France has granted citizenship to over 12,000 foreign-born health workers, security guards, checkout assistants and other frontline workers to thank them for their services during the Covid crisis, the government said Thursday.
Marlene Schiappa, junior interior minister in charge of citizenship, said over 16,000 people had applied for a French passport over the past year under a special scheme allowing workers in essential services to apply for citizenship after just two years in France, instead of the usual five.
Of these, 12,012 became French, she said.
Among the other categories of employees eligible for the scheme are garbage collectors, home-care providers and nannies.
“These frontline workers were there for the nation. It is normal that the nation makes a gesture in their favour,” Schiappa said in a statement.
Two French ministers were due on Tuesday to travel to the Caribbean as concern grows over spiralling Covid-19 infections in French overseas territories across the globe, with the island of Martinique tightening a lockdown and telling tourists to leave.
While well over half of people in mainland France have now received two vaccination doses, rates in its overseas territories, from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, have lagged well behind.
Authorities on the Caribbean island of Martinique late Monday announced that all non-essential shops would now be closed, as well as hotels and holiday rentals, adding that tourists should leave. Beaches would also be closed and people can only go within a 1 kilometre radius of their homes.
There are now 1,200 cases per 100,000 inhabitants on Martinique, while only 22 percent of the population have received even a first dose of the vaccination.
“These rules are strict and they will be lifted as soon as the health situation allows it,” the top official of Martinique, Stanislas Cazelles told reporters in its main city of Fort-de-France.
French Overseas Territories Minister Sebastien Lecornu and Health Minister Olivier Veran are both expected in the Caribbean later Tuesday for visits to Martinique and neighbouring Guadeloupe, which is also in a lockdown albeit less strict than that on Martinique.
Veran had earlier this week made a video plea on social media for medical workers in mainland France to show “national solidarity” and volunteer to help the stretched medical teams on the islands. Some 240 volunteers are now due to leave on Tuesday.
In the Pacific territory of French Polynesia, authorities meanwhile announced curfew from 9:00 pm local time to deal with rising cases.
Tensions have been heightened by a marriage party at a restaurant that was attended hundreds of people including top local figures, in defiance of existing rules and without masks.
“We were not exemplary and I am infinitely sorry,” said the local president Edouard Fritch who was seen playing the guitar in the images that shocked many Polynesians while Papeete mayor Michel Buillard provided the vocals.
The Indian Ocean island of Le Reunion also remains in partial lockdown, a measure which like in the Caribbean has prompted protests that led to scuffles with the security forces.
French President Emmanuel Macron was greeted with flower garlands and Tahitian dancers on the tarmac as he touched down Saturday night for his first official trip to French Polynesia.
While in the South Pacific territory, he plans to discuss its strategic role, the legacy of nuclear tests and the existential risk of rising seas posed by global warming.
Residents in the sprawling archipelago of more than 100 islands located midway between Mexico and Australia are hoping Macron confirms compensation for radiation victims following decades of nuclear testing as France pursued atomic weapons.
The tests remain a source of deep resentment, seen as evidence of racist colonial attitudes that disregarded the lives of islanders.
“During this visit, the president intends to establish a strong and transparent dialogue by encouraging several concrete steps, on the history with the opening of state archives as well as individual compensation,” said a French presidential official, who asked not to be named.
French officials denied any cover-up of radiation exposure at a meeting earlier this month with delegates from the semi-autonomous territory led by President Edouard Fritch.
The meeting came after the investigative website Disclose reported in March that the impact from the fallout was far more extensive than authorities had acknowledged, citing declassified French military documents on the nearly 200 tests.
Only 63 Polynesian civilians have been compensated for radiation exposure since the tests ended in 1996, Disclose said.
Macron, who arrived in the South Pacific after a visit to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, will also lay out his strategic vision for the strategically valuable territory, where China has made no secret of its push for military and commercial dominance.
One of three French territories in the Pacific, French Polynesia has a population of around 280,000 over a huge swath of island groups spanning an area comparable in size to Western Europe.
Tahiti is the most densely populated of the islands.
Macron “will present the Indo-Pacific strategy and the position France intends to maintain in this increasingly polarised zone”, the Elysee official said.
Macron also plans to address risks for the islands from rising sea levels as well as cyclones that some scientists warn could become more dangerous due to climate change.
But his first visit will be with hospital workers racing to combat rising Covid-19 cases with vaccines.
Many Polynesians remain wary of the jabs, with just 29 percent of adults vaccinated, compared with almost 49 percent across France nationwide.
France was voting in the second round of regional elections on Sunday after a first round that saw a drubbing for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling party, disappointment for Marine Le Pen’s far-right and record low turnout.
For some observers, the outcome of the June 20 first round raised doubts over whether the 2022 presidential election would come down to a duel between Macron and Le Pen in a run-off long seen as the most likely scenario.
The first-round results marked a boost for the traditional right-wing The Republicans as well as the Socialist Party, who have been squeezed after the centrist Macron surged into power in 2017 with his brand-new Republic on the Move (LREM) party.
Analysts warn against too much extrapolation onto a nationwide scale from the results of the regional elections, which choose the heads of France’s 13 mainland regions from Brittany in the northwest to the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region in the southeast.
But there was cross-party concern over the turnout for last week’s polls, which were shunned by 66.72 percent of voters — a record in modern France.
“What we are seeing is the culmination of a disconnection between voters and the political class,” said Jessica Sainty, politics lecturer at Avignon University, while acknowledging the Covid-19 crisis also played a role in high abstention rate.
The woeful turnout prompted a debate over how to improve participation, with several figures including government spokesman Gabriel Attal suggesting electronic voting could help in future.
According to a poll published Thursday, just 36 percent of voters plan to cast their ballots on Sunday. “France is sulking,” the Le Parisien newspaper said.
Four hours after polls opened, turnout on Sunday stood at the same dismal 12.66 percent as during the first round.
– Far-right eyes breakthrough –
The first-round results put Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) ahead in just one region, PACA, a major disappointment after polls showed a possible breakthrough in several areas.
One of the most closely watched races on Sunday will be whether RN candidate Thierry Mariani can defeat his right-wing rival Renaud Muselier in the region.
Gaining control of a region for the first time would be a huge boost for Le Pen as she seeks to convince voters that the RN — which she has reformed and rebranded since taking over from her firebrand father Jean-Marie — is a serious party of power.
Muselier could be helped by the withdrawal of left-wing candidates in a repeat of the “Republican Front” seen in past presidential elections to block the far-right.
“The idea of a victory for Mariani — even if it is far from being probable — would show that the RN can almost triumph alone over the coalition of all the others and head the powerful executive of a modern region,” said Jerome Sainte-Marie, president of the Pollingvox Institute.
Mariani has been accused by critics of being an admirer of authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Prime Minister Jean Castex warned last week that a Mariani victory would be “very serious” for the country.
The RN also came up short in the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, where its 25-year-old rising star Jordan Bardella failed to trouble right-wing incumbent Valerie Pecresse, who is now expected to easily win the second round.
– ‘Lacks local presence’ –
The first-round results made even more unpalatable reading for Macron and his LREM, confirming the party’s failure to put down local and regional roots despite controlling the presidency and lower house of parliament.
Despite sending several ministers to campaign and Macron himself embarking on a nationwide tour — that saw him slapped by an onlooker at one point — in some regions LREM did not muster the required 10 percent to make round two.
“2022: What if it wasn’t them?” asked the headline in the left-wing Liberation newspaper over a picture of Macron and Le Pen.
LREM has almost no chance of winning control of a single region and is currently just number five among political parties in France.
The Socialists are expected to pick up some regions, partly due to support from the far-left France Unbowed party.
“LREM lacks a local presence, but in 2017 that did not prevent them from winning the presidential and legislative elections,” said Sainty.
Voting began at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday, with the last polling stations due to close 12 hours later.
A French and an American astronaut embarked on a spacewalk Sunday to complete the installation of new solar panels to boost power supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), they announced on Twitter.
“Here we go again for episode (2) of the new solar array installation spacewalks,” tweeted Thomas Pesquet, a Frenchman with the European Space Agency.
“It is a huge team effort each time and couldn’t be happier to return with @astro_kimbrough,” he said, referring to his American colleague Shane Kimbrough, a NASA astronaut.
The two men activated the internal batteries in their space suits at 11H42 GMT, then opened the hatch to the ISS airlock.
Their mission includes installing six new-generation solar panels, referred to as iROSA.
The new panels, which will power both daily operations and the research and science projects carried out on the ISS, are expected to have a 15-year lifespan.
A first effort on Wednesday ran into several snags, notably problems with Kimbrough’s spacesuit. He temporarily lost data on his spacesuit display unit, and then suffered a brief spike in the suit’s pressure reading.
Sunday’s outing was the fourth time the two astronauts had ventured into space together.
In addition to Wednesday’s spacewalk, they did so twice on a 2017 mission, attached by tethers to the space station as it orbits the Earth at an altitude of some 250 miles (400 kilometers).
In all, there have been 240 ISS spacewalks as astronauts carry out the work of assembling and maintaining, as well as upgrading, the station.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran sought to boost confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine on Monday as he received a dose in front of TV cameras and reporters at a hospital southwest of Paris.
South Africa has delayed the start of its inoculation programme using the jab from the British-Swedish pharmaceutical group over concerns it does not work on a new variant of Covid-19 that originated in the country.
Veran said that the South African variant had not been widely detected in France.
“I continue to recommend vaccination by the AstraZeneca vaccine, which protects against 99 percent of the viruses that are present in our country,” Veran said from a hospital in the town of Melun.
France received 270,000 doses of the jab on Saturday and would take delivery of another 300,000 in the next few days, he added.
The vaccine is to be used as a priority for all care workers, including hospital and nursing home staff, as well as domestic workers.
“I encourage all careworkers to get themselves vaccinated in their hospitals, health centres and all available places in order to protect themselves as fast as possible,” Veran said.
The jab distributed by AstraZeneca and developed by the University of Oxford is set to be discussed by WHO experts on Monday amid doubts about its efficacy against the South African variant and against disease in the over-65s.
French President Emmanuel Macron said at the end of January that the shot was “quasi-ineffective for people over 65.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out issuing an official apology for abuses in Algeria, his office said Wednesday, ahead of a major report on how France is facing up to its colonial past in the country.
There will “no repentance nor apologies” for the occupation of Algeria or the bloody eight-year war that ended French rule, Macron’s office said, adding that the French leader would instead take part in “symbolic acts” aimed at promoting reconciliation.
The atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the two countries six decades later.
Macron, the first president born after the colonial period, has gone further than any of his predecessors in recognising French crimes in Algeria.
Later Wednesday, a historian commissioned by Macron last year with assessing “the progress made by France on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian war,” will submit his findings.
Benjamin Stora’s report is not however expected to recommend that France issue an apology but rather suggest ways of shedding light on one of the darker chapters of French history and propose ways of promoting healing.
The presidency said Macron would take part in three days of commemorations next year marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war.
Each day will be dedicated to a different group that suffered in the conflict, presidential aides added.
– Simmering resentment –
No other event in France’s colonial history had as deep an impact on the national psyche as the Algerian war.
More than one million French conscripts saw service in the conflict, which claimed hundreds of thousands of Algerian lives.
After it ended hundreds of thousands of European settlers fled to France, a wrenching exodus that sowed the seeds of lingering anti-Arab sentiment.
Tens of thousands of Algerians who fought alongside French forces also crossed the Mediterranean after the war to escape nationalist lynch mobs.
While campaigning for president in 2017 Macron caused a sensation by declaring that the colonisation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.
A year later, he acknowledged that France had instigated a system that facilitated torture during the Algerian war.
It was a rare admission in a country where the colonisation of Algeria was long seen as benign.
“In French political culture, anti-colonialism has always been an extremely fringe movement,” historian Sylvie Thenault told AFP.
“There is a profound conviction that the French Republic is a force for good that thwarts the possibility of criticising what is done in the name of the Republic,” she added.
During the war French forces cracked down on independence fighters and sympathisers. A French general later admitted to the use of torture.
Algerian nationalists also targeted civilians and mistreated prisoners during a complex conflict characterised by guerrilla warfare.
France’s actions in Algeria left a deep well of bitterness and resentment that has been blamed by some experts for the drift of some second- and third-generation immigrants into extremism.
In a speech in October on combatting radicalisation, Macron acknowledged that France’s colonial past and the Algerian war had “fed resentment” against France.
Speaking to Jeune Afrique magazine in November, Macron described France as being “locked in a sort of pendulum between two stances: apologising and repentance on the one hand and denial and pride on the other.
“As for myself I would like truth and reconciliation,” he said.
French lawmakers on Thursday approved the return of prized artefacts looted during colonial times to Benin and Senegal, completing the legislative process needed to give back the objects.
The trove includes a royal throne taken during a war in Benin and a sword once wielded by a 19th century sheikh in what is now Senegal.
Former colonial powers across Europe are facing intensifying demands to return stolen objects, with Britain often in the eye of the storm for the plundered artefacts that stuff its museum shelves.
Critics also rounded on Germany on Wednesday as it opened a refurbished museum in Berlin awash with items from Africa and Asia.
French President Emmanuel Macron is among several European leaders to have pledged to restore ownership of looted treasures — the country’s museums are home to tens of thousands of objects, mostly from Africa.
Thursday’s agreement flowed from Macron’s desire to “renew and deepen the partnership between France and the African continent”, said Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot.
Benin will receive 26 pieces of the Treasure of Behanzin that was looted in 1892, including the throne of King Glele — a centrepiece of some 70,000 African objects held at the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris.
Rescue workers evacuated hundreds of people Monday from villages hammered by flash flooding in southeast France over the weekend, with the death toll expected to rise as searches continue for survivors.
Two people died after storms dumped huge amounts of rain that turned streams into churning torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges in the French Alps north of Nice.
But the authorities said eight people had disappeared, in many cases after witnesses reported seeing them carried away by the floodwaters, while 13 others have not been heard from since Friday.
Italian authorities also said two people died, including a volunteer firefighter on a rescue operation Saturday.
Meteorologist Luca Mercalli told the Fatto Quotidiano daily Monday that in Limone Piemonte and the Roya Valley “some 600 millimetres of rain fell in fewer than 24 hours. Half the annual average rainfall in just one day.”
“I’ve lost everything. My house, 25 metres long (80 feet), was engulfed by the Vesubie river,” said Alain Brucy, 63, as trucks carrying water, baby food, toilet paper and other essentials arrived in Roquebilliere, a French village near the Italian border.
“The priority is to evacuate those who want to leave this war zone they’ve been living in for the past two days,” the government’s top regional official, Bernard Gonzalez, told AFP, saying some areas looked as if they had been “bombarded.”
Around 400 people have been evacuated by helicopter so far, he said.
Gonzalez also said four bodies found on a beach in Liguria, Italy, on Sunday most likely came from cemeteries swept away when rivers overran their banks.
“These are not recent deaths… but old corpses,” he said.
Officials have declared the region a natural disaster zone, and President Emmanuel Macron is expected to tour the area this week.
– ‘Doing what they can’ –
Electricity and phone service remains down across much of the region, and officials have closed off access to hikers and climbers so that mountain rescue teams can focus on the search for victims.
In the hard-hit Roya valley, several villages remained completely cut off after roads collapsed or were torn up by the floods, or were blocked by fallen trees or rocks and other debris.
Scores of tractors have been deployed to help the villages dig out, including several brought in by French army regiments.
“They’ve been at it since this morning, and they’re doing what they can but you see that ladder over there — that’s where the bridge was washed away,” said Josiane Osanga, 78, in the village of Breil-sur-Roya.
Nearby, residents used a bow and arrow to construct a makeshift zipline for sending over medicine and other items to houses trapped on the far side of the river.
Emergency generators are also being deployed “so we can end this isolation that is very difficult to bear and that makes it much harder to organise the necessary help,” said Philippe Pradal, president of the Nice metropolitan area.
Officials were also transferring nursing home residents and hospital patients from several villages and towns.
“In Fontan, they found a generator and everyone is sharing their food” until new supplies can be brought in, said Alexandra Valetta-Ardisson, a local lawmaker.
French and Italian rescue services stepped up search efforts Sunday after floods cut off several villages in the mountainous border regions, causing widespread damage and killing at least four people.
Others remained unaccounted for on the French side of the border after storms, torrential rain and flash floods battered the area, washing away roads and houses, cutting off entire villages and triggering landslips.
Emergency services recovered at least four bodies Sunday on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria, Italy, ANSA news agency and other Italian media reported.
Italian and French teams were working together to try to identify them, but it was not yet clear that they were victims of the flooding or if their deaths had another cause.
In Breil-sur-Roya, a French village close to the Italian border, houses were buried in mud and turned-over cars were stuck in the riverbed.
Rescue efforts were concentrated on the Roya valley where roughly 1,000 firefighters, backed by helicopters and the army, resumed their search for survivors and helped people whose homes were destroyed or inaccessible.
Storm Alex barrelled into France’s west coast on Thursday, bringing powerful winds and rain across the country before moving into northern Italy.
“What we are going through is extraordinary,” said Bernard Gonzalez, prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes region, after as much as 60 centimetres (two feet) of rain fell in 24 hours in the worst-affected areas.
Italy confirmed two people died Saturday, a volunteer firefighter on a rescue operation and a man whose car was washed away.
France also announced two fatalities. The first found was a shepherd whose body was pulled from a river near the border. Firefighters later announced a man had been found dead in his car in the southeastern village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie.
France has declared the region a natural disaster zone.
Saint-Martin-Vesubie, a village home to 1,400 north of Nice, was completely cut off by the storm.
A bedraggled group of tourists and residents gathered in the village square to be airlifted to safety, an AFPTV journalist said after reaching the site on foot.
“My three-storey house, it’s in the river,” said villager Sandra Dzidt, 62, who had to flee the floods dressed only in her nightgown. “All I have left is a tiny piece of wall and a door.”
Across the region, emergency crews were handing out food and airlifting thousands of bottles of water into remote villages cut off by the storms.
– ‘Helicopter procession’ –
French Prime Minister Jean Castex inspected the damage by helicopter on Saturday, saying he feared the number of people missing could rise after dozens of cars and several houses were swept away in apocalyptic scenes.
Gonzalez called on the families of the missing not to give up hope.
“Just because their loved ones haven’t been able to get in touch doesn’t mean that they have been taken by the storm,” he said.
Many landline and some mobile phone services were disrupted, with some villages using satellite phones to communicate with rescue services.
Despite forecasts of more rain, rescue efforts were to continue throughout Sunday, Gonzalez said.
“The helicopter procession will continue all day long,” he said.
The presidents of Italy’s Piedmont and Liguria regions signed a joint letter calling on the government to declare a state of emergency with several villages cut off.
“The situation is very serious. It is like it was in 1994,” when 70 died after the Po and Tarano rivers flooded, Piedmont’s president, Alberto Cirio, told La Stampa newspaper.
“The difference being 630 mm of water fell in 24 hours — unprecedented in such a small timeframe since 1954.”
Cirio added Italy was already struggling to cope with the effects of the coronavirus which has left some 36,000 dead and shattered the economy over the past six months.
“We are already in an extraordinary situation. Because of the pandemic the region will this year receive 200 million euros less in tax receipts. If the state does not intervene (with rescue funding) we shall not recover.”
President Emmanuel Macron is ready to hold talks with Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has requested he act as a mediator in her country’s crisis, a French government spokesman said on Monday.
“What’s happening in Belarus is a crisis of power, an authoritarian power that is unable to accept the logic of democracy,” Gabriel Attal said, adding that Macron would meet Tikhanovskaya “if she asks” during a visit to Lithuania, where she has fled.
Belarus has been in turmoil since protests broke out last month after Tikhanovskaya lost to President Alexander Lukashenko in a vote she denounced as rigged.
The opposition leader, whose blogger husband remains in a Belarus prison, also called for EU sanctions against businesses that support Lukashenko’s government.
“The protests are not going to stop,” Tikhanovskaya told AFP in an interview. “People will not accept the regime under which they have lived all these years.”
Ahead of Macron’s visit to Vilnius, he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper it was “clear that Lukashenko has to go”, adding that he had been impressed by the courage of the protesters.
“They know the risks they are taking by demonstrating every weekend, and yet, they are pushing forward with the movement to make democracy come alive in this country that has been deprived of it for so long,” he said.