Macron urges defense of democracy on state visit to Germany

Macron urges defense of democracy on state visit to Germany
French President Emmanuel Macron stands in front of the German flag during a State Banquet at Bellevue presidential palace in Berlin on May 26, 2024, during his state visit. (AFP)
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Updated 27 May 2024
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Macron urges defense of democracy on state visit to Germany

Macron urges defense of democracy on state visit to Germany
  • Macron made his first stop a democracy festival in Berlin, where he warned of a “form of fascination for authoritarianism which is growing” in the two major EU nations

BERLIN: Emmanuel Macron began Sunday the first state visit to Germany by a French president in a quarter-century, bringing a plea to defend democracy against nationalism at coming European Parliament elections.
Macron made his first stop a democracy festival in Berlin, where he warned of a “form of fascination for authoritarianism which is growing” in the two major EU nations.
“We forget too often that it’s a fight” to protect democracy, Macron said, accompanied by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
If nationalist parties had been in power in Europe in recent years, “history would not have been the same,” he said, pointing to decisions on the coronavirus pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Steinmeier said: “We need an alliance of democrats in Europe.”
Macron “has rightly pointed out that the conditions today before the European elections are different from the previous election, a lot has happened,” he added.
The trip comes two weeks ahead of European Union elections in which polls are indicating a major potential embarrassment for Macron, with his centrist coalition trailing behind the far right.
It could even struggle to reach a third-place finish.
In Germany too, all three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition are polling behind the far-right AfD in surveys, despite a series of scandals embroiling the anti-immigration party.
At a press conference, Macron said he would work to “unmask” France’s far-right National Rally (RN), saying that “nothing in their rhetoric holds water.”
“Unlike many, I’m not getting used to the idea that the National Rally is just another party. And so when it’s at the top of the surveys, I see this party and its ideas as a threat to Europe,” he said.
In a keynote address on foreign policy last month, Macron warned about the threats to Europe in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
“Our Europe, today, is mortal and it can die,” he said. “It can die, and this depends only on our choices.”
Ramping up his warning in Berlin, Macron urged Europeans “to go vote for the party that we back and a party that defends Europe.”
Hosting a state banquet later Sunday for Macron, Steinmeier also referred to the threat posed by Russia.
“Together we must learn again to better protect ourselves against aggressors, and to make our societies more resilient against attacks from within and without,” he said.
After the talks with Steinmeier, Macron is due to bring his message to Dresden in the former East German state of Saxony, where the AfD has a strong support base.
On Tuesday, Macron will visit the western German city of Munster and later Meseberg, outside Berlin, for talks with Scholz and a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting.
Beyond making joint appeals for the European elections, Macron’s three-day visit will seek to emphasize the historic importance of the postwar relationship between the key EU states.
France next month commemorates 80 years since the D-Day landings that marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany’s World War II occupation.
But all has not been smooth in a relationship often seen as the engine of the EU, and German officials are said to be uneasy at times about Macron’s perceived theatrical style of foreign policy.
Macron’s refusal to rule out sending troops to Ukraine sparked an unusually acidic response from Scholz that Germany had no such plans. Germany also does not share Macron’s enthusiasm for a European strategic autonomy less dependent on the United States.
But Macron sought to dismiss talk about discord, saying that coordination with Germany had been key over the years.
He cited agreements on sanctions against Russia over its war on Ukraine and action to spur European economic growth and innovation after the Covid pandemic.
“The Franco-German relationship is about disagreeing and trying to find ways of compromise,” said Helene Miard-Delacroix, specialist in German history at the Sorbonne university in Paris.
While Macron is a frequent visitor to Berlin, the trip is the first state visit in 24 years, since a trip by Jacques Chirac in 2000, and the sixth since the first postwar state visit by Charles de Gaulle in 1962.


Filipino health workers decry alleged US psyop against Chinese COVID vaccine

Filipino health workers decry alleged US psyop against Chinese COVID vaccine
Updated 5 sec ago
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Filipino health workers decry alleged US psyop against Chinese COVID vaccine

Filipino health workers decry alleged US psyop against Chinese COVID vaccine
  • US military allegedly ran secret propaganda campaign to spread misinformation about Sinovac in the Philippines
  • Philippine COVID-19 death toll reached over 66,000, making it the second highest in Southeast Asia

MANILA: An alleged US covert operation to discredit Chinese vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled dismay and anger among Filipino health workers, who say vaccine hesitancy prevented them from saving more people out of the tens of thousands killed.

A Reuters investigation published last week found that the US military launched a secret propaganda campaign at the height of the pandemic in the Philippines to spread misinformation and influence public discourse on the efficacy of China’s Sinovac inoculation as well as other lifesaving aid supplied by Beijing. 

The operation, which began in 2020 and lasted until mid-2021, involved fake social media accounts — with Reuters identifying at least 300 of them on X — that were meant to sow doubts about Sinovac among Filipinos. The Reuters report alleged that the program was payback for Beijing’s efforts to blame Washington for the pandemic. 

Sinovac was the first available COVID-19 vaccine in the Philippines, where its rollout was marred by fears over its supposed unreliability. Vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos was higher than other countries in the region, with almost half unwilling or unsure whether they should be vaccinated as of September 2021, according to a report by the World Bank. 

Frontline health workers who served at the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s main hospital for COVID-19, said it came at the cost of Filipino lives. 

“If the misinformation propaganda was real … the views of the general public about the importance of vaccines may have been affected by these troll farms. We know that Filipinos, especially the elderly, can easily believe what they read online,” Andro Carl Coronejo, a staff nurse at PGH’s pediatric intensive care unit, told Arab News, referring to organizations employing people to deliberately manipulate public opinion. 

“I think if it didn’t happen, more people would have been compliant earlier with vaccines. Hence, more lives would have been saved.” 

The pandemic death toll reached over 66,000 in the Philippines, making it the second highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. 

Bryan Elvambuena, who was an internal medicine resident at PGH in 2020, said many people could have survived had it not been for disinformation. He believes it influenced his patients, many of whom had severe COVID-19. 

“I was dismayed and I found it counterproductive and pathetic, because we tried our best to inform people to get vaccinated with the readily available vaccines,” Elvambuena said. 

Filipino health workers recalled how the pandemic brought the country’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse, as doctors and nurses struggled to care for COVID-19 patients amid surging cases. 

During one of her shifts as a staff nurse at PGH in 2020, Dianne de Castro said she was the only other person on duty to care for 24 patients, at least four of whom were hooked up to mechanical ventilators and life support machines. 

“It makes me wonder how we could have prevented or at least lessened the mortalities, the lives lost during the dark time in our generation. ​​I’ve worked in healthcare for around four years before COVID-19 hit, but I’ve never been this scared of seeing so many moms, dads, siblings, relatives, and friends die day in and day out,” De Castro told Arab News. 

“This ploy to spread misinformation to the public angers me. I still view Sinovac (as) a capable vaccine for COVID-19 and spreading this rumor is as close (as) cutting off the oxygen supply of a person gasping for air and fighting for his life.” 

For her, the US propaganda campaign may be a “crime against humanity” that robbed people of the chance to survive the pandemic and stole them away from their families. 

“My patients deserved so much better,” she said. “If this misinformation ploy was only driven for politics and greed, the ones in power now have blood on their hands.”


First Bangladeshi pilgrims return home after completing Hajj rituals

First Bangladeshi pilgrims return home after completing Hajj rituals
Updated 6 min 40 sec ago
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First Bangladeshi pilgrims return home after completing Hajj rituals

First Bangladeshi pilgrims return home after completing Hajj rituals
  • More than 85,000 Bangladeshis perform pilgrimage this year
  • Praise for ‘world-class’ treatment offered to ailing worshippers in Saudi Arabia

DHAKA: Bangladeshis who took part in this year’s Hajj began to return home on Thursday after completing the final pilgrimage rituals before leaving the holy city of Makkah.
A total of 85,252 Bangladeshi pilgrims were among almost 2 million Muslims who traveled to Makkah and Madinah to take part in the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.
They reached the Kingdom on 218 special flights that began one month ahead of the main rituals.
Most of the flights were facilitated under the Makkah Route initiative — the Kingdom’s flagship program launched in 2019 to streamline immigration procedures, helping pilgrims to meet visa, customs and health requirements at their airport of origin, and save them long hours of waiting before and on arrival in Saudi Arabia.
“The best part of this year’s Hajj management was the operation of Makkah Route facilities at Dhaka. It offered a pleasant journey to the Hajj pilgrims at the outset of their travel. It’s a testimony to Saudi hospitality for the Hajj pilgrims,” Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of the Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh, told Arab News from Makkah as he oversaw preparations for the worshippers’ return.
“Many pilgrims expressed their utmost satisfaction with the management and the operations style of Makkah Route facilities at Dhaka. For the pilgrims, this Makkah Route facility is a privilege.”
Immigration processes have been frequently updated to make the procedures more accessible, particularly for the elderly and those with disabilities, as well as to ensure luggage is delivered straight to their hotels in Makkah and Madinah.
This year, new software and hardware were added at Dhaka airport, making the Makkah Route even faster than in 2023. On arrival in Saudi Arabia, processes have also been easier.
“Saudi authorities have increased the number of people in their Hajj management process. It offered ease to the pilgrims, availing any assistance or help,” Taslim said.
Emergency helplines and call centers were also improved, and ailing pilgrims were taken to “world-class treatment” facilities where they received the best care, he said.
“The Kingdom’s authorities are really successful here. Their hospitals are offering services in a way that whenever they receive patients, immediately the patient starts treatment ... The patient would receive up to tertiary-level care, and everything is free of cost. It’s a great offer in terms of Hajj management.”


Germany arrests a man accused of standing by to carry out attacks for Daesh

Germany arrests a man accused of standing by to carry out attacks for Daesh
Updated 50 min 57 sec ago
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Germany arrests a man accused of standing by to carry out attacks for Daesh

Germany arrests a man accused of standing by to carry out attacks for Daesh

BERLIN: An Iraqi man who is accused of standing by to carry out attacks for Daesh after he arrived in Germany in 2022 has been arrested, prosecutors said Thursday.
The suspect, identified only as Mahmoud A. in line with German privacy rules, was arrested on Wednesday in Esslingen, near Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, federal prosecutors said in a statement. A judge ordered him to be kept in custody on suspicion of membership in a foreign terrorist organization pending a possible indictment.
He is accused of joining Daesh in Iraq in or before May 2016 and fighting for the extremist group.
Prosecutors said that Mahmoud A. arrived in Germany in October 2022 and stood by to carry out attacks on behalf of Daesh. They didn’t specify whether any specific attacks were ever planned.


UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe

UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe
Updated 20 June 2024
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UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe

UK’s Sunak faces call for election date betting probe
  • London’s Metropolitan Police said it was told by the Gambling Commission that a close protection officer was being investigated over the alleged bets

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced calls on Thursday to launch an inquiry after a member of his security detail was arrested for allegedly betting on the timing of the general election.
London’s Metropolitan Police said it was told by the Gambling Commission that a close protection officer was being investigated over the alleged bets.
The regulator had already been looking into claims that Conservative party candidate Craig Williams, who served as Sunak’s ministerial aide, placed a bet on when the election would be held.
A second candidate from Sunak’s party, Laura Saunders, is now also under investigation about an alleged bet on the date of the poll, the BBC reported on Wednesday evening.
Saunders is married to the Tories’ director of campaigns, the broadcaster added.
The Conservative party confirmed that the commission had contacted it about “a small number of individuals,” without commenting further.
Senior minister Michael Gove told the BBC Thursday he could not comment on the specific allegations but said the “broad principle” of using inside information to place bets was “reprehensible.”
The deputy leader of the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats, Daisy Cooper, urged Sunak to order an inquiry.
“This stinks of yet more sleaze, and answers are needed. An inquiry is needed to understand who knew what and when,” she added.


Sunak announced that a general election would be held on July 4, taking his own party by surprise as he still had six months to call a vote.
The Tories are expected to be dumped out of office after 14 years in office, with polls consistently putting the main opposition Labour party some 20 points ahead.
Two polls published on Wednesday predicted a record win for Labour, eclipsing even the landslide win for former leader Tony Blair in 1997, and a historic drubbing for the Tories.
Pollsters YouGov said the Conservatives — the party of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill — could slump to their “lowest seat tally in the party’s almost 200-year history.”
As well as criticism of Sunak’s decision to go early, the Tory campaign has been widely criticized for a series of gaffes, including a photocall in Belfast near where the doomed Titanic was built.
Sunak’s own already dire personal ratings were also hit after he left an international event to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day early.
The Met said the officer, a member of the force’s Royalty and Specialist Protection Command, was no longer on operational duties.
The officer was taken into custody on Monday on suspicion of misconduct in a public office, then released on bail pending further inquiries.
A referral has been made to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the watchdog confirmed.
The allegations against Williams came to light last week. He is alleged to have placed a £100 ($127) bet on a July date for the election three days before Sunak called the vote.
Sunak and other party leaders, including Labour’s Keir Starmer, take part in another pre-election television grilling later on Thursday.


EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say

EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say
Updated 20 June 2024
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EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say

EU states agree on 14th sanctions package against Russia, diplomats say
  • Europe is still buying Russian gas itself, and trans-shipments via EU ports to Asia represent only around 10 percent of total Russian LNG exports

BRUSSELS: European Union countries agreed on a 14th package of sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine, diplomats said on Thursday, including a ban on re-exports of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) in EU waters.
Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency until July 1, said on the X platform that the package “maximizes the impact of existing sanctions by closing loopholes.”
Countries debated the new measures for over a month and ultimately watered down one of the Commission’s proposals, aimed at preventing even more circumvention, at Germany’s prompting.
The dropped measure would have forced subsidiaries of EU companies in third countries to contractually prohibit the re-exports of their goods to Russia. The EU is keen to stop the flow of dual-use technology such as washing machine chips that could be used by Russia for military purposes.
An EU diplomat said Germany had asked for an impact assessment, and the measure could be included at a later date.
The ban on trans-shipments is the first restriction the bloc has applied to LNG. However, gas market experts say the measure will have little impact as Europe is still buying Russian gas itself, and trans-shipments via EU ports to Asia represent only around 10 percent of total Russian LNG exports.
The package also tightens measures against the shadow fleet moving Russian oil outside the price cap on Russian crude set by the Group of Seven (G7) nations. EU countries added tankers to the list of sanctioned entities as well as at least two Russian-owned ships moving military equipment from North Korea, diplomats said.
Moscow and Pyongyang have grown closer since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This week, the two countries agreed to provide immediate military assistance if either faces armed aggression in a pact reached after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang.
Overall, 47 new entities and 69 individuals were added to the EU sanctions list, bringing the total to 2,200. The package is expected to be formally approved when EU foreign ministers meet on Monday, diplomats said. (Reporting by Julia Payne; editing by Kevin Liffey and Mark Heinrich)