality, he at least is multi-lingual: you see that this Facebook update has not only Je suis Omar but also Vi er alle Omar (Danish for “We are all Omar” – I’d beg to differ) as well as Allah yerhamak (properly: الله يرحمك) or “God bless you.” More »

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Hand-Me-Down Arms to Ukraine

Posted on February 14th, 2015 by MAO

Here’s a good on-the-ground example of what the current Western skittishness about providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself actually means.

Szrot
Szrot for the Ukrainian army.” Szrot (pronounced simply as [shrot]) would be a fun Polish word in any other context: it means “scrap metal,” basically trash. But that’s basically what the Ukrainian army has to look forward to now, specifically to twenty “Saxon”-type armored personnel carriers coming fairly soon from United Kingdom stocks, to be eventually followed by fifty-five more.

This piece by Rzeczpospolita staff-writer Piotr Wożniak goes on to estimate that Ukraine will be paying the UK government about $51,000 for each such APC, which seems hardly a high amount for a military vehicle. The trouble is that this is hardly top-of-the-line equipment. A perusal of the Wikipedia page for the Saxon is valuable here, although Wożniak provides several related data-points of his own. Saxons went into service in the British Army in the early 1980s; they’re no longer actively used there because they’ve been replaced by more modern equipment. You’ll only find them still in use in backwater militaries like that of Hong Kong or Mozambique.

Even then, and even for that $51,000 apiece, none of the Saxons will come equipped with the armament that was standard for them in British service (namely a 7.62 mm MG medium machine gun, which itself is really no very big deal) – for no one wants to actually provide the Ukraine with “offensive weapons” as that would be too “offensive” to the sensibilities of Vladimir Putin. (Meanwhile, just go on-line for satellite photos to take a gander at the top-of-the-line Russian military equipment – and personnel, let us not forget – crossing the border to support the Separatists.)

Relevant to this point, Wożniak has a great paragraph:

What is interesting is that the lack of support for Kiev when it comes to weapons and military equipment cannot be rationally explained. Ukraine is not the object of any embargo, nor is it some terrorist-supporting state. There exist no legal obstacles.

Ah, but of course that is just a Pole talking, someone whose country knows all about invasions from the East from past experience, whose country is objectively next in line – just look at the map! – after Ukraine falls. That is, someone who doesn’t realize how Vladimir Putin can be a perfectly reasonable fellow, provided one simply doesn’t resist him.

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Swiss Nuclear Democracy

Posted on January 31st, 2015 by MAO

Switzerland generates a little more than 36% of its power through nuclear energy, at four separate plants which collectively host five operational reactors. Therefore it has a spent-nuclear-fuel problem, and a recent piece picked up by @news_suisse (with its own atomic-orange color-scheme) shows that country’s remarkable approach in addressing in particular the need for “deep geological repositories” to hold that stuff for eons:

Dechets
The key phrase here is en lice. In French it translates to “in contention,” so the message is that only the two locations named (namely Jura-East and Zurich-Northeast) have made the cut to be considered further as long-term nuclear waste sites.

Just consider the value-judgment in plain sight here: “in contention” – those two places have beaten off four other candidates to make this short-list. That is, they actively want to host the sort of nuclear-waste site which in most other countries – certainly the US – inspires the most virulent of NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) sentiments!

Bizarre! Yet such has been the course of deliberations of Nagra, a company established collectively back in 1972 by all Swiss nuclear-waste producers for handling the disposal problem – and, naturally, subject to close governmental oversight. Even stranger, I combed this piece for some indication as to just what is in it for the winning site (or sites; it could be both), maybe some sort of generous financial remuneration to the local government – but nothing! Nothing but public frustration on the part of the losers already cut out of the competition:

The discontent [over Nagra’s pre-selection] is already palpable. The president of the Committee of Cantons, the Zürich State Counsellor Markus Kägi, could not hide his surprise at seeing only two sites retained.

Nagra boss Thomas Ernst justified his recommendations, emphasizing that only scientific and technical criteria were taken into consideration. “Reflections of a political or social order played no sort of role.”

But maybe there are a few other clues about what is going on. For one thing, this is a really long-term project: the Swiss Federal Council will make the definitive choice only in 2027. Then, and only then, will it be submitted to parliament, and possibly to one of those famous Swiss referenda. Clearly, this has been a technocratic exercise so far; the NIMBY-storm still has 12 years to develop.

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Don’t Make Germans Like They Used To

Posted on January 23rd, 2015 by MAO

Perhaps it is untoward to quote oneself, but in this case my tweet of a few days ago has to be revised and extended in light of further information.

Aldi
In particular, I put there “after complaints,” but in that I was just being faithful to the original article out of De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper.

Aldi received at the beginning of last week the first complaints. One customer asked them not to use anymore the mosque, a religious symbol, on the label. Then a discussion arose on the Internet, after which Aldi pulled the soap from the shelves.

Now another version of events has arisen, this time from an actual German source:

AldiSeife
According to this, it wasn’t “complaints”; it was one complaint about that mosque on the soap-label, from one guy on Facebook. This is backed up by this report from the local newspaper from the area where this Aldi store is located (North Rhine-Westphalia).

Shitstorm

The customer argued that the mosque and minaret of the Muslims were to be observed with respect and dignity. “And it is precisely for this reason that I do not find it suitable that one should put this illustration, so full of meaning, on just any consumer product.”

That was all that it took: off of the shelves those bottles of liquid soap flew! But in that last tweet you’ll perhaps have notice a recent addition to German public vocabulary: “shitstorm.” That is what ensued: Aldi promptly came under fire for its action (although I’m unaware that that has caused them to reverse it and start selling the soap with those labels again).

But that was last week – the first full week after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. This week saw something similar, in fact even more alarming. The usual Monday-evening march of the new, anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement in Dresden was canceled by the authorities – and of course the counter-demonstrations that had been planned for that evening as well – because of a threat that had been received against Lutz Bachman, one of the movement’s leaders until, just two days ago, he resigned after pictures of him posing as Adolph Hitler became public. More »

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This “Unity” Wears Him Out

Posted on January 21st, 2015 by MAO

Who’s tired? Are you tired? Nicolas Sarkozy is tired:

Sarkozy
“François Hollande’s national union already fatigues Nicolas Sarkozy.” That much is clear, even in a rather spectacular manner. For on Monday evening there was a big ceremony held in Paris in honor of Agence France-Presse, the main French news-agency, supposedly to celebrate that organization’s 70th anniversary. President Hollande was there, and so was François Fillon, of the opposition and who had served under Sarkozy as Prime Minister. Just to show how non-political an event this was supposed to be, even far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen was there (and she had not been invited to the huge JAN 11 Paris march).

By the way, I write “supposedly” there in connection with AFP’s 70th anniversary because, according to my standard Wikipedia sources, the organization really got started back in August, 1944 as Paris was being liberated from the Nazis by the advancing Allied forces – that means 70 years is August, 2014. Perhaps the earliest that the French political elite could find a mutually agreeable free spot in their agendas was last Monday – Blue Monday, in fact, said to be the most depressing day of the year, in case that had anything to do with it. Or – more likely – perhaps the shocking attacks against freedom of expression in France of two weeks ago caused the country’s movers-and-shakers to decide that there needed to be some occasion, something celebrating freedom of the press, so that the AFP was enlisted for that.

Another “supposedly” is in order here, however, a far more bitter one, for by its actions after the Charlie Hebdo attacks the French government has betrayed its actual indifference to that “freedom of expression” which one could argue all those people – the non-politicians – were marching down Paris avenues on Sunday, January 11, to support. Or maybe not “indifference” but rather a stark partisanship: it’s OK to mock Islam and Muslims, but the same is not true when the target is Jews or, indeed, those who mock Islam and Muslims. The latter are allowed to dish it out; they must be shielded from actually having to take it. More »

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Lithuanian Survival By-The-Book

Posted on January 19th, 2015 by MAO

Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to invade bits of land adjoining Mother Russia where he feels native Russian-speakers are feeling oppressed has understandably made many in the immediate neighborhood rather nervous. And while Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all members of NATO, that still doesn’t necessarily allow them to sleep easily at night. The famed Article V of the NATO treaty does make an attack on any one member an attack on them all, which theoretically means that the Alliance’s nuclear powers – the US, foremost – would be willing to escalate all the way to Mutually Assured Destruction should Putin merely have his forces invade the Baltics and then refuse to back down. But how credible is that? For that matter, how effective were France and England in carrying out the guarantees of Poland’s territorial integrity that they issued just prior to the Second World War?

(By the way, the lesser-known Article IV provides for invoking consultation among Alliance members in the event of disquieting security developments. Lithuania and Latvia invoked that in March of last year in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea.)

You can’t blame these nations for doing a little contingency planning based on a assumption of Putin’s worst behavior paired with maximum fecklessness on the part of their supposed allies. (Indeed, I hear there exists an NGO whose sole purpose is to steer the world’s surplus feck to NATO’s Brussels HQ.) Here’s what’s happening in Lithuania:

LitManual
Yes, that Baltic nation is shortly to publish a “survival manual” for all its citizens about what to do in case of a Russian invasion!

Now, I found out about this via the round-about path that you can see contained in that tweet. But it turns out that, within that Le HuffPost article, there was an additional link to a Reuters article, in English and datelined from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, that lays everything out pretty well.

So you don’t need me to explain further. Just allow me, as a sort of enticing sweetener, to reproduce here a couple of the most-juicy paragraphs:

“The manual, which the Defence Ministry will send to libraries next week and also distribute at army events, says Lithuanians should resist foreign occupation with demonstrations and strikes, “or at least doing your job worse than usual”.

“[W]orse than usual” – love that!

In the event of invasion, the manual says Lithuanians should organise themselves through Twitter and Facebook and attempt cyber attacks against the enemy.

Mark Zuckerberg as future insurgent hero – who knew?

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Get Off Your Privileged Ass!

Posted on January 17th, 2015 by MAO

It’s coming onto the second half of January and, like every year, that means the World Economic Forum, in the Swiss ski-resort of Davos, where the world’s most powerful and well-heeled come together annually to hobnob, look down from the summit (figuratively but also literally, given Davos’ height-above-sea-level) at the rest of us poor slobs and try to solve some of the world’s problems. Such a gathering of influential and monied types is sheer nirvana for advertisers and others who would seek to influence them in some way. (Including of course the fearless & topless banshees of FEMEN: going around half-naked in the January snow does not faze these gals!)

As you might imagine, the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) has an inside track when it comes to accessing Davos attendees. (I don’t mean just from its status as a prominent local bank; it also still likely aids many of those assembled to avoid taxes in their home countries via its no-name-but-number bank accounts.) This year it has come up with a real PR winner:

WEF
OK, what’s this about “6 kilometers”? It’s fairly simple: UBS is going to invite all WEF attendees to wear a rose-colored odometer during the time that they are there. If a minimum of 1,000 participants record having walked six kilometers during their stay, then UBS will donate 2,500 bicycles to poor African children for use in traveling to school. More »

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Talkin’ Turkey? Turkey Talkin’?

Posted on January 16th, 2015 by MAO

Hopefully my readers are willing to indulge me today as I depart from usual custom to address an article I came across written in English. As EurActiv reports, the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu visited Brussels yesterday.

Turkey
Of course, my eye was caught by that headline: “Holy Roman attitude”! Here is the paragraph from Davutoglu out of which that came:

Nobody can tell me “we Europeans” and “you Turks” […] But we are part of European history. And we are part of contemporary Europe. There are 45 million Muslims living in Europe and more than 6 million Turks. […] We have to have an inclusive European identity. But if you have a Holy Roman-German-Christian type of understanding, then Europe has ended, sorry.

We can all rest easy now, right? We have this Turkish, Muslim official from outside of Europe standing by ready to tell us when Europe has officially “ended.” But he is right with that “we are part of European history” part: Tours, 732; Constantinople, 1453; Vienna, 1529 and 1683. For those with lesser background in European history, those were dates at which Europeans tried (mostly successfully) to beat the invading Muslims/Turks back, out of Europe.

What kind of “inclusive European identity” can there be that includes the Turks? Our civilizations are based on totally different philosophical/moral foundations: the European, on a Judeo-Christian basis; the Muslim, on the Koran and sharia law. Yes, Turkey is a country that directly borders on Europe – it is not part of Europe, geographically speaking, other than an insignificant piece of land to the West of the Bosphorus – and close trade relations, to include as-low-as-possible tariffs, would be a good thing. But not EU membership, not suddenly handing the 77 million Turks living in Asia (note!) Minor the power to co-determine all the many other aspects of life that we now look to the European Union to regulate.

Admitting Turkey to the EU makes about as much sense as – and is a very analogous idea to – admitting Mexico as America’s 51st state. But regular readers (Hi, Mom!) will already know that I delved much further into this point in a blogpost of quite a while ago. And that is even when you’re dealing with a squeaky-clean, smiling, democratic Turkey. That’s hardly what we have now, and the mass-arrests of journalists in that country of last month and the brutal response to the Taksim Square protests in Istanbul are just a couple of available data-points that make that only too plain.

(Now, to give it credit, Turkey has put in super-human efforts to accommodate the flood of refugees coming to it from across the Syrian border, and remains the world’s foremost enemy to that bloodthirsty dictator and child-torturer Bashar al-Assad.)

Yet more:

The Turkish Prime Minister made ironic remarks about the lack of political stability in EU countries, saying that at a NATO meeting in his previous capacity as foreign minister, he was the only [sic] to have been in office for four full years. Another country which he didn’t name had changed seven ministers in the meantime, and some others six or five.

Yes, isn’t that something? National governments that actually reflect the popular will! Not so easy to find in other lands where the government even blocks Twitter (or tries) to try to keep its public uninformed about allegations of widespread corruption within it – as was the case not so long ago in your country, Mr. Prime Minister.

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Get Off-a My Cloud!

Posted on January 15th, 2015 by MAO

Bitkom is a German IT trade association for small- and medium-sized businesses with an associated website, and that site is reporting something interesting, picked up by the national newsmagazine Stern:

Cloud
Cloud-Dienste: cloud services, with examples listed such as Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud and Dropbox. Turns out they’re not so popular there. A recent Eurostat study put Germany squarely in the middle of the pack of European countries when it comes to their use. While you would expect Germany to be somewhat ahead of the IT-laggards that study identified, such as Poland and Rumania (8 percent of population uses cloud services), it’s strange that country is not nearer the head of the class along with Denmark (44 percent) or Norway (43 percent).

Instead, 21% of German respondents to the Eurostat study reported that some of their data was in the Cloud. And the reason is very clear: “from concern of not being able to make use of regular data-security and data-protection provisions.”

It’s always handy to remember that a healthy chunk of the current German population, somewhere around under a quarter of it, had some experience of living in the old DDR or East Germany, with its intrusive Stasi secret police. Germany is also constantly at the forefront of efforts within the EU to shore up individual privacy protections.

It also has been leading in its agitation resulting from the Snowden revelations of the wide reach into Europe of the American NSA and British GCHQ, especially after reports emerged that Chancellor Merkel’s own mobile telephone had long been tapped. And what do we also find in common concerning those named cloud-data services that Germans are so loathe to take up? That’s right, they are American, run from America and therefore as we know subject to secret demands from the American authorities to give up their secrets, violate their customers’ confidentiality, whenever those US authorities deem that they need to do so.

The Stern article is too polite to mention the US, as is the lengthier Bitkom piece (where you can see the full table of country results). But it is clear the fears on the part of US high-tech concerns that their overseas market-share will suffer because of a loss of confidence brought about by the ruthless worldwide surveillance from the Anglo-Saxon authorities are by no means unfounded.

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France: The Lock-Up Starts

Posted on January 14th, 2015 by MAO

Take a look: is this really a face only a mother could love? (I mean the guy on the left.)

Dieudonne
He’s not getting much love in France right now. In fact, he’s under arrest. His name is Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala; his occupation depends on whom you ask. Avant-garde comic – or dangerous rabble-rouser. One thing for sure is that he is rather anti-Semitic in his views, and that has led in the past to cancellation of some of his shows. To name but another of his misdeeds, shortly after the beheading of James Foley by ISIL he posted a video making light of that event. (His controversial opinions also meant that he was denied entry into the UK outright – yes, which once provided exile to the likes of Karl Marx, back when it was known as the British Empire.)

But right now we’re still lingering in the Charlie Hebdo afterglow, and Dieudonné had to put his two cents’ worth in. I want to rely on this report from Rzeczpospolita in the first instance to get a little distance, a little impartiality: from this, it seems that all he did was use his Facebook account to make fun of the “Je Suis Charlie!” slogan, writing instead “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” using there the surname of the slain hostage-taker at the Jewish supermarket in Paris. More »

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Remaining Charlie Hebdo Trifles

Posted on January 13th, 2015 by MAO

I was leafing through Le Monde earlier (in a social-media type of way) and a couple more trifles concerning the Charlie Hebdo attacks last week and/or the massive marche républicaine on Sunday caught my eye.

CharlieHFirst, it’s good to see comment from such a good source on the parade of free-expression hypocrites that Sunday’s demonstration marche quickly became, in a nice piece entitled The embarrassing ones invited to the march. For one thing, the Le Monde staff (no byline) quotes from the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) communiqué about the march:

In the name of what did the representatives of regimes who are predators of freedom of the press come to parade in Paris in homage to a newspaper which always defended the highest conception of liberty of expression?

The piece goes on to list the RSF press-freedom rankings (180 = worst) of some of the leaders marching there: 98 (Gabon), 118 (UAE), 141 (Jordan), 148 (Russia) 154 (Turkey) and 159 (Egypt).

It all may make you want to ask . . .

VraiCharlie
“Who is a Real Charlie?” Well, it may be getting rather late for that . . . but anyway, this Le Monde piece is glad to adopt (at least for now) the solution Buzzfeed proposed, namely those newspapers willing to publish on their front pages (and/or at the top of their websites) the Mohammed cartoon that will be on the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hebdo (you see it at the top of this post) are the only true “Charlies.” More »

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The Greek Fire Next Time

Posted on January 13th, 2015 by MAO

Mark your calendars: there’s a serious Eurocrisis coming up, specifically on January 25 when Greece holds elections and the anti-austerity Syriza party will likely come out on top. There’s even a serious argument to be made that it should come out on top, made among others by Economics Prof. Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens, who has gone so far as to offer himself up as a Syriza candidate.

He explains why he did that, and what is going on between Greece and the EU generally, in an excellent segment that I’ve embedded for you below (starts at the 4:00 mark). Do keep in mind that, generally speaking, we should all be suspicious of anything coming out of RT (= “Russia Today,” brought to you by Vladimir Putin), and it is easy to be dismayed by the blonde-airhead TV anchorwoman. But this is truly very informative.

(H/t to Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.)

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Wouldn’t Miss It for the World!

Posted on January 12th, 2015 by MAO

Those following yesterday’s gigantic Paris “Charlie Hebdo” solidarity march along at home picked up the presence of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu among that gaggle of official freedom-of-expression hypocrites:

Netanya
Now an interesting revelation from – among others – the Belgian paper La Libre Belgique – he was never invited!

InviteSelf
[S]‘est invité: he invited himself! Originally, France President François Hollande’s office had actually requested that he not attend. The reason was quite straightforward: President Hollande did not want to muddy the waters by introducing the whole Israel-Palestine mess into the occasion.

But Netanyahu insisted. According to this account, this is why he insisted: he found out that his foreign minister (Avigdor Lieberman) and economy minister (Naftali Bennett) had already arranged to go to Paris. There’s an election campaign going on in Israel right now, you have to remember, and while they are both currently part of Netanyahu’s cabinet, they also both belong to another, competing political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) and, accordingly, have consistently been even more reactionary and outrageous in their statements concerning Palestine and the Palestinians than Netanyahu himself, if that can be believed.

But if they were going to be there then, by all that is Holy, Netanyahu was going to be there as well. As French President, what can you do? Well, you can be sure you invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well. And he was there, parading, even though he had originally had no intention to attend and in fact had sent his regrets, constrained by a combination of his schedule and heavy snow impairing flights from that part of the world. Then again, if Netanyahu was going to be there – well, by all that is Holy, he would be there, too.

As a sordid coda to a sordid tale: One other thing Netanyahu did in Paris, after Hollande had graciously permitted him to come, is to tell a gathering of French Jews at the hostage-scene Jewish supermarket to emigrate to Israel, since they clearly weren’t safe in France! What a guy!

(He also apparently behaved rather boorishly during the solidarity march itself; this, and his emigration urgings mentioned above, are not in the Libre piece but you can read about them in English in this article from the Telegraph.)

UPDATE: Here we go:

JCole

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Journalistic Pluck

Posted on January 12th, 2015 by MAO

Yes, there was that giant Charlie Hebdo march yesterday in Paris, as well as in many other cities, but times remain tough for newspaper staffs (in physical security terms, that is – quite apart from their long-term economic prospects):

ZalKnallen
“Le Soir, things are going to blow up on your editors” is what it reads there, which was followed down the telephone-line by “You guys don’t take us seriously!” OK, so it’s a bomb-threat, called in yesterday afternoon (Sunday) to the downtown Brussels offices of Le Soir (“The Evening”) when probably most of those present would have preferred marching in Brussels own Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration but had to work instead.

Can’t newspapermen and -women catch a break these days? I mean, the offices of the Hamburger Morgenpost were also firebombed yesterday – yes, after that paper had reprinted some Charle Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity.

I don’t think Le Soir had done even that, but that seems not to have been the issue in that case. For as that De Morgen piece goes on to report, the police managed to arrest someone for that bomb-threat the same day, some fifty-two-year-old from out of the “extreme left” who in fact had been convicted for actually blowing up a telephone-booth (remember those?) in order to intimidate in Brussels back in 1999.

The good thing about this story is that the Le Soir staff, when ordered to evacuate on Sunday afternoon, simply took their laptops to a local hotel and resumed their work, as you can see from their tweet:

LeSoir

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Charlie! Send In the PC Police!

Posted on January 10th, 2015 by MAO

Remember when you were 23 years old? Didn’t you also say stupid things? (If you’re not there yet: don’t worry, you will.)

Talsmand
“23-year-old charged with rejoicing over terror on Facebook.” This guy is supposed to be a spokesman for a Danish organization named Kaldet til Islam – “Called to Islam” – and he wrote some asinine stuff on Facebook. Specifically – from what I can make out here, the problem is not language, it is the paucity of details the authorities are willing to release – he put a “smiley-face” next to a link to an article about the Charlie Hebdo murders and added, in Arabic, something to the effect that God had been honored.

Then the article continues:

The 23-year-old is charged according to Criminal Law paragraph 136. This prescribes that whoever “publicly condones” actions covered under terror legislation is to be punished by a fine or imprisonment up to two years. Copenhagen police have additionally made a thorough search of the residence of the man in question in Copenhagen’s north-west district.[!] . . .

The police and prosecution authorities have in the past months slowly and painstakingly sought juridical authority for charging and prosecuting Muslims with Danish backgrounds who have expressed sympathy on social media with terrorist attacks and the Islamic State, without having to be able to show that those in question themselves have been involved in carrying out or planning terror.

Indeed, this 23-year-old is only the latest target, the article goes on to list two other Danes awaiting prosecution on these grounds: one who put on-line a photo of himself in Syria surrounded by decapitated heads, another who published a video urging people to “terror.”

Actually, it is handy that Berlingske makes mention of these two latter cases, since those are the sort that do merit prosecution. Now, expression must be free – isn’t that what we’re all up in arms about after those Charlie Hebdo killings? But free without limit? No, of course not, but within very broad limits that only have to do with the maintenance of public safety. I happen to like the classic American First Amendment standard that only begins to bring the force of the law down on speech once it is equivalent to “crying ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

So that Danish Muslim in the photo surrounded by all the severed heads should not be prosecuted for the sheer fact of the photo; rather, such a photo can easily be used as evidence that he violated national laws about fighting for a terrorist organization. And that other Dane who urges everyone on to terrorism? I see that as equivalent to “‘Fire!’ in a public theater,” so set loose the law.

On the other hand, consider the 23-year-old. He puts something stupid up on Facebook and then finds himself arrested, and his apartment searched! What happened to just being able to dismiss such people as fools? Why can’t people be allowed to make up their own minds about something, rather than having society – through the law – impose its opinions by forbidding the very utterance of any alternatives? Were you aware that – way back in 1977 – the American Nazi party won a court case, which went all the way up to the US Supreme Court, that allowed it to march in uniform through a Chicago suburb (Skokie) where one-in-six of the inhabitants was a Holocaust survivor? Don’t you remember that, only a few centuries ago, people were persecuted if they questioned the doctrine that kings were God’s true emissaries, sent to rule over their lands with divine right?

For it’s all “Je suis Charlie!” now, don’t you know? That has to apply to all of us, whether we truly feel it or not; all of us must take a proud stand against limitations to free expression – and if you happen to express your disagreement with that, we’ll send in the police! That 23-year-old – foolish asshole though he clearly is – should be lauded rather than imprisoned: to be sure, not for what he wrote on his Facebook account (c’mon fellah, give us a wink that you didn’t really mean it!), but rather for his gesture that exposes the hollowness of all the “Je suis Charlie!” sanctimony.

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Armored Hostage-Saving

Posted on January 9th, 2015 by MAO

On this Friday mid-day the European press (and the French press in particular, as is understandable) is going crazy on social media about the stand-off with the Charlie Hebdo murderers at some industrial park to the north-east of Paris. Just now Le Figaro came up with the following:

tank
A tank! Note that this French paper had to give credit to the actual photo to the English, namely @Telegraph.

But wait! Following a few minutes afterwards:

Tanknotcert
“The nature of the vehicle is not certain. We will give you subsequent information as they are confirmed.”

Of course that is a tank! The first Twitter-commentator there, a certain François, suggests that it is an AMX-10 RC, but that can’t be right since what we see in the picture seems to be a tracked vehicle, whereas the AMX-10 RC is an armored car, a wheeled vehicle.

But these are mere details for the military enthusiast. More relevant is that all news reports agree that these fugitive militants have taken at least one hostage. What are the French authorities doing bringing in a tank to resolve a hostage situation?! That is more likely to worsen the situation than to make it better: the gunmen will be more ready to shoot their hostage when they contemplate being on the receiving-end of the massive cannon they see there on the vehicle.

Reports that some 88,000 police/soldiers had been mobilized to conduct the manhunt were bad enough. But now it seems the French police are starting to head along the same infamous path, brought out into the light with the Ferguson, MO disturbances of last August, of the over-militarization of the police that we see already in America.

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Charlie Hebdo: The Stark Viewpoint

Posted on January 8th, 2015 by MAO

For any sort of publication that puts “Euro” in its name, it would now seem that some sort of reaction to the massacre of the staff at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is expected, even required. I think I do have something to offer along those lines, boosted by the usual multi-lingual monitoring of the European press that I have been able to do since yesterday. As usual, I’ll try to shy away from any conventional wisdom; I apologize that that probably means that my slant is on the pessimistic side.

1) The attackers will achieve their objectives. Well, they already achieved their tactical objectives, in that it seems they managed to kill all of the skilled cartoonists (I believe there were four of them) there at the magazine. They managed this via the simple expedient of research to connect names and faces, combined with what appears to be some skilled use in wielding AK-47s to overcome security guards armed only with pistols.

By “objectives,” however, what I really mean is what we can presume were their more strategic objectives of deterring anyone who might want to insult the Prophet Mohamed in print in the future. (However, see also below.) Yes, I know that everyone is hammering on now about the need to protect free speech, in government pronouncements and in innumerable demonstrations around the world, most of them on some cold public square. But that is different from stepping up again to take up the flag of the “cause” of insulting Islam, one aspect of asserting one’s free speech. That sort of courage is rare; it’s the sort of courage that cannot reasonably be requested from anyone, including journalists or cartoonists who in most cases have not signed on to living every work-day with the dread of someone storming into their offices firing an automatic weapon. News reports from France today indicated that other big-name French newspapers (Le Monde, Libération, etc.) are ready to step in to provide funds and resources to get Charlie Hebdo back on its feet. That’s fine – but will they provide substitute writers and cartoonists to take up their places on the firing-line as well? I think not; I think those will be quite slow to come forward, if at all, since everyone will quite reasonably be intimidated – and so the attackers will win. (Indeed, at the personal level they may never even be caught.)

A related point: Let’s say that reasonably competent new writers and cartoonists with the right sort of attitude do come forward. What are the French authorities then supposed to do to protect them, and any other news publication which may want to indulge in offending fanatics? Post guards with sufficient firepower to have a chance against the next set of attackers to come along? No, we don’t want that as a society, we don’t want to be living perpetually in an armed camp. Nonetheless, something like that may happen anyway, and such incidents will inevitably provide further licence to government campaigns to further restrict civil liberties, to enlarge their surveillance over citizens (well, over everybody), and indeed possibly even to start torturing (or else to resume/broaden their torture activities – as in the USA, for example – if they have already been indulging). You can call this the “9/11 Effect”; people are scared again and, after all, you can’t exercise your civil liberties if you are dead. More »

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European One-Armed Banditry

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by MAO

No, we don’t mean there’s been a new crime-wave perpetrated by cripples criss-crossing the Old Continent; nor (even though this is a little bit more likely) some illicit fund-raising campaign undertaken by ISIS fighters having had to return from their MidEast adventures due to grievous upper-body injuries.

Rather, for “one-armed bandit” here we are referring to the slot machine, that most-insidious piece of gambling equipment capable of enchanting for hours – and many dollars, euros, or what have you lost – on end quite considerable cohorts of people with the particular psychological disposition to be so captivated. Especially in it most-modern incarnation, i.e. those machines governed by internal software, far from offering players any “fair” game it is rather carefully programmed to manipulate the sucker sitting before it so as to extract the maximum of money.

A modern-day societal plague, in short; yet thereby irresistible to those businesses, and occasionally even governments, which can manage to gain permission to make the investment into equipment and then set them up so as to start preying upon the passing parade of suckers.

In terms of the latest news from Europe on this score, as is so often the case we witness one step forward together with one back. Starting in Austria:

WienGamble
Ralf Leonhard is the Austrian correspondent for the Berlin newspaper the taz (Die Tageszeitung), and he reports about how, as of January 1, das kleine Glückspiel – “small-scale gambling” – has been banned within the city of Vienna. That basically boils down to one-armed bandits, which previously numbered some 2,600 in the city, spread out among 505 locations of which 69 were Spiellokale, that is, pure slot-machine halls. (The other establishments were places like bars and cafés; they’re now banned there, too.) More »

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Same As The Old Boss?

Posted on January 6th, 2015 by MAO

Let’s start this New Year out with a success-story: Tunisia. Famously, this is the land that, so far, has emerged in best shape from the Arab Spring. That is not to say that it is not making some peculiar-looking political choices.

Tunisia
The fellow you see in the picture there is Mohamed Beji Qaid Essebsi, sworn in just last December 31 as Tunisian President after having won a free and fair election for the post in November. He does have links to the regime of ousted dictator Ben Ali, but that was only as Tunisia’s ambassador to Germany, and then one year as as President of the country’s lower house of parliament.

Indeed, even before that Essebsi worked closely with Habib Bourguiba, considered the father of the modern Tunisian state as it emerged independent in 1957 from French colonial rule. This fact indirectly points to what is the main questionable thing about President Essebsi for the outside observer: he 88 years old. That has to be some kind of record for the age of a head of state freely chosen by a general election.

But OK, so the people of Tunisia chose a President who might soon turn out to need replacing, from sheer natural causes: the important thing is that they did choose him. The point of the tweet is not really about the new Tunisian President, Mr. Esebbsi, but rather the proposed new Prime Minister, and this official is not chosen directly by the people but rather by the party that forms the government, which presently is called Nidaa Tounès. The vice-president of that party just announced its choice, a certain Habib Essid, 65 years old. “What we have here is an independent personality,” the VP told the press, “with competences and experience,” particularly “his knowledge in the area of security.”

A Torturer’s Knowledge of Security?

Well I should say so: Mr. Essid was the number-two official in the Ministry of the Interior of ex-dictator Ben Ali at the time of his overthrow in 2011! Just as a reminder, that is the Ministry in charge of the police, and all that the police were allowed to do to people back during what was President Ben Ali’s repressive, authoritatian state.

Now, the fact that Ben Ali was overthrown – in fact, relatively quickly and easily, especially when you compare his situation with Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria – might indicate that Mr. Essid was not so effective in his job. Of course, this Le Monde piece also notes that he was also the first Minister of the Interior right after the Revolution succeeded, so he was obviously acceptable to the new regime for some reason – perhaps he played some double-role from his powerful position within the Ministry of the Interior to help it succeed.

For now, we don’t know: there’s no further background here on just what was Essid’s role in the Revolution. All we are left with – for now – is a new Tunisian state getting off the ground democratically while having to rely so much on pre-revolutionary governing expertise that its two most powerful positions are likely to be filled by, on the one hand, an 88-year-old, and, on the other, a former high-ranking policeman in the service of the deposed dictator.

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No Rwandan Christmas Cheer

Posted on December 22nd, 2014 by MAO

Looks like the Grinch has already stolen Christmas in Rwanda, as the Belgian state media are reporting.

Rwanda

Belgium will not release an amount of 40 million euros in development aid to Rwanda, an “incentive tranche” that the [Ministry for] Cooperation linked, in addition to other intended amounts, to the realization of a certain number of conditions such as good governance and respect for freedom of the press. Minister for Cooperation Alexander De Croo decided not to grant these 40 million euros, as the VRT [Flemish state broadcast network] reported Sunday.

So is this a Croo-el move? It’s hard to say. Rwanda should be encouraged to make the sort of progress in the behavior of its government of the types mentioned, but it’s hard for outside observers to reach any independent judgment as to whether this denial of money is justified. Perhaps there is too little international press coverage of the country generally; perhaps it’s also true that the progress being measured is a subtle thing. OK, we can recognize when freedom of the press has taken a hit, but remember that that is being judged not absolutely but relatively, i.e. in comparison to what it was before. Who other than the bureaucrats of the Belgian Ministry for Cooperation knows anything about that?

Probably more important to keep in mind is that this €40 million is just something extra to the development aid monies that Belgium is sending to Rwanda with no such strings attached: €160 million over the four years 2011 to 2014. In effect, then, that missed bonus is another year’s worth of payment.

Most important to keep in mind of all is Belgium’s history in Rwanda. From 1884 it had been a German colony, but was taken over by Belgium after World War I. Belgium authorities were after all right next door in the Belgian Congo which they governed in a particularly notorious and exploitative manner. That track-record could not have been good omen for Rwanda; a particular mistake on their part, though, was the identity-card system they introduced in 1935, which labeled people by tribe and so cemented and probably worsened the Tutsi vs. Hutu antagonism there. This would help lead to the infamous Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s.

So yeah, it’s good that Belgium assists Rwanda with some €40 million a year. You’d even think the Brussels authorities would cut them a break and give them their additional €40 million bonus, even if undeserved.

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Brazen North Korean Cheek

Posted on December 20th, 2014 by MAO

Verily, it’s an unpleasant sight in general, that of Kim Jong-Un laughing it up with his lackey Army generals.

KimJongUnlaugh
It’s all the more disagreeable considering what the North Korean dictator and his hacker army have recently accomplished. You’re surely aware of what happened with SONY Picture’s upcoming movie “The Interview,” but have you seen this as well?

DNKDisclaimer
But wait: there’s more to drive Kim Jong-Un and his minions into absolute hysterics! The North Korean government has now begun to deny its involvement in the SONY Pictures hack – before, it had been deliberately vague on the subject – but has not stopped there. Here’s the statement released today by some government minister, as reported by the French 20 Minutes newssite:

Since the United States is spreading allegations without foundation and defaming us, we want to propose a joint inquiry. Without going so far as to resort to torture, as the American CIA has done, we have the means to prove that we had nothing to do with the incident.

That allusion to CIA torture was sly, no?, but the American government has simply brought that upon itself – and no, not by releasing that executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report, but by committing the torture in the first place.  “Contrary to American values” and all that . . .

Apart from this, though – it’s the OJ Defense once again! “What, me, guilty? Perish the thought! In fact, I am so innocent that I am dying to assist you in an investigation to find the true culprit!”

Now add to that some additional reporting from Le Monde of the North Korean government coupling this with threats of “grave consequences” for the US should it continue insinuating Pyongyang’s guilt. Le Monde:

[North Korea] promised Saturday to boost its nuclear capabilities in response to Washington’s hostile policy, arguing that it had become clear that the US has as its goal an invasion of North Korea under the pretext of non-respect of human rights.

That is some Grade-A chutzpah, there.

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Cuba ♥ Americans!

Posted on December 18th, 2014 by MAO

Surprise and delight prevailed in Havana following yesterday’s simultaneous announcement by both governments of the resumption of full diplomatic relations. Our man/woman (no by-line) from Le Figaro was there, as reported by the French newssite L’actualité.com.

Vague_LaHavane
Well, OK: half-surprise. It seems people there in Havana, at least, had been aware for weeks that some sort of breakthrough in US relations was coming. There is no explanation how they knew.

Further, those in the US now raging against Obama’s move are at least right in one respect: Raúl Castro’s government really wanted this:

The Revolution moves no one to dreams anymore on the Communist island. Even if the regime of Raúl Castro is not in danger, or even hard-pressed (contrary to the repeated proclamations from the Cubans in Miami), the Cuban president had been preparing for this opening to the US for a long time.

Actually, the American authorities might have been pursuing exactly the wrong strategy for all these decades:

As an old Cuban Communist Party cadre, Mirta, confided recently: “How could the American authorities have followed such a stupid policy for fifty years? If they had raised the embargo, normalized relations with Cuba, the regime would have crumbled all by itself.”

Note well that, in fact, the embargo is not raised: that’s something only Congress can do. In any case, according to this piece American culture has long ruled on Havana’s streets anyway, with “caps, glasses [meaning sun- ?] and gadgets” bearing some variation of the Stars & Stripes representing highest style. One has to wonder, though, exactly what sort of “gadgets” the Figaro reporter witnessed there, considering Cuba’s well-known reputation for being a virtual open-air museum of lovingly cared-for fifties-vintage American cars. PalmPilots, maybe? Transistor radios?

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Polar Role-Reversal

Posted on December 18th, 2014 by MAO

Among the world turmoil occupying us in this run-up to the 2014 Christmas period, one alarming development that you may well have missed was Denmark’s filing of a formal claim on Monday to the area of the North Pole. For some years – and particularly now that the melting of the Northern icecap is laying them bare – the considerable oil & gas natural resources said to be just under the Arctic Sea floor have piqued the interest of those countries lying along its periphery in trying to extend their sovereignties as far as possible into that area, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

You’re right, Denmark does not itself border the Arctic Ocean; what does is Greenland, whose foreign and defense policies Denmark still controls, even as it otherwise enjoys self-government. Indeed, it is an underwater ridge that extends from Greenland through the Arctic area that constitutes the legal basis for Denmark’s claim.

So now we have this self-reflective comment from the website of DR, or Danmarks Radio, the Danish government-owned national TV and radio network.

Forsker_Nordpol
You could say this is a bold, even audacious, move and those interests it challenges directly (aside from the well-known seasonal actors – Hello Santa!) are mainly Canada and Russia. Particularly Russia, as we realize from this quote in the linked DR piece from a Danish journalist who has written extensively about the Arctic:

This is a gigantic piece of the sea-floor that Denmark and Greenland are now claiming. This extends – and this is the surprising thing – the entire way over to Russia’s nautical border. Danish politicians have therefore chosen to use all means provided to them by the UN’s oceans commission.

It is a surprise; this is Denmark we are talking about here. Or, as the comedian Craig Ferguson just put it:

The Danes are causing a bit of trouble. The kingdom of Denmark claimed the North Pole as their own. Hey, you can’t just reach out and take something if you want it, Denmark. That’s Russia’s job.

Indeed. That DR Nyheder tweet literally reads “Russia as meek as a lamb in the Arctic – we are the aggressive ones.” How could this be? This is Putin’s Russia we are talking about, after all, and the Danes, whose neighbors haven’t had anything to complain about since Viking times.

Could it have something to do with the very recent drastic weakening of Putin’s geopolitical position brought about by the collapse of the oil price and the ruble? Is the lack (so far) of Russian reaction the first sign we have that these troubles will likely tone down Russia’s behavior after all? Not according to Jakob Busk Olsen, who wrote this DR piece; he instead reckons that Russian decision-makers are too aware how the region is so hostile to man that absolute lack of conflict is necessary for anyone to be able to safely make the substantial investments (in offshore drilling platforms, etc.) to exploit those resources. Better to not rock the boat.

And why is Denmark acting so aggressively to safeguard to itself access to those presumed oil and gas deposits, when that country is among the world’s pioneers in transitioning away from fossil fuels? The key thing to remember here is that the Kingdom is actually acting on behalf of its semi-ward Greenland; it clearly would like to be rid of its remaining obligations there, but Greenland will eventually be able to stand on its own feet economically mainly with its own trousseau of fossil-fuel assets.

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Wishing You Many Hot Returns

Posted on December 15th, 2014 by MAO

On a weekend when high EU representatives were decrying the violation of “European values” through the mass-arrests of journalists in the European continent’s southeastern corner, in Turkey, as we can read from Mathieu de Taillac in Le Figaro the very same sort of thing was happening in its southwestern corner – that is, in Spain, and therefore in what is already a member-state.

SpainAsylum
“Spain, the only land frontier between Europe and Africa, feels abandoned by an EU which is quick to give lessons.” Yes, that “land frontier” does exist, namely at Ceuta and Melilla, which are two small enclaves of Spanish sovereignty on the northern coast of the African mainland that have managed to survive there over the centuries. They are both marked off from surrounding territory by no less than three lines of barriers with surveillance cameras (as well as, if we are to believe the account in this article, “razor blades” – de lames de rasoir).

The thing is, these enclaves’ presence also means that if illegal immigrants somehow manage to get past all those barriers – and around 28,000 have accomplished that over the past ten years – then in effect they have successfully made it into Europe. According to current Spanish legislation, they have the right to request asylum and get free legal help to help the pursue that. In the meantime, they of course get to stay in “Europe” because their asylum case is being decided – it can take a long time – and who knows?, maybe they’ll ultimate get it. More »

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Asterix to French History

Posted on December 5th, 2014 by MAO

Anyone else out there into the Asterix & Obelix cartoons? It’s true that these cartoon tales of plucky Celtic warriors beating back the Romans in ancient Gaul were originally French, but they soon went international, with the requisite translations, and now seem to rival even Peanuts as an ongoing commercial vehicle for all sorts of lucrative tie-ins.

Astrix & Obelix originally meant Goscinny & Uderzo, the story-writer and cartoonist, respectively, but all that commercial money has been smoothing the retirement only of Albert Uderzo (now 87) for the longest time, as Goscinny died back in 1977. (The latter’s Wikipedia entry states he died “during a routine stress test at his doctor’s office” – whoops!) Uderzo recently re-emerged in public for an interview on the French radio station Europe 1.

Uderzo
The highlight of that interview was when he was asked “Which politician could incarnate Asterix?” His answer:

Maybe Asterix resembles the President of the Republic. He’s a person who doesn’t attach any great importance to what people say about him and who just goes on his merry way.

Curious! Could the Europe 1 producers have succeeded in enticing to their studio a representative of the 5% or so of the French electorate which stills supports François Hollande? It’s clear that, among the vast majority of the rest, President Hollande evokes rather less flattering images, most notably those of the tabloid-photo variety of someone riding a motorscooter with a silly helmet on his head, having slipped out the Elysée palace to go meet his mistress in the neighborhood, as it apparently was his wont to do roughly a year ago.

Still, it’s possible that Uderzo is indeed a Hollande fan, as he also displayed in the interview his rather low view of his countrymen. “The French don’t like success,” he declared on-air. “They envy success. They always find something so they can say that it’s no good.” And as evidence Uderzo mentioned the latest Asterix album he brought out (now on his own), Asterix Among the Picts, which in the end sold quite well in the face of mostly negative reviews.

As for drawing, he admitted “I don’t feel so much like it anymore. I have done so many [drawings]!” As I said, he’s 87 years old: he deserved to be done with all that long ago.

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Just Not Cricket!

Posted on December 4th, 2014 by MAO

Check out this photo, taken in Brussels, of a suspicious Muslim-type guy who for some reason is carrying under his arm what looks to be a rifle covered up in cloth. (Yes, I know that the surrounding text rather gives the game away, especially for those out there who can understand French.)

BrusselsTerrorist
There he was, waiting for a tram on a Sunday morning last August, on the Avenue Louise in one of the European capital’s most luxurious districts. This photo was taken out of the window by a security official at the Israeli embassy in Brussels who lives along the Avenue Louise, and who passed it on to the police – who in turn sent out an alert for the public to be on the look-out for this guy. (Wanted posters on post office walls and the like, one imagines, to the extent real-life post offices still exist in Brussels.) More »

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Just Confuse the Bastards!

Posted on November 15th, 2014 by MAO

The ongoing outrage over special tax arrangements for big multinational corporations rightly centers currently on Luxembourg and on the brand-new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, under whose premiership all of those advantageous arrangements were agreed there. The accompanying open secret, however, is how Luxembourg is not alone in its guilt in this regard. Ireland was actually pressured to take (limited) measures to rein in its own concessions to tax-avoiding corporations even before the issue blew up recently with the Luxembourg leaks, and EU Commission scrutiny is also being increased on some similar Netherlands measures, particularly what that country may have done to attract Starbucks.

Add to that infamous list Belgium, as well. However, a new report from La Libre Belgique describes one rather unique – indeed, some would say typically Belgian – approach taken there.

InBev
As you can see, the affair involves AB InBev, now the world’s largest brewing company, headquartered in Leuven, just to the East of Brussels. They have plenty of clout to force through their own sweetheart deal with any country that would want to host them, you would think. Indeed in 2011 the Belgian fiscal authorities permitted them to set up a “nameplate company” to which, in the usual fashion, they could use various accounting tricks to steer responsibility for more than €50 million of profits actually earned elsewhere and so be very lightly taxed on them, in most cases not at all.

This organization was set up in Brussels rather than in Leuven, perhaps to provide a sheen of “arms-length” propriety. Imagine its surprise when, last year, it found itself under investigation for its fishy tax arrangements by the Belgian tax inspectorate, the Inspection spéciale des impôts (ISI)!

Clearly, the left hand of Belgium’s tax authorities often does not know what the right hand is doing! This article does not reveal the final resolution of this investigation; it might still be ongoing, although in any event it’s likely that those authorities will go for consistency and call off the inspectors – rather than seize the opportunity presented by this bureaucratic cock-up, that is, to claim back what are surely millions of sorely needed tax-receipts from a scandalous arrangement that some official was browbeaten into approving in the past.

Really, given the mounting public outrage over these sweetheart tax deals you would think the relevant Belgian officials would think again about whether they might just want to shut this one down. It would be very good publicity; AB InBev (originally a truly Belgian company, anyway) is firmly embedded in the country so that it would be costly to move. At least these officials have effectively raised the cost of such arrangements to tax-avoiding multinationals, in the form of the uncertainty that henceforth must be part of their calculus as to whether to deal with the Belgian state.

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Bosses’ Ras-Le-Bol

Posted on November 7th, 2014 by MAO

Truly, it is the Autumn of Discontent in Europe. That’s why that phrase up in the headline might be a handy one to learn. It’s French of course: ras-le-bol, or “enough” as in “I/We’ve had enough!” People are unhappy with their governments and are taking to the streets. Just yesterday marchers representing Belgian unions flooded through downtown Brussels, while a minority topped off the day by setting fire to cars and skirmishing with the police. Such demonstrations are set to continue there today, while the Antwerp dockworkers and their local labor brethren are set to do the same there on November 24th.

Now that we’re talking about protesting crowds flooding the streets, the French surely cannot be far behind. Things are not going very well there economically either, and sure enough:

RasLeBol
Even if you don’t know French, you can make out the word décembre there: they’re going to hold their fire until December. But wait: the next words after that are le patronat, and that means “bosses,” not “workers.” (And indeed, that fat-cat in the suit there does not look very proletarian.)

But things are going bad for these guys, too, at least according to the vice-president of one large (French) employers’ organization (Medef), Geoffroy Roux:

One SME boss kills himself every two days, the treasuries are bone-dry, business bankruptcies are up and the government adds practically every day a little tax here, a measure increasing complexity there, so there is really a sense of “Enough!” [ras-le-bol!].

The plan is for things to truly go down on 1 December, when most of the various French employers’ associations are calling upon small business-owners to “hit the streets,” both in Paris and in Toulouse. But really: can it be true that French bosses will display their anger with the same sort of mass demonstrations (with occasional violence) that working-class organizations use?

That M. Roux I previously quoted declared in a TV interview that, yes, “some will perhaps hit the streets” on 1 December, but that there will also be meetings and témoignages, which literally translates as “testimonials.”

There’s another way these business organizations will mobilize to get what they want, too. M. Roux does not include it in his list, but the Le Monde writer (uncredited) does give it a mention: stepping up their institutional lobbying.

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Luxembourg Leopard & His Spots

Posted on November 6th, 2014 by MAO

Here’s the latest EU scandal – yes, with the new Commission not even a week old! – and it might be a biggie. It broke this morning:

accordssecrets
Oooh, «accords secrets» – secret accords! They’re linked with that “343,” that’s the number of multinational companies to which the Luxembourg granted sweetheart tax deals to come and operate there. This has just emerged from a leak from the offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers there, which itself earned handsomely in taking up the role of negotiating with the Luxembourg government on those companies’ behalf for these tax-breaks. According to the report cited in this piece in the Tribune de Genève,

While in Luxembourg the tax rate for companies is officially 29%, which is decent [honnête] in international terms, that often passes below 1% after negotiations with the tax authorities.

The important thing to remember here is that multinationals routinely distort their official accounts, through tricks that go under the general name of transfer pricing, to show as much income as they can as coming from a place like Luxembourg where it is subject to the least taxation. Of course, the income has really been overwhelmingly earned elsewhere, in other countries – and those countries thereby effectively have had legitimate tax revenues stolen from them, in often mind-boggling quantities.

The company names sampled in this brief piece are what you would expect: Apple, Amazon, Heinz, Pepsi, Ikea, Deutsche Bank, and also a handful of Swiss companies (as this Swiss newspaper notes): UBS, Credit Suisse, Lombard Odier private bankers (remind you at all of “odious”?), and others. Indeed, with respect to the American companies on this list, their management has to cheat governments out of taxes using techniques like these, in order to increase earnings – otherwise they can be sued by shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty! Behold the face of late twentieth-century/twenty-first century Capitalism!

What really makes this development juicy is of course the identity of the brand-new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013 when presumably all or at least most of these sweetheart tax-deals were negotiated. Now, it’s true that it was pressure from the outgoing Commission that recently Ireland to close its notorious “double Irish” tax loophole (well, at least over the next four years) that enables multinationals to evade enormous amounts in taxes owed elsewhere. The legal justification wielded was that such generous tax terms in effect amounted to “state aid,” which is forbidden to EU member-states.

That same rationale can obviously be brought to bear now on these Luxembourgish arrangements. But will it? As @TeacherDude puts it:

TeacherDude
Juncker is going to have to change his spots, and quick. This development is precisely the last thing the EU needs after last May’s elections that saw so many new MEPs elected from extremist parties, reflecting a souring on the EU on the part of the European electorate. Already Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is prominent among those extremist parties, is calling on Juncker to resign from his very new Commission President position .

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