Emotions high at French protests over Macron's pension plan
Protesters opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64 marched again Thursday in cities and towns around France, in a final show of anger before a crucial decision on whether the measure meets constitutional standards. Demonstrators targeted the Central Bank offices in Paris and briefly invaded the headquarters of luxury conglomerate LVMH — but their attention increasingly centered on the Constitutional Council, which is to decide Friday whether to nix any or all parts of the legislation. Activists dumped bags of garbage outside the council's columned façade in the morning. Later, another crowd holding flares faced off with a large contingent of riot police that rushed to protect the building.Paris police banned all gatherings outside the council from Thursday evening through Saturday morning, in an attempt to reduce pressure on the council members as they make their decision. Police said some 380,000 people took part in the protests across France Thursday. The number was down from recent weeks, but unions still managed to mobilize sizable crowds. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, though dozens of injuries were reported among police and protesters. Unions had been hoping for a strong turnout Thursday to pressure both the government and the members of the Constitutional Council tasked with studying the text of the pension reform plan. Critics challenged the government’s choice to include the pension plan in a budget bill, which significantly accelerated the legislative process. The government’s decision to skirt a parliamentary vote by using special constitutional powers transformed opponents’ anger into fury. The trash piles signaled the start of a new strike by garbage collectors, timed to begin with the nationwide protest marches. A previous strike last month left the streets of the French capital filled for days with mounds of reeking refuse. Polls consistently show a majority of French people are opposed to the pension reform, which Macron says is needed to keep the retirement system afloat as the population ages. Protesters are also angry at Macron himself and a presidency they see as threatening France's worker protections and favoring big business. Fabien Villedieu of the Sud-Rail Union said LVMH “could reduce all the holes" in France's social security system. ”So one of the solutions to finance the pension system is a better redistribution of wealth, and the best way to do that is to tax the billionaires.” Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, "is the richest man in the world so he could contribute,” Villedieu said.Security forces intervened to stop vandals along the Paris march route, with 36 people detained, police said. Like in past protests, several hundred “radical elements” had mixed inside the march, police said. Thousands also marched in Toulouse, Marseille and elsewhere. Tensions mounted at protests in Brittany, notably in Nantes and Rennes, where a car was burned. “The mobilization is far from over,” the leader of the leftist CGT union, Sophie Binet, said at a trash incineration site south of Paris where several hundred protesters blocked garbage trucks. “As long as this reform isn’t withdrawn, the mobilization will continue in one form or another.”CGT has been a backbone of the protest and strike movement challenging Macron's plan to increase France's retirement age from 62 to 64. Eight unions have organized protests since January in a rare voice of unity. Student unions have joined in. Macron had initially refused a demand to meet with unions, but during a state visit on Wednesday to the Netherlands proposed “an exchange” to discuss the follow-up to the Constitutional Council decision. There was no formal response to his offer. “The contention is strong, anchored in the people," said Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union. If the measure is promulgated, “there will be repercussions,” he warned, noting the “silent anger” among the union rank and file. Protests and labor strikes often hobble public transportation in Paris, but Metro trains were mostly running smoothly Thursday. The civil aviation authority asked airports in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes to reduce air traffic by 20%.
Macron's govt ignites firestorm of anger in France with unpopular pension reforms
A big day has come for French high school student Elisa Fares. At age 17, she is taking part in her first protest. In a country that taught the world about people power with its revolution of 1789 — and a country again seething with anger against its leaders — graduating from bystander to demonstrator is a generations-old rite of passage. Fares looks both excited and nervous as she prepares to march down Paris streets where people for centuries have similarly defied authority and declared: “Non!” Two friends, neither older than 18 but already protest veterans whose parents took them to demonstrations when they were little, are showing Fares the ropes. They’ve readied eyedrops and gas masks in case police fire tear gas — as they have done repeatedly in recent weeks. “The French are known for fighting and we’ll fight,” says one of the friends, Coline Marionneau, also 17. “My mother goes to a lot of demonstrations ... She says if you have things to say, you should protest.” For French President Emmanuel Macron, the look of determination on their young faces only heralds deepening crisis. His government has ignited a firestorm of anger with unpopular pension reforms that he railroaded through parliament and which, most notably, push the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.Furious not just with the prospect of working for longer but also with the way Macron imposed it, his opponents have switched to full-on disobedience mode. They’re regularly striking and demonstrating and threatening to make his second and final term as president even more difficult than his first. It, too, was rocked by months of protests — often violent — by so-called yellow vest campaigners against social injustice. Fares, the first-time protester, said her mother had been against her taking to the streets but has now given her blessing. “She said that if I wanted to fight, she wouldn’t stop me,” the teen says. Critics accuse Macron of effectively ruling by decree, likening him to France’s kings of old. Their reign finished badly: In the French Revolution, King Louis XVI ended up on the guillotine. There’s no danger of that happening to Macron. But hobbled in parliament and contested on the streets piled high with reeking garbage uncollected by striking workers, he’s being given a tough lesson, again, about French people power. Freshly scrawled slogans in Paris reference 1789. So drastically has Macron lost the initiative that he was forced to indefinitely postpone a planned state visit this week by King Charles III. Germany, not France, will now get the honor of being the first overseas ally to host Charles as monarch. The France leg of Charles’ tour would have coincided with a new round of strikes and demonstrations planned for Tuesday that are again likely to mobilize many hundreds of thousands of protesters. Macron said the royal visit likely would have become their target, which risked creating a “detestable situation.” Encouraged by that victory, the protest movement is plowing on and picking up new recruits, including some so young that it will be many decades before they’ll be directly impacted by the pushed-back retirement age. Their involvement is a worrisome development for Macron, because it suggests that protests are evolving, broadening from workplace and retirement concerns to a more generalized malaise with the president and his governance. Violence is picking up, too. Police and environmental activists fought pitched battles over the weekend in rural western France, resulting in dozens of injuries. Officers fired more than 4,000 nonlethal dispersion grenades in fending off hundreds of protesters who rained down rocks, powerful fireworks and gasoline bombs on police lines. “Anger and resentment,” says former President François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, “are at a level that I have rarely seen.” For Fares, whose first demonstration was a peaceful protest in Paris this weekend, the final straw was Macron’s decision to not let legislators vote on his retirement reform, because he wasn’t sure of winning a majority for it. Instead, he ordered his prime minister to skirt parliament by using a special constitutional power to ram the bill through. It was the 11th time that Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne had to resort to the so-called Article 49.3 power in just 10 months — a telling sign of Macron’s fragility since he lost his parliamentary majority in an election last June. “It’s an attack on democracy,” Fares said. “It annoyed me too much.” Her friend Luna Dessommes, 18, added hopefully: “We have to use the movement to politicize more and more young people.” At age 76, veteran protester Gilbert Leblanc has been through it all before. He was a yellow vest; by his count, he took part in more than 220 of their protests in Macron’s first term, rallying to the cry that the former banker was too pro-business and “the president of the rich.” Long before that, Leblanc cut his teeth in seminal civil unrest that reshaped France in May 1968. He says that when he tells awe-struck young protesters that he was a “soixante-huitard” — a ’68 veteran — they “want to take selfies with me.” This winter, he has kept his heating off, instead saving the money for train fares to the capital, so he can protest every weekend, he said. “My grandfather who fought in World War I, got the war medal. He would rise from his grave if he saw me sitting at home, in my sofa, not doing anything,” Leblanc said. “Everything we’ve obtained has been with our tears and blood.”
Biden, Macron ready to talk Ukraine, trade in state visit
French President Emmanuel Macron is headed to Washington for the first state visit of Joe Biden’s presidency — a revival of diplomatic pageantry that had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden-Macron relationship had a choppy start. Macron briefly recalled France’s ambassador to the United States last year after the White House announced a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia, undermining a contract for France to sell diesel-powered submarines. But the relationship has turned around with Macron emerging as one of Biden’s most forward-facing European allies in the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This week’s visit — it will include Oval Office talks, a glitzy dinner, a news conference and more — comes at a critical moment for both leaders. The leaders have a long agenda for their Thursday meeting at the White House, including Iran’s nuclear program, China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and growing concerns about security and stability in Africa’s Sahel region, according to U.S. and French officials. But front and center during their Oval Office meeting will be Russia’s war in Ukraine, as both Biden and Macron work to maintain economic and military support for Kyiv as it tries to repel Russian forces. READ: Biden strengthening US policy to stem sexual violence in war zones, including in Ukraine In Washington, Republicans are set to take control of the House, where GOP leader Kevin McCarthy says Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, Macron’s efforts to keep Europe united will be tested by the mounting costs of supporting Ukraine in the nine-month war and as Europe battles rising energy prices that threaten to derail the post-pandemic economic recovery. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Monday described Macron as the “dynamic leader” of America’s oldest ally while explaining Biden’s decision to honor the French president with the first state visit of his presidency. The U.S. tradition of honoring foreign heads of state dates back to Ulysses S. Grant, who hosted King David Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawaii for a more than 20-course White House dinner, but the tradition has been on hold since 2019 because of COVID-19 concerns. “If you look at what’s going on in Ukraine, look at what’s going on in the Indo Pacific and the tensions with China, France is really at the center of all those things,” Kirby said. “And so the president felt that this was exactly the right and the most appropriate country to start with for state visits.” Macron was also Republican Donald Trump’s pick as the first foreign leader to be honored with a state visit during his term. The 2018 state visit included a jaunt by the two leaders to Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of George Washington, America’s founding president. Macron was scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday evening ahead of a packed day of meetings and appearances in and around Washington on Wednesday — including a visit to NASA headquarters with Vice President Kamala Harris and talks with Biden administration officials on nuclear energy. On Thursday, Macron will have his private meeting with Biden followed by a joint news conference and visits to the State Department and Capitol Hill before Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, are feted at the state dinner. Grammy winner Jon Batiste is to provide the entertainment. READ: Biden says “unlikely” that missile hitting Poland was fired from Russia Macron will head to New Orleans on Friday, where he is to announce plans to expand programming to support French language education in U.S. schools, according to French officials. For all of that, there are still areas of tension in the U.S.-French relationship. Biden has steered clear of embracing Macron’s calls on Ukraine to resume peace talks with Russia, something Biden has repeatedly said is a decision solely in the hands of Ukraine’s leadership. Perhaps more pressing are differences that France and other European Union leaders have raised about Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, sweeping legislation passed in August that includes historic spending on climate and energy initiatives. Macron and other leaders have been rankled by a provision in the bill that provides tax credits to consumers who buy electric vehicles manufactured in North America. The French president, in making his case against the subsidies, will underscore that it’s crucial for “Europe, like the U.S., to come out stronger ... not weaker” as the world emerges from the tumult of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior French government official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview private talks. Macron earlier this month said the subsidies could upend the “level playing field” on trade with the EU and called aspects of the Biden legislation “unfriendly.” READ: World’s largest active volcano Mauna Loa erupts in Hawaii The White House, meanwhile, plans to counter that the legislation goes a long way in helping the U.S. meet global efforts to curb climate change. The president and aides will also impress on the French that the legislation will also create new opportunities for French companies and others in Europe, according to a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the talks. Macron’s visit comes about 14 months after the relationship hit its nadir after the U.S. announced its deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. After the announcement of the deal, which had been negotiated in secret, France briefly recalled its ambassador to Washington. A few weeks later Macron met Biden in Rome ahead of the Group of 20 summit, where the U.S. president sought to patch things up by acknowledging his administration had been “clumsy” in how it handled the issue. Macron’s visit with Harris to NASA headquarters on Wednesday will offer the two countries a chance to spotlight their cooperation on space. France in June signed the Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space cooperation and supporting NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and to launch a historic human mission to Mars. The same month, the U.S. joined a French initiative to develop new tools for adapting to climate change, the Space for Climate Observatory.
French National Assembly vote decides battle between Macron and left
It's not even two months since Emmanuel Macron was convincingly re-elected as president but he is already in a crunch election that could prevent him pushing through his reforms. French voters go to the polls on Sunday to decide who will control their National Assembly, reports BBC. Mr Macron beat the far right in April, but this time the challenge is harder. Far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon leads a left-green alliance that finished neck and neck with Macron only a week ago. They call themselves Nupes, which stands for New Ecological and Social Popular Union, and the polls suggest they could stop the president winning the 289 seats he needs for an outright majority. The centrist Macron alliance, Ensemble, portrays them as a "marriage of convenience" of Communists, Socialists, far-left Mélenchonists and Greens. But Nupes have galvanised voters with a promise to fight spiralling prices, bring down the retirement age and tackle climate change. Green leaders and many green voters back them, accusing President Macron of doing little in the past five years. READ: French projections: Macron's centrists will keep a majority Sunday's second round is almost entirely made up of run-off duels between two candidates, and almost half involve the two big alliances. Several ministers in the Macron government are battling to keep their seats and hold on to their jobs, and two of the toughest fights involve Europe Minister Clément Beaune and Green Transition Minister Amélie de Montchalin. Without an outright majority of 289 seats, Mr Macron will need the support of other parties to push through his big-ticket reforms, such as raising the retirement age, cutting taxes and reforming benefits. Pollsters suggest Ensemble will win 255-305 seats and Nupes 140-200. As the sun went down on the campaign on Friday night, Nupes spokesman Ian Brossat told supporters in Longjumeau south of Paris: "They didn't think the left and Greens could get together - it would be chaos and catastrophe; but the chaos today is economic, with food prices going up. We've got 10 million people in poverty."
President Hamid congratulates Macron on re-election
President Abdul Hamid on Wednesday congratulated Emmanuel Macron on being re-elected as the President of France. In a congratulatory message, Hamid said your re-election testifies the trust and confidence the French people have reposted on your leadership and your all inclusive projects and commitments for their better future. "I hope, under your stewardship, France will continue a leading role in ensuring global peace, prosperity and security," he also said. READ: Romanian ambassador presents credentials to President Hamid amid hope of growing Dhaka-Bucharest ties He said that Bangladesh and France enjoy excellent bilateral relations which are rooted in shared values, democracy, equality and fraternity. "We also recall moral and material support of the French people during our Liberation war in 1971. Since our independence, our relations have grown over the years and expanded in many areas of co-operation through meaningful engagement," he also said.
Macron keeps an open line to Putin as war in Ukraine rages
While most of the world is shunning President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the few leaders keeping an open line of communication is French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron’s diplomatic efforts to prevent the war failed, but he’s not giving up: the two men have spoken four times since Russian forces attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, and 11 times over the past month. The French leader, whose country holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, is now one of the few outsiders with a view into Putin’s mindset at the time of the largest military invasion in Europe since World War II. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is also becoming a mediator, meeting Putin on a surprise visit to Moscow on Saturday and speaking with him again by phone on Sunday. Macron’s relentless push for dialogue reflects France’s post-World War II tradition of carving out its own geopolitical path and its refusal to blindly follow the United States. After Russian troops pushed deep into Ukraine, Macron’s resolve to maintain communication channels with Putin is providing Western allies with insight into the Russian leader’s state of mind, his intentions on the battlefield and at home in Russia as the Kremlin cracks down on opponents. “He is keeping a diplomatic channel open for the West in case Putin might want to de-escalate and look for a way out of this crisis,” said Benjamin Haddad, a senior director for Europe at the Atlantic Council in Paris and a member of Macron’s party. Macron has also spoken to Putin on behalf of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Haddad said, trying to extract some mercy from Putin: local cease-fires, safe passage for trapped civilians and access to humanitarian aid. During their most recent call on Sunday that came at Macron’s request, the French leader and Putin focused for nearly two hours on the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear plants. Putin said he doesn’t intend to attack them and agreed on the principle of “dialogue” between the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ukraine and Russia on the issue, according to a French official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with the French presidency’s practices. Read: UN court hearings to open in Ukraine case against Russia There is “absolutely no illusion at the Elysee that Putin will keep his word on anything he promises,” Haddad said, or that Putin will change his mind about the invasion. But Haddad said that it’s important that Macron keeps trying to engage Putin even as the West punishes Russia and strengthens Ukraine’s defenses. And breaking with the diplomatic norm of keeping such conversations secret, the French presidency has widely shared the content of Macron’s talks with Putin. Macron’s advisers and the president himself detailed the excruciating efforts to prevent the war and then laid bare Putin’s broken promises of peace. That helped Macron galvanize support for the toughest sanctions against Russia, uniting the notoriously divided 27-member EU and revive NATO’s geopolitical role. To the extent that keeping lines of communication open can be useful during a conflict to relay messages, warnings or threats, and hear the response, the Biden administration believes that such contacts can be useful for at least getting some insight into Putin’s mood, demeanor and mindset. Hence, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will go to Paris Tuesday to hear from Macron directly about his latest conversations with Putin. But U.S. officials remain unconvinced that Macron’s efforts — or any other leader’s — have had any significant impact on Putin’s decison-making process. They note that despite a series of interventions by the French president, Putin has not only gone ahead with the invasion but also intensified the conflict. The French president has been clear from the start: Putin alone is to blame for the death and destruction in Ukraine and the major consequences of the war for France and Europe. But on the other hand if Putin wants to talk, he will listen. Putin called on Thursday. The number of refugees fleeing Ukraine had already topped 1 million and several towns in the east were in ruins. Macron picked up and they talked for 90 minutes. An official in the French presidency rushed to brief reporters on the conversation. Putin told Macron the military operation in Ukraine is “going according to plan” and he will continue “until the end,” the official said. Read: Ukraine says Russia steps up shelling of residential areas Putin claimed that “war crimes” were being committed by Ukrainians. He called them “Nazis,” the official said. There’s no need to negotiate, Putin said. He will achieve the “neutralization and disarmament of Ukraine” with his army. The official couldn’t be named in keeping with Elysee practices. Macron “spoke the truth” to Putin, the official said, and explained how his war on Ukraine is perceived by the West. “I spoke to President Putin. I asked him to stop attacks on Ukraine. At this point, he refuses,” Macron tweeted. He said dialogue will continue. “We must prevent the worst from happening.” Since he was elected president in 2017, Macron has shown a keen interest in forging personal relationships with world leaders, including those who value a degree of pragmatism when discussing democracy and human rights while pursing business opportunities. His business-friendly diplomacy paid off in the Persian Gulf in December when he signed a multi-billion euro weapons contract with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan. Macron drew fierce criticism on that trip for traveling to Saudi Arabia to become the first Western leader to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “Macron stands out among European Union leaders with his willingness to be in the spotlight, to drive the foreign policy and push things ahead,” said Silvia Colombo, an expert on EU foreign relations at the International Institute in Rome. There is no other foreign leader that Macron has tried to bring closer to his corner than Putin. Macron, a staunch European, was confident that a mixture of personal charm and the splendor of France’s past would convince Putin to keep Russia within the European security habitat. Macron first hosted Putin in the sumptuous Place of Versailles in 2017. Two years later they discussed stalled Ukraine peace talks in Macron’s summer residence at the Fort de Bregancon on the French Riviera as Macron tried to build on European diplomacy that had helped ease hostilities in the past. It’s become clear over the past several weeks that Putin was on the war path even as he denied it, sitting across from Macron at a very long table during his last visit to Moscow. Macron wanted to believe him, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said after critics claimed the French president has fallen into the old European trap of appeasing Putin’s Russia. “The president is not naive,” Le Drian said on the eve of Russia’s invasion. “He knows the methods, the character and the cynical nature of Putin.”
Macron talks to Putin, calls for ceasefire in Ukraine
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said it was necessary to immediately cease fire in Ukraine where Russian armed forces are conducting a military operation, the Elysee Palace said on Monday. Also read: Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions "In connection with the start of negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations, the President of the Republic asked that the following be observed on the ground: a cessation of all strikes and attacks on civilians and their places of residence, the preservation of all civilian infrastructure, ensuring security on highways, especially south of Kiev," the Elysee said in a statement. The statement asserts that Putin "assured he was willing to commit himself on these three counts." The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier that Russian troops are not targeting Ukrainian cities, but are incapacitating Ukrainian military infrastructure with precision strikes, and therefore there are no threats to the civilian population. Also read: Ukraine talks yield no breakthrough as Russians close in
France and EU to withdraw troops from Mali, remain in region
President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that France will withdraw its troops from Mali nine years after it first intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power but intends to maintain a military presence in neighboring West African nations. Announcing the move during a Thursday news conference in Paris, Macron accused Mali’s ruling military junta of neglecting the fight against Islamic extremists and said it was logical for France to withdraw since its role is not to replace a sovereign state on the battlefield. “Victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself,” the French leader said. France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel region, including 2,400 in Mali. The so-called Barkhane force is also involved in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Also read: France eases entry rules for vaccinated travelers from U.K. Macron said the French pullout would be done “in an orderly manner” in coordination with the Malian military. France will start by closing military bases in the north of Mali, and the withdrawal will take between four or six months, he said. “We cannot remain militarily involved” alongside Malian transitional authorities with whom “we don’t share the strategy and goals,” Macron said. European leaders simultaneously announced Thursday that troops from the European-led military task force known as Takuba also would withdraw from Mali. The Takuba task force is composed of several hundred special forces troops from about a dozen European countries, including France. Tensions have grown between Mali, its African neighbors and the European Union, especially after the West African country’s transitional government allowed Russian mercenaries to deploy in its territory. Macron said a coalition of allies will remain present in the Sahel and the Guinea Gulf to counter actions from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Macron organized a summit in Paris on Wednesday evening to address the issue with regional and European leaders of countries involved in the Sahel. Representatives from Mali and Burkina Faso coup leaders were not invited since both nations were suspended from the African Union following coups. Also read: Macron: Putin told him Russia won’t escalate Ukraine crisis Senegalese President Macky Sall, who also chairs the African Union, said security and the fight against terror was “vital” for both Europe and Africa. Speaking alongside Macron, Sall said he understood the decisions by France and the EU to end theirs operation in Mali but was pleased that an agreement on a new arrangement was reached to provide a continued presence in the Sahel. Sall said there was a consensus during among EU and African leaders during their discussions that the fight against terror “should not be the sole business of African countries.” Macron said the “heart” of the French operation “won’t be in Mali anymore” but in neighboring Niger, especially in the region bordering Burkina Faso, Macron detailed. He did not give an estimate of how many forces would take part in the new operation. French forces have been active since 2013 in Mali, where they intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power. But the insurgents regrouped in the desert and began attacking the Malian army and its allies. Macron said support for civilians in Mali would continue, but he blamed the junta now ruling the country for its decision to hire a private Russian military contractor known as the Wagner Group, which the EU accuses of fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in Africa.
Macron: Putin told him Russia won’t escalate Ukraine crisis
French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that Moscow would not further escalate the Ukraine crisis. Macron also said it would take time to find a diplomatic solution to the rising tensions, which represent the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. His remarks on a visit to Kyiv came as the Kremlin denied reports that he and Putin struck a deal on de-escalating the crisis. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “in the current situation, Moscow and Paris can’t be reaching any deals.” Macron met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy amid mounting fears of a Russian invasion. Moscow has massed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, but insists it has no plans to attack. The Kremlin wants guarantees from the West that NATO will not accept Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members, that it halt weapon deployments there and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands the U.S. and NATO reject as nonstarters. At a news conference after meeting Zelenskyy, Macron said Putin told him during their more than five-hour session Monday that “he won’t be initiating an escalation. I think it is important.” According to the French president, Putin also said there won’t be any Russian “permanent (military) base” or “deployment” in Belarus, where Russia had sent a large number of troops for war games. Peskov said withdrawing Russian troops from Belarus after the maneuvers was the plan all along. Zelenskyy said he would welcome concrete steps from Putin for de-escalation, adding he didn’t “trust words in general.” Macron also sought to temper expectations. “Let’s not be naive,” he said. “Since the beginning of the crisis, France hasn’t been inclined to exaggerate, but at the same time, I don’t believe this crisis can be settled in a few hours, through discussions” Zelenskyy called his talks with Macron “very fruitful.” “We have a common view with President Macron on threats and challenges to the security of Ukraine, of the whole of Europe, of the world in general,” Zelenskyy said. He said France was giving 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in financial aid to Ukraine and helping restore infrastructure in the war-ravaged east of the country. Western leaders in recent weeks have engaged in high-level talks, and more are planned against the backdrop of military drills in Russia and Belarus. On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that six amphibious landing ships were moving from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea for exercises and two Tu-22M3 long-range nuclear capable bombers flew another patrol over Belarus. Macron said he had not expected Putin to make any “gestures” Monday, saying his objective was to “prevent an escalation and open new perspectives. ... That objective is met.” Read: Trial of 3 cops in Floyd killing to resume after COVID pause Macron said Putin “set a collective trap” by initiating the exchange of documents with the U.S. Moscow submitted its demands to Washington in the form of draft agreements that were made public, and insisted on a written response, which was then leaked. “In the history of diplomacy, there was never a crisis that has been settled by exchanges of letters which are to be made public afterward,” he said, adding that’s why he decided to go to Moscow for direct talks. Macron later flew to Berlin, where he briefed Polish President Andrzej Duda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said their stance was unified, with a joint goal “to prevent a war in Europe.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was pleased to see the high level of diplomatic activity, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “The secretary‑general could not be clearer in the need to increase diplomatic activity to avoid any sort of escalation,” Dujarric said. Putin said after Monday’s meeting that the U.S. and NATO ignored Moscow’s demands, but signaled readiness to continue talking. He also reiterated a warning that NATO membership for Ukraine could trigger a war between Russia and the alliance should Kyiv try to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. NATO, U.S. and European leaders reject the demands that they say challenge NATO’s core principles, like shutting the door to Ukraine or other countries that might seek membership; but they have offered to discuss other Russian security concerns in Europe. U.S. President Joe Biden has said any prospect of Ukraine entering NATO “in the near term is not very likely,” but he and other alliance members and NATO itself refuse to rule out Ukraine’s future entry. Biden met Monday with Scholz, who also will travel to Kyiv and Moscow on Feb. 14-15. They threatened Russia with grave consequences if it invaded, and Biden vowed that the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, which has been completed but is not yet operating, will be blocked. Such a move would hurt Russia economically but also cause energy supply problems for Germany. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in an article in the Times of London, also urged allies to finalize heavy economic sanctions that would take effect if Russia crosses into Ukraine. He said the U.K. is ready to bolster NATO forces in Latvia and Estonia as he prepared to meet the Lithuanian prime minister in London to show support for the Baltic nations. Johnson said he was considering dispatching RAF Typhoon fighters and Royal Navy warships to southeastern Europe. Britain said Monday it is sending 350 troops to Poland to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. It already has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. Read: UN experts: North Korea stealing millions in cyber attacks More than 100 U.S. military personnel arrived in Romania ahead of a deployment of about 1,000 NATO troops expected in the country in the coming days, Romania’s Defense Minister Vasile Dincu said. U.S. officials have said that about 1,000 alliance troops will be sent from Germany to Romania, a NATO member since 2004. Romania borders Ukraine to the north. About 1,700 U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne are also going to Poland. U.S. officials have portrayed the threat of an invasion of Ukraine as imminent — warnings Moscow has scoffed at, accusing Washington of fueling tensions. Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president was ousted, Moscow annexed Crimea and then backed a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces has killed over 14,000 people. In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, that ended large-scale hostilities but failed to bring a political settlement of the conflict. The Kremlin has repeatedly accused Kyiv of sabotaging the deal, and Ukrainian officials in recent weeks said that implementing it would hurt Ukraine. After meeting Macron, Putin said without elaboration that some of the French president’s proposals could serve as a basis for a settlement of the separatist conflict, adding that they agreed to speak by phone after Macron’s visit to Kyiv. Peskov said such a call would take place “in the nearest future.” Macron said both Putin and Zelenskyy confirmed they were willing to implement the Minsk agreements — “the only path allowing to build peace ... and find a sustainable political solution.” Macron also said the presidential advisers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet Thursday in Berlin on the next steps. “It will take time to get results,” he said. Zelenskyy was mum on where Ukraine stands on implementing the Minsk agreements and whether he assured Macron that Kyiv is committed to do so, saying only that his country views Thursday’s meeting “very positively” and hoped for a subsequent meeting by the four leaders. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, visiting the front line in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, said she wanted “to get an impression of what it means that we still have war in the middle of Europe.” Germany has given Ukraine about 1.8 billion euros in aid since 2014, part of which is helping those displaced by fighting.
French leader Macron is slapped during visit to small town
French President Emmanuel Macron was slapped Tuesday in the face by a man during a visit to a small town in southeast France. Macron’s office confirmed a video that is widely circulating online. The French president can be seen greeting the public waiting for him behind traffic barriers in the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage after he visited a high school that is training students to work in hotels and restaurants. The video shows a man slapping Macron in the face and his bodyguards pushing the man away as the French leader is quickly rushed from the scene. French news broadcaster BFM TV said two people have been detained by police in the assault. Macron has not commented yet on the incident and continued his visit. Speaking at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Jean Castex said “through the head of state, that’s democracy that has been targeted,” in comments prompting loud applauds from lawmakers from all ranks, standing up in a show of support. “Democracy is about debate, dialogue, confrontation of ideas, expression of legitimate disagreements, of course, but in no case it can be violence, verbal assault and even less physical assault,” Castex said. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen firmly condemned on Twitter “the intolerable physical aggression targeting the president of the Republic.” Visibly fuming, she said later that while Macron is her top political adversary, the assault was “deeply, deeply reprehensible.” Less than one year before France’s next presidential election and as the country is gradually reopening its pandemic-hit economy, Macron last week started a political “tour de France,” seeking to visit French regions in the coming months to “feel the pulse of the country.” Macron has said in an interview he wanted to engage with people in a mass consultation with the French public aimed at “turning the page” of the pandemic — and preparing his possible campaign for a second term. The attack follows mounting concerns in France about violence targeting elected officials, particularly after the often-violent “yellow vest” economic protest movement that repeatedly clashed with riot officers in 2019. Village mayors and lawmakers have been among those targeted by physical assaults, death threats and harassment. But France’s well-protected head of state has been spared until now, which compounded the shockwaves that rippled through French politics in the wake of the attack.