‘Art against austerity’: Paris Opera gives free street performance amid strikes over pension reform

Paris Opera musicians on strike over unpopular pension reform plans proposed by the French government delighted passers-by with a free New Year’s Eve concert on the steps outside the Bastille opera house.

In the Tuesday evening show, the musicians performed classics like the Dance of the Night from Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz, as well as offering a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem.

The striking musicians are covered by one of France’s 42 individual pension schemes, which President Emmanuel Macron’s government is trying to streamline into one cohesive system. Under the new plan, opera employees would lose their right to early retirement.

One musician told the crowd before the free concert began that opera employees “still refuse to participate in any parody of negotiations,” France24 reported.

The proposed reforms have sparked major unrest and travel chaos as transport workers also went on strike demanding that the government abandon the new scheme. Some demonstrations have also turned violent, as protesters clashed with police.

The opera strike has led to the cancellation of dozens of December performances at both the Bastille and Garnier opera houses and at least €8 million in lost revenue.

“We refuse to be the gravediggers of our own retirement system,” the musicians said.

On Christmas Eve, a group of 27 ballet dancers also protested the reforms, performing a piece from Swan Lake on the steps of the Garnier Opera. Banners reading ‘Opera de ‘Paris Opera on strike’ and ‘Culture in danger’ hung in the background.

Demonstrators against the pension reform joined the Yellow Vests protesters on Saturday, in a joint effort to defy Macron’s unpopular government. Trade unions have kept up their strike over the Christmas period, and it is now entering its fourth week.

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Unrest at US embassy reveals Iraqis are fed up with American ‘occupiers’

Anti-American sentiment has taken deep root in Iraqi society and ultimately fueled the fiery siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad, as the locals blame Washington for the sorry state of Iraq, military and political analysts tell RT.

Chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” a crowd of protesters surrounded the US diplomatic mission on Tuesday, angered by the death of two dozen Iraqis in US airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia over the weekend.

At one point, the mob set a checkpoint at the entrance on fire and attempted to storm the embassy. Dozens of people made it inside the heavily-guarded compound and delivered some damage to the property before eventually retreating as a force of US Marines backed by attack helicopters arrived as reinforcements.

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© Reuters / Wissm al-Okili
US sends reinforcements to its Baghdad embassy amid Iraqi protests over strikes

What unfolded in Baghdad “of course, allows [us] to draw parallels” with the attacks on US diplomatic missions in Benghazi in 2012, Grigory Lukyanov, senior lecturer at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, told RT. Four Americans died in that attack, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. 

Lukyanov also drew comparisons with the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, following the 1979 Iranian revolution, when 52 American diplomats and staff were held hostage for 444 days.

“There’s nothing surprising” about the embassy in Baghdad being targeted by protesters, Lukyanov pointed out. The US has been directly involved in Iraqi affairs since the invasion in 2003 and the locals now blame the “foreign sponsors” of the Iraqi government for its inability to improve their security and well-being.

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FILE PHOTO: The US consulate in Benghazi burns following a jihadist attack, 2012 © Reuters / Esam Al-Fetori
‘Trump’s Benghazi’ or crisis averted? Embassy siege brings up parallels with Clinton’s darkest hour

The operation against backed Kataib Hezbollah, launched without any approval from Baghdad, became “yet another sign for the ‘Iraqi street’ that the Americans are behaving like occupiers,” he added. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi called it an “an unacceptable vicious assault” and said the US had violated the sovereignty of his country.

“The level of anti-American sentiment is as high in Iraq as it was in Libya and Iran. It’s not something that’s fueled by some military or political entities,” Lukyanov told RT.

The US don’t want their long-established relations with Iraq to be held hostage by the ongoing unrest.

President Donald Trump declared the embassy safe on Tuesday afternoon and called the entire thing an “anti-Benghazi.” The embassy building itself wasn’t breached and would not be evacuated, a State Department spokesperson said.

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A protester holds an Iraqi flag outside the main gate of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019.
This is not warning, it is a threat: Trump declares US embassy in Iraq safe, says Iran will pay ‘big price’ for attack

“A full evacuation of the Embassy could be seen as severing all diplomatic ties, which is impossible” given the current level of US involvement in Iraq, Lukyanov noted. In addition to the embassy and other diplomatic offices, Washington has a major military presence on Iraqi soil, using it to project power in the region. 

Sergey Balmasov of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, also believes that the withdrawal of the US from Iraq is unrealistic. Such a move would hurt President Donald Trump’s chances of reelection in 2020 and “lead to Iran strengthening its position in the region.”

Unrest in Baghdad could instead create a pretext for the Americans to increase their military presence in Iraq to put additional pressure on Tehran and Damascus, Balmasov told RT, adding, “I doubt that Trump will now send a massive 200,000 contingent into the country, which his predecessor Barack Obama earlier pulled out.”

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© Reuters / Wissm al-Okili
Iran slams US ‘audacity’ to blame it for Baghdad embassy storming

While Trump noted that Iraqi security forces had rapidly responded to his request to help the embassy, earlier reports spoke of them letting the protesters through. Either way, the “the US-Iraqi relationship is further weakened by these events,” military analyst Scott Ritter pointed out.

The Iraqi opposition will now most likely “double down on its political pressure on the Iraqi government to evict US military forces from Iraqi soil,” Ritter told RT.

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North Korea won’t stop nuclear expansion in face of US threat – but US attitude adjustment can work wonders, Kim says

North Korea will continue building up its nuclear deterrent to counter US aggression, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said – but the degree to which it expands its weapons program will depend on the US’ attitude.

Accusing the US of insincerity regarding discussions about the partial lifting of sanctions, Kim held up Washington’s “gangster-like demands” as the reason no agreement had yet been reached between the two countries.

The more the US stalls for time, Kim said, the more it will find itself “helpless in the face of North Korean power.” North Korea has a “new strategic weapon” up its sleeve, he warned, and time was running out before his government would be moved to take “shocking actual action.”

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FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un calls for ‘positive & offensive’ measures to ensure N. Korea’s security amid stalled denuclearization talks with US

North Korea would no longer hold to its self-imposed ban on nuclear and long-range missile tests, because the US had kept on staging military drills with South Korea. he noted.

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This is not warning, it is a threat: Trump declares US embassy in Iraq safe, says Iran will pay ‘big price’ for attack

US President Donald Trump said that the embassy in Baghdad has been secured by US and Iraqi troops, and threatened to hold Iran “fully responsible” for any damages or loss of life at any American facility.

“This is not a Warning, it is a Threat,” Trump declared in a tweet on Tuesday afternoon, adding that Iran will “pay a very BIG PRICE!” for the embassy siege earlier in the day.

A task force of US Marines was rushed to the embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday, after protesters and fighters of the Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah stormed the perimeter, chanting “Death to America.”

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© Reuters / Wissm al-Okili
Iran slams US ‘audacity’ to blame it for Baghdad embassy storming

Attack helicopters circled the compound, dropping flares in attempts to scatter the protesters, who had reportedly breached the front gate. Iraqi security forces were initially said to have let the militants through, but Trump’s tweet said that the government in Baghdad rapidly responded to his request for assistance.

The embassy siege appeared to be Kataib Hezbollah’s response to the series of US airstrikes over the weekend, targeting their positions in Iraq and Syria. The Iranian-backed militia has been fighting against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists, but the Pentagon blamed it for last week’s attack on a US coalition base near Kirkuk, in which one contractor died.

The Iraqi government had condemned the airstrikes as a violation of their sovereignty. Iran rejected all accusations that it was responsible for the embassy siege, calling it “surprising audacity” to blame Tehran for protests over the “savage killing” of at least 25 Iraqis.

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‘Trump’s Benghazi’ or crisis averted? Embassy siege brings up parallels with Clinton’s darkest hour

As Iraqi protesters battered the walls of the American embassy in Baghdad, pundits and commentators drew parallels with the deadly assault on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

Protesters entered Baghdad’s heavily fortified ‘Green Zone’ on Tuesday, incensed at an american airstrike that left 25 members of the Kataib Hezbollah militia dead two days earlier. Embassy security resisted a barrage of stones hurled by protesters, firing tear gas and stun grenades. The State Department later said that the embassy itself remained secure, and would not be evacuated.

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© Reuters / Wissm al-Okili
US sends reinforcements to its Baghdad embassy amid Iraqi protests over strikes

As Apache helicopters flew overhead, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the summoning of reinforcements to the embassy compound, #Benghazi trended on Twitter.

Trump’s opponents jumped on the hashtag to slam the president for golfing in his Mar-a-Lago resort while the embassy was pounded by protesters. After all, they argued, Trump had spent years excoriating former State Secretary Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama for their supposed absence while jihadists stormed US diplomatic and intelligence buildings in the Libyan city in 2012, killing four Americans.

However, every story is open to partisan interpretation.Trump’s supporters argued that by sending in US Marines to secure the Baghdad embassy, and demanding Iraq step up its security of the building, the president has already done more than Obama and Clinton did in 2012 to avoid disaster.

After the deaths in Benghazi in 2012, numerous Congressional investigations were convened, one of which found that no reinforcements were sent to aid the besieged Americans during the eight-hour jihadist attack. Furthermore, an additional House Intelligence Committee report found that Clinton’s State Department ignored warnings about the perilous security situation of American diplomats in Benghazi for months leading up to the attack.

In the aftermath of the attack, Clinton claimed that the attack was provoked by an anti-Muslim video that whipped an already angry crowd of protesters into a frenzy. However, Clinton revealed in private conversations with confidants and world leaders that she knew a jihadist group was behind the assault. A lawsuit then alleged that Clinton’s use of unsecure email server let militants learn the location of the US ambassador in Benghazi and plan the attack accordingly.

As Twitter bickered over Benghazi, a US Marine Air-Ground Task Force set off for Baghdad. With security bolstered in the compound, any discussion of Benghazi will likely remain a hypothetical and partisan affair. Still, with Trump and his administration blaming Iran for instigating the protests, the consequences of the airstrikes and embassy storming may yet be felt throughout the region.

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Iran slams US ‘audacity’ to blame it for Baghdad embassy storming

Iran has flatly rejected US accusations that it is behind violent protests which broke out at the American embassy in Baghdad in response to US airstrikes on militia groups in Iraq.

In a tweet on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump accused Iran of “orchestrating an attack on the US Embassy in Iraq,” and said Tehran will be held “fully responsible.” Trump also called on “millions” of Iraqis to resist Iran.

Iran hit back at the “audacity” of Washington to blame Tehran for the attacks in a statement posted by the Foreign Ministry.

“America has the surprising audacity of attributing to Iran the protests of the Iraqi people against (Washington’s) savage killing of at least 25 Iraqis…,” it said.

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Protesters throw stones at the US embassy in Baghdad © Reuters / Wissm al-Okily
‘This is your time’: Trump calls for Iraqis to rise up against Iran

The US hit five Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria last week in retaliation for an attack on a US coalition base near Kirkuk, which no group took responsibility for, but which Washington blamed on the Iranian-backed militia.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the airstrikes, calling them a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and said there could be “grave consequences.” Protesters then stormed the US embassy compound on Tuesday, shouting “death to America” and waving Hezbollah flags.

Washington announced earlier Tuesday that it was sending reinforcements to the Baghdad embassy, in what Defense Secretary Mark Esper said were measures “to ensure our right of self-defense.”

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French chef thought of suicide after Michelin star lost over using English cheddar

French courts have dealt a fresh blow to a chef who said he thought of suicide when his restaurant was stripped of a Michelin star, dismissing his request for the prestigious guide to explain its claim he used cheddar in a dish.

Chef Marc Veyrat said the only reason he was given for the shocking decision to strip one of his three Michelin stars was that he had used English cheddar in a souffle instead of a French cheese. 

“Can you imagine the sense of shame I feel?” Veyrat told local reporters months after losing the star. “I am the first chef in history to have won a star and lost it the next year.”

“I’m at the end of my tether,” he added. “I have dark thoughts.”

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© Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Amuse Bouche: Mistaken identity sees small French cafe awarded Michelin star

Veyrat vehemently denies the cheddar claim, and took the Michelin Guide to court in a bid to force it to prove its inspectors had actually been to his restaurant, the Maison des Bois, and were qualified to judge its cuisine.  

Michelin in turn argued it couldn’t possibly reveal details about its inspectors, as their anonymity is key in being able to judge a restaurant’s fare at all. In the end, a Nanterre court rejected Veyrat’s request. 

Speaking to Reuters after the ruling, Veyrat said he had “had enough” of Michelin at this point – and just wants his restaurant left out of their listings altogether.

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‘US is torturing Chelsea Manning’: Top UN official says treatment of manning is ‘cruel and degrading’

Chelsea Manning is being subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, constituting torture by the US government over her refusal to testify against whistleblower website WikiLeaks, a top United Nations official has said.

UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer accused the government of torturing Manning in a November letter, which was just released on Tuesday. In the letter, Melzer wrote that Manning is suffering “an open-ended, progressively severe measure of coercion” which fulfils “all the constitutive elements of torture.”

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, was arrested on May 16 after she refused to testify against WikiLeaks before a grand jury. She is still being detained at the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia and is facing fines of $1,000 a day.

“The practise of coercive deprivation of liberty for civil contempt … involves the intentional infliction of progressively severe mental and emotional suffering for the purposes of coercion and intimidation at the order of judicial authorities,” Melzer wrote.

The torture expert added that victims of this kind of prolonged coercive confinement have demonstrated “post-traumatic symptoms and other severe and persistent mental and physical health consequences.”

Manning’s detention is a “severe coercive measure amounting to torture & should be discontinued & abolished without delay,” he wrote. He said coercive detention appears also to be “incompatible with the international human rights obligations” of the US under various international conventions.

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© REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo
Assange CANNOT be extradited because of treaty between US-UK argues legal team

Manning’s own lawyers have insisted that she is “fully committed to her principles” and unlikely to change her mind about testifying against WikiLeaks, calling her detention “pointless” and “cruel.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is being held at London’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison awaiting a US extradition hearing, has been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion with Manning to break into Ministry of Defense computers and gain access to US state secrets. In 2010, WikiLeaks released the infamous ‘Collateral Murder’ footage, showing an indiscriminate US attack in Baghdad in 2007 which killed 12 people, including two Reuters journalists.

Prosecutors are attempting to force Manning to testify in Assange’s trial if he is indeed extradited to the US.

Manning was already sentenced to 35 years in a military prison in 2011. She served seven of those years, before her sentence was commuted by Barack Obama in 2017.

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Israeli court dismisses attempts to block Netanyahu’s reelection campaign over charges

Three Israeli High Court judges have rejected a petition attempting to bar PM Benjamin Netanyahu from seeking reelection due to the indictments hanging over him, arguing that the matter only becomes an issue if he wins.

There are no legal reasons Netanyahu cannot run for reelection, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut declared in Tuesday’s court session, dismissing the petition filed in response to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to indict the embattled PM last month. The panel agreed that it would be irrelevant and quite unprecedented to discuss the matter before the March 2 election results were in.

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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, which he wants to annex. © AFP / Menahem Kahana
Seeking immunity? Netanyahu vies for six more months as PM ‘only to annex Jordan Valley’

Even Mandelblit, in a brief submitted last week, maintained the issue would remain hypothetical until the votes had been counted.

There is an attempt to drag the legal system into the political system, it’s a minefield, which one enters only when they have no choice,” said Aner Helman, Mendelblit’s representative in the court, Haaretz reported.

Mendelblit has thus far been reticent on whether Netanyahu, who handily won a vote last week to remain chief of the Likud Party, should be allowed to form a new government after next year’s general election, preferring to wait to hear the High Court’s decision before opining.

Netanyahu himself argued that the matter was outside the court’s jurisdiction entirely, and would remain so even if he won reelection in March – an unprecedented third contest in a year after the previous two left both Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz unable to form a government.

There are those who are trying to drag the Supreme Court into the political turmoil to legally deny and thwart my candidacy for prime minister. I do not think that the Supreme Court of Israel will fall into this trap,” the PM tweeted ahead of the hearing.

In a democracy, who decides who will lead the people is only the people and not anyone else.

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FILE PHOTO.
Surrounded? Netanyahu faces internal party dissent while arch-rival Gantz accuses him of inciting ‘CIVIL WAR’ in Israel

A group of 67 academics, former defense officials, and other public figures filed the petition, asking the court to officially bar any Knesset member under indictment for a crime of “moral turpitude” from being given the mandate to form a government, no matter how many supporters he has in the parliament.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving PM, is charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three cases. The leader has maintained his innocence, slamming the three-year investigation that led to the charges as cooked up by “foreign interests” trying to “carry out a legal revolution.”

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