Is Marine Le Pen in bed with Putin?

The Daily Beast reports: On May 11, delegates from Europe’s political fringes travelled to Donetsk, the occupied ‘capital’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), for a forum to mark the first anniversary of the proclamation of the Russian-backed separatist entities in Ukraine. This in itself is unsurprising since far-right politicians have been used on several occasions to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s puppet statelets and sham votes since the invasion of Crimea last year.

The attendance roster for this confab included some familiar pro-Putin faces such as French far-right Member of European Parliament Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, Italian nationalist Alessandro Musolino and German neo-Nazi journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter, who moonlights as Kremlin propaganda channel RT’s German “expert” on the Middle East. But this time there was one surprising name in the bunch: Emmanuel Leroy.

Leroy was billed as representing the French charity, Urgence d’Enfants Ukraine (UEU), led by Alain Fragny, a former member of the extreme-right Bloc Identitaire. UEU is a suspicious organization that promotes pro-Russian and pro-separatist propaganda on its websites and is rather opaque with regards to its structure and operations. Leroy was also named by the official site of the DNR leadership as one of the initiators of the forum back in March this year.

But this infamously reclusive figure on France’s far-right is a far more interesting and important figure than any of the other political outliers to have participated in pro-separatist events.

Leroy is a former member of GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne, or the Research and Study Group for European Civilization), an extreme, ethno-nationalist think tank, formed in 1968 and headed by Alain de Benoist, whose name appeared in a leaked list of potentially sympathetic contacts purportedly drafted by the Russian ultra-nationalist, Aleksandr Dugin. GRECE promotes ethnic nationalism as a bulwark against race-mixing, placing great emphasis on pre-Christian Nordic culture, which left the group at odds with the Catholic mainstream of the Front National, France’s increasingly popular far-right party, which last year won two seats in the French senate. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadists destroy proposed world heritage site in Mali

The Associated Press reports: Jihadists have destroyed a mausoleum in central Mali that had been submitted as a U.N. World Heritage site, leaving behind a warning that they will come after all those who don’t follow their strict version of Islam, a witness said Monday.

The dynamite attack on the mausoleum of Cheick Amadou Barry mirrors similar ones that were carried out in northern Mali in 2012 when jihadists seized control of the major towns there. The destruction also comes as concerns grow about the emergence of a new extremist group active much further south and closer to the capital.

Barry was a marabout, or important Islamic religious leader, in the 19th century who helped to spread Islam among the animists of central Mali. One of his descendants, Bologo Amadou Barry, confirmed to The Associated Press that the site had been partially destroyed in Hamdallahi village on Sunday night.

The jihadists left behind a note on Sunday warning they would attack all those who did not follow the teachings of Islam’s prophet.

“They also threatened France and the U.N. peacekeepers and all those who work with them,” Bologo Amadou Barry said. [Continue reading…]

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Big Brother or vital protection? French MPs set to OK spy bill

AFP: Four months after jihadist attacks in Paris killed 17 people, French MPs are set to approve a controversial bill giving spies sweeping new surveillance powers deemed “heavily intrusive” by critics.

The draft law, which is expected to sail through a vote in the lower house National Assembly on Tuesday, has sparked a firestorm of protest from rights groups, which claim it infringes on privacy.

They will be protesting near parliament on Monday under the banner “24 hours before 1984″ in reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel about life under an all-knowing dictatorship.

The text enjoys support from both main parties and is almost certain to be adopted when lawmakers vote on May 5, despite opposition from the far-left and greens.

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Charlie Hebdo didn’t publish that Mediterranean drowning cartoon — and it isn’t racist

Satire always takes the risk of being misinterpreted. Some publishers try to minimize that risk by alerting the reader, avoiding surprise, but usually burying the joke in the process.

When Ali Dilem drew a cartoon published by Liberte in Algeria, depicting African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, he was referring to France’s immigration policy for non-EU residents, called “regroupement familial,” which arguably has done less to reunify families than see them broken apart. (H/t to Homo economicus for the explanation.)

Unfortunately, the cartoon has now taken on a life of its own on Twitter where it is being portrayed as a flagrant expression of racism by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo:

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TV5 Monde take-down reveals key weakness of broadcasters in digital age

By Laurence Murphy, University of Salford

In what was one of the most severe outages of its kind, French national television broadcaster TV5 Monde was recently the target of a well-planned and staged cyberattack that took down its 11 television channels, website, and social media streams.

The hacker group responsible claimed to support the Islamic State, and proceeded to broadcast pro-IS material on the hijacked channels, while also exposing sensitive internal company information, and active military soldiers details.

It took TV5 three hours to regain control of its channels. The scale and completeness of the attack, and that it involved hijacking live television broadcast channels, has shocked the industry and prompted heated discussion on what steps might prevent or at least limit the likelihood of this reoccurring.

[Read more…]

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Israeli officials talk with French to try to influence Iran nuclear deal

The New York Times reports: Fearing that the Obama administration may not take what they consider to be a tough enough stand in the next round of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, senior Israeli officials held talks in Paris on Monday with senior members of the French government and will go to London on Tuesday in an attempt to influence the final terms of any agreement.

France and Britain are among the six world powers — along with the United States, Russia, China and Germany — that are negotiating with Iran on an accord that would require Tehran to submit to verifiable limitations on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of United Nations sanctions, as well as separate sets of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume later this week in Lausanne, Switzerland, with negotiators working against a self-imposed deadline of March 31 to reach a preliminary agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the chief Iranian negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and some of the foreign ministers from other countries are expected to arrive subsequently.

The Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said in a statement released Monday night that the talks with the French national security adviser, Jacques Audibert, and the French nuclear negotiating team were “serious and profound” and that the Israelis had laid out their reservations about the emerging deal.

Mr. Steinitz indicated, however, that the Israelis had no illusions that their flurry of international meetings would stop an accord. [Continue reading…]

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‘Abandoned’ French working class ready to punish Left’s neglect by voting for Far Right

The Observer reports: At an election meeting just days before France’s regional elections, a Japanese journalist asked Marine Le Pen a question: why was her far-right Front National party tipped to do so well?

Polls suggest that the FN vote will reach unprecedented levels, with up to 30% of the vote, just ahead of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and leaving the ruling Socialist party trailing.

“The Front National is alone against everyone. The French people have realised for some time now that the Front National’s analysis is right, and the other political parties have failed,” Le Pen responded. The FN had gone from “a party of opposition … to a movement of government” by addressing “the economy, immigration and Islamic fundamentalism”, she added.

From Le Pen, a damning analysis of this type might be expected. But from a member of the leftwing commentariat? A new “state of the nation” tome, L’Insécurité culturelle, by analyst Laurent Bouvet, has caused a storm in Paris salons by suggesting that the country’s working class is ready to vote FN in droves because it has been abandoned by the left and deceived by the country’s Socialist government. [Continue reading…]

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PM dismisses ‘French Patriot Act’ fears as spies get more powers

Reuters reports: French spy agencies will have more powers to bug and track would-be Islamist attackers and authorities will be able to force Internet providers to monitor suspicious behavior under a draft law unveiled on Thursday.

Just over two months after 17 people were killed in attacks by homegrown Islamist gunmen in Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a bill to allow spy agencies to tap phones and emails without seeking permission from a judge.

Surveillance staff will also be able to bug suspects’ flats with microphones and cameras and add “keyloggers” to their computers to track every keystroke.

Civil liberties advocates said the bill went too far and lacked adequate privacy protections but Valls pledged France would not hoover up vast quantities of data under the new law. [Continue reading…]

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France’s National Front on the path to power

On the campaign trail with Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, the Economist reports: Ms Le Pen’s celebrity welcome in the tiny northern French town of Doullens is a mark of how far she has transformed a once-toxic fringe movement, stained by neo-Nazi links and anti-Semitism, into an almost respectable party aspiring to govern. Five years ago voters who felt drawn to her father, Jean-Marie, a gruff former paratrooper who founded the party in 1972, still kept their approval half-hidden until election day. Today, they display no such reserve towards his daughter.

On the campaign trail ahead of departmental elections later this month, the crowd in the Doullens market is thick and Ms Le Pen’s progress through it snail-like. After dropping in on Les Deux Ailes hunting shop, its rifles displayed in the window like fine patisseries, Ms Le Pen stops in the street market for selfies, kisses children and stoops to greet those in wheelchairs. This is a politician who is on the up, and knows it. “We are on a path towards…power!” she declares, with a broad grin.

Polls suggest that the FN will come top in the first round of voting in the elections on March 22nd, grabbing at least 30% of the vote. This would beat its previous best score of 25%, in last year’s elections for the European Parliament. The Front may not go on to win many local assemblies, as voters from centre-left and centre-right will gang up against it in the second round. But to the FN this is not a concern. It is fielding 7,648 candidates, in 95% of constituencies, up from a third in 2011, as part of a longer game: to secure hundreds of seats, even if in opposition, in order to build up an army of elected officials across the country who can help prepare Ms Le Pen for the presidential election in 2017.

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Europe’s jihadis in search of identity

Kenan Malik writes: What is striking about the stories of wannabe jihadis is their diversity. There is no “typical” recruit, no single path to jihadism.

Sahra Ali Mehenni is a schoolgirl from a middle-class family in the south of France. Her father, an industrial chemist, is a non-practising Muslim, her mother an atheist. “I never heard her talk about Syria, jihad,” said her mother. One day last March, to the shock of her family, she took not her usual train to school but a flight from Marseilles to Istanbul to join Isis. When she finally phoned home it was to say: “I’ve married Farid, a fighter from Tunisia.”

Kreshnik Berisha, a German born of Kosovan parents, played as a teenager for Makkabi Frankfurt, a Jewish football club and one of Germany’s top amateur teams. He went on to study engineering and in July 2013, boarded a bus to Istanbul and then to Syria. “I didn’t believe it,” said Alon Meyer, Makkabi Frankfurt’s coach. “This was a guy who used to play with Jewish players every week. He was comfortable there and he seemed happy.” Berisha later returned home to become the first German homegrown jihadi to face trial.

There are hundreds of stories such as these, from all over Europe. What they tell us is that, shocking though it may seem, there is nothing unusual in the story of the runaway Tower Hamlets schoolgirls. And that what Emwazi has in common with other European recruits is not so much his harassment as his college education.

The usual clichés about jihadis – that they are poor, uneducated, badly integrated – are rarely true. A survey of British jihadis by researchers at London’s Queen Mary College found no link to “social inequalities or poor education”; most were highly educated young people from comfortable families who spoke English at home. According to Le Monde, a quarter of French jihadis in Syria are from non-Muslim backgrounds.

What draws most wannabe jihadis to Syria is, to begin with, neither politics nor religion. It is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for “belongingness”, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the conventional way we think of integration. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.

There is, of course, nothing new in the youthful search for identity and meaning. What is different today is the social context in which this search takes place. We live in a more atomised society than in the past; an age in which many people feel peculiarly disengaged from mainstream social institutions and in which moral lines often seem blurred and identities distorted.

In the past, social disaffection may have led people to join movements for political change, from far-left groups to anti-racist campaigns. Today, such organisations often seem equally out of touch. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics but the politics of identity.

Identity politics has, over the last three decades, encouraged people to define themselves in increasingly narrow ethnic or cultural terms. A generation ago, “radicalised” Muslims would probably have been far more secular in their outlook and their radicalism would have expressed itself through political organisations. Today, they see themselves as Muslim in an almost tribal sense, and give vent to their disaffection through a stark vision of Islam. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine ceasefire announced at Minsk summit — what next?

By Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

After all night talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the outcomes of the four party talks in the so-called Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) have neither brought a major breakthrough or a complete disaster. As a deal, it is not a solution, but perhaps a step towards one.

It almost seems to be business as usual – yet another ceasefire deal and commitments to further negotiations on a more durable political settlement – but, by the standards of this crisis, this is not the outcome Ukraine’s people may have hoped for. Not least because the deal, as soon as it was announced, ran into its first set of problems with rebels demanding Ukrainian forces withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve before they would agree to the ceasefire.

At the very least, this might mean two more days of heavy fighting before the ceasefire starts on 15 February, at worst it might mean the deal will never be implemented at all.

In the run-up to last might’s summit, the crisis in Ukraine seemed to head towards a major juncture, along with relations between Russia and the West and within the Transatlantic alliance. The weeks before the summit in Minsk has seen intensifying diplomacy, escalating rhetoric, increased fighting on the ground, and a worsening humanitarian situation.

[Read more…]

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The anti-Islamic far-right is spreading in Europe — and going mainstream

Kabir Chibber: In recent months, a street movement called Pegida — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident — has emerged from nowhere in Germany, seeking to “protect Judeo-Christian culture” and halt to what it calls the spread of Islam. Though it denies being xenophobic or racist, its leader quit after being pictured dressed as Hitler. Pegida’s rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people in Germany.

And now the group is spreading abroad. Pegida held its first march in Vienna and is to hold its first British rally in the city of Newcastle on Feb. 28, with more planned in the UK. Britain already has anti-Islamic groups such as the English Defence League, a small but vocal force. Only this weekend, the EDL attracted as many as 1,000 people to a march against the building of a mosque.

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Former members of France’s military have joined ISIS

Mitchell Prothero reports: At least 12 former members of the French military are among the estimated 1,000 French citizens who’ve joined the Islamic State, including one highly trained special forces commando who was radicalized while working as a security contractor in the Persian Gulf, according to French officials and analysts as well as Arab security services.

One French intelligence official said the number is a reflection of France’s changing demographics, even though mandatory military service ended in France in 2001.

“I don’t have any hard numbers on this because France is a secular society where religious affiliation isn’t supposed to be tracked formally, but the general sense is that the French military has evolved into a heavily – and often devout – Roman Catholic officer corps leading a primarily and somewhat devout Muslim enlisted formation,” said the official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

At least three former soldiers have been apprehended attempting to return to France from the Middle East after having fought alongside insurgents, according to a recent statement by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Nine others currently fighting with the Islamic State have been identified. [Continue reading…]

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Merkel and Hollande’s surprise trip to Moscow

The Guardian reports: The leaders of Germany and France abruptly announced a summit with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Friday in response to overtures from the Kremlin, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the year-old Ukraine conflict.

The sudden and unusual decision by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the president, François Hollande, to travel to Moscow, with the French leader talking of decisions of war and peace, increased the stakes in the crisis while also raising suspicions that the Kremlin was seeking to split Europe and the US. Putin was said to have made “initiatives” to the European leaders in recent days.

Merkel and Hollande met the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev on Thursday evening but left without making any comment. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said on Twitter that the leaders had discussed “steps so that the Minsk agreement can start working”. A ceasefire signed in Minsk in September froze the frontlines at their positions at the time, but never held.

Friday’s visit will be Merkel’s first trip to Russia since the outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine, which has now cost more than 5,000 lives. The increase in diplomatic efforts came as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, also met Poroshenko and other top officials in Kiev.

At a joint news conference with Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Kerry sounded lukewarm about Merkel and Hollande’s visit. [Continue reading…]

Shaun Walker writes: In Kiev, John Kerry had a clear message for Russia and Vladimir Putin: the Kremlin should respect Ukraine’s territory, negotiate constructively and stop funnelling weapons and troops into the east of the country.

The problem is that it is the same message the US secretary of state and other western politicians have been delivering for more than half a year, to pretty much zero effect.

The issue for western negotiators has been how to force Russia to stop doing something that, even in private, it won’t admit it is doing. Washington is now grappling with whether it should back up its messages to Putin with an “or else” and seriously begin negotiations on supplying arms to Kiev.

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Europe does have leverage, if it chooses to use it. Russia may be a geopolitical giant but its GDP is no bigger than Italy’s. It is dependent on Europe’s financial structures. Yet next to the plunging oil price, the EU sanctions thus far have had a virtually symbolic impact. Cutting Russian banks and companies from the Belgium-based Swift international transaction system would, by contrast, impose a serious jolt. It could be done quickly, but then also rolled rapidly back. It has worked before, against Iran, which entered nuclear negotiations soon after being banned from Swift in 2012. Many businesses would balk at the costs. But these would surely be easier to bear than the enduring damage done by a widening war on the European continent.

Mr Putin regards the EU as a strategic midget. He will respect it only when Russia’s predatory oligarchy is confronted with some red lines. When Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande head for Moscow, they should put Swift on the table.

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Egypt turns to France for weapons with U.S. still wary of delivering military aid

Vice News: Speaking at a political conference Sunday in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi unveiled a $1.31 billion budget for counterterrorism efforts in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, an area that has repeatedly been hit by militant attacks. Addressing politicians in the Egyptian capital, Sisi announced he is looking to France to supply Egypt with much-needed modern military equipment.

The US halted the delivery of 20 F-16 fighter jets, 125 M1-A1 battle tank kits, and 20 Harpoon cruise missiles to Egypt following the 2013 coup that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, but 10 Apache helicopters included in the original deal were reportedly delivered last month. The US also suspended a portion of the $1.3 billion worth economic and military aid delivered annually to Egypt, though the withheld funds were released last June after Congress passed a law that requires the Egyptian government to take steps to improve human rights conditions in order to receive the aid.

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Al Qaeda in Yemen says France is top enemy of Islam

AFP reports: The ideological leader of Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said Friday that France had surpassed the United States as the top enemy of Islam.

With the “weakening” of the United States in recent years, France has replaced America in the “war on Islam,” Ibrahim al-Rubaish said in an audio message published by AQAP’s media arm on YouTube.

US intelligence agencies consider AQAP to be the most dangerous branch of the jihadist network.

One of the group’s ideologues, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, has claimed in a video that AQAP was behind the January 7 attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead.

Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by the magazine have angered many Muslims.

Western governments say it remains unclear if AQAP directly orchestrated the attack on the weekly, although they do believe one or both of the attackers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, spent time with jihadists in Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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French prisons, long hotbeds of radical Islam, get new scrutiny after Paris attacks

The Washington Post reports: The man was sent to France’s largest prison for armed robbery. He emerged a toughened radical who would go on to take part in the bloodiest terrorist attacks on French soil in decades.

France’s prisons have a reputation as factories for radical Islamists, taking in ordinary criminals and turning them out as far more dangerous people. Here at the Fleury-Merogis prison — where Amedy Coulibaly did time alongside another of the attackers in the deadly assaults this month in and around Paris — authorities are struggling to quell a problem that they say was long threatening to explode.

Former inmates, imams and guards all describe a chaotic scene inside these concrete walls, 15 miles from the elegant boulevards surrounding the Eiffel Tower. Militancy lurks in the shadows, and the best-behaved men are sometimes the most dangerous. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised last week to flood his nation’s prisons with 60 more Muslim chaplains, doubling their budget to try to combat radicalization. Authorities this week raided 80 prison cells of suspected radicals, saying they found cellphones, USB drives and other contraband. Hundreds of inmates in French prisons are a potential threat, authorities say.

But critics say that these efforts are minuscule compared with the scope of the problem, with prisons so poorly controlled that a leaked French government report once described Osama bin Laden posters hanging on inmates’ walls. The challenge may be compounded by the dozens of people sent to jail after the recent attacks, some for more than a year, under fast-track proceedings in which they were charged with verbal support for terrorism.

“Prison destroys men,” said Mohamed Boina M’Koubou, an imam who works in the Fleury-Merogis prison. “There are people who are easy targets to spot and make into killers.” [Continue reading…]

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France admits soldiers have deserted to ISIS, including ex-elite special forces and French foreign legionnaires

The Telegraph reports: Several French former soldiers have joined the ranks of jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq, the country’s government confirmed on Wednesday, as it outlined a series of new anti-terrorism measures following the Islamist attacks in Paris.

Most of the ex-soldiers, reportedly numbering around 10 and including former paratroopers and French foreign legionnaires, are said to be fighting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Most worrying is the reported presence of an ex-member of France’s elite First Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, considered one of Europe’s most experienced special forces units and which shares the “Who Dares Wins” motto of the SAS.

The unnamed individual, of North African origin, had received commando training in combat, shooting and survival techniques. He served for five years before joining a private security company for which he worked in the Arabian peninsula, where he was radicalised before heading for Syria, according to L’Opinion, a news website. [Continue reading…]

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