Reddit Bans Accounts, Suspects Possible UK Vote Interference 

The prospect of Russian interference in Britain’s election flared anew Saturday after the social media platform Reddit concluded that people from Russia had leaked confidential British government documents on Brexit trade talks just days before the general U.K. vote. Reddit said in a statement that it had banned 61 accounts suspected of violating policies against vote manipulation. It said the suspect accounts shared the same pattern of activity as a Russian interference operation dubbed Secondary Infektion that was uncovered earlier this year.  Reddit investigated the leak after the documents became public during the campaign for Thursday’s election, which will determine the country’s future relationship with the European Union. All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs. Reddit said it believed the documents were leaked as part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia. We were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination,'' Reddit said. The British government has not challenged the authenticity of the documents. FILE - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits on a train in London, Dec. 6, 2019, on the campaign trail ahead of the general election on Dec. 12.Britain's main opposition party has argued the documents prove that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party is seeking a deal with the United States after Brexit that would drive up the cost of drugs and imperil the state-funded National Health Service. The issue has been a central election theme, largely because the country deeply cherishes the health service, which has suffered under years of austerity. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the 451 pages of documents, which covered six rounds of preliminary talks between U.S. and U.K. negotiators, proved that Johnson was planning to put the NHSup for sale” in trade talks. Johnson — who was not prime minister for most of the two-year period when the trade talks took place — has rejected Corbyn’s analysis. Britain is currently scheduled to leave the 28-nation EU on January 31. When asked about Reddit’s actions while on a campaign stop in Wales, Corbyn suggested the news was an advanced stage of rather belated conspiracy theories by the prime minister.'' ''When we released the documents, at no stage did the prime minister or anybody deny that those documents were real, deny the arguments that we put forward. And if there has been no discussion with the USA about access to our health markets, if all that is wrong, how come after a week they still haven't said that? he said. ‘Extremely serious’Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan told the BBC that the government was looking for and monitoring anything that might suggest interference in the British election.  From what was being put on that [Reddit] website, those who seem to know about these things say that it seems to have all the hallmarks of some form of interference,'' Morgan said.And if that is the case, that obviously is extremely serious.” The specter that Russia has meddled in Britain’s electoral process has been raised before. Critics are also questioning the British government’s failure to release a Parliament intelligence committee report on previous Russian interference in the country’s politics. They say it should have been made public before Thursday’s vote. The Times of London reported, without saying how it got the information, that the intelligence report concluded that Russian interference might have affected the 2016 referendum on Britain’s departure from the EU, though the impact was unquantifiable.'' The committee said British intelligence services failed to devote enough resources to countering the threat, and it highlighted the impact of articles posted by Russian news sites that were widely disseminated on social media, the newspaper reported. FILE - The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, reacts as she speaks at a campaign event in London, Nov. 9, 2019.Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson expressed concern about the new Russian interference claims. All of us should be concerned if a foreign country is trying to interfere in our democracy,” she said. “And that is why it is so appalling that the prime minister is sitting on a report that was written weeks before the general election, that the Security Committee say should be published, into interference in U.K. democracy by foreign countries like Russia.” 

No Place for Right-Wing Extremists in Ranks, German Army Says

As reports about the threat of far-right recruitment among Europe’s law enforcement and military grow, German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, told VOA that they are working to keep far-right extremists away from their units or to remove them once they have been identified. 
A spokesperson for the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) told VOA the military was expanding its cooperation with German security authorities and international partners to analyze links and connections of suspected right-wing extremists to try to expose them. 
“There is no place whatsoever for extremists in any form, but especially right-wing extremists, in the Bundeswehr with its over 250,000 members,” the MAD spokesman, who did not wish to be named, said. 
He said the military has taken several approaches to prevent infiltration by far-right extremists, including carrying out 16,000 security checks annually for all its applicants. 
“We also take other preventive measures, aiming to encourage an improved reporting culture within the units through advisories, talks and our own publications,” the spokesperson added. FILE – Members of the German army’s special forces secure an area while demonstrating their skills in training in Claw, near Stuttgart, July 14, 2014.German media Sunday reported that the Bundeswehr had suspended an officer of its elite special forces, or Kommando Spezialkräfte, who had ties to right-wing elements. The Bild am Sonntag newspaper reported the officer and two other soldiers had been covertly investigated for months, which had exposed their neo-Nazi activities. 
On Wednesday, outrage erupted on social media after the Bundeswehr posted on its Instagram channel a picture of a Nazi swastika uniform with the word “retro” on the top of it. Following the backlash, the Bundeswehr removed the post and apologized, saying its intention in the post was to show in the photo “a centuries-long influence of uniforms on fashion.” 
VOA reached out to the German military officials for a comment on the officer’s suspension, but a Military Counterintelligence Service spokesperson said they were unable to comment on “specific operations.” 
 Far-right tendencies 
In recent years, some German officials and counterextremism experts have cautioned against the rise in anti-Semitic and anti-immigration rhetoric among the country’s law enforcement following multiple reports of members showing far-right extremist tendencies. 
Fabian Virchow, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf and the director of the Research Unit on Right Wing Extremism, told VOA that many far-right groups see police and the military as attractive recruitment grounds to expand their membership and enforce their ideology. 
As an example, Virchow said, Alternative for Germany, a right-wing political party founded in 2013, has named a number of police officers as its leading personnel. 
“Far-right extremists guess rightly that these two bodies are, on average, more conservative than the rest of the society. This refers mainly to the idea of law and order, which, from the perception of many, has been violated, especially during the crisis of the migration regime in 2015,” he said. 
The penetration of far-right extremists and neo-Nazis into Germany’s law enforcement gained attention in April 2017, when German army officer Franco A. was accused of plotting a right-wing terror attack he seemingly hoped would be mistaken for Islamist extremism. FILE – Soldiers of the German KSK attend an exercise close to Putgarten, Germany, Sept. 28, 2015.The chief of MAD, Christof Gramm, recently said 20 soldiers at Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), the special forces command composed of soldiers selected from the Bundeswehr, are under investigation for suspicious ties to right-wing extremists. 
Earlier this year, MAD admitted it had underreported the numbers of alleged cases, saying it could be as many as 450, newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported. Of those cases, MAD said 64 were suspected of membership in the Identitarian movement, while another 64 were tied to Reichsbürger. 
Originating in France and active in Germany since 2012, Identitarian is a right-wing movement asserting the need to preserve the “European” culture from immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants. Reichsbürger, another far-right group, does not recognize the legitimacy of the modern German state, but instead believes in reviving the 1871 borders of the German empire. 
Virchow, of the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, said the risk of radicalization in the military has been downplayed. He said many officials fear that an investigation could lead to exposing structural problems with racism in the police. 
“A very urgent task to do should be a scientific investigation of to what an extent police units hold racist and anti-Semitic ideas. To make sure that the police and the military, as the two armed structures in society, stay absolutely loyal to democracy and actively defend it is key,” he said. 
 Transnational issue 
Some experts say combating the threat of right-wing infiltration of the police will likely require collective action from European countries. They say similar reports of radicalization among law enforcement of other European countries show the issue is transnational. FILE – This Dec. 2, 2016, photo shows the headquarters of Europol in the Netherlands.The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, known as Europol, concluded that violence related to right-wing extremism was rising in many EU states, according to a confidential report cited by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the country’s main daily newspapers, in September. 
The report said the groups were pursuing military and police members to boost their “combat skills.” 
Daniel Koehler, the director of the German Institute in Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS), told VOA that by infiltrating law enforcement and the military of European countries, right-wing groups are trying to secure a long-term power base and shield themselves against any potential future repression by their governments. 
“The hope to easily connect to soldiers and police officers ideologically is not that far off, since the far right’s approach through patriotism, nationalism, anti-communism or even blatant racism and anti-Semitism, as well as a positive stance towards violence, might resonate with many others who feel attracted to serve in the military or police,” Koehler said. 
He said certain European countries have taken important steps in countering this potential threat, particularly in the United Kingdom, where mandatory training is provided to officers to more easily spot far-right radicalization. 
However, “a more proactive approach” to embedding the concept of countering violent extremism (CVE) — actions to thwart extremist efforts to recruit, radicalize and mobilize followers to violence — within law enforcement “should be taken,” he said.  

Weekend Travel in France Disrupted by Work Stoppages and Protests

France’s most serious nationwide work stoppage in decades frustrated weekend travelers Saturday as truckers blocked thoroughfares and vital transportation services continued to operate far below normal capacity.Concern that President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension overhaul would force millions of people to work longer or face less lucrative benefits triggered the union-led strike on Thursday, bringing much of the country to a halt.Truckers blocked roads Saturday in about 10 regions in France to protest a proposed tax hike on diesel fuel for commercial vehicles.Yellow vest protesters, who have taken to the streets on Saturdays over the past year to voice frustration over the high cost of living in France, sought to capitalize on the nationwide strike.Several hundred of them launched a new protest Saturday in Paris and they scuffled with police in the city’s Left Bank district.Travel in France remained problematic Saturday, with only one in 10 regional trains running and one out of six high-speed TGV trains operating.Air travel was returning closer to normal after authorities dropped travel restrictions.More than 800,000 people participated in the first day of demonstrations on Thursday.In response to what they see as an attack on hard-won worker rights, union leaders have promised to continue protesting unless Macron abandons the proposed pension overhaul, which officials admit would force employees to gradually work longer.Unions have also announced another strike on Tuesday (Dec. 10).Officials have given few details about the pension plan, but Macron’s office said Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would unveil the framework next week after negotiations with unions.The strike is a test of the political prowess of Macron, a former investment banker who won the presidency on the promise to transform France.Macron wants to standardize and simplify the country’s retirement system comprised of 42 pension plans, maintaining it is not financially sustainable or fair.Many workers, particularly teachers, worry Macron’s reform will leave them with less retirement money.With workers living much longer and a large segment of working-age citizens unemployed, analyst Jean Peteaux of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University said France’s pension system is under significant financial pressure.Peteaux also said it is uncertain if the government’s method to address the issue will succeed. 

Pentagon Concerned Russia Cultivating Sympathy Among US Troops

Russian efforts to weaken the West through a relentless campaign of information warfare may be starting to pay off, cracking a key bastion of the U.S. line of defense: the military.While most Americans still see Moscow as a key U.S. adversary, new polling suggests that view is changing, most notably among the households of military members.The second annual Reagan National Defense Survey, completed in late October, found nearly half of armed services households questioned, 46%, said they viewed Russia as ally.Overall, the survey found 28% of Americans identified Russia as an ally, up from 19% the previous year.A sun ray illuminates St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square during a cold winter day in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 11, 2019.Generally, the pollsters found the positive views of Russia seemed to be “predominantly driven by Republicans who have responded to positive cues from [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump about Russia,” according to an executive summary accompanying the results.While a majority, 71% of all Americans and 53% of military households, still views Russia as an enemy, the spike in pro-Russian sentiment has defense officials concerned.“There is an effort, on the part of Russia, to flood the media with disinformation to sow doubt and confusion,” Defense Department spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Carla Gleason told VOA.“This is not only through discordant and inflammatory dialogue but through false narratives designed to illicit sympathetic views,” she said, adding, “we are actively working to expose and counter Russian disinformation whenever possible.”Reagan National Defense SurveyThe Reagan National Defense Survey, conducted on behalf of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, questioned just more than 1,000 adults between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.Concern among U.S. officials runs deep, partly because other surveys have also found a growing willingness in the U.S. to view Russia positively.For example, Paul R. Pillar, Georgetown UniversityOthers fear Russia’s gains in public opinion are symptomatic of a bigger problem that the Kremlin has managed to exploit.“People’s beliefs and perceptions are shaped more by whatever the leaders of their own political tribe say than by ideology, history, or even their own self-interest,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.He said, for now though, the gradual change in U.S. perceptions of Russia has had limited impact.“Many Republicans can slavishly follow Trump’s lead on most matters, including the rhetorical line on Russia, but still, say, support defense expenditures designed to maintain strength vis-a-vis Russia,” Pillar said, noting a variety of U.S. sanctions against Moscow are still in place.The U.S. national defense strategy, updated just two years ago, likewise lists Russia along with China, as the prime threats to the U.S.For the most part, the Reagan National Defense Survey found a majority of Americans are in agreement.“When we asked Americans which countries were tops on their list in terms of the threat that they posed to the United States the first was China [28%] and the second was Russia [25%],” said Ronald Reagan Institute Policy Director Rachel Hoff.She also said there was strong sentiment that the U.S. should not cede any ground on the global stage, to Russia or anyone else.“They want America to take the lead when it comes to international events rather than a less engaged posture where our country is reacting to global events,” Hoff told VOA, pointing to a 50% to 33% margin.At the same time, other polls have pointed to a lingering wariness on the part of a majority of Americans when it comes to Russia.A Gallup survey published in February of this year found only 24% of Americans had a positive view of Russia, down from a 44% favorable rating in February of 2013.

Truckers Block Roads as French Strikes hit Weekend Travel

Strikes disrupted weekend travel around France on Saturday as truckers blocked highways and most trains remained at a standstill because of worker anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s policies.Meanwhile, yellow vest protesters held their weekly demonstrations over economic injustice in Paris and other cities, under the close watch of police. The marchers appear to be emboldened by the biggest national protests in years Thursday that kicked off a mass movement against the government’s plan to redesign the national retirement system.As the strikes entered a third day Saturday, tourists and shoppers faced shuttered subway lines around Paris and near-empty train stations.Other groups are joining the fray, too.
Nationwide Strike Paralyzes France video player.
Embed” />Copy LinkNationwide Strike Paralyzes FranceTruckers striking over a fuel tax hike disrupted traffic on highways from Provence in the southeast to Normandy in the northwest. A similar fuel tax is what unleashed the yellow vest movement a year ago, and this convergence of grievances could pose a major new threat to Macron’s presidency.The travel chaos is not deterring the government so far, though. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe plainly told the French in a nationwide address Friday: “You’re going to have to work longer.”He will present details of the plan next week. The government says it won’t raise the official retirement age of 62 but the plan is expected to including financial conditions to encourage people to work longer. Philippe did offer one olive branch, saying the changes would be progressive so that they don’t become “brutal.”Macron says the reform, which will streamline a convoluted system of 42 special pension plans, will make the system more fair and financially sustainable.Unions, however, see the plan as a t hreat to hard-fought workers’ rights, and are digging in for what they hope is a protracted strike. They also plan new nationwide retirement protests Tuesday, despite the tear gas and rioting that marred the edges of the Paris march Thursday.In a society accustomed to strikes and workers rights, many people have supported the labor action, though that sentiment is likely to fade if the transport shutdown continues through next week.“I knew it was going to last … but I did not expect it to be that chaotic,” Ley Basaki, who lives in the Paris suburb of Villemomble and struggles to get to and from work in the capital, told The Associated Press on Saturday at the Gare de l’Est train station. “There is absolutely nothing here, nothing, nothing. There is no bus, nothing.”Many travelers are using technology and social networks to find ways around the strike — working from home, using ride-sharing apps and riding shared bikes or electric scooters.But some are using technology to support the strike: A group of activist gamers is raising money via a marathon session on game-streaming site Twitch. Their manifesto says: “In the face of powers-that-be who are hardening their line and economic insecurity that is intensifying in all layers of the population,” they are trying to “occupy other spaces for mobilization and invent other ways of joining the movement.”

Russian Blogger Given Suspended Sentence for ‘Inciting Online Extremism’

A court in Moscow has handed popular blogger Yegor Zhukov a three-year suspended sentence after finding him guilty of inciting extremism online in a case condemned as politically motivated. 
The Kuntsevo district court announced the verdict Friday as hundreds of supporters of Zhukov, 21, a student at Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics, gathered outside the court building in western Moscow. 
“The court has established that Zhukov made public calls for extremist activity using the internet,” Judge Svetlana Ukhnaleva said. 
Zhukov was arrested in August amid protests that gripped Moscow for weeks this past summer as Russians vented against the country’s repressive political system. 
“Of course, this is not an ultimate victory. A big thank you to everyone,” Zhukov said after the verdict was announced. 
In his final court appearance, on Wednesday, Zhukov made an impassioned appeal to his supporters — and offered an indictment of Russia’s political system. Economic inequalityRussia’s current political system has fostered economic inequality that, Zhukov said, destroys any opportunity for human prosperity, with the top 10 percent holding 90 percent of the country’s wealth. 
“Among them, of course, there are very honorable citizens. But the bulk of this wealth was obtained not by honest labor, for the benefit of people, but by banal corruption,” he said. 
Prior to his predawn arrest on August 2, Zhukov had already drawn a sizable audience on YouTube, where he had posted a series of video blogs in which he vented against President Vladimir Putin and promoted opposition protests across the country.  FILE – A wheelchair-bound woman activist surrounded by journalists holds a poster reading, “The Constitution breakers to be brought to justice!” as she talks to police officers during a protest in the center of Moscow, Aug. 17, 2019.In the series of protests that hit Moscow on consecutive weekends during the summer, police detained hundreds of people on various charges. Most were released for misdemeanor violations. 
At a different location in the capital Friday, the Tver district court sentenced Nikita Chirtsov, a 22-year-old programmer who took part in an unsanctioned rally on July 27, to serve one year “in a general penal colony.” 
Chirtsov was initially fined 12,000 rubles ($185) for violating regulations for holding public events, after which he left Moscow for the Belarusian capital, Minsk. However, Belarusian officials detained him days later on a Russian request and ordered him sent back to Moscow. 
Upon his return, Chirtsov was rearrested and charged with assaulting a police officer during the rally and placed in pretrial detention. Chirtsov maintained his innocence throughout the trial, and the police officer involved told the court in November that the suspect “does not deserve imprisonment.” Other cases
The Tver district court also fined Pavel Novikov, 32, 120,000 rubles ($1,850) after finding him guilty of assaulting a police officer during the same July 27 rally. 
Meanwhile, the Meshchansky district court on Friday handed Vladimir Yemelyanov a two-year suspended sentence after also finding him guilty of assaulting a law officer during the July 27 rally. 
Zhukov was initially charged with mass unrest as a result of his participation in the protests, but amid an outcry from his student supporters, prosecutors reclassified the case against him. 
The last video he posted before being detained had been viewed more than 300,000 times as of Thursday. Since his arrest, the videos posted to his YouTube channel by his supporters and allies have garnered hundreds of thousands more.

Britain’s ‘Lesser of Two Evil’ Election May Go Down to Wire

Britons vote next Thursday in the country’s third general election in under four years, with pollsters and politicians warning it isn’t going to be easy to forecast the outcome. As the clock ticks toward the most consequential vote in a generation, the battle for Downing Street appears to be coming down once again to the two main storied parties  Labor and the Conservatives, say analysts, who note that voters have never held the leaders of either group in such high disdain as they do now.The fracturing of the two dominant parties, the revival of the country’s perennial third party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as the formation of a new anti-European Union party and the scrambling of traditional party allegiances, was adding too many variables for accurate prediction, the analysts cautioned, made more complicated by the country’s first past-the-post-voting system. This is where the candidate with the majority of the votes becomes the winner.One opinion poll after another and television debate after television debate have brought home how distrusting the British public has become of both the ruling Conservatives’ Boris Johnson and Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn.Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits on a train in London, Dec. 6, 2019, on the campaign trail ahead of the general election on Dec. 12.Johnson is seen widely as an opportunist who will say anything to remain at No. 10 Downing Street but who doesn’t mean what he says and doesn’t say what he means. His public representation for being economical with the truth stretches back to when he was fired as a journalist by The Times newspaper for making up quotes.Corbyn is viewed as more in touch than Johnson with the trials and tribulations of ordinary people, but is judged an impracticable far-left figure from a bygone era whose plan to re-nationalize a chunk of the economy would likely bankrupt the country and who promises far more than can be delivered when it comes to redistributing wealth and reinvesting in Britain’s crumbling public services.Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks during a press conference in London, Dec. 6, 2019, ahead of the general election on Dec. 12.Corbyn’s fudge on Brexit — in which he wants to renegotiate yet another exit deal with the European Union and then hold a second referendum while remaining neutral on the plebiscite — has provoked derision from studio audiences.Johnson, too, has faced ridicule in TV studios as well as snubs on the streets when campaigning. “Is that a lie again?” queried an irate Yorkshire woman when he visited flood-hit parts of Britain last month and faced a barrage of criticism from furious locals over Conservative promises of cash aid that had amounted to nothing. In vain he tried to engage some in conversation. “You’ve not helped us … I don’t know what you’re here today for,” sniped one woman, who insisted he get out of her way.Mid-week, fast food giant Burger King decided to use the election to poke fun at Johnson’s reputation for misrepresentation with a new advertisement slapped on the side of London buses, mocking his Brexit promises. “ANOTHER WHOPPER ON THE SIDE OF A BUS. MUST BE AN ELECTION,” the ad declared, a tongue-in-cheek reference both to Burger King’s signature burger, the Whopper, and to political lies.”With a week to go before the election, the central issue seems to come down to trust,” according to The Guardian columnist Gary Younge. “For the Conservatives it is about whether people trust what they say; for Labor, it is about whether voters trust that it can do what it says. The challenge for the Tories (Conservatives) goes all the way to the top,” he added.People attend a “Stop the Brexit landslide” rally in London, Dec. 6, 2019.Many voters do not rate either of the main leaders so they must choose their least worst option, the “lesser of two evils,” say analysts.Conservative strategists hope the distrust voters harbor for Corbyn and Johnson will cancel out each other and that in the end they will win through and maintain their seven-point lead over Labor by garnering all the pro-Brexit vote. They are banking on the pro-EU vote fracturing between Labor and the Liberal Democrats, depriving Corbyn of sufficient seats to form a parliamentary majority or enough seats to cobble together a coalition government with Scotland’s nationalists, who are likely to make major gains north of the border with England.The Conservatives have stayed rigidly on message, trying to make the election as much about Brexit as possible and marketing the fact that they will take Britain out of Europe by the end of January, if they form the next government. Their discipline is working to make sure they are seen as the only real political vehicle for Brexit to happen and the challenge from the newly-minted Brexit Party of Nigel Farage is collapsing.Nigel Farage, Leader of Britain’s Brexit Party poses after speaking on stage at the launch of their policies for the General Election campaign, in London, Nov. 22, 2019.Farage’s party is polling at about 5 percent and midweek, three of the party’s high-profile members urged voters to back the Conservatives, if they want “Brexit to be delivered,” angering Farage.Conservative strategists are also banking on Britons not wanting another deadlocked parliament and that Brexit exhaustion will persuade even pro-EU Conservatives to back Johnson on the grounds that the Brexit mess needs now to be brought to a conclusion and that if Johnson isn’t returned to Downing Street the political impasse will merely be prolonged.The polls in the final days of campaigning have narrowed, with the Conservatives’ lead almost dropping from 13 percent  to 9 or 7 percent, but that is not enough to give Labor much hope of overtaking the Conservatives. Labor’s support in its heartland districts of the north, many of which backed leaving Europe in the 2016 Brexit referendum, is also looking increasingly shaky.But tactical voting by pro-EU voters to upset the Conservatives is a wild card and could upend polling predictions — two former prime ministers, Labor’s Tony Blair and the Conservatives’ John Major, both of whom want Britain to remain in the EU — have been urging Britons to vote tactically in constituencies to deny Johnson a parliamentary majority. Pro-EU organizations have created interactive electoral maps to encourage tactical voting.More people than ever before are expected to vote tactically when a divided Britain has its say on Dec. 12 after more than three years of Brexit uncertainty, according to a Sunday Times poll with up to 6 to 10 percent of its readers thinking about voting tactically.

French Strike Over Pension Reform Enters Second Day   

A nationwide strike about planned pension reforms that has paralyzed most of France enters its second day Friday.Concern that the proposed pension overhaul would force millions of people to work longer or have less lucrative benefits has prompted the strike, bringing much of the country to a halt.Tens of thousands of workers in France walked off the job Thursday as unions staged a nationwide strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to reform the country’s pension system.The strike shut down transportation, forced most schools to close, left hospitals understaffed and basic government services unmet.Largely peaceful demonstrations were held in Paris and in more than two dozen cities throughout the country.Protesters hide behind a wooden board and an umbrella during a demonstration against the pension overhauls, in Nantes, Dec. 5, 2019, as part of a national general strike.Violence erupted, however, near Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, where thousands of protesters had gathered. Some protesters set fire to a construction trailer and police responded by firing tear gas, witnesses said.Police also used tear gas against protesters in the northwestern city of Nantes and in the southeastern city of Lyon.Union leaders have promised to continue protesting unless Macron abandons the proposed pension overhaul, which officials admit would force employees to gradually work longer.Officials have given few details about the plan, but Macron’s office said Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would unveil the framework next week after negotiations with unions.The strike is a test of the political prowess of Macron, a former investment banker who won the presidency on the promise to transform France.

Germany’s Merkel Begins Her First Ever Visit to Auschwitz

German Chancellor Angela Merkel entered the hallowed grounds of the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz on Friday as she began her first ever visit to the most notorious site of the atrocities that Adolf Hitler’s regime inflicted on Europe.
Merkel also brought a donation of 60 million Euros ($66.6 million). The money will go to a fund to conserve the physical remnants of the site – the barracks, watchtowers and personal items like shoes and suitcases of those killed.
Together, those objects endure as evidence of German atrocities and as one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of humanity’s capacity for evil. But they also are deteriorating under the strain of time and mass tourism, prompting a long-term conservation effort.
That donation to the Auschwitz Foundation comes in addition to 60 million euros that Germany donated when the fund was launched a decade ago, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.
That brings the total German donation to 120 million euros and makes Germany by far the most generous of 38 countries that have contributed. As with the earlier donation, half comes from the federal government and half from the German states, an acknowledgement of the German nation’s responsibility.
Since becoming chancellor in 2005, Merkel has paid her respects at other Nazi concentration camps, and she has been five times to Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial Yad Vashem.
Still, Poland’s Foreign Ministry called her visit “historic,” in an obvious acknowledgement of the unique status Auschwitz has in the world’s collective memory. The ministry also noted that it was just the third visit of an incumbent head of a German government.
Nazi German forces killed an estimated 1.1 million people at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex during their occupation of Poland during World War II. Most of the victims were Jews transported from across Europe to be killed in gas chambers. But tens of thousands of others were killed there too, including Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and Roma, or Gypsies. The camp was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.

New Russia-Turkey S-400 Missile Deal in the Works, Interfax Says

Russia and Turkey are working on a contract for the delivery of a new batch of Russian S-400 missile systems, the Interfax news agency cited a senior official at a Russian military cooperation agency as saying on Friday.Such a deal would be likely to further strain Ankara’s relations with Washington which has suspended Turkey from the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter jet program in which it was a producer and buyer, to penalize it for buying S-400 batteries this year.“We’re gradually working on this question. Most importantly, both sides are intent on continuing cooperation in this sphere,” the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation was quoted as saying.The official, Dmitry Shugaev, said he thought there was a “fairly high likelihood” Turkey and Russia would sign a contract for the delivery of an additional batch of S-400s next year.The head of Russia’s state arms exporter told RIA news agency on Nov. 26 that Moscow and Ankara were actively discussing Ankara taking up an option in its original missile contract for it to receive more S-400 systems.

Popularity of Black Churches in London Keeps Growing

The largest concentration of black African churches outside of Africa can be found in South London. Each week, about 20,000 people attend one of the mostly Pentecostal churches in the city. Reporter Marthe van der Wolf has more from London.

Madrid Social Center Becomes Focus for Clashes on Immigration, Welfare

A reception center for minors in Madrid became the focus for clashing views on immigration and social welfare Thursday, a day after police defused a grenade found there. The row around the center, in the suburb of Hortaleza, crystallized worries about immigration and insecurity that helped the far-right Vox party double its result in last month’s election to become the third-biggest bloc in parliament.Vox repeatedly singled out the center during the campaign, with party leader Santiago Abascal denouncing “criminal foreign youngsters.” Last month, an extreme right-wing group called Hogar Social staged a protest at the gates, demanding the center’s closure to restore “security.”Police have made no arrests and some officials say gang violence may also have been behind the incident — with the device most likely thrown over the walls in a bag, according to Tedax, the Spanish police bomb squad. The grenade contained a minimal explosive charge, and no one was hurt. Dangerous climate
But government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa said the inflammatory rhetoric from Vox, which staged a visit to the area by party spokeswoman Rocio Monasterio during the campaign, had created a dangerous climate. 
“Words are ultimately internalized and intoxicate our consciences,” she told reporters. “We don’t like these words. We believe they incite certain behaviors from citizens which are not desirable in a country which desires social cohesion and peace for all.” 
With Spain’s Socialist party still struggling to form a government after the election and separatist riots in Catalonia fresh in collective memory, Wednesday’s incident has added to a volatile political climate in Spain. 
The center houses around 90 youngsters, most from North Africa, as well as some Spaniards. Several residents appeared wary, although according to city authorities, Hortaleza has some of the lowest crime rates in Madrid. 
“I don’t feel safe passing by the center’s gates alone,” said Elizabeth Lopez-Vega, 34, who said a young man she was told lived in the center had tried to steal her mobile phone last week. ‘Nobody is teaching them’
“They need more social educators,” she said. “Nobody is integrating them into society and nobody is teaching them a thing.” 
Social workers say the center is run down, although it no longer suffers from the severe overcrowding it faced earlier this year, when minors were forced to sleep on the floor. 
But they feel “singled out, like a cross has been painted on our door,” said one social worker who asked to remain anonymous. “We’re tired, afraid and fed up.”