Archive for the ‘France’ Category

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde on the EU’s New Debt Support Facilities: “An Historical Turning-Point”

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

The finance blog Naked Capitalism today linked to a current article of high interest which happens to be available only in a foreign language, in this case French. I’m referring to the interview with French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde in the business newspaper Les Echos – newsworthy at any time, but of crucial interest appearing just now.

This is not the first time this has happened on Naked Capitalism, but my intent here is certainly not to scold. In many of those previous instances I have been happy to step in and provide a translation of the article in question on this site, and I do the same below after the jump with the Lagarde interview. The piece’s lede is “‘There’s a determination to construct a new edifice, to reinvent the European model,’ declared the Minister of the Economy in an interview with Les Echos.” (Interviewer’s questions are in bold.) (more…)

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Me & My Tractor Invade the Big City

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

It’s often claimed that French farmers are quick to take to the streets – in the best French Revolutionary tradition – whenever they feel their interests threatened. And that is true, and has been for decades. But it’s only recently that video technology has evolved to the point where the blog-reader can be taken along for the ride almost as if s/he is right there.

L’Express writer Aurélien Chartendrault (Now, doesn’t that name convince you right there that we’re talking about things French? That’s a “he,” by the way.) hitched a ride yesterday on the tractor of farmer Nicolas Combes, one of 1,200 farm-vehicles invading Paris’ city streets in a protest-action of around 10,000 corn and grain farmers unhappy about the prices they’re getting for their produce. The resulting video is below; in it, M. Combes gets the only speaking part and uses it mainly to go on about how he feels he can barely make a living anymore, and apparently also about some pointy-headed officials who are trying to get him to farm without using pesticides.

But here it’s best to leave all that stuff aside – indeed, best if you can’t understand French, although his enunciation is perfectly fine and without accent – so you can just concentrate on the sensation of riding through the Parisian scenery in a tractor-convoy.


Mon tracteur à Paris
Uploaded by LEXPRESS. – the latest news content.

What comes next? Inevitably something like “Grand Theft Tractor,” in a Paris setting – soon available for PSP, Wii and the XBox 360!

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The Doctor is IN/OUT/ON Picket-Line

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Whoops, there’s another problem one sometimes is face with while trying to procure medical attention over in this continental “health care paradise” – at least in France, as Le Monde reminds us. You can probably guess it: your doctor can go out on strike, as it seems French GPs are doing this very day on a nationwide basis.

Closely related to that is that, again in France but likely elsewhere in Europe as well, your doctor is likely to belong to some sort of union. In fact, there are several French doctors’ unions, and they all have called for a strike today. Their grievance? They basically want the price doctors are allowed to charge for a consultation to rise to €23 (=$30.50); it seems the current price is €22. If that is all they’re getting angry about . . . citizens trapped in many other more privately-based health-care systems where a doctor’s visit tends to cost much more than €23 can only look on in envy.

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Mystery Korean Military Sinking

Monday, March 29th, 2010

If something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . . then it’s a duck, right? OK. Now how about if something looks like a North Korean attack (South Korean frigate explodes and suddenly sinks), is where North Korea attacks (the doomed ship was in disputed waters), and fits right into a long history of North Korean attacks – is it a North Korean attack?

As this article by Sébastien Falletti in Le Figaro demonstrates, maybe not – even though South Korean authorities did take emergency measures in reaction to Saturday’s sinking of the Cheonan, President Lee Myung-bak calling an urgent meeting of national security advisors at his “crisis bunker.” At least the only aggressive military response was that of yet another South Korean naval vessel opening fire on a suspicious approaching aerial threat that appeared on its radar – which turned out only to be a flock of birds. (more…)

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Death of French Carbon Tax: “Crime Against Humanity”

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Remember how, only a couple short months ago, the election for Edward Kennedy’s old Senate seat was lost by the Democrats, and suddenly nothing in politics that people had thought to be sure was so sure anymore in the face of that supposed voters’ anti-Establishment revolt? This particularly applied to health care reform, which up to that point had been laboring slowly through Congress, but had already been passed by both chambers, in two different versions that still needed to be reconciled. With the Massachusetts Senate result, though, even many of that legislation’s greatest supporters were nonetheless ready to throw that effort overboard entirely or at least drastically scale back its ambition.

A similar thing has just happened in France, following regional elections there last Sunday which resulted in heavy losses for the governing UMP party of President Nicolas Sarkozy. Two days afterwards, French premier François Fillon announced that his government was dropping the idea of a carbon tax, something it had previously been developing with a view towards putting it in the tax code on 1 July. And there is reason to believe that this concept is certainly more permanently dead than US health care reform turned out to be; for one thing, as Claire Guélaud reports in Le Monde, the main French organizations representing employers and entrepreneurs broke out in rejoicing at Premier Fillon’s announcement. (more…)

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Prevent Priest Sex Scandals: End Celibacy

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

The Reverend Hans Küng is a Swiss Catholic priest, although of the renegade sort, who has been expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church to teach its theology. For more than forty years he has been somewhat of an outspoken radical on religious topics, most especially when it comes to the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he has repeatedly written to condemn.

These days, though, the Catholic Church has rather larger problems than the question of whether the Pope is ever able to make a mistake, most especially a raft of priest-pedophile scandals ranging from the USA to Ireland, and now in Germany as well. In an opinion piece appearing now in the authoritative French newspaper Le Monde (translated from German), Küng comes forward with a straightforward solution: To fight the pedophilia, let’s abolish priest celibacy.

Of course, the Roman Catholic establishment will have none of that. In his article, Küng carefully lists – and then controverts – three assertions coming from Rome in reaction to these pedophile scandals: 1) That they are not actually the result of the priestly vow of celibacy; 2) That the scandals represent no sort of truly systemic failure within the Church; and 3) That, in any case, bishops have taken adequate measures in response. America, Ireland (yes, even such a Catholic country of around 18 centuries of Church history as Ireland), now Germany: of course it is a systemic failure! And while, yes, celibacy cannot be the exclusive cause of this behavior on the part of so many priests, it is fairer to say that the twisted and strained Catholic attitude towards human sexuality of which celibacy is but one aspect surely plays a big part. (As for the bishops: their record of rather covering-up than dealing forthrightly with pedophile scandals cropping up under their jurisdictions is clear.)

Küng really goes after the whole concept of enforced celibacy for priests here; he examines both Scripture itself as well as Church history to shoot down the very idea, pointing out that nothing of the sort was actually required of priests until the tenth century, when celibacy was mandated by Pope Gregory VII while influenced by a certain circle of monks (who themselves were celibate, but by their own choice). Plus, even back then, when both the spiritual and temporal power of the Catholic Church had reached its height (and the First Crusade was about to be launched), this new measure still touched off major protests among priests in Italy and in Germany.

I’ve already mentioned the bishops and their “hush up” policies towards the pedophile incidents. But Küng also reminds us that, after a certain point in time, all pedophile cases were referred to the office within the Vatican known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where such centralized handling apparently helped them to be buried all the more effectively. A certain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge of that particular office starting in 1981 – until he was chosen as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005! It turns out that Küng and Ratzinger have something of a common personal history, as they were colleagues for a time back in the early 1960s when they both worked as advisors to the Second Vatican Council. But this latest article – in such a high-profile publication as Le Monde – is certain not to do much to improve their relations, nor to soften Küng’s official treatment from the Vatican.

UPDATE: Küng’s article has now made its way to the blog of The New York Review of Books in a proper English translation.

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Jean Quatremer, Goldman Sachs, and Greece

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Over on the financial blog Naked Capitalism today there are some very interesting links concerning the seemingly nefarious role Goldman Sachs has played in the recent past with the Greek government, that government’s attempts to both hide its debt and to find ways to fund it, and with the Eurozone in general.

The headline link is to a very revealing blogpost by Jean Quatremer, Brussels/European correspondent for the French newspaper Libération – but the link is only to the French original. Herewith my translation of that, after the jump, complete with the links Quatremer uses within his piece (other than when they go to Wikipedia or to general homepage sites): (more…)

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Munich and Iran Nuclear Ambitions

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Let us now talk about Iran and nuclear weapons. Why? How about because the annual Munich Security Conference got started today and will run through the weekend, and, from a European perspective at least, that is currently the leading security issue.

But wait . . . here’s maybe a better reason to talk about Iran: the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung is now reporting that that country has a design ready for atomic warheads. The newspaper hints heavily that this revelation is its exclusive scoop; according to information it has managed to obtain, the key to Iran’s efforts was a certain Russian nuclear expert, present in that country from the mid-nineties to the year 2000 (or maybe all the way to 2002), and whose work in developing a certain high-speed camera process was crucial to the Iranians being able to fashion a so-called two-point implosion system for setting off the nuclear explosion. Now the Iranians have the blueprints they need to develop bombs that in fact would be small enough to fit comfortably on the medium-range Shahab-3 missiles they possess. Supposedly, inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency know about this new development and concede that the warhead design would certainly work. (It was in fact an IAEA document that was the source for the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s revelations.) (more…)

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The French Cover Obama’s SOTU

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

President Obama faced a hard challenge with his State of the Union address to Congress of yesterday evening, given his recent series of political setbacks. That his speech came off well nonetheless is not just the conclusion picked by post-speech polling, but also one shared by observers from the French press, despite the discourse’s inevitable emphasis on domestic affairs. (This US-focus did not stop the French on-line papers from uniformly offering embedded videos of the entire speech, some even dubbed into French, so their readers could take a look at it themselves.)

Noteworthy reaction flowed promptly in two articles from that pillar of the French journalistic establishment, Le Monde. One of them (Obama’s words: work, economy, and Americans; no byline) literally offers at its head a “word-cloud” of the speech’s most-frequent terms (actually, their French equivalents) and then, by way of analysis, a hyper-short summary of his essential message: “Don’t panic.” Yes, it’s true that the president’s emphasis was much more on the economy and creating jobs, rather than on that health care reform legislation that still sits tantalizingly close to final passage. But what was of far more interest to Le Monde’s writer here was those foreign policy topics to which Obama gave short shrift, as he only briefly discussed Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, skimmed China, Russia, Germany, India, the Koreas, and said nothing at all about Pakistan or the Israeli-Palestinian peace-process! (Nor about France, come to think of it.)

A companion Le Monde article (Obama like in the first days; also no explicit byline) notes how surprisingly sprightly Obama appeared before the assembled Congress (“with a rediscovered insolence and combativeness”), just like in the old days, oh so long ago, when he was eating John McCain’s lunch on the campaign trail. This writer also issues a fitting, if cynical summary of the president’s economic message: focus on jobs this year (an election year); focus on reducing the deficit only the year after that.

For its part, the conservative paper Le Figaro contributes a lengthy review of Obama’s SOTU speech from its Washington correspondent, Laure Mandeville (Employment, Obama’s priority for 2010). I’m pretty sure “Laure” is a French woman’s name, for Ms. Mandeville not only mentions Barack’s feistiness (“more resolute and offensive than ever”) but also gets in a reference to Michelle’s couture (she was wearing a jupe bouffant violine – some sort of fancy skirt). At the same time, she captures well the lecturing, lightly-scolding tone prevalent especially in his speech’s second half, and directed largely at the Republican opposition, reflecting his greater theme of “we [i.e. the country] just can’t go on like this!”

Bonus: The judgment on Obama’s SOTU speech is also out from the foremost Danish expert on American affairs, Prof. Niels Bjerre-Poulsen of the Copenhagen Business School (as reported by Ritzau, so it’s pretty much the representative Danish journalistic view; actually published in this instance in the opinion newspaper Information). With this excellent speech, opines the good professor, Obama once again showed his strong side to the nation: that is, in speech-making, in this case in a tight situation and with many contradictory points to make. But the resulting goodwill will only last so long, and it takes much different political skills to translate such fancy words into concrete results. We still have to see if the president is similarly gifted with those latter.

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Chinese Consumption Kings

Friday, January 15th, 2010

What’s Chinese for “Starbucks”? Did you catch the news about how China is now the world’s biggest exporter in absolute terms, having recently eclipsed Germany? Or how the Middle Kingdom is very close – almost there, 9 out of 12 months last year – to passing the US as the world’s largest car market?

Now Isabelle de Foucaud of the French newspaper Le Figaro weighs in with another upcoming China milestone: The Chinese soon [to be] kings of consumption. “Soon,” but not really right away; her lede:

Chinese households are earning more and saving less. In consequence, Credit Suisse estimates that the Chinese could dethrone the United States at the first world-rank of consumption around 2020.

Yes, this pronouncement is based upon a survey that Credit Suisse recently did towards the end of last year among 2,700 respondents in eight major Chinese cities. In particular, this showed that Chinese personal saving rates have fallen from 26% in 2004 to 12% last year.

Where does all that newly-free income go? For now, the report says, it’s going to real estate and to cars, but it’s also starting to go into consumer goods, too. “The big international brands are rubbing their hands” in glee about this, writes De Foucaud, but they need to be careful: Chinese companies are getting ready to challenge foreign firms for these new consumers’ Yuan across-the-board, including in the high-tech and luxury sectors where up to now they have been absent.

From my reading of recent macroeconomic commentary, this increase in consumer spending is a quite healthy development towards “re-balancing” the recession-struck world economy, so it can’t come soon enough (indeed, in this perspective 2020 looks rather too far off). On the other hand, the strong economic growth that is behind these developments is also making China more into a nation of “haves” and “have-nots,” i.e. with top-earners enjoying much more income growth than the rest, and this itself is a dangerous development in traditionally-egalitarian Chinese society.

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The Frozen Why’s and Wherefore’s

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

“Cold enough for you?” I know: a trite thing to say. Everyone knows already that it’s cold: Europe, North America, Asia. Better if someone could tell us why, and what we can do about it!

Comes now Pierre Le Hir, writing in Le Monde, with a bit of explanation (Why the Northern Hemisphere suffers under cold waves). According to his account, this winter’s extraordinary cold is the product of one key variable, together with another aggravating factor. That variable is NAO, or North Atlantic oscillation, which is the weather-pattern determined by the intensities of the low-pressure center usually somewhere around Iceland and the high-pressure center usually around the Azores. If NAO is positive, then winds coming into Europe carrying warmth stored by the Atlantic are strong, resulting in a mild winter; if it’s negative, they are weak, resulting in cold.

Naturally, right now NAO is negative. Then there is that aggravating factor, of which you have heard before: El Niño, defined as abnormally-high surface-water temperatures in the Pacific. Starting from last summer the El Niño phenomenon has been elsewhere than where it usually is found (more mid-Pacific than near to the South American coast). This helps to make things yet colder in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in North America. In fact, author Le Hir reports that the weather establishment still does not regard the cold experienced so far this winter in Europe to be particularly outside of the realm of expectation – for all of the deaths (22 in the UK) and various disruptions to transport in France and some other countries that the article goes on to list.

Oh, and as to that second point: We can’t do anything about it.

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Veils To Be Outlawed in France?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Get ready for more trouble on the European Muslim-relations front: Le Monde reports today that one French legislator, Jean-François Copé, has expressed his intention to introduce legislation forbidding the wearing of a veil in “places open to the public,” to be punished by a hefty €750 fine, also applicable to people “who oblige a women to wear a full veil”. He proposes this in an interview to appear in the issue of the right-wing magazine Le Figaro to be published over the coming weekend; Le Monde has simply managed to blow the whistle early on what is presumably the most news-worthy component of that piece.

This matters because Copé is head of the group of parliamentarians in the French National Assembly that belong to the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) which is also President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party – and because it would seem that the European political scene could use a break from this sort of measure in the wake of the referendum in Switzerland last November that forbade the building of minarets there. Strangely, in his interview Copé also mentions that his proposed law would incorporate “a period for dialogue of six months between the date of application of the law and the date of promulgation to permit a phase for discussion and mediation with the concerned persons.” That seems a strange way to proceed – legislate first, discuss later – and is unlikely to salve the feelings of the Muslim inhabitants of the country against whom this law clearly is aimed.

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Obama Sends Message to Cuba

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I first caught sight of this news-piece from an on-line article in L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party. I know, sad but true – but L’Humanité to me is nothing more than just another entry in my “France” RSS feed, I swear! And anyway, somehow the same thing has also been covered on-line on the Fox News site (but not more mainstream sources, like the Washington Post or even the New York Times), working from a Reuters report (which the Fox editors actually kept strictly factual – no vituperations against the President here at all!). Anyway, it seems that President Obama took advantage of the meeting he had in the Oval Office with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister of Spain, on 13 October to ask him to tell his foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to pass along a personal message to Cuba – actually, to “the Cuban authorities.” The message was basically that the US was working to improve relations with the island-nation, but “if they don’t take steps too, it’s going to be very hard for us to continue.”

Perusing L’Humanité will further inform you – as looking at the Fox News article will not – that the paper that originally broke this story, appropriately enough, was Spain’s El País. So let’s go there and take a look: we can also handle the Spanish beat here on EuroSavant, though we don’t do it often. (more…)

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Digital Crimes at the Elysée

Monday, October 12th, 2009

One noteworthy French media institution which I don’t deal with at all on this site is the Chained Duck, or Le Canard Enchaîné, a “satirical weekly” newspaper that comes out each Wednesday, and which has a long history going back to 1915. I don’t deal with it partly because its unique brand of journalism – similar to the late-lamented British magazine Punch, but with even more of a political bite – by its very nature is highly idiomatic, but mainly because its website indeed looks much like you would expect a website to have looked like in 1915, if there had been websites then.

To some extent that publication’s non-approachability is a shame, because its reporters do perform some serious journalism (before twisting it up in the house humor-style) and achieve scoops. Fortunately, no less than France’s own “grey lady” of journalism, Le Monde, considered Le Canard’s latest revelation to be worth taking up and passing along on its own pages (When the Elysée practices piracy).

First off, you need to know that the Elysée Palace is where the President of the French Republic lives, so that these days Elysée basically means “Nicolas Sarkozy” the way “White House” means “Barack Obama.” And it does seem that Président Sarkozy has engaging in a bit of piracy lately, or at least his people have. A documentary was shown on French television this past summer about him (actually, the evening before Bastille Day); it was part of a series called À visage découvert, or “With discovered face,” produced by Galaxie Presse. He must have liked it, because his office shortly thereafter asked Galaxie Presse to send along fifty DVD copies of the show for them to distribute further. It turned out, however, that they ended up distributing at least 400, and each such DVD carried the mark not of Galaxie Presse, but rather the seal of the President of the Republic along with the accompanying highly-ironic and minatory text “Audio-visual service of the president of the Republic – All rights reserved (photos and video).”

Further investigation by Canard reporters revealed that the Director of Galaxie Presse, Michel Rager, certainly had never been informed of the Elysée’s intentions to play a bit of a “loafs-and-fishes” game with the original fifty DVDs his company had provided – for free. The real point here, of course, is that France in recent years has taken the lead within Europe in instituting legal penalties against the illegal downloading and copying of digital materials; as the reaction from reader “Pirate” that Le Monde puts off to the right side of this piece points out, the illegal-copying action of the president’s office is supposed to bring criminal penalties of up to three years in jail and a €300,000 fine. The word “hypocrisy” in French, by the way, is easy enough for anyone to remember: hypocrisie.

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Paid Voyeurism, Coming Soon to Voyeur-Land

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

We all know about surveillance cameras (a.k.a. CCTV, or closed-circuit television). They’re supposed to protect us against crime, but they have a big problem: no one is really watching them, most of the time. That means that, at best, such cameras may have value after-the-fact in providing recorded video evidence (for submission to a trial, say), but do little to alert people when a crime is being committed or to send immediate help – or indeed, some reports say, even to deter crime.

All this notwithstanding, the UK is the world’s CCTV paradise, with by some accounts 1.5 million cameras in operation in various public spaces there. The problem remains of monitoring all those cameras sufficiently to be able to fully draw on the technology’s supposed benefits. Doing that with computers is one technique that is coming along, one that supposedly is not the answer yet, although doubtless it will be soon. In the meantime, articles in both Le Monde (Yoyeurism rewarded in Great Britain) and in the Nouvel Observateur (One society proposes to reward informants) have now drawn their respective readerships’ attention to a new private initiative in the UK called Internet Eyes (“Catch a criminal online”; “Become a Viewer for FREE”), where the essential idea is to get volunteers to watch these cameras, through the Internet, in the hopes of spotting crime as it happens and alerting the authorities for a cash reward. Go on and click through to check out the site: just like that girl you see there, you could soon be sitting back in the evening on your coach, relaxing with your laptop as you scan for criminals! Note in particular that, listed just below the heading “Typical event notifications include:” is “Anti social [sic] behavior” – defined by whom?

Anyway, any of you who are interested can simply head to this piece in the (London) Times to read a more lengthy treatment, in English of course, with many more details (including the assertion in the picture-caption up top that Britain in fact has 4.2 million CCTV cameras operational). The French input to all this is simply that those two publications from the Continent tipped me off to this story to begin with. Indeed, I’m otherwise rather disappointed in them for what is really in both cases a spare, “just the facts” treatment of Internet Eyes – the only hint of opinion comes in each article’s title – when you really would expect more contemplation of what this all means from the mainstream press of such a philosophically-inclined and intellectual land.

(Gee, you’re right: I’m more-or-less guilty of the same offense, including saving my most intense opinionating for this post’s title. I can only respond that I still don’t know what to think about it all. I do really hate the CCTV cameras, but then again, examination of that Wikipedia page about them started me contemplating the 1993 murder of that two-year-old Liverpool boy by two ten-year-olds, a crime that leaned heavily on CCTV footage for its solution.)

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Tide Gradually Turning Against Roman Polanski in France

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

After French/Polish director Roman Polanski’s arrest last Saturday night as he was trying to enter Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival where he would accept an award, the first public reactions from his countries of citizenship expressed outrage. More substantively, both the French and Polish foreign ministers issued a joint appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene, which she declined to do.

Now almost a week after the fact, however, attitudes seem to be changing about the case, to Polanski’s detriment. Jan Cienski of the Global Post has a pretty good summary of how that is occuring in Poland, while Doreen Carvajal and Michael Cieply of the New York Times posit the same development in France. (The NYT editors themselves take up the attitude to the case that seems to prevail throughout the American continent: Polanski must be returned to the US to face justice.)

A trip through the on-line French press does turn up indications that the tide has turned against the Oscar-winning director. (more…)

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Tsunami Rogue’s Gallery

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Once again Asia/Oceania has been hit by a devastating tsunami, or killer tidal-wave series. This time it was Samoa and American Samoa that were afflicted (as well as other neighboring islands, such as Tonga), and it looks like no one was able to be warned in time about what was coming from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

It’s all very bad, but at least the devastation wasn’t as widespread as at the time of the last big tsunami emergency, that one that hit India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia shortly after Christmas back in 2004, right? Actually, there have been a number of other tsunamis since then, and a helpful article from the French newsmagazine Le Point provides a handy list (and reveals the interesting fact – interesting to me, anyway – that the French term for this disastrous phenomenon is raz-de-marée, which they also use for “landslide” in the political sense):

  • Indonesia, 17 July 2006: An undersea earthquake creates a tsunami that hits the southern coast of Java and kills 654.
  • Samoa (again!), 28 September 2006: Only a “light tsunami” this time, no word of any casualties.
  • Russia, Japan, and USA, 15 November 2006: An underwater earthquake among the Kuril Islands (northeast of Japan, administered by Russia) causes a tsunami that hits the northernmost major Japanese island of Hokkaido. It’s a weak one, though, although apparently at the same time strong enough to go clear across the Pacific to cause some seaside damage at Crescent City, CA (just under the Oregon border).
  • Solomon Islands, 2 April 2007: Three coastal villages devastated, 52 people killed when a tsunami hits the westernmost of the Solomon Islands.
  • Japan, 11 August 2009 (just last month!): A tsunami hits “the center of Japan,” so presumably the main island of Honshu, but it’s a light one and only a few people are lightly hurt.

And then there’s yesterday’s serious incident around Samoa. I suppose the lesson is that, if you live anywhere near Southeast Asia (even in Crescent City, CA), you had better stay tuned in on-line to that Pacific Tsunami Warning Center website, but still keep your surfboard handy and/or your running-shoes on your feet for when the waves turn out to move faster than the warning.

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French Applause for Obama Missile Non-Deployment

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Readers of this weblog – a smallish, hard-core elite, to be sure, but we’re trying to do something about that – will have known the news already, but last Thursday President Obama came out in public to announce that his administration did not intend to proceed with the planned deployment of anti-ICBM missiles to Poland and supporting radar to the Czech Republic. Reaction to the decision was swift and vociferous, both for and against, domestically and internationally. Presseurop has a good survey of that reaction in the Eastern European press, although I feel that it tends a slight bit too much to the alarmist side. It seems many of those newspaper headline-writers have forgotten how fundamentally unpopular the American deployment was among ordinary Czechs and Poles; in this light, Obama’s cancellation of the program per se is not so regretable, but rather the considerable trouble both governments had to take to gain the political approval for their participation, now all achieved for nothing.

Not to worry, though, because French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised Obama’s move as an “excellent decision,” and the editors at Le Monde make it clear that they agree (Hand extended). Yes, the proposed deployment was going to be expensive, for a weapons system about which there remained significant doubts that it ever would actually be able to do what was designed for. But don’t forget the diplomatic dividends, either, Le Monde reminds us. These mainly involve Iran, which is supposed to start multilateral talks with a range of western countries starting on October 1; Obama’s action sends them a message of “good will and realism.” And Russia? Obama’s gesture was directed there to an even greater extent, but Le Monde’s editors unfortunately do not expect to see any corresponding gesture from the Kremlin anytime soon.

By the way, mention should also be made of the announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noted in Le Monde’s news coverage of the American announcement, that the “SM-3” missiles which are now to be the replacement anti-missile system will be deployed in turn from 2015 in Poland and the Czech Republic. First of all, that is a bit over-determined: mainstream US news reports put it instead that deployment of those missiles to those countries is but a possibility. And that’s a good thing, too: recall that the original ten defensive rockets that were to be intalled in Poland were designed to counter Iranian missiles of intercontinental range. Poland presumably is a good spot to deploy those – just take a string to your globe to check out the great circle route from Iran to the USA – but that is probably not also the case for defense against the short- and medium-range missiles which are now assumed to be the only Iranian threat for many years to come. In light of this, these suggestions that Warsaw and Prague will eventually get their missiles after all have to be regarded as sheer political bull-headedness – “We won’t let anyone tell us we can’t station missiles in Eastern Europe!” – rather than anything based on considerations of military effectiveness.

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Obama’s Health Care Speech: French Reax (& Preax)

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Obama gave his big Health Care speech to a joint session of the US Congress early this morning (Central European Time). Let’s take a look at some material about that from the national press of France, the country which, it is widely admitted, has much to teach the Americans about how to run a national health care system.

We first need to consult the French paper-of-record, and that is still Le Monde, which provides initial coverage in a piece jointly credited to it, the AFP news agency, and Reuters (Obama’s big oral exam on health) and put on-line only a couple of hours after the event itself. Graphically, the article stands out due to the two YouTube videos embedded within it, which feature no dubbing or subtitles or any other concessions to French-only readers but which of course include that electric passage when the president was loudly heckled (Vous mentez!, he shouted – or would have, in French, if he had had any bit of class) by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson. The main insights of note here come at the very beginning – Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, or “Barack Obama is going all-in,” in poker-speak – and at the end: the piece remarks that Obama knows he needs to achieve something this year, as it will be even harder to do so next year, an election year. (more…)

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Economic Science Discredited: A French View

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

She’s known mainly for being ultra-polite and proper, God bless her, but even Queen Elizabeth II reached the point at the end of last year when she couldn’t restrain herself anymore from asking, while visiting the London School of Economics, “How could no one have foreseen it?” “It,” of course, was the catastrophic banking/financial breakdown that had come to its terrifying climax the previous September – almost one year ago now – and plunged most of the world into grave economic troubles, her own sovereign realm definitely not excepted.

Putting Her Majesty’s query in another form, How did economists get it so wrong? Or, if you like: What were they thinking? Whichever way it is stated, the issue is no doubt a complicated one, not to mention rather embarrassing for that profession of economists from which one might still assume that the best answers might ultimately come. And by now they are coming: the previous two hyper-links, in fact, take you directly to major pieces on the evident failure of modern economics by Paul Krugman (in the New York Times Magazine) and by Francis Fukuyama (together with Seth Colby).

But all of that is in English and so readily accessible. (Well, you’re going to have to subscribe to The American Interest if you want to read all of the Fukuyama/Colby piece, but the Krugman is all there and is really a “must-read.”) For our EuroSavant purposes, let’s consider instead an analysis piece just out in the French newspaper-of-record Le Monde by editor-in-chief Frédéric Lemaître: The crisis puts back into question economists’ knowledge and status. (more…)

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Rogue Missiles and a Fake Hijacking

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Today we go from yesterday’s discussion of the implications of the melting ice in the Arctic Sea to . . . the Arctic Sea. But hold on: the “Arctic Sea” I’m talking about this time is not the geographical area, but rather the freighter (Maltese-registered; Russian crew) which has recently been at the center of a bizarre tale, having been hijacked just off Sweden on July 24 and which then proceeded seemingly to traverse the English Channel (one of the more-crowded stretches of water in the world) undetected, only to finally be found and captured by Russian warships weeks later in the Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands off the West African coast. If needed, you can refresh your memory from this Reuters report, and you might also consider an additional Associated Press report about a “Russian maritime expert,” now having fled Russia for fear of his life, who raised the possibility that the ship’s cargo could very well have included things a bit more interesting than just the Finnish wood listed on the manifest – like maybe weapons, for example. (more…)

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Arctic on the Rocks

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I’ve got some good news for you, and some bad news.

It has to do with global warming, and since this is my weblog, I get to decide that I’m going to give you the bad news first. You probably didn’t hear about this – I know that I didn’t – but this past week has seen the World Climate Conference – 3 take place in Geneva, Switzerland. Journalist Richard Heuzé of the French conservative newspaper Le Figaro provides coverage and, as you can well imagine, the outlook is not good. It’s so “not good” that the conference participants had a wide array of things to choose from for panicking about.

On this particular occasion they happened to concentrate their foreboding on the state of the Arctic. Put simply, it’s much too warm there already. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon spoke to the conference just after actually conducting – as Heuzé puts it – his own “inspection tour of the North Pole,” and his tidings were dire. “The Arctic is warming up faster than the rest of the Earth. There could be no more ice there in 2030.” One rather daunting result of that could be the unleashing of a positive-feedback effect that would cause the global warming process to accelerate, whereby the warming Arctic permafrost releases massive amounts of heretofore trapped methane gas into the atmosphere, which traps heat at the Earth’s surface even more effectively. (more…)

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Countering Threats to the President

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

It’s fascinating and horrifying at the same time to read the recent news reports about the violent, intimidating turn the debate in the US over health care reform has taken. But that is not going to be the subject of this particular post per se, mainly because I have not picked up any European coverage of the same – yet, I’m sure. Arthur Touchot of Le Figaro instead gives us a bit of this flavor with a brief piece: Obama receives thirty death-threats daily. Touchot here draws mainly upon a book brought out just this month by Ronald Kessler entitled In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. (Kessler is a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter who has written a number of other books such as The CIA at War – and in 2006 Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, which I confess does hurt his credibility with me a tiny bit. But he’s clearly a James Bond fan.)

Yes, as Kessler reports in his new book for which he interviewed scads of Secret Service operatives, Barack Obama is on the receiving-end of about 30 death-threats per day, as opposed to the “only” nine per day that George W. Bush enjoyed. (Now, America is a country of some 300 million, but still . . . perhaps that is a tad much?) The main thrust of his message, as reported by Touchot, is fairly predictable: in these days of government cut-backs, the Secret Service also considers itself to be rather alarmingly starved of resources to be able to respond appropriately to this level of threat against the President’s person. They have only half the level of personnel that they consider necessary, and too often those agents who are on the job have to forego training in order to go investigate and/or guard against various new hazards. If they complain, then they are apparently met with a Marine-type, hoo-ha attitude from their superiors: “You can get it done, and with the resources you have, because you are a Secret Service Agent!” You are Clint Eastwood!

Touchot passes on something else that also isn’t very surprising, namely that Obama has stayed cool in the face of these threats, both on the campaign trail and as president. He then unfortunately feels the need to pad out his piece by reciting the Secret Service code-names for Obama and his brood: the President is “Renegade,” Michelle is “Renaissance,” and on down. Isn’t it obvious that, once revealed like this (and we all know that they were made public long ago), these “code-names” rather lose any functionality they ever had as tools to keep anyone eavesdropping on the Secret Service from knowing who they’re talking about? It’s clear that there must be some other reason for them, and for their repeated revelation, probably having to do with PR and Americans’ love for spy-thrillers and all appurtenances thereto. If the Ph.D. thesis about this phenomenon from some sociology student has not yet been written, I’m sure it will be forthcoming soon.

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Pill-Popping Flu Invulnerability

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Any residence of Texas knows about “The Valley,” even if he or she doesn’t happen to live there. Not really a valley it all, it’s that area down along the Rio Grande that constitutes the border there between the US and Mexico, a handy place for new Mexican immigrants to the US (legal or otherwise) to get their start, but otherwise producing little of note for the world other than folk singer Kris Kristofferson and legends from the Streets of Laredo.

Now The Valley has produced something else, something that has caught the attention of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO): a new strain of swine flu that is resistant to the main drug the world is relying on to counter its effects, Tamiflu. Reports about this come both from France’s Le Point and (perhaps somewhat strangely) Denmark’s leading business newspaper, Børsen, which cite PAHO spokeswoman Maria Teresa Cerqueira, attending a swine flu conference currently happening in La Jolla, California.

Granted, this same Tamiflu-resistant strain has already been spotted in Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong, and even once before in North America, namely in Canada. But how did it come about? Cerqueira: “In the USA Tamiflu is sold by prescription, but in Mexico and Canada they sell it over-the-counter and take it at the first sneeze. And now that it is really needed, it doesn’t work anymore.” In other words, if you grant the assumption that the swine flu we can expect in the autumn is likely to be deadlier than what we’ve encountered so far (although, to be fair, the past strain did kill 353 persons in the USA and 143 in Mexico, among others), then pill-popping Mexicans and Canadians have exhausted the world’s Tamiflu firepower on the earlier, safer version – which reportedly merely caused symptoms comparable to any common, garden-variety flu – and thus have left everyone vulnerable to the more dangerous strain.

There’s perhaps a glimmer of hope in the Le Point piece, namely that one patient found to have the Tamiflu-resistant virus was able to be cured with another drug, “Zanamivir,” made by GlaxoSmithKline. So maybe there’s still an alternative cure available – until the virus in short order develops resistance to that!

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One-Stop Death Shop Convenience

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Goodness, it seems one 54-year-old male resident of Mérignac, a town to the southwest of Limoges in the French Dordogne, recently set off in his car on a rather dastardly mission. He headed for a village about 50 km away called Valeuil, with the intention of stealing whatever he could find of value from the local cemetery there. We can deduce his intentions by the fact that he had a ladder, a hammer, and a chisel in his possession. And we can deduce that he had a ladder, a hammer, and a chisel because those were found right next to his stiff body laid out in the very cemetery he had intended to loot, as Le Point tells in a brief article entitled He dies of a heart-attack . . . in the middle of pillaging a cemetery.

Perhaps his mistake was that he visited the cemetery in broad summer daylight; he apparently figured that it was such a small town that no one would notice him anyway, but he didn’t take into account the effects of the heat. Truly, the shoplifter unexpectedly became a customer, so to speak – I wonder whether somewhere in the afterlife he immediately ran into those whose graves he had despoiled or had intended to despoil.

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Let Them Eat Yacht

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Memo to Secretary of State Clinton: If you consider your squabble with the North Korean authorities as still unresolved and are just waiting to launch a new salvo, I’m glad to provide you with some more ammunition. According to a new report in the French weekly Le Point, you could accuse them of shelling out government funds for luxury yachts from abroad while their people starve back home. Italian authorities back on May 28 seized two luxury yachts with a combined value of €12.5 million, under construction at Viareggio on the coast of Tuscany. This was at the request of Austrian prosecutors in Vienna, as the order for these, along with several cars, had been placed by an Austrian national who thereupon transferred title to them all to a Chinese company suspected as acting as a front for the North Korean government. Naturally, the shipment of any sort of luxury goods to North Korea is prohibited, specifically by UN Security Council resolution 1718 of October, 2006, passed in the wake of that country’s first nuclear test.

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Flu Preparations: The Good, The Bad, The Pig-Ugly

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

mexicaan_griep_jpg_255361dSwine flu is coming soon to hit us again, almost anywhere on Earth we might find ourselves. We know that; indeed, some of us possibly intend to seek out one of those swine flu parties to go to, about which I wrote previously in this space, in order to try to gain immunity against the autumn’s follow-up virus.

Of course, normal social intercourse under the shadow of a communicable disease rather demands that individuals take whatever prophylactic measures are necessary to avoid spreading the virus to others, if one has it, or catching it from others if one does not. That’s why illustrations accompanying swine flu news-reports usually show people wearing medical face-masks. Unfortunately, word has now come from the respected Dutch daily Trouw: Face-masks are not the solution.

Says who? Says Louise Knegtel of the BCM Academy (a.k.a. the Business Continuity & Crisis Management Institute), who these days is going around frenetically conducting three or four workshops per day about the “Mexican” (i.e. swine) flu and how businesses should prepare for it. She notes that face-masks will probably be useless because they only work if they are consistently worn, i.e. by everyone and at all times, and humans are simply not made that way. Sure, you can get all draconian and insist upon and enforce the wearing of face-masks by everyone in your firm, but then what about your suppliers? Your customers who come for a consultation/business meeting?

It probably won’t work (and, believe me, that’s not really the Dutch management style in any case). Better to go with other measures like repeatedly cleaning telephones and doorknobs, using the stairs instead of the elevator, and “limiting social contact” within your company, i.e. letting people work from home, holding teleconferences rather than in-person get-togethers, etc. Even this is not enough to make your firm ready for what Ms. Knegtel forecasts could be 50% employee absence if the new flu outbreak gets serious. (Note that a lot of this will likely be the result, not of sick employees per se, but people needing to go home to take care of children whose schools have closed against the illness.) Way before the flu strikes a firm needs to prepare carefully, designating key activities and key personnel, planning how to keep them going even when people go missing, maybe pre-designating a “crisis manager” (presumably one assumed to be least at risk of getting the flu him/herself) to take charge when the problems start.

Whoa, then: all talk of “Kiss me, you swine!” aside, it looks like experts are taking the prospect of a serious swine/Mexican flu epidemic in the fall quite seriously. This point is reinforced by an article in Le Monde of a couple of days ago, Europe: Authorities prepare to confront the virus, a brief, collective effort by Le Monde’s correspondents in the major European capitals (including Paris, bien sûr) to summarize preparations country-by-country. The common pattern emerges of governments having placed huge orders with the relevant pharmacy companies (Sanofi, GSK, Novartis) for flu vaccines and established plans for prioritized vaccinations for if/when the more serious H1N1 flu comes. That is, as large as the orders have been, there is still not enough vaccine for everyone, so public workers, people already in vulnerable states of health, etc. get it first. (Also interesting is that the French name for this disease seems to be “the flu A(H1N1)”; we may need to compile a lexicon if different countries/languages persist in using their own, idiosyncratic swine-flu names like this.)

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Man-On-The-Moon Envy

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Happy fortieth Man-on-the-Moon anniversary! Did you celebrate yesterday, maybe take your very own “one small step for man”? Let me tell you, the Europeans are still jealous! Why else would an editorial appear in Le Monde, that pillar of the French media establishment, whose very title declares Forty years after Armstrong, Europe should affirm its space ambition?

As the article’s author reminds us straight off the bat, using the words of John F. Kennedy, “It’s not just one man who will go to the Moon, it’s the entire country. Because each of us must mobilize to send him there.” Still, although they have yet sent no one there yet, Europe has been fairly active in space for quite a while. By now they have the powerful Ariane 5 rocket to their credit, which at the beginning of this month launched into orbit the world’s largest commercial satellite, a communications satellite weighing more than 7 tons. The European Space Agency has also made certain major contributions to the International Space Station, including delivering to it last year the first Automated Transfer Vehicle, an unmanned craft designed for resupply trips back-and-forth. Oh, and Europe’s space effort definitely means jobs, as this writer shrewdly points out: 40,000 directly employed in 2008, with around 250,000 further secondary jobs. (more…)

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Pirates Reborn

Friday, July 10th, 2009

If you’re into peer-to-peer downloading of large files (e.g. movies, music) from the Internet, you know already know all about it; if you’re not, here’s a quick summary. The most popular program for doing so is called BitTorrent, and for quite some time The Pirate Bay, a site based in Sweden, was the most popular place to go to get the files you might be interested in (you know, like Hollywood movies still in general public release – or even yet to embark upon public release). Naturally, The Pirate Bay came under some considerable legal pressure for its activities, until this past spring the main personnel behind it were sentenced to jail and to the payment of a hefty SEK 30 million fine. (They are appealing the verdict.) In the meantime, the Swedish advertising company Global Gaming Factory X AB has announced its intention to buy The Pirate Bay next month and give it a “new business model” that makes the site’s activities strictly legal. In the meantime, though, some of the people behind The Pirate Bay have formed The Pirate Party – with chapters not just in Sweden but other countries as well – to advance their free-file-sharing political views, which already won one seat in the European Parliament in the early-June elections.

The (eventual) metamorphosis of The Pirate Bay to legality is especially good news for the French government, which has been busy since the beginning of the year trying to come up with legal measures to pass to outlaw the sort of free downloading of copyrighted commercial material that The Pirate Bay did so much to facilitate. After modifying their legislation to meet the objections from France’s Constitutional Court, which had first thrown it out, the French Senate has recently passed it, so that it is close to becoming law. It would empower a state agency – called Hadopi – to detect this sort of activity and, if two warnings to desist are ignored, pass on to French judges information about the offense for them to assign penalties, including fines, jail, and disconnection from the Net.

Ah, but can anyone ever stop truly determined Internet “pirates”? Le Monde reporter Maël Inizan now reports on another site now arising like a phoenix from The Pirate Bay’s ashes to save the cause of free downloading (Illegal downloading: a new site takes up the torch of The Pirate Bay). (more…)

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Hot Pang of Alarm

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Pangnirtung: ever heard of it? The Wikipedia article claims it is known as the “Switzerland of the Arctic”; its mayor goes by the marvelous name of “Mosesee Qappik.” For our purposes here, though, all we need to know – besides the comforting fact that it’s OK just to call it “Pang” – is that it’s an Inuit town located on the Arctic Circle, on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut – and one that finds itself on the front line of world climate change. Le Monde correspondent Martine Jacot recently paid a visit to Pang to write about what is going on there (In the Arctic, the Inuits dread the network-effects of climate change); as world leaders haggle at the G8 in Italy over ceilings for temperature-rises and quotas for greenhouse gas emissions, it might be handy to consider for a bit what these people are going through already.

“Here as elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic,” states Ron Mongeau, a local government administrator, “climatic warming is not an illusion or a threat. Every day, it affects those who live there, who are dependent on hunting and fishing.” The average temperature there has indeed gone up by 1.4 degrees (that must be ºC) since the nineties, and the summer temperature has exceeded what used to be the hottest measurement on record (22ºC) five years in a row now.

OK OK, but what does that really mean on the ground – where the caribou’s hoof hits the road, so to speak? Well, speaking of, the caribou are all messed up about what is happening: during their autumn migrations they now find too many rivers not yet frozen-over, as they expect them to be from the past, and so have had to take wide detours. As for the humans living in the area (keep in mind, though, that they’re certainly outnumbered by the caribou), it seems everything they thought they knew about how their weather was supposed to be, year-round, has gone out the window. This past winter was somehow the coldest that anyone could remember; spring of 2008, however, was much warmer than usual, something that resulted in a “wall of water” flood hitting the town in June, after which the inhabitants had to live for months with potable water only available from trucks. Instances have now multiplied of snowmobiles traversing areas of snow and ice that turn out to be much softer than expected, so that both machine and rider get entrapped and have to be rescued, and everyone is afraid that the warmed-up soil will weaken the foundations of their buildings.

On the bright side, at least the Pangnirtung Fjord upon which the town is situated is now always ice-free in the summer, so that cruise ships have now made the place a regular stop on their itinerary. Many of those rich tourists like to visit in the first place to fish for the Arctic char (related to the salmon, and whose red/pink flesh is a rare delicacy), but the char population has noticeably thinned out lately because the warmer waters are no longer so suitable for the Arctic shrimp upon which they feed.

UPDATE: Here’s a related piece in English, about how they’re already having to cope with global warming in Greenland, from Yahoo! News (h/t to Some Assembly Required).

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