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Green Taxes and Yellow Vests: French Outrage to Increasing Gas Prices

December 7, 2018


Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a green tax on fuel to go into effect January 1 as part of his environmental policy strategy. This green tax comes on the back of the call for action against climate change. This has set off protest for the last three weeks, which turned violent last weekend in Paris. As a result, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday that it would suspend the gasoline tax increase for at least six months

These protests have been named the Yellow Vest Movement (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) for the safety vests worn by the protesters The yellow vest idea came early on, people who agreed with a petition were encouraged to show their support by displaying the high-visibility yellow vest every driver in France must by law carry, in case of roadside trouble. 

The Yellow Vest Movement originated in May and spread through social media.  It started when a woman named Priscillia Ludosky launched an internet petition calling for a drop in gas prices. The petition went mostly unnoticed until October, when Éric Drouet, a truck driver,   circulated it among his Facebook friends. The media picked up the story causing the number of signatures to skyrocket from an initial 700 to 200,000. Now it has more than 1.15 million signatures and counting. Originally, the yellow vest protesters were people from rural areas who have to drive long distances as part of their daily life and couldn’t afford the increase in fuel prices. The movement grew to include members of the working and middle classes, who  say their incomes are too high to qualify for social welfare benefits but too low to make ends meet.

The movement moved from social media to the streets on November 17 when Drouet decided to hold a car rally protest to demand lower gas prices. Supporters were asked to place their yellow vests on their dashboard or back shelf. The protests started in the French provinces but moved to Paris last week where they turned violent  over the weekend. Rioters defaced the Arc de Triomphe and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, looted shops, vandalized buildings and even attacked police. The cost of damage in Paris has been estimated at 4 million euros, or $4.5 million, protesters sprayed graffiti that read “Macron resignation” and, on the Arc de Triomphe, “We’ve chopped off heads for less than this.” Along with monetary losses four people have lost their lives due to the protests and hundreds were wounded. Three of the four people were killed separately in traffic accidents caused by roadblocks set up by yellow vests, and an 80-year-old woman in Marseille died from injuries she received when a tear gas grenade hit her in the face as she closed her apartment windows to protests below. Over 400 people have been arrested in Paris. Macron was in Buenos Aires for the G-20 summit over the weekend during the riots. He denounced the violence from Argentina and said those responsible for the chaos would be found and punished.


What the protester want has changed with their initial demand to repeal the green tax on diesel. Now, others want the current minimum wage to be raised. There have also been calls to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections. There has been a lot of rhetoric directed towards Macron, there have even been chants of “Macron resign!” President Emmanuel Macron was elected last year with an overwhelming mandate for sweeping reform, but his popularity has fallen sharply in recent months. He was elected on a platform of economic reform which would, the French people were told, improve their lives – with lower unemployment and a kick-started economy and many feel that has not emerged. Political leaders such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed have tried without success to latch on to the yellow vests. Macron has accused his political opponents of hijacking the movement in order to block the reforms. Macron has previously said he won’t back down on the fuel tax. Since he took office 18 months ago, the French president has seen public push back on almost every one of his reforms, especially liberalizing the labor market. However, this is the biggest political crisis he has faced so far, and it could determine the rest of his presidency.

On Tuesday, due to the violence, it was announced the tax would be postponed for six months and not start at the beginning of the year as planned.announced the green tax would be postponed for at least six months. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, is the one who announced this saying, “The French people who have put on yellow vests love their country,” he said. “We share those values.” But condemned violence.  “No tax warrants putting the unity of the nation in danger. One would have to be deaf and blind not to see or hear the anger. This anger is rooted in a profound injustice, that of not being able to live decently from the fruits of one’s work, of not being able to provide for the needs of one’s children.” According to a poll conducted Sunday by Harris Interactive for French media, 72 percent of French people support the yellow vests, even after Saturday’s riots, but 85 percent say they are against the violence. Along with a suspension of the gas tax increase, the government said it would also delay new vehicle inspection measures and increases in electricity rates that were intended as part of Macron’s plans to transition France toward cleaner energy. Now the French government is concerned about more violence this upcoming weekend and we will have to see if this postponement improved moods or made matters worse. 



Proposed Brexit Deal Fails to Dispel the State of Uncertainty

November 30, 2018
May Corbyn

Getty Images / BBC

Last Sunday, the long awaited deal laying out the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union finally took form, as British and European negotiators came to an agreement on some of the more contentious issues surrounding Brexit. Nevertheless, the deal, which might have briefly appeared to be a victory for Prime Minister Theresa May given the previous uncertainty as to whether any sort of agreement could in fact be reached before the deadline, soon disappointed expectations of offering a meaningful step forward: its conclusion was followed by a series of resignations from Ms. May’s cabinet, and shortly thereafter some of the main factions in Parliament—which must ratify the deal before it can come into force—begun positioning themselves as opposed to it. On the one hand, hard Brexiters complain that the deal makes too many concessions, and that it is therefore a betrayal of the spirit of Brexit. On the other hand, Labour MPs, under the direction of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, see in the potential collapse of May’s efforts an opportunity for taking over the reins of government themselves, and the official party line is to oppose the deal and demand new general elections if it fails to pass during the parliamentary vote scheduled for December 11.

One of the dilemmas faced by parliamentarians, however, is that there is no clear path ahead in the event of the deal failing. The more immediate alternative, if the present agreement is turned down, would be a no-deal Brexit, which would likely prove catastrophic for the British economy as the UK would be left out of the European trading block without any other mechanism in place for everyday exchanges with the continent. The prospect of grounded flights, highways turned into lorry parks as goods wait to clear customs, and shortages of medical and alimentary supplies imported from Europe are now the talk of the day. The other possibility, of course, is simply no Brexit. Indeed, the position of Labour and other opposition parties is that the UK should not be allowed to exit the UK without a deal; but, in order for this to occur, Parliament would have to either revoke Article 50 (which triggers the exit process for a EU member state) or convene a new referendum asking voters whether they would like to move ahead with Brexit under its current circumstances. The former option would be politically dangerous, as Parliament would be seen to ignore an explicit popular mandate. And, regarding the latter option, it is not clear that there is enough of a political will among legislators to follow the referendum route. Even if abandoning the whole Brexit enterprise may be the best course available—May’s own government recently published a report confirming that the UK will fare worse off economically under any Brexit scenario than if it remained in the EU—, and even though there is a growing demand for a “people’s vote”—a recent march in London gathered hundreds of thousands of demonstrators calling for a new referendum—, pro-Brexit Tories are obviously opposed to the idea, and even Labour’s position on the matter is ambiguous, with Mr. Corbyn showing a clear preference for general elections that would put him at the head of the Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps most opposed to a new vote is Prime Minister May herself, who has argued that the only alternative to her government’s agreement is a no-deal Brexit. Although this may be in part an effort to scare MPs into voting Yes on December 11, she also seems steadfast in her denunciation of a new referendum as a betrayal of the original one. Criticizing those who are calling for a people’s vote, she recently accused them of wanting to “overturn the will of the British people. Parliament overwhelmingly gave the British people a vote. They voted to leave. I think it’s a matter of trust in politicians that they actually deliver on Brexit for the British people.” The rationale behind this argument, however, seems fuzzy at best. It is not clear how a popular referendum on a subject for which there is much more information available to voters than there was when the original decision occurred two years ago would actually betray the will of the people. On the contrary, it would simply update that will in light of current developments. Ultimately, May’s position amounts to a normative defense of a contingent moment in time as the relevant marker of the voice of the people, and not so much a defense of giving the people a voice per se. After all, absent any entrenched norms to enable the identification of one particular form of expression as the relevant popular will, why should we accept that the opinion of voters in 2016 should carry any more weight than the opinion of voters in 2018, even though the composition and the disposition of those voters may have changed in the process? Indeed, to privilege the original referendum is to enforce an arbitrary reading of what is after all an abstract will from an abstract (and ever-changing) collective—arbitrary insofar as it is not grounded on any specific normative consideration.

Therefore, the possibility of a second vote should be one clearly open for debate, especially in a scenario where the failure of the proposed agreement leaves the prospect of a no-deal exit looming dangerously in the horizon. Recent assertions coming from the EU, specifying that the supranational body would be open to an extension of the Article 50 deadline for the purpose of convening a new referendum (assertions that contradict Ms. May’s own statement that any such extension would entail a start-over of the negotiations for an exit agreement), should make the idea of such a referendum all the more feasible. The question, right now, is whether the different political interests at stake will leave enough room for such a resolution of the Brexit crisis, or whether Britain’s future will be left prey to the power plays of its leaders. One way or the other, we will soon find out.

Sources v

Usual Suspects? Did Russia Jam GPS Signal During NATO War Games?

November 16, 2018


Last week, NATO ended their biggest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, Trident Juncture, which began on October 25th and ended Wednesday, November 7th. Along with NATO members, Finland and Sweden were also involved. The exercise took place close to Russia’s borders in central and eastern Norway, the surrounding areas of the North Atlantic, and the Baltic Sea, including Iceland and the airspace of Finland and Sweden. The military exercise’s purpose was to ensure that NATO forces are trained, able to operate together, and ready to respond to any threat from any direction.


During the exercise, there appeared to be two cases of unfriendly interference, not part of the exercise’s design. First, a Russian maritime reconnaissance plane flew past the US war ship USS Mount Whitney. Second, Norway and Finland’s air navigation services issued a warning for air traffic due to a large-scale GPS interruption in the north of the country. The blame immediately went to Russia and both countries have officially accused Russia as the culprit. This was not just a disrupter of the NATO military exercise, but was a civilian danger as well. Jamming GPS signal can affect airlines, as it did with the Norwegian regional airline Wideroe. Fortunately, they had backup systems, so there were no problems.

Finnish prime minister, Juha Sipila, said on Sunday that, “it’s possible that Russia was behind it” as the jamming of GPS aviation signals would be technically easy for them. Norwegian Defense Minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, stated “We have the same problem. We think it can also be part of a Russian exercise,” The Kremlin dismissed the allegations as groundless. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman said, “We know nothing about Russia’s possible involvement in those GPS failures, there is a trend to blame all mortal sins on Russia.”

Denmark’s Defence Minister, Claus Hjord Frederiksen, said their denials are not convincing. “It falls in line,” Frederiksen stated, “with the intimidation that they use all the time in the Baltic States, but also when we have ships in the Baltic Sea, and they sometimes simulate attacks against the ships.” Finnish authorities are continuing to investigate the matter and the issue is being discussed with the Russian Federation through diplomatic channels. NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that as cyber and electronic warfare are becoming more widespread, “we take all these issues very seriously.” Finland shares an 833-mile (1,340 km) border and a difficult history with Russia. Lately, Finalnd has developed closer ties with NATO, but is still not a member, probably to avoid confrontation with Russia. Perhaps this inteference was retaliation from Russia for cozying up to NATO. Until the investigation is conclusive, even though the Kremlin denies it, considering the anonymity of electronic and cyber attacks, for now we’ll just have to go with the usual suspect: Russia.


Europe Celebrates Armistice Centenary

November 9, 2018


This coming weekend marks a rather special occasion. One hundred years ago this Sunday, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, the First World War came to an end. And the celebrations accompanying the centenary of that date—marking the Armistice that put an end to the hostilities—will carry a symbolic significance of their own: rejoicing at the conclusion of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, they also reminds us of the fragility of peace and the powerlessness of the individual faced with the force of collective insanity. Indeed, this “war to end all wars,” this senseless carnage fueled by imperialist ambitions and seemingly inescapable geopolitical dynamics that sent millions to their death—young soldiers who had little reason to be killing one another and unarmed civilians caught into the maelstrom of unrestricted warfare—, this Great War was soon to be followed by another whose horrors exponentially surpassed those of the first; a war in which all the potentialities of human evil were put on display.

The duality of elation at the prospect of peaceful coexistence and apprehension about the pervasiveness of the absurd is especially marked in the same contemporary Europe that will be celebrating the Armistice’s centenary. On the one hand, European and other world leaders will be gathering for outward exhibitions of amity emphasizing the idea of post-war reconciliation. Most notably, French president Emmanuel Macron will be hosting a “Peace Forum” in Paris to be attended by over a hundred foreign dignitaries, including Presidents Trump and Putin, as well Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will symbolically deliver the opening address for an event that after all commemorates the defeat of her country at the hands of, among others, the host nation. In addition to hosting the Forum, President Macron will spend the week touring WWI battlefields in France, being at points accompanied by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will meet him in Strasbourg, and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will join him for a commemorative event at the Somme. President Steinmeier will also travel to England to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, marking the first time a German leader has ever been invited to do so in the hundred years of history since the end of the Great War. The reconciliatory atmosphere of the occasion has been duly emphasized by Prime Minister May, who, speaking about the UK’s “friends and partners in Europe,” recently stated that “the strength and closeness of our relationship today is a testament to the journey our countries have traveled together.”

On the other hand, as Europeans celebrate over half a century of amity and cooperation, their nations are gradually drifting closer to a reality of nationalism, isolationism, and disregard for democratic institutions reminiscent of the interwar descent into belligerent intolerance and, ultimately, war. Indeed, in hard contrast with May’s words stands the ominous shadow of Brexit, signifying the abandonment of the institutions that have made uninterrupted peace a tangible reality for Western Europe and the return to the xenophobic jingoism that had such catastrophic results in the 1930s. That shadow is replicated in the right-wing populist turns of Hungary, Poland, Italy, and, lately, even Germany, whose historical experience had seemingly rendered it a stronghold of liberalism and tolerance (or so we thought).

But the rise of the far-right is not limited to Europe. In Brazil, widely seen as a beacon of democracy in Latin America, Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president on a nationalistic platform that, among many other outrageous things, praised the military dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades. And then there is of course the United States, where “nationalism” has become the government’s watchword and where populist, xenophobic rhetoric has become part of the political mainstream. The American case is of course especially worrisome, given its position as the world hegemon and its vast military power.

Considering this current reality, then, now is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on the lessons of the past, and in that sense the Armistice centenary could not come at a more appropriate moment. Here in Bloomington, Indiana University will be putting together a series of events to commemorate the occasion, beginning with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on Sunday, Nov. 11 (3:00 pm) at the Musical Arts Center. Hopefully, this and other events will offer a much needed opportunity to learn from humanity’s previous mistakes, and to avoid a repetition of the steps that, one hundred years ago, culminated in the horrors of a grotesquely bloody, and very much avoidable, war.


Black Cats: Bad or Good Omens in European Cultures?

October 31, 2018

black and gold

Last week, on October 27th, Great Britain and Northern Ireland celebrated Black Cat Day to encourage people to adopt black cats, which are typically less likely to be adopted (partially due to superstition). In the spirit of Halloween, this blog will look at the different European myths and lore leading to the popular superstitions surrounding black cats.

Black cats have a mystical air to them. They have numerous myths, both good and bad, surrounding them. Their appearance could be a leading factor in the creation of this mythos. Some consider their look spooky; their dark fur blending in with the night, their presence only to be revealed by a pair of golden glowing eyes. Black cats are not a specific breed; in fact, there are over twenty breeds of cats that can have black fur, with their high melanin causing their golden irises. Cats were worshipped in ancient civilizations and it was not until the Middle Ages in Europe that the black cats got a bad rap. Religious leaders, starting  in the early 12th century with Pope Gregory the IX, contributed to large executions of black cats, associating them with the devil. Their prosecution continued for almost 500 years.  The Feast of St. John on June 24th was particularly dangerous for black cats as they were rounded up and burnt alive at a bonfire. The only thing that could save a cat from burning was a white spot on them known as the “angel’s mark.” The killing of black cats continued when the bubonic plague epidemic hit Europe in the 14th century. People attributed the disease to the wrath of God and sought to appease him by burning women they believed to be witches. In some cases communities also killed off all cats because of their association with witches. Ironically, this made the situation worse because it allowed the rat population to grow.

middle ages cat

Black cats began to be associated with witches because older women who lived alone were more likely to take in stray cats and these women would were typical  targets of witchcraft accusations. The belief that witches could turn into cats also showed up in Europe. Back in ancient days, the Druids thought black cats were human beings and were in this form because they were being punished for evil deeds. This belief resurfaced in England, during the time of witchcraft accusations, with a tale of two men in Lincolnshire. The men were walking at night when a black cat crossed their path. The men began throwing rocks at it until it limped off into a house, shortly after that the men saw an old woman appear outside the door. The next day the two men saw the same old women walking with a limp and bruises, they then assumed her to be a witch and could turn into a cat. Consequently  black cats had crimes associated with them that usually led to their death which included; being the familiars of witches and actually shape-shifting witches themselves.

witch cat

After a terrible 500 years for cats, in the 1600s two leaders helped reduce the killing of black cats. There is an account that King Louis XIII of France (1601-1643) requested to spare the lives of the cats to be burned on the bonfires on St. John’s Day. Also, King Charles I of England (1600-1649) had a beloved black cat that was said to have brought him good luck and he put a permanent guard on his pet to stop anything bad happening to it. Legend says that the day after his black cat died, the king was arrested and later beheaded.

In modern Europe and most of the West, black cats typically have been considered symbols of bad luck. The most popular superstition is if a black cat crosses your path it is an omen of death or misfortune. In Germany, some believe that black cats crossing a person’s path from right to left, it is a bad omen, but from left to right, the cat is a good omen. According to Irish superstition if a black cat is to cross your path by moonlight then it means death in an epidemic. Throughout the world, it is considered bad luck to mistreat a cat.

cross your path

Among the bad, there exists good omens surrounding the black cat. The Scots believe that a black cat’s arrival to the home signifies prosperity. Also, it is believed in England that a lady who owns a black cat will have many suitors. As the English proverb says, “whenever the cat of the house is black, the lasses of lovers will have no lack.” In the English Midlands, a black cat as a wedding present is thought to bring good luck to the bride. In France, a black cat is good luck as long as you feed them well and treat them with respect they deserve.


Sailors had their own set of beliefs surrounding the mysterious creatures. It was generally believed it was good luck to have a cat on board and if that cat meows and appears to be upset, they will face a hard voyage, however, if it is cheerful, there will be good wind. Also, if you shut a cat in a container, this could raise bad winds at sea, while throwing a cat overboard resulted in an immediate storm. Another belief held was if you or a family member is at sea and a black cat is kept in the house then they will return safely. Therefore, in 19th century England, sailor’s wives often kept black cats in their homes to ensure a safe voyage at sea for their husbands. Pirates in the 18th century also had a set of superstitions around black cats. If it was walking towards you, they would bring bad luck, but if it was walking away they would bring good luck and if the black cat walked on to a ship then off again the vessel was doomed to sink.


So, if you see a black cat crossing your path this Halloween, do not worry. It could mean good luck or it could simply “signify the animal is going somewhere.”



The ECJ Steps in to Defend Judicial Independence in Poland

October 26, 2018
Poland supreme court


Last Friday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the EU’s top judicial institution, issued an injunction against the Polish government ordering it to suspend the application of a law that, among other things, retroactively changed the age of retirement of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65 years. The injunction came as a result of a challenge by the European Commission against the Law on the Supreme Court, widely seen as an attack on Polish judicial independence that reflects the government’s latest effort to take control of the judiciary and undermine the existence of checks on its rule. By retroactively lowering the retirement age, the law is meant to drastically change the composition of the Court through the automatic dismissal of about forty percent of its judges, including Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf, who has been openly critical of the Law and Justice party’s (PiS) attacks on the rule of law, and who has continued to show up to work in disregard of her supposedly automatic retirement.

The timing of the ECJ’s decision is also important, as the injunction came only a couple days before last Sunday’s elections for local and provincial offices. Although PiS candidates fared predictably well in rural communities, they failed to win key races in larger towns, including that for mayor of Warsaw. Their defeat in the country’s principal urban areas came as a result of the consistent opposition PiS has experienced among Poland’s more cosmopolitan and educated sections of the population, who have not been convinced by the ruling party’s right-wing populism heralding religious values and expressing intolerance towards immigrants. Poland’s younger generations, raised in a nation connected to the rest of Europe through its EU membership, have largely rejected PiS’s nationalist message, and see the party’s efforts to control all levers of power—including its latest takeover of the judiciary, which started, rather successfully, with the Constitutional Court—as denoting a dangerous authoritarian turn.

That opinion is shared by EU institutions, which have denounced Poland’s attacks on democracy and threatened to withdraw its voting rights within the Union. Ultimately, the prospects of high profile punishments against the country are slim, since drastic measures such as the suspension of membership require unanimity among the remaining member states, and Hungary has staunchly stood alongside Poland in defense of “illiberal democracy.” The question, then, is how Poland will respond to the institutional obstacles put in place by EU bodies like the ECJ against some of its most troubling actions. On the one hand, it is unlikely that the government will simply accept EU decisions without a fight, and the political leadership may seek to disobey the ECJ’s ruling while shielding itself with a rhetoric of “national sovereignty.” On the other hand, despite PiS’s nationalist platform, the country does in fact draw some very tangible benefits from its EU membership (including economic subsidies), which the EU can use as leverage in enforcing its decisions. But if the Polish government chooses to move ahead with an all-out confrontation, the result could be an institutional crisis that might affect the EU at large, and not only its relations with one particular rogue state. For now, the PiS leadership has declared that it will wait until the early-November runoff of some of the mayoral races before responding to the ECJ’s injunction. Only then will we know how this issue unfolds.


Bavarian Parliamentary Elections

October 19, 2018

green win

This week, Bavaria voted to elect members to the state parliament. It was a huge win for the Liberal Green party (Alliance 90/the Greens), which came in a surprising second in the elections with 17.5% of the vote. The Free Voter Party came in third with 11.6%. The notorious far-right/anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came in fourth with 10%. While there were unexpected upswings for the right and left, the center parties suffered major political losses. The sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), lost its absolute majority in the state parliament, which it has controlled since the 1960s. The CSU still came in first with 37%, but this is down 10% from the 2013 elections. Not only did the center-right suffer, but the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) only took 9.7% of the parliament, also a 10% drop from 2013.


Bavaria’s capital, Munich, is Germany’s third largest city and the region is historically Catholic and conservative, another reason Sunday’s results are surprising. One explanation, for this outcome is that, since AfD’s emergence, the CSU has assumed some of AfD’s more hardline policy stances, causing the CSU to lose their moderate support.

gains and losses

One of these hardline issues is immigration. The issue of immigration is the one that has most divided Germans since 2015, and “the migration policy is one reason for the upswing in the Greens,” according to a German political analysts. The Greens run on a platform of open borders, liberal values, and the fight against climate change. AfD focuses on anti-Islam and anti-immigration using harsh nationalistic rhetoric.

Voters are also showing that they prefer smaller, newer movements. While the media focuses on the rise of the far right (AfD)—and mainly on their recurrent protest across Germany—, the people are actually just moving away from bigger parties toward both the far-right and far-left. In response to AfD demonstrations people took to the streets for anti-hate rallies, denouncing CSU’s hardline migration policies.

This election motivated voters in Bavaria, as the turnout for the election was 73%, which is up from 64% from the last election five years ago. Now, Bavaria’s political landscape, once a CSU certainty, is polarizing and fragmenting. We will have to wait for the other state elections to see if this a national trend. The next state elections will take place in two weeks in Hesse, where the Greens are predicted to take 18%.