French presidential candidates face off in first TV debate

Agence France Presse
Mon, 2017-03-20

PARIS: France’s presidential election moves into high gear on Monday when the top five contenders face off in a TV debate that could help sway legions of undecided voters, a month before they go to the polls.
Centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen are expected to come under attack in the first of three debates ahead of the April 23 opening round in France’s most unpredictable election in decades.
A total of 11 candidates spanning the spectrum from Trotskyist left to far right are running for president. Six smaller candidates have been excluded from the debates.
Advisers to 48-year-old Le Pen, who is running neck-and-neck with Macron in polls for the first round but tipped for a sound beating by him in the May 7 run-off, said she would tear into the “globalist” program of her pro-EU rival.
Former economy minister Macron, 39, will also come under pressure from conservative nominee Francois Fillon, who will attempt to claw back votes lost to the centrist since he became embroiled in a damaging expenses scandal.
Polls currently show Fillon, the one-time favorite, crashing out in the first round, behind Le Pen and Macron, following revelations about payments by parliament to his wife and children and loans and lavish gifts from the rich.
The 63-year-old former premier, who has been charged with misuse of public funds, will attempt to shift the focus to his program, including the radical spending cuts he says represent France’s only hope for real change.

Two men representing the ailing left — the Socialist Party’s Benoit Hamon and Communist-backed radical Jean-Luc Melenchon, currently running in joint fourth — are also hoping for a boost from Monday’s three-hour television joust.
“These elections are a pivotal moment for the French people,” Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist rebel who has struggled to make an impact, told a rally in Paris Sunday.
In a taste of what awaits Macron on Monday Hamon laid into the former Rothschild banker, casting him as the candidate of the elite.
“You’re unemployed? Start your own company! You’re poor? Become billionaires!” he said, alluding to remarks by Macron, a liberal.

The election, in which several political veterans have already been sent packing by voters fed up with politics as usual, could hinge on turnout.
While the Netherlands enjoyed near-record turnout of over 80 percent in its general election, polls in France show only around 65 percent of voters planning to vote in the first round, which would set a record low.
Of those, a whopping 40 percent-plus say they are not yet wedded to any candidate.
Supporters of Macron, who styles himself as a progressive transcending France’s entrenched left-right divide, are among the most volatile while Le Pen’s are the most loyal, polls show.
“The 2017 campaign is hard to get a handle on,” Pascal Perrineau, a political sciences professor at Sciences Po university wrote in Le Monde daily at the weekend, blaming the steady drip of “affairs, real or imagined” for preventing a real debate.
While most of the focus has been on Fillon’s legal woes and the gulf with the “irreproachable” image on which he won the Republicans nomination, Le Pen also goes into the election with several investigations hanging over her party.
Macron, a relative newcomer to politics, has largely avoided scandal but could be tainted by an investigation into possible favoritism over a 2016 event in Las Vegas at which he was the main speaker.

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Trump’s US Supreme Court nominee to face senators in marathon hearing

Mon, 2017-03-20

WASHINGTON: US Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch will face tough scrutiny at his Senate confirmation hearing starting on Monday, with Democrats seeking to make the case that he is a pro-business, social conservative insufficiently independent of the president.
In a bid to place hurdles in the way of Gorsuch’s expected confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate, Democrats on the judiciary committee considering the nomination have said they will probe him on several fronts based mainly on his record as a federal appeals court judge and a Justice Department appointee under former President George W. Bush.
Nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a year-old vacancy on the court, Gorsuch is a conservative appeals court judge from Colorado. Cool-headed and amiable, he will likely try to engage senators without being pinned down on specifics.
Among questions Gorsuch will face will be whether he is sufficiently independent from Trump, who has criticized judges for ruling against his bid to restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries. Another line of attack previewed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is to focus on rulings Gorsuch, 49, has authored in which corporate interests won out over individual workers.
Democrats will also press Gorsuch on his role as a Justice Department lawyer under Bush from 2005 to 2006, when he helped defend controversial policies enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including the administration’s expansive use of aggressive interrogation techniques.
Gorsuch’ views on social issues, including a 2006 book he wrote in which he argued against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, will be discussed too.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a plain-spoken Iowan, will chair the proceedings, which could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.
Trump nominated Gorsuch, 49, to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. If Gorsuch is approved by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court.
For months last year, Republicans refused to consider former Democratic President Barack Obama’s pick to fill the seat. The unusual Republican tactic blocked a leftward shift on the court.
Since Scalia’s death, the court has been divided equally 4-4 between conservatives and liberals.
Democrats face an uphill battle to block Gorsuch, who like all Supreme Court justices would serve for life if confirmed.
Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Under present rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes for confirmation. If Democrats stay unified and Gorsuch cannot muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow confirmation by simple majority.
Senators on the Judiciary Committee, which is holding the hearing, will give opening statements on Monday and then take turns asking questions of the nominee on Tuesday.

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Dutch Election Results Confirm ‘Far Right Populism’ Still On The Rise In Europe

Authored by Alex Gorka via The Strategic Culture Foundation,

Those who support the idea of globalism and strive for closer European integration believe the results of the Dutch election indicate the tide has been stemmed, with Eurosceptics and «populist» forces on the defensive. The buck stops here. This is the end of domino effect. The reshaping of Europe has been prevented. The pro-NATO, pro-EU establishment elites are to see glory days again.

Is it really so if you get to the bottom of it?

The future of Europe remains to be at stake, including the UK, Germany and France. Will the concept of United Europe exist in one form or another? Will Scotland stay in the United Kingdom? Will Germany and France distance themselves from the United States? Some of these questions could be answered sooner than expected.

This year may become a turning point with the votes to take place in Germany, France and, probably, Italy. In a month, France will have a new president and Germans will have a new parliament elected in September. The example of the Netherlands may have little influence on the votes.

Let’s look at the facts. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom made a substantial gain. It won 20 seats (of 150) according to the preliminary results, which is 5 seats more than in the previous election in 2012. The two governing parties got half as many seats as at the last election in 2012. The prime minister’s Party for Freedom and Democracy lost 8 seats and its coalition partner, the Labor Party (PvdA), lost 29 – an impressive defeat!

Actually, it’s a significant loss for those who ruled the country and a big gain (not big enough but still) for the right wing Eurosceptics led by Wilders. Many key points of the Party for Freedom’s program were «borrowed» by PM Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Christian Democrats. The popularity was raised due to the tough stance taken in the conflict with Turkey – something Wilders had been calling for. Actually, Prime Minister Rutte was riding to power on a wave of anti-migrant, anti-Islam sentiments.

The Sybrand Buma’s Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) is all but certain to participate in the next governing coalition with 19 seats won (12, 5%) – an increase of 6 seats. The party has gained ground by adopting a tough line similar to Rutte’s on immigration, adding a focus on communal values and a touch of nationalism to tap voter concerns about Dutch identity. It has proposed introducing singing the national anthem in schools and mandatory community service. According to Sybrand Buma, Her Majesty Queen Máxima should renounce her Argentine citizenship (she was born in Buenos Aires). The CDA presence in government would ensure a conservative stamp on any coalition.

Media rarely mention the fact that another right wing anti-EU and anti-migrants party – the Forum for Democracy – took part in its first election to win 2 seats (1,8%) – not a bad start for a party created only in September 2016. It calls for restoring ties with Russia among other things.

The main result is opposite to what it appears to be at first glance. The outcome of the Dutch election conforms to the current trend – Euroscepticism is on the rise across Europe. The winning forces are often called populist but in reality they are anti-establishment movements which emerged as a result of voters being fed up with left or right windbags. People want them gone and the entire political landscape in Europe fundamentally changed.

Socialists have few chances in France and the chances of Angela Merkel becoming Chancellor again are dim enough. Martin Schultz is a serious rival to reckon with.

Newly founded or old anti-establishment parties continue to make gains. Perhaps not today, but they will come to power. In a couple of months Marine Le Pen may become President of France to radically reform European politics. Even if she loses, Le Pen will remain the most popular politician in the country who is able to win the presidential election in 2022. Artificial creations designed by experts for a particular task, like Emmanuel Macron, for instance, can’t stop it. Nothing can prevent the new wave of politicians from coming to power.

The Dutch election has not changed anything. It has failed to turn the tide. The EU continues to fall apart. The European integration will never be the same. More and more EU members challenge the existing pattern.

The March 16 vote in the Netherlands is far from being a harbinger of Eurosceptics’ movements fading away. Quite to the contrary, it has confirmed the trend – the Old Continent is going through changes. We’ll never have the EU we once knew. The process may temporarily slow down but it’s too late to stop it.

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FBI director to testify on Russia ties, alleged wiretap

Agence France Presse
Mon, 2017-03-20

WASHINGTON: The directors of the FBI and NSA are to give keenly awaited testimony before Congress Monday on what ties President Donald Trump may have with Russia and his explosive allegation that he was wiretapped by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and Mike Rogers of the National Security Agency will speak publicly for the first time about two issues that have riveted the American public for weeks and further divided the country’s two ever-at-odds political parties.
The stakes for the tycoon-turned-world-leader could hardly be higher.
Comey will testify before the House Intelligence Committee at a hearing aimed at probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election campaign. Rogers is also scheduled to testify.
Trump and his entourage’s possible ties with the Russia of President Vladimir Putin have been the subject of much speculation since before he was elected on November 8.
US intelligence agencies in January took the extraordinary step of stating publicly that they had concluded that hackers working for Russia broke into the e-mail accounts of senior Democrats and released embarrassing ones with the aim of helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Even since then, the question of whether Trump and company were or are somehow in cahoots with Russia has dominated the national conversation.
A congressional panel so far has found no evidence that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, its chairman said Sunday.
Based on “everything I have up to this morning — no evidence of collusion,” by Trump’s team and Moscow, Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News.
“Was there a physical wiretap of Trump Tower? No, but there never was, and the information we got on Friday continues to lead us in that direction,” Nunes stressed.
Moscow has denied involvement in the hacks, and Trump has denounced the tumult over alleged Russia connections as a “total witch hunt.”
Monday’s hearing was also expected to address a second explosive issue: Trump’s unsubstantiated accusations that the Obama administration wiretapped his phone at Trump Tower in New York during the campaign.
Trump on March 4 tweeted that Obama had “tapped” his phone — a charge that has consumed political debate in the US capital.

Several congressional panels have launched investigations into Russia’s alleged interference, including the House and Senate intelligence committees, which have jurisdiction over the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, and the House and Senate judiciary committees.
The FBI is also probing Russian interference in the election.
The question remains whether the agency has opened a criminal investigation into possible ties between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.
Monday’s hearing promises to be a very public showdown between the FBI and lawmakers, with the national security world certain to watch whether Comey drops a political bombshell.
Members of Congress have expressed frustration over what they call the lack of cooperation from the FBI about Russia and Trump’s wiretap claim, which Obama and an array of other officials have flatly denied.
The issue of wiretapping first surfaced last month, when Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after it was revealed he had misled top officials over his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington to discuss sanctions Obama had just announced against Russia over the election hacking.
Around the same time, The New York Times reported that US intelligence had intercepted calls showing that members of Trump’s campaign had repeated contacts with top Russian intelligence officials in the year preceding the election.
Nunes has said that the intelligence committee probe focuses in part on who revealed that Flynn had unreported private contacts with the Russians over the sanctions issue.
Adding to the intrigue, Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions recused himself from any Russia-related inquiries after it was learned that he had met twice with the Russian ambassador in the months before Trump took office, and had failed to disclose this during his confirmation hearing when asked a question about such contacts and speaking under oath.
Domestically, the controversy over the wiretapping claim has pulled attention away from Trump’s effort to push through other key items on his agenda, including the planned repeal of Obama’s health care law, tax reform and his controversial travel ban.
Critics say it has also debased the already coarse tone of political debate in Washington and eroded the president’s credibility at home and abroad.
Some of the fallout has been international in scope: The White House was forced to retract a charge repeated last week by its spokesman Sean Spicer suggesting that Britain’s intelligence services aided the Obama administration in the alleged wiretap. That claim has strained relations with America’s closest ally.
Still, as recently as Friday, Trump repeated the claim in an aside during a White House press conference with Angela Merkel.
“As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps,” Trump told the German chancellor, referring to a WikiLeaks report in 2015 that the US had monitored calls involving Merkel and her top aides for years.

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