France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) suffered a major defeat in the recent regional elections. The Socialist-led opposition took roughly 54 percent of the vote, with 36 percent going to the UMP. Only 51 percent of voters participated, according to the Washington Post, a sign of the public’s disappointment with both the right and the left. The results leave the president’s party with control of only Alsace, one of 22 regions in France. The elections are the last before 2012’s presidential race, giving Sarkozy two years to reflect on and address what went wrong in Sunday’s voting. On Monday, Labor Minister Xavier Darcos was replaced by Budget Minister Eric Woerth, and François Baroin replaced Woerth as Budget Minister.

Two days after his party’s drubbing in the polls, French President Nicolas Sarkozy abandoned plans for a carbon tax meant to help reduce climate change. Members of the president’s party opposed the tax, arguing it would put French companies at an unfair disadvantage compared to their European neighbors. According to the New York Times, Nicolas Bouzou, director of the financial consultancy firm Asterès, called the move a “big climb-down linked to the election…” In the aftermath of Sunday’s poll defeat, Prime Minister François Fillon stressed that the government’s priorities were “growth, jobs, competitiveness and fighting deficits”-an apparent attempt to please French business leaders and shore up support from the right, after failing to gain votes from the Greens.

On Friday, March 19, the United Kingdom and France announced the two nations will work more closely together on nuclear defense. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was quoted by Agence France Presse stressing that the countries “have agreed (to) a degree of co-operation that is… greater than we have had previously but we will retain, as will France, our independent nuclear deterrent.” The Guardian reports that the UK hopes to take advantage of French expertise to build power plants that do not rely on fossil fuels.  The newspaper also notes that the agreement is likely to come under attack from those who view nuclear power as dangerous and antiquated.

Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced Thursday, March 25 plans to create a new center-right political party. According to Radio France Internationale, Villepin intends to run against President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 elections. The former prime minister, who is currently still a member of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement, called for an end to the cap on taxes and for a greater redistribution of wealth.

According to the International Organisation of La Francophonie, the number of French speakers around the world has grown since 2007 thanks to rising literacy rates in Africa. Currently there are  an estimated 200 million French speakers in the world and the IOF says this could rise to 700 million by 2050, thanks largely to high birthrates in Africa.

United States

On Tuesday, March 23, President Obama signed a sweeping healthcare law into effect. The bill expands coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, prevents insurance companies from denying care to those with pre-existing conditions and extends the age limit for dependent coverage. The bill’s passage follows a year of intense political debate and was only supported by members of the president’s party. Writing in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt, argues that the legislation is “the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago.” He goes on to note that, by 2019, 95 percent of people are projected to be covered, up from 85 percent today. According to the Washington Post, Republicans immediately vowed to repeal the new law and plan to make it a central focus of the upcoming midterm elections.  Attorneys General in 13 states also began legal action Monday to prevent the law from being applied in their states. Parts of the package were sent back to the House on Thursday morning, due to two violations found by Senate Republicans. However Democrats expect to quickly approve the changes.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised Wednesday, March 24 to increase support for Mexico in its war against drugs. The announcement follows the deaths of two Americans and one Mexican connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, ten days earlier. The new $331 million plan will focus on strengthening civilian law enforcement institutions and rebuilding communities crippled by poverty and crime, according to the New York Times. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 2006 approximately 17,900 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico.

On Tuesday, March 23, the Arizona legislature gave preliminary approval to a new law which would give police the authority to arrest illegal immigrants on trespassing charges simply for being in the state. The bill, which must be reconciled with a state Senate version, outlaws the hiring of day laborers off the street, prohibits anyone from knowingly transporting illegal immigrants, and compels local police to check the status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. The American Civil Liberties union slammed the law as being unconstitutional and according to the New York Times, several police chiefs have criticized the bill as “burdensome and impractical and a tactic that will scare immigrants out of cooperating with investigations and reporting crime.”

On Wednesday, March 24, it was announced that the United States and Russia have reached an agreement regarding arms control. A new treaty is expected to be signed next month which will slash the size of both nations’ nuclear arsenals. The deal will replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, which expired in December. Under the terms, both sides will reduce their warheads and missile launchers by more than one-quarter. According to the New York Times, these numbers are considered moderate by arms control advocates, but the Obama administration views it as a first step on the road to more ambitious projects.

Less than two hours before he was to die, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of Henry Skinner, an inmate on Texas’s death row. It was announced Thursday, March 25, that more DNA testing would be conducted to determine the innocence or guilt of Skinner. The convicted murder is serving time for the deaths of his girlfriend and her two sons. Skinner is also married to a French, anti-death penalty activist and the French ambassador to the U.S. had been campaigning for the stay . French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the news, according to the BBC.

According to the national report card released on Wednesday, March 24, reading scores for fourth and eighth graders remained more or less the same for 2009. In response, Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated, “Today’s results once again show that achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough.” The National Assessment of Education Progress for 2009 rated a sampling of more than 178,000 fourth-graders and 160,000 eighth-graders from across the country.

Business and Economy

Following an announcement on Monday, March 22, that internet giant Google will cease to implement government-required censorship of search results in China, Chinese authorities have partially blocked access to the search engine. Google had hoped to circumvent Chinese controls by using routers based in the semi-autonomous island of Hong Kong. However, firewalls still block access to many sites. Google moved to lift restrictions following cyber attacks linked to China earlier this year. Chinese authorities have reacted angrily to the company’s actions, with the Communist party’s People’s Daily accusing Google of “collaborating with U.S. spy agencies” according to Reuters. On Wednesday, Google announced that it will phase out its partnerships with other Chinese online and mobile firms, making it clear this dispute is far from over.

On Wednesday, March 24, the Japanese government passed a record ¥92.3 trillion ($1 trillion) budget through Parliament aimed at stimulating growth in a Japanese economy plagued with deflation and swelling debt. The massive funds will pay for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s stimulus initiative which includes cash handouts to families with young children, free tuition at public high schools and financial support for farmers. According to the New York Times, the prime minister is also hoping to improve his popularity before this summer’s elections.

On Thursday, March 25, the euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar in ten months, as European leaders debate a solution to Greece’s economic problems. The Associated Press reports that Germany is not interested in offering Greece a bailout, but European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has requested that an aid package be put together for the country. According to the BBC, Deputy Governor of the Bank of China Zhu Min expressed fears that the Greek debt crisis is just an indicator of higher budget deficits for other Eurozone nations. The euro is currently trading at $1.333 to the dollar.

Late Thursday, March 25, France and Germany announced a deal to help reduce Greece’s debt. The loan, which involves support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), will total €23 billion and has yet to be agreed on by the other Eurozone nations. The news comes as 27 EU member states are meeting for a two-day summit in Brussels. The BBC reports that previously the Eurozone had avoided looking to the IMF for aid, preferring a solution from within due to worries over maintaining global confidence in the euro.

International

Israel found itself taking serious criticism this week from two of its closest western allies. On Tuesday, March 23, the United Kingdom expelled an Israeli diplomat as a rebuke for the use of British passports by alleged Israeli assassins in Dubai. The expulsion comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the U.S. president in Washington to discuss the stalling peace plan. Relations between Israel and the U.S. have been increasingly tense, following the Israeli announcement of plans to build more settlements in East Jerusalem. Despite an unusually harsh response both from the U.S. and the international community, Israel has remained defiant. Speaking to the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Tuesday in Washington DC, the Israeli prime minister stated, “Jerusalem is not a settlement; it’s our capital,” according to the BBC.

Joining France in the debate over the place of the Muslim veil in public life, the legislature in Quebec, Canada, tabled a bill Wednesday, March 24, which would ban people from wearing concealing headwear when dealing with government services. Prior to the tabling, Immigration Minister Yolande James stated, “There is no ambiguity on this question: If you want to [attend] our classes, if you want to integrate in Quebec society, here our values are that we want to see your face.” According to the Globe and Mail, Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government has come under pressure from the opposition Parti Québécois to adopt laws which protect Quebec’s secularism.

On Monday, March 22, Venezuelan authorities arrested former state governor and presidential candidate, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz. Paz has been a critic of President Hugo Chávez, but according to the Washington Post, he had not been a major foe of the South American leader. The move has raised fears of expanding crackdowns on freedoms. The Associated Press reports that as the political climate has grown more intense ahead of September’s legislative elections, Chávez has claimed his opponents are attempting to topple his government. Human Rights Watch condemned the arrest as a “major setback for freedom of expression in Venezuela.”

Switzerland announced Thursday, March 25, that it is ready to lift a travel ban on some Libyan citizens in an effort to relieve tensions between the two countries. The nations have been at odds since 2008 when Swiss officials filed charges against one of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s sons. Earlier this month, Libya initiated a punitive trade embargo against Switzerland. According to the BBC, Switzerland hopes Libya will respond by ending its ban against travelers from Switzerland and 24 other countries.

On Wednesday, March 24, Human Rights Watch accused the Ethiopian government of silencing critics ahead of May’s national elections. Among the critics’ claims are that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has used its control of local government to withhold services and job opportunities from political opponents, as well as severely restricting the activities of activist groups and journalists. The government has also been jamming broadcasts of the Voice America Radio signal, which it called “destabilizing propaganda” according to the BBC.

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