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French Pension Strikes Expand, Police Gird for New Protests

French airport workers, teachers and others joined nationwide strikes Tuesday as unions cranked up pressure on the government to scrap changes to the national retirement system.

Police ordered shops and restaurants closed across a swath of Paris, fearing violence on the fringes of what government opponents hope is another mass march in the afternoon. At least 800,000 people turned out for demonstrations around France when the strike movement kicked off last Thursday.

Protests are also planned Tuesday in other cities, as the strike pushes on into a sixth straight day. Unions fear President Emmanuel Macron’s retirement reform will force people to work longer for smaller pensions, even though the government says it won’t raise the official retirement age of 62.

Only about a fifth of French trains ran normally Tuesday, frustrating tourists who found train stations empty and trains canceled, and most Paris subways were at a halt. The Paris region registered double the number of traffic jams at morning rush hour than on a normal day.

Overall the number of striking workers is lower than last week but travelers’ patience is wearing thin, as commuters struggle to squeeze on scarce regional trains to get to work.

Air France, the national carrier, said more than 25% of its domestic traffic would be grounded Tuesday by the strike, along with more than 10% of its medium-range flights.

N. Korea Unveils Hot Spring Ski Resort in Next Big Tourism Push

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for North Korea’s new mountainous luxury spa.

Video released by North Korean state media on Dec. 8 revealed Kim receiving a bouquet of flowers and clapping in front of a sprawling winter hot spring complex, called the Yangdok Hot Spring Cultural Recreation Center. The state media report showed footage of outdoor hot spring spas, a ski resort and an equestrian park with young children riding horses.

“[Kim] hardly repressed his happiness, saying that it has become possible to provide people with new culture, and one more plan of the Party to make our people enjoy high civilization under socialism as early as possible has come true,” an announcer from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The recreation center no doubt looks new, but it’s a project that “has been in the works for like a decade,” according to Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of North Korea news analysis site 38North.

“[The center’s opening] is absolutely significant,” Town told VOA News. “There’s a real priority in the tourist sector right now, and part of that is an opportunity for North Korea. All the reports that we hear claim that there are tons of Chinese tourists coming in every day.”

Tourism is one of North Korea’s few industries that remains free of U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to pressure Kim to abandon the country’s nuclear weapons program. But while export bans on seafood and coal are hurting the economy, North Korea still appears to be heavily investing in other tourism projects in recent months. Pyongyang’s state-run newspaper recently announced a medical tourism program that would offer foreign visitors dental implants, cataract surgery and other medical procedures.

Meanwhile, inter-Korean tourism appears to be facing a setback. In October, Kim reportedly ordered the demolition of several South Korean-built hotels and tourist facilities at the Diamond Mountain Resort along the North Korean side of the border. In a KCNA report, Kim called the facilities “shabby” and said he would re-develop the resort by himself.

“Right now, it’s all about being able to provide amenities other than just tours of Pyongyang to tourists,” Town said.

Experts: Trump Should Take N. Korea’s End-of-Year Deadline Seriously

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be calling North Korea’s bluff on its end-of-year deadline for nuclear negotiations, prompting some analysts to wonder whether the U.S. president should be taking Pyongyang’s threats more seriously.

“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 9. “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic  potential, but it must denuclearize as promised.”

That same day, a top North Korean official released a threatening statement that addressed the U.S. president directly through the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

“It seems that Trump is very anxious to know what we are thinking now. And he feels very fretful about what will be done by us,” said Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. “The recent words and expressions spouted one after another by Trump sound like a threat to someone at a glance, but they are a corroboration that he feels fear inside.”

“Trump might be in great jitters, but he had better accept the status quo that as he sowed, so he should reap, and think twice if he does not want to see bigger catastrophic consequences,” Ri continued.

In both Seoul and Washington, experts are concerned that Trump’s bluster will only continue to yield mirrored responses from Pyongyang.

“Whether Trump is taking [North Korea’s deadline] seriously is really unclear. But he definitely should be,” Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of North Korea news analysis site 38North.

A man watches a TV screen showing a file image of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at his county long-range rocket launch site during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019.

“It’s one thing to talk about having a great relationship [with North Korea], and it’s another thing to emphasize ‘you need me’ and the sentiment that’s very much along the line of the ‘don’t be a tough guy’ comment to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan],” Town said. “It’s just not going to play out the way Trump wants it to.”

John Delury, a North Korea analyst and associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, believes North Korea is firm about its end-of-year deadline.

“There’s two parties to the negotiation. If one party says they have a deadline, it’s a deadline,” he said. “I mean, the other party can choose to ignore it, but there are consequences.”

Kim Jong Un first set the deadline during a diplomatic deadlock last April, shortly after talks with Trump broke down at the Hanoi summit in late February.

“North Korea has been so consistent with their messaging about this deadline and they put so much emphasis on this deadline that, you know, I don’t think it’s the right thing to approach it by saying it’s arbitrarily made up,” Delury said.

It’s unclear what the United States would need to do to pass Pyongyang’s deadline, but experts said a proposal with tangible concessions and detailed steps toward denuclearization would be a good start.

“North Korea is looking for a deal to consider,” Town said. “… But it seems pretty clear that Kim Jong Un has already made a decision as to what he thinks is going to happen. Now, he’s basically looking for the U.S. to change his mind.”

Russia, Ukraine leaders Agree on Ceasefire Following Four-Way Talks in Paris

Russian and Ukrainian leaders agreed to implement a ceasefire and a prisoners’ swap by years end, following four-way talks in Paris on Monday that also included France and Germany. 

The four heads of state said they had made progress and that just talking was a key step forward. They are to meet again in four months.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was confident of the ceasefire would take place this month. He outlined both steps forward and progress still to be made during a late night press conference, echoing similar remarks made by other leaders there.

“It’s not a frozen situation,” Zelensky said. “And to answer your question, yes I do feel we will meet again in another four months, and be in a position to go forward and address other questions on the basis of our achievements.”

This is the first meeting between Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin since the Ukrainian actor took office earlier this year. It’s the first such four-way summit since 2016 that also includes France and Germany.

Putin said describing a possible thaw between Russia and Ukraine was correct.

“We’ve have had progress on most issues,” Putin said. “All of this does suggest that things are going the right way.”

The talks aim to pave a solution to the ongoing conflict between the two countries that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. Both sides have since accused the other of failing to honor a 2015 peace agreement.

President Zelensky, a political newcomer, has made ending the conflict a priority.

But many Ukrainians are worried he may concede too much. Ahead of the Paris meeting, thousands demonstrated in the capital Kyiv against any so-called “capitulation” to Moscow.

The talks are also seen as a diplomatic test for host Emmanuel Macron. The French President wants to re-engage with Russia after several years of European Union sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. But that has gotten pushback from EU members like Poland. 

Argentine Bond Prices Rise on Relief over Upcoming Debt Revamp

Argentine bond prices rose on Monday in the first session since President-elect Alberto Fernandez named debt restructuring expert Martin Guzman as economy minister, the central figure in a cabinet that will start serving after Tuesday’s inauguration.

Over the counter bond prices popped an average 2.1% higher and country risk spreads tightened, showing the market took Fernandez’s cabinet picks in stride.

Guzman, 37, will be responsible for sparking growth, taming inflation and steering restructuring talks with creditors and the International Monetary Fund over about $100 billion in debt.

Creditors had feared that Peronist Fernandez might take a tough stance in upcoming restructuring talks. But Guzman, who sees the problem as one of liquidity rather than solvency, has advocated for a debt revamp based on a suspension of payments that would preserve eventual repayment of principal.

Such an approach would avoid a “haircut,” or outright cut in the return of creditors’ principal investment.

“There had been uncertainty about the debt restructuring proposal. Guzman does not want to implement a haircut on the principal. So this clears some of the fear that had been priced into bonds,” said Gabriel Zelpo, director of economic consultancy Seido.

Sovereign risk spreads tightened 123 basis points to 2,194 over safe-haven U.S. Treasuries on JP Morgan’s Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus, having blown out from the 480 basis points where the index stood when outgoing President Mauricio Macri, a proponent of free markets, took office in late 2015.

FILE – An entrance to the Central Bank of the Argentine Republic is pictured in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 28, 2019.

Inflation has risen under Macri, and the peso has lost 83.75% of its value while Latin America’s No. 3 economy has stalled. Consumer prices are up more than 50% so far this year after a 47.6% rise in 2018. The peso was stable on Monday at just under 60 to the dollar.

Guzman, an academic and protégé of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, is an expert in bond restructurings.

He opposed Macri’s austerity drive, which included public utility subsidy cuts that jacked up power and heating bills paid by Argentine families and businesses.

Those utility bill increases fueled the inflation that dogged Macri’s four years in power, killed his once-high popularity and undermined his re-election campaign.

Markets had been on edge since Fernandez thumped Macri in the August primary election. The lopsided victory signaled a shift away from Macri’s strict pro-business policy stance. The inauguration will take place around midday on Tuesday.

 

Australians Flee as Soaring Temperature, Winds Threaten to Fan Fires

Residents in parts of eastern Australia evacuated their homes on Tuesday as soaring temperatures and strong winds threatened to fan bushfires in a giant blaze north of Sydney, the country’s biggest city.

Air quality in parts of Sydney plunged as the city awoke to another thick blanket of smoke, disrupting transport services and prompting health warnings from authorities.

More than 100 fires are ablaze in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria states in eastern Australia, many of which have been burning since November. The fires have killed at least four people, destroyed more than 680 homes and burned more than 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of bushland.

After a brief respite over the weekend, conditions are set to worsen on Tuesday as temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds pick up, stoking fears that fires could spread to more populated areas.

Such forecasts have heightened worries about a so-called megablaze burning north of Sydney.

Stretching for more than 60 km (37.2 miles), the firefront in the Hawkesbury region, about 50 km north west of Sydney, could grow if the forecasted winds arrive, authorities have warned.

While there is no official evacuation order, many locals have decided to leave their homes, Hawkesbury Mayor Barry Calvert told Reuters.

“It is eerie, many people have decided to leave, and I’m going to do the same,” said Calvert.

“I’ve been through this before about 20 years ago when I stood outside my house looking at flames 50 feet high, I decided then that I would leave early if it happened again.”

Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers and NSW Fire and Rescue officers fight a bushfire encroaching on properties near Termeil, Australia, Dec. 3, 2019.

While conditions are not expected to reach the higher “catastrophic fire danger” hit last month, authorities said the recent hot, dry weather has increased the expanse of potential fireground.

“There are some that are much closer and with greater potential to impact on more densely populated or highly populated areas,” said NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

Keen to reassure locals, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there were 111 aircraft ready to join firefighting efforts if needed.

Bushfires are common in Australia’s hot, dry summers, but the ferocity and early arrival of the fires in the southern spring is unprecedented. Experts have said climate change has left bushland tinder-dry.

The wildfires have blanketed Sydney – home to more than 5 million people – in smoke and ash for more than two weeks, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and prompting commuters to wear breathing masks.

Sydney’s air quality index readings in some parts of the city on Tuesday were 11 times the recommended safe levels, government data showed.

The thick haze forced widespread transport disruptions, with ferries suspended and trains experiencing lengthy delays.

“Remain inside with the windows and doors closed, preferably in an air-conditioned building,” the NSW state government’s health department said.

 

Cyberattack Downs Florida City Computers at Site of Navy Base Attack

Federal authorities are investigating a cyberattack on the city of Pensacola, Florida, home to the naval air station where a Saudi flight student killed three sailors and wounded eight others on Friday.
                   
A spokeswoman for the city said federal authorities were alerted to the cyberattack as a precaution, in light of the deadly violence at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.
                   
City officials became aware of the attack early Saturday morning, hours after the shooting, but expressed caution about linking the two incidents _ although they were not prepared to outright dismiss any connections.
                   
Much of the city’s computer systems remained offline Monday morning. However, city officials stressed that all emergency services were running, including 911 services.
                   
Some phone lines to city offices were not working as the city and federal authorities continued their investigation. The city’s email and other electronic services were down until further notice.

 

Trump Relies on Strong US Economy in Reelection Bid

As 2019 draws to a close, the U.S. economy is posting strong numbers, capping a remarkable 11-year streak of expansion. President Donald Trump argues that’s why he deserves to win reelection in 2020. But as VOA’s Ardita Dunellari explains, there are dangers ahead that could rattle both the economy and the president’s reelection message.

Messi’s Hometown Offers Emotional Trip to His Childhood

Soccer wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favorite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighborhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time bicycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbor to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 0 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighborhood in the city that is 186 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings. There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbors aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colorful paintings dedicated to the soccer star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks colored in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbors and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy soccer field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played soccer.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first soccer moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials say the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasize is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and soccer.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for soccer.” Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverria. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia.

One of items on display is a small red coat with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its soccer academy. It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy.

Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between academy teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.
   

Elizabeth Warren Discloses Details of Past Legal Work, Showing $2M in Compensation

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren released information on Sunday about her past legal work, showing nearly $2 million in compensation from dozens of clients, as a dispute intensified with her rival Pete Buttigieg over transparency.

Warren, a leading candidate among the 15 Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to take on President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election, had already put out 11 years of tax returns in April and called on other candidates to follow suit.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has said in recent days that Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, should release older tax documents detailing her corporate legal work.

In return, Warren has called on Buttigieg to allow media coverage of his private donor events and to disclose information about his past work at the consultancy company McKinsey. Warren does not hold big-ticket fundraisers and has focused her campaign on combating Washington corruption and corporate greed.

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Iowa Farmers Union Presidential Forum, Dec. 6, 2019, in Grinnell, Iowa.

Buttigieg’s campaign said on Saturday it was working on making the details of his employment at McKinsey “fully transparent” and called on Warren to match that by releasing her tax returns covering her corporate legal work.

On Sunday, in a 15-page document, Warren’s campaign provided examples of her legal work, some of which dated back to 1985, in capacities including as a counsel, consultant and expert witness, giving information about the cases and how much she was compensated.

The document included dozens of cases, some of which Warren took on a pro-bono basis and was not compensated for. In some cases, she worked with a group of consultants. The document showed a total of nearly $2 million in compensation.

A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll on Thursday showed that support for Warren dropped nationally to its lowest level in four months, as she came under attack over her proposal to extend government-paid healthcare to all Americans, deemed too costly by her rivals for the nomination.

Warren, 70, is still among the leaders in opinion polls in Iowa, which kicks off the Democratic nominating contests on Feb. 3, and in other early voting states. Buttigieg, 37, who had campaign stops this weekend in Iowa, has surged into the lead in recent opinion polls there.

 

Kenya: 2 Survivors Found 2 Days After Building Collapse

Kenyan rescuers digging through the rubble of a six-story building found two survivors alive Sunday, two days after it collapsed in Nairobi and killed at least five people and injured 31 others.

Authorities said 24 people were still missing. When the two survivors were found Sunday morning, a crowd of onlookers burst into cheers and clapping.

Rescuers including the military had said they were communicating with people believed to be trapped in pockets of debris.

Building collapses are common in Nairobi, where housing is in high demand and unscrupulous developers often bypass regulations.

After eight buildings collapsed and killed 15 people in Kenya in 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an audit of all the country’s buildings to see if they were up to code. The National Construction Authority found that 58% of buildings in Nairobi were unfit for habitation.

On Friday, Nairobi authorities said more than 20 people had been rescued, with some searchers using their bare hands to pick through the debris. Eight people were taken to a hospital, officials said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse. Officials said 57 rooms had been rented out in the building. The Red Cross said 22 families lived there.

 

 

Myanmar Leader Suu Kyi Departs for Genocide Hearings Amid Fanfare at Home

Myanmar leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi  departed on Sunday for the U.N.’s top court in The Hague to defend the country against charges of genocide of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

Suu Kyi was pictured smiling as she walked through the airport in the nation’s capital, Naypyitaw, flanked by officials, a day after thousands rallied in the city to support her and a prayer ceremony was held in her name.

Crowds are expected to gather again in the afternoon to send off several dozen supporters who will travel to The Hague in the Netherlands and demonstrations are planned throughout the coming week, with hearings set for Dec. 10 to 12.

Gambia, a tiny, mainly Muslim West African country, filed a lawsuit in November accusing Buddhist-majority Myanmar of genocide, the most serious international crime, against its Rohingya Muslim minority.

During three days of hearings, it will ask the 16-member panel of U.N judges at the International Criminal Court of Justice to impose “provisional measures” to protect the Rohingya before the case can be heard in full.

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 after a brutal military-led crackdown the U.N has said was executed with “genocidal intent” and included mass killings and rape.

Despite international condemnation over the campaign, Suu Kyi, whose government has defended the campaign as a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya militants, remains overwhelmingly popular at home.

On Saturday, thousands rallied in Naypyitaw while senior officials held a prayer ceremony at St Mary’s Cathedral in the former capital of Yangon.

Among them was religion minister Thura Aung Ko, who was been vocal in his disdain for the minority and last year said refugees in the camps in Bangladesh were being “brainwashed” into “marching” on Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Suu Kyi spent the eve of her departure meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, with both countries pledging stronger ties, according to Zhao Lijian, deputy director general of the information department at China’s foreign ministry.

“Aung San Suu Kyi thanked China for its strong support and help in safeguarding national sovereignty, opposing foreign interference, and promoting economic and social development,” he said on Twitter on Sunday.

Pro-Suu Kyi demonstrations have been held in major towns and cities since the news was announced that she would attend the hearings in person.

Billboards with her picture and the words”stand with Suu Kyi” have also been erected around the country, including in historic former capital Bagan, the country’s major attraction for tourists who come to see the centuries-old temples.