Introducing Emmanuel Macron

ack in May, those running the European Union breathed a great sigh of relief as the French presidential election results poured in and the charismatic, 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron easily beat back the xenophobic populist challenge of the far-right Front National and its leader, Marine Le Pen.

In the end, Macron won more than twice the number of votes, having rallied his forces around the idea that he was an outside challenger to the corrupt French political class. His new party, En Marche, appealed to voters fatigued by conventional coalitions that had become virtually indistinguishable once in office.

Now, with a majority in the National Assembly, Macron is in a position to fulfil his promises. So far results are mixed: on the positive side, he promises to slash the bloated French military; on the other, he continues to push labour ‘reform’ which would mean a loss of 120,000 public-sector jobs. Plans for a new, ‘flexible’ work regime could also come to fruition, which would threaten union power in order to encourage private investors.

France’s reputation as one of the more ‘ideologically divided societies’ was masked by Macron’s success in promoting a pro-market programme as a transparent anti-corruption vision, standing above partisanship. But his cloak is already fraying at the edges. Since the election, he has tumbled more than 10 per cent in the polls and is faced with a militant trade union movement and a population prone to take to the streets when it thinks its rights are in danger. 

Whistleblowers un-gagged in Australia

The Australian government has quietly dropped secrecy rules which would have seen employees of immigration detention centres – everyone from guards to lawyers and teachers – face two years in prison if they spoke out about the mistreatment of detainees.

In recent years, health professionals, lawyers and international rights groups have repeatedly condemned the Australian Border Force Act and the dire conditions inside the ‘offshore processing’ refugee camps on Nauru and Manus Island.

Laura Neil of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said in a statement that the ALA ‘[welcomed] the removal of these draconian secrecy provisions’ on 14 August, arguing that they were ‘unnecessary, undermined democratic accountability and were likely to have been unconstitutional’.

In 2016, Doctors 4 Refugees and the Fitzroy Legal Centre challenged the Act in the Australian High Court on the grounds that its provisions ‘breached doctors’ implied constitutional freedom of political communication’.

The Act was altered to exclude internally hired health practitioners but campaigners pushed for the secrecy provisions to be scrapped completely.

‘Democracy relies on all of us being able to speak freely about what our government does,’ said Neil. ‘Imposing gag laws on those who might speak out to help people who have been mistreated in government-run detention centres was outrageous.’

Deadliest year for eco-defenders

For environmental defenders – from activists to indigenous leaders – 2016 was the deadliest year on record. Inter­national NGO and watchdog Global Witness estimate that 200 defenders were murdered last year, the highest number on record. With academics estimating 2,000 known environmental conflicts worldwide, numbers are expected to rise year on year.

‘The scramble for natural resources is intensifying,’ Billy Kyte, a campaign leader at Global Witness, told New Internationalist. ‘Increasingly, industries are encroaching onto previously untouched areas rich in resources. These industries – like mining, agriculture, hydro and logging – are coming into conflict with local communities who often have no say in what happens to their land and environment.’

Global Witness estimates that in 2016 alone there were 49 murders of land and environmental defenders in Brazil and 37 in Colombia. Global Witness has stressed that not only are these the highest numbers yet, they are continuing to rise and spread to more countries. Nearly 100 defenders were murdered in the first five months of 2017.

If defenders aren’t killed, sexual harassment, enforced disappearances, blackmail and illegal surveillance are frequently inflicted. Global Witness says that there is increasing impunity among those responsible, arguing that the blame predominantly lies with state and corporate actors. Parliamentary involvement, police, poachers and landowners rank as the most common suspected perpetrators and attackers.

‘The global community must ensure accountability for these abuses, urgently protect activists on the frontline and tackle the root causes of the violence – namely, the lack of participation by communities in projects that affect their land and the corruption that gives the green light to land-grabbing and environmental abuse,’ stressed Kyte.

Heads of state, stateless

What if the world’s most powerful political leaders were forced to flee war or persecution, making a perilous journey to start a life in a new country? This situation is depicted by Syrian artist Abdalla Al Omari in ‘The Vulnerability Series’.

The artist, who was born in Damascus, has painted a range of world leaders – all depicted as displaced or disenfranchised people in a moment of despair.

Arresting images portray the likes of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as a refugee, partially submerged in the Mediterranean Sea.

‘Even I felt sorry for [my version of] Assad,’ said Omari, ‘I have convinced myself [that vulnerability] is the strongest weapon humankind possesses. It is far more powerful than the trail of power games, bomb craters and bullet holes in our collective memories. Vulnerability is a gift we should all celebrate.’

Other portraits in the series include North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a small, scared child holding a missile behind his back and a dishevelled looking President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, begging for money on the street.

Polish women counter Nazis on the streets

Women are playing an essential part in fighting for civil rights in Poland, contributing to a shift in the country’s political agenda.

On 15 August 2017, activists from the All-Polish Women Strike (PWS) group attempted to block a march by far-right extremists in Warsaw. They joined other protesters, some carrying white roses – a symbol used by anti-fascists – to launch a mass sit-in and were 
forcibly moved by police. Many held up photos of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, US.

‘The idea was that the women activists were to be in the first row,’ said Marta Lempart, the woman behind the initial PWS mass protest last October which contributed to the scrapping of Poland’s abortion ban. The use of women in the frontline, she said, was used to confuse police by using ‘patriarchal stereotypes against the rightwing powers’ while ‘showing that women are a comparable power’.

‘All of the protesters were removed by the police to make way for the fascist march and at least half of them were held illegally until the march passed. Others went on to do the sitting again, further along the route, with more people joining them.’

Before the blockade, PWS had written a letter to Warsaw’s city mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz demanding that she forbid the march. The PWS saw the march as promoting fascism, which is illegal in Poland. ‘Yet,’ said Lempart, ‘she did nothing about it.’

The PWS is fighting more than reproductive rights and fascism. Civil-rights demonstrations in Poland came to a head in July 2017, when the ruling Law and Justice Party attempted to put the judicial system under political control – threatening the independence of the courts. With some of the leaders of the 1989 revolutions against communist rule on their side, the PWS held a 17-hour demonstration outside the Senate during the vote. Two of the three bills were vetoed by President Andrzej Duda.

‘Pressure really works,’ said Lempart. However, she added that the state of civil rights in Poland still remains critical: ‘Women’s rights are limited; centres for domestic violence victims have lost financing and the morning-after pill is banned. Neo-Nazi symbols and marches are encouraged, and the national media displays a communist-style propaganda.’

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