Europe holds its breath as Macron scrambles to quell protests

The Guardian reports:

Not just France but Europe should hope the tax concessions and minimum wage rise Emmanuel Macron announced on Monday will prove sufficient to quell more than a month of violent and destabilising anti-government protests.

With more than 1,250 people arrested, 400 injured and an economic cost running into billions, the gilets jaunes revolt represents a formidable challenge to the authority of the centrist president, widely seen by his critics as arrogant and out of touch. If he flunks the test, he will not be alone in paying a price.

Elected on a pledge to prove that France could be reformed – its flagging economy revitalised through tax and public spending cuts, plus sweeping changes to the labour market – Macron is also fervent in his defence of European liberal democracy.

Faced with a rising tide of rightwing, Eurosceptic populism and authoritarianism, he has presented himself as a champion of multilateralism and a bulwark against “selfish … and dangerous” nationalism, warning as recently as last month, on the centenary of the first world war armistice, that old demons were resurfacing.

His difficulties in appeasing a diverse, structureless, social media-based movement of France’s underpaid and over-taxed “can’t make ends meet”, whose many often contradictory demands range from a higher minimum wage and more direct democracy to lower taxes, a larger public sector and even a spell of military rule, have already prompted joy among those who do not share his internationalist views. [Continue reading…]

France’s Yellow Vest protesters want to fight climate change

The New Republic reports:

Nearly 2,000 people were arrested during anti-government protests in France over the weekend, the fourth in a row that the Yellow Vest demonstrations have turned violent. French President Emmanuel Macron has not yet addressed his country’s growing crisis. (He is expected to do so on Monday.) But America’s president did so on Saturday, arguing that the violence is proof that no one wants to fight climate change.

Trump isn’t the first to characterize France’s protests as a populist uprising against environmentalism. Last week, The Wall Street Journal editorial board called the protests a “global carbon tax revolt” against “green piety.” A piece for Forbes suggested that similar chaos could unfold in the United States if politicians pursue aggressive climate action. Writing in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neil praised the Yellow Vests for taking a stance against “eco-elitism.” “This is a people’s rebellion against the onerous consequences of climate-change policy, against the politics of environmentalism and its tendency to punish the little people for daring to live relatively modern, fossil-fueled lives,” he wrote.

France’s violent protests are indeed a response to a climate policy—specifically, a planned increase of the country’s already steep taxes on fuel, which would have a huge impact on France’s working class. But the Yellow Vests aren’t protesting all climate policy, or even taxes on carbon dioxide. They’re protesting a tax hike that came on top of several other regressive economic policies.

So it’s wrong to claim that the protesters oppose climate action. In fact, they want the opposite—they say so themselves.

In a communique issued on November 23, the Yellow Vests said France should “put in place a real ecological policy and not a few piecemeal fiscal measures.” The World Resources Institute, which translated the document, said in a blog post Friday that the protesters “highlight ecology as a top priority.”

The [Yellow Vests’] list of 42 demands includes proposals to make the climate transition fairer, and some demands call for even more ambitious climate action. The Yellow Vests are not against carbon pricing in general: They propose introducing fuel and kerosene taxes for ships and airplanes.

So what are the Yellow Vests protesting if not “green piety”? As Ghislain Coutard, the man who inspired the protesters’ signature clothing choice, put it, “The government does everything so that rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.” Macron has long been seen as implementing policies that make life harder for the working class and easier for the wealthy. The planned fuel tax increase was simply the breaking point. That’s why the violent protests continue even though France suspended the tax increase last week. [Continue reading…]

Facebook and Twitter face growing scrutiny for their role in sparking France’s ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests

VentureBeat reports:

The French government announced it is investigating the possibility that Russia manipulated social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter to foment discord that has inspired growing protests across the country.

The Gilets Jaunes or “yellow vests,” appeared at first to be largely a spontaneous social movement of protestors angry about an impending tax on diesel that is aimed at fighting climate change. The original complaint that this fell disproportionately on the backs of poor and rural residents has evolved into widespread anger over economic injustice. This movement has now engulfed President Emmanuel Macron’s government in its greatest crisis since he was elected 18 months ago.

It was clear from the start that Facebook played a critical role in propelling the movement forward as Facebook groups sprang up across the country, allowing local residents to organize and plan demonstrations. But there had been growing suspicion in recent weeks, particularly as the protests turned more violent, that outside groups may be using social media to manipulate residents — as happened with the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

On Sunday, during an interview with RTL radio in France, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said an investigation has been launched into possible manipulation by Russia or others.

“An investigation is now underway,” said Le Drian, according to Bloomberg. “I will not make comments before the investigation has brought conclusions.”

The Bloomberg story notes that the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a unit of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. that monitors pro-Kremlin activity, has been tracking about 600 Twitter accounts that promote Kremlin views and that have recently been targeting France by promoting the #giletsjaunes hashtag. The Alliance says #giletsjaunes conversations on these Twitter channels has surged past those about Brexit and U.S. politics.

In many cases, these accounts, led in part by such Russian-controlled media outlets as Sputnik news and RT, have been reporting blatantly false stories, such as that French police are sympathizing with protestors and turning their back on the government. One such video that involved police removing their helmets went viral because it supposedly showed police standing in unity with protestors, something witnesses on hand say was not true.

French newspaper Le Monde reports that French security forces are examining “accounts opened two weeks ago that send a hundred messages a day.”

Meanwhile, French cybersecurity researcher Baptiste Robert has been capturing more than 250,000 tweets over the past week as he tracked the explosion of English-language messages with the #giletsjaunes hashtag.

The tweets with the most reach and influence are coming from the Twitter accounts of a Polish nationalist, a Turkish breaking news account, and a pro-Trump follower who is part of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, Robert found. “A lot of influential groups are trying to support the catastrophic nature of the demonstrations, the ‘civil war’, the police violence,” Robert told the Liberation newspaper. [Continue reading…]

Brexit: UK can unilaterally revoke article 50, says European Court of Justice

The Guardian reports:

The UK can unilaterally stop the Brexit process, the European court of justice has said in a ruling that will boost demands for a second EU referendum.

The court concluded that any EU member state can revoke an article 50 process without needing approval from every other member state, but only before its withdrawal comes into force.

“The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU,” the ECJ said.

The emergency judgment came the day before the critical Commons vote [which has now been postponed] on Theresa May’s Brexit deal and will be reviewed urgently by Scotland’s civil court in Edinburgh. [Continue reading…]

How a powerful Russian propaganda machine chips away at Western notions of truth

The Washington Post reports:

The initial plan was a Cold War classic — brutal yet simple. Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison designed to produce an agonizing and untraceable death.

But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours, according to British and U.S. officials who closely followed the events, a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway, this one involving scores of operatives and accomplices and a scheme straight out of the Kremlin’s 21st-century communications playbook — the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear.

Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately, the first of 46 bogus story lines put out by Russian-controlled media and Twitter accounts and even by senior Russian officials, according to a tabulation by The Washington Post — all of them sowing doubt about Russia’s involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. Ranging from the plausible to the fantastical, the stories blamed a toxic spill, Ukrainian activists, the CIA, British Prime Minister Theresa May and even Skripal himself.

The brazenness of the attempt to kill a Russian defector turned British citizen at his home in southwest England outraged Western governments and led to the expulsion of some 150 Russian diplomats by more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Yet, more than eight months later, analysts see a potential for greater harm in the kind of heavily coordinated propaganda barrage Russia launched after the assassination attempt failed.

Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014, each aimed, officials say, at undermining Western and international investigative bodies and making it harder for ordinary citizens to separate fact from falsehood. They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia’s arsenal — both foreign policy tool and asymmetrical weapon, one that Western institutions and technology companies are struggling to counter.

“Dismissing it as fake news misses the point,” said a Western security official who requested anonymity in discussing ongoing investigations into the Russian campaign. “It’s about undermining key pillars of democracy and the rule of law.” [Continue reading…]

Vast ecosystem beneath the Earth’s surface discovered

The Guardian reports:

The Earth is far more alive than previously thought, according to “deep life” studies that reveal a rich ecosystem beneath our feet that is almost twice the size of that found in all the world’s oceans.

Despite extreme heat, no light, minuscule nutrition and intense pressure, scientists estimate this subterranean biosphere is teeming with between 15bn and 23bn tonnes of micro-organisms, hundreds of times the combined weight of every human on the planet.

Researchers at the Deep Carbon Observatory say the diversity of underworld species bears comparison to the Amazon or the Galápagos Islands, but unlike those places the environment is still largely pristine because people have yet to probe most of the subsurface.

“It’s like finding a whole new reservoir of life on Earth,” said Karen Lloyd, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We are discovering new types of life all the time. So much of life is within the Earth rather than on top of it.” [Continue reading…]

The steward of Middle-earth

Hannah Long writes:

Around the time Christopher [Tolkien] was commissioned an officer in the RAF in 1945, [J.R.R.] Tolkien was calling his son “my chief critic and collaborator.” Christopher would return from flying missions to pore over another chapter of his father’s work. He also joined the informal literary club known as the Inklings. At 21, he was the youngest—and is now the last surviving—member. The band of friends—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams, among others—would meet at Oxford’s Eagle and Child pub or Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to chat about literature and philosophy and to read aloud portions of works in progress.

Christopher was recruited to narrate his father’s stories. The group considered his clear, rich voice a marked improvement over his father’s dithering, mumbling delivery. Lewis had recognized the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work from the first moment he encountered it, and for years remained Tolkien’s only audience. Dyson, not so appreciative, exclaimed during one reading, “Oh, not another f—ing elf!”

Poet and scholar Malcolm Guite argues that the Inklings, despite their profound differences (Tolkien was an English Roman Catholic, Lewis an Ulster Protestant, Williams a hermetic mystic) refined and supported each other in their common literary mission.

“They’re not often noticed by literary historians because . . . in terms of English literature, the self-defining mainstream of 20th-century literature supposedly was high modernism, shaped by Joyce and Eliot,” Guite said in a 2011 lecture. But “there was actually . . . something quite radical going on in that group. Together, they were able to form a profoundly alternative and countercultural vision.” Guite emphasizes, in particular, the Inklings’ shared desire to respond to the materialist, largely atheistic cohort whose voices dominated the world of letters.

Although the Inklings are often accused of escapism, nearly all culture was engaged in a sort of dissociation because of the carnage and devastation of the First World War. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes that Tolkien was “a traveler between worlds,” from his Edwardian youth to his postbellum disillusionment. It was this “oscillation that, paradoxically, makes him a modern writer, for . . . the temporal dislocation of his ‘escape’ mirrored the psychological disjunction and displacement of his century.”

High modernism found that escape in science, creating a stark divide between the material and the spiritual. This technical, technological, atomizing approach turns up in The Lord of the Rings with the villainous wizard Saruman, whose materialist philosophy dismisses the transcendent. Early in the book, Saruman changes his robe from white to multicolored. He explains, “White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf replies. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman ignores that his dissection of color has eliminated something greater than the sum of its parts; he has lost view of the transcendent white light. For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation. [Continue reading…]

Music: Itamar Borochov — ‘Blue Nights’


The planet has seen sudden warming before. It wiped out almost everything

Carl Zimmer writes:

Some 252 million years ago, Earth almost died.

In the oceans, 96 percent of all species became extinct. It’s harder to determine how many terrestrial species vanished, but the loss was comparable.

This mass extinction, at the end of the Permian Period, was the worst in the planet’s history, and it happened over a few thousand years at most — the blink of a geological eye.

On Thursday, a team of scientists offered a detailed accounting of how marine life was wiped out during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. Global warming robbed the oceans of oxygen, they say, putting many species under so much stress that they died off.

And we may be repeating the process, the scientists warn. If so, then climate change is “solidly in the category of a catastrophic extinction event,” said Curtis Deutsch, an earth scientist at the University of Washington and co-author of the new study, published in the journal Science. [Continue reading…]

Trump ‘at the center of a massive fraud against the American people’

The New York Times reports:

The latest revelations by prosecutors investigating President Trump and his team draw a portrait of a candidate who personally directed an illegal scheme to manipulate the 2016 election and whose advisers had more contact with Russia than Mr. Trump has ever acknowledged.

In the narrative that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and New York prosecutors are building, Mr. Trump continued to secretly seek to do business in Russia deep into his presidential campaign even as Russian agents made more efforts to influence him. At the same time, in this account he ordered hush payments to two women to suppress stories of impropriety in violation of campaign finance law.

The prosecutors made clear in a sentencing memo filed on Friday that they viewed efforts by Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to squelch the stories as nothing less than a perversion of a democratic election — and by extension they effectively accused the president of defrauding voters, questioning the legitimacy of his victory.

On Saturday, Mr. Trump dismissed the filings, and his lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, minimized the importance of any potential campaign finance violations. Democrats, however, said they could lead to impeachment. [Continue reading…]