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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Protesters march in Venezuela, destroy Chavez statue

May 07, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Women banged on pans and some stripped off their white shirts Saturday as they protested Venezuela's socialist government in an event the opposition billed as a "women's march against repression." As they marched, local media carried a video showing people toppling a statue of the late President Hugo Chavez the day before in the western state of Zulia.

Thousands of women took over streets in major cities all around the South American country. Wearing the white shirts of the opponents of country's increasingly embattled government, the women sang the national anthem and chanted, "Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Freedom!"

Some sported makeshift gear to protect against tear gas and rubber bullets. Others marched topless. One woman came in her wedding dress. As they have near-daily for five weeks, police in riot gear again took control of major roads in the capital city. Clashes between police and protesters have left some three dozen dead in the past month.

Local news media carried a video circulating on Twitter of the Chavez statue being pulled down. The media reported that students destroyed the statue as they vented their anger with the food shortages, inflation and spiraling crime that have come to define life here.

Several young men could be seen bashing the statue that depicted the socialist hero standing in a saluting pose, as onlookers hurled insults as the late president. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez on Friday denounced the protest movement, and said opposition "terrorists" were attempting a kind of nonconventional warfare.

The protest movement has drawn masses of people into the street nearly every day since March, and shows no sign of slowing. On Saturday, some of the women marchers approached soldiers in riot gear to offer them white roses and invite them to join the cause.

"What will you tell your kids later on?" one woman asked. In a call with the president of Peru, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. A statement from the White House's Office of the Press Secretary said Trump underscored to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski that "the United States will work together with Peru in seeking to improve democratic institutions and help the people of Venezuela."

In Ukraine, feeling grows that the east is lost to Russia

May 05, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Leonid Androv, an electrician from Kiev, was drafted into the Ukrainian army and spent a year fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after the conflict broke out in 2014. Now, like many other Ukrainians, he is ready to accept that those lands are lost.

"The Russians are in charge there and they are methodically erasing everything Ukrainian. So why should I and impoverished Ukraine pay for the occupation?" said Androv, 43. Long unthinkable after years of fighting and about 10,000 deaths, Ukrainians increasingly are coming around to the idea of at least temporarily abandoning the region known as the Donbass, considering it to be de facto occupied by Russia.

This would effectively kill the Minsk peace agreement brokered by Germany and France, which aims to preserve a united Ukraine. The Minsk agreement is still firmly supported both by the West and Russia, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed at their meeting this week.

The 2015 agreement, which Ukraine signed as its troops were being driven back, has greatly reduced but not stopped the fighting, while attempts to fulfill its provisions for a political settlement have failed.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko still stands by Minsk. In recent months, however, his government has moved to isolate the east by blocking trade and shutting off supplies of electricity and gas, demonstrating that it now considers the industrial region to be Moscow's problem.

Several factions in the Ukrainian parliament have introduced legislation that would designate those territories outside of Kiev's control as "occupied." "We should call a spade a spade and recognize the Russian occupation of Donbass," said Yuriy Bereza, a co-author of the legislation. Bereza, who commanded one of the volunteer battalions that fought in the east, called it necessary to preserve the state.

The likelihood of the legislation coming up for a vote is low, given the government's reluctance to formally acknowledge the loss of these territories. Almost half of Ukrainians, however, favor declaring the separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to be occupied, according to a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center.

Under Minsk, the two regions are to remain part of Ukraine but with "special status." They would have the right to hold their own elections. Those who fought against the Ukrainian army would receive amnesty.

These provisions have little popular support. The poll found that only 22 percent of Ukrainians were ready to grant the Donbass this "special status," while 31 percent of respondents said they found it difficult to answer. The poll, conducted in January among 2,018 people across Ukraine, had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.

"It is obvious that Ukrainian society supports the isolation and blockade of the Donbass. And this is exactly what is dictating President Poroshenko's behavior," said Razumkov Center sociologist Andrei Bychenko. "If Poroshenko plans to seek a second term, he has to think about the mood of society, not about the expectations of the West."

Poroshenko was elected after mass protests led to the ouster of Ukraine's Russia-friendly president in early 2014 and put the country on a path toward closer integration with the West. While still speaking about a united Ukraine, Poroshenko's government last month shut off electricity supplies to Luhansk over unpaid debts. Kiev already had stopped supplying gas to both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and in March, Poroshenko imposed a trade blockade on the regions beyond Kiev's control.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters this was "one more step by Ukraine to rid itself of these territories." Although Russia quickly annexed the Crimean Peninsula at the start of the conflict, Putin has made clear he has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine.

"The Kremlin has tried to push this cancerous tumor back into Ukraine, using Donetsk and Lugansk as a Trojan horse to manipulate Kiev," said Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. "But the Ukrainian government has had enough sense not to let it happen."

Putin, speaking to journalists Tuesday after talks with Merkel, responded angrily to a suggestion that perhaps it was time for a new peace agreement since the Donbass already had de facto separated from Ukraine.

"No one has severed these territories. They were severed by the Ukrainian government itself through all sorts of blockades," Putin said. Russia was forced to support Donbass, he added, noting that it was "still supplying a significant amount of goods, including power, and providing coke for Ukrainian metallurgical plants."

Putin and Merkel both said that despite the problems they saw no alternative to the Minsk agreement. Sergei Garmash is among the 2 million people who have left their homes in eastern Ukraine. He said there is almost nothing Ukrainian left in Donetsk, which now uses Russian rubles, receives only Russian television and survives thanks to Russian subsidies.

"Ukrainian politicians need to be brave and legally recognize this territory as occupied by Russia. This will force Moscow to pick up the bill. And the more expensive this adventure will be for the Kremlin, the sooner it will walk away," said Garmash, 45, who now lives in Kiev.

Moscow sends humanitarian convoys to the Donbass every month and pays the salaries and pensions of people who live there. Russia also supports the separatist military operations, although the Kremlin continues to deny that it sends arms and troops.

Russia has been hurt economically by sanctions imposed by the West over the annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists. "Public opinion has swung sharply toward the isolation of Donbass, and for the Kiev government it is an opportune time to shift all the expenses of the 'frozen conflict' to Moscow," said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Center of Political Studies in Ukraine.

"Of course the war in Donbass was incited by Russia to slow Ukraine's move toward Europe," Fesenko said. "But no Ukrainian politician can publicly give up on Crimea and Donbass and recognize them as part of Russia."

Androv, the Kiev electrician, said the problem is that no one knows what to do with Donbass. Likening it to a suitcase with no handle, he said: "It's too heavy to carry, but it's a shame to throw it away."

World's oldest standing army has 40 new Swiss Guards

May 06, 2017

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The world's oldest standing army has 40 new members after a Vatican Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony. Each man took a loyalty oath Saturday evening in a ritual-rich ceremony in the St. Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. The May 6 date commemorates the day in 1527 when 147 guardsmen died while protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

Earlier Saturday, Pope Francis told the Guards they're called to "another sacrifice no less arduous" — serving the power of faith. The recruits, who enroll for at least two years, must be single, upstanding Swiss Catholic males younger than 30.

Wearing blue-and-gold uniforms and holding halberds — spear-like weapons — they are a tourist delight while standing guard at Vatican ceremonies. Their main duty is to protect the pope.

Poles protest their populist govt with large rally in Warsaw

May 06, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw on Saturday to protest the policies of the populist ruling party under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, describing them as attacks on the country's democracy.

Speakers at the "March of Freedom" said the government under the conservative Law and Justice party has eroded the independence of Poland's courts and other institutions to such an extent that the country would not be accepted into the European Union or NATO today if it didn't already belong.

"We will not allow Kaczynski to take us out of Western Europe. Together we will defend freedom," said Jacek Jaskowiak, the mayor of Poznan, a city in western Poland. The event was organized by the opposition Civic Platform party, but other opposition parties and the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a civic organization, also took part.

They are concerned about how Law and Justice has consolidated power since taking office in 2015. The party has eroded the independence of the courts and the public media in a way that has also alarmed the EU.

Kaczynski said Saturday that the protesters were misguided. "Freedom exists in Poland and only those who do not perceive reality can question that," he said. City Hall, which is under the control of Civic Platform, estimated that 90,000 people took part in the protest. The police, under the government's command, put the number at 12,000.

Either way, it was much smaller than the 240,000 who protested against the government in May 2016. Separately, a yearly pro-EU parade called the Schumann Parade also took place Saturday in Warsaw.

Kosovo government loses no-confidence vote, coalition fails

May 10, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo's government on Wednesday lost a no-confidence vote, setting the scene for an early election following months of political deadlock over a border demarcation deal that critics say would mean a loss of territory for the tiny Balkan country.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa's coalition government lost in a 78-34 vote, with three abstentions and five lawmakers not present. The outcome means that the government has collapsed about a year before an election was due.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci formally dissolved the parliament within hours of the vote. He has invited political parties to a consultation, and is now expected to set a date for a parliamentary election within 30 to 45 days. The existing Cabinet will continue to run the country until then.

Opposition parties have blamed Mustafa's Cabinet for being unable to carry out its program and pass important laws. "The country is badly governed. The country needs a new government," said Valdete Bajrami of the opposition Initiative for Kosovo party, which proposed the no-confidence motion.

The government has been hobbled by its inability to secure a parliamentary majority to back a border demarcation deal with neighboring Montenegro. The United States has pressed Kosovo to pass a border demarcation deal with neighboring Montenegro, which remains the last obstacle before the European Union accepts to let Kosovar citizens travel visa-free in its Schengen member countries.

The deal was signed in 2015, and Mustafa withdrew a draft ratification bill last year. The opposition has claimed that Kosovo would lose territory under the agreement, an accusation denied by the government and local and international experts.

Before the vote, Mustafa had argued that the consequence of a no-confidence vote would be "the country's destabilization through creating a lack of trust in institutions, and an institutional vacuum."

The 2 ½-year-old governing coalition was made up of Mustafa's Democratic League of Kosovo, which holds the second-largest number of seats in the 120-seat parliament. The Democratic Party of Kosovo of Speaker Kadri Veseli currently has the most members in parliament.

The partnership was formed as a last resort when neither of two parties was able to form a Cabinet on its own after the 2014 parliamentary election. The no-confidence vote suggests a breakdown between the two governing partners. Speaker Veseli posted a tweet on Wednesday afternoon saying Kosovo needs a new beginning and the no-confidence vote would "open exciting new chapters of our history."

Veseli posted a video message informally launching a parliamentary election campaign, blaming Mustafa for the no-confidence vote. Mustafa responded that his government and party prevented "state degradation and released it from crime claws."

The United States embassy in Pristina pledged its continuing "steadfast support for Kosovo, its citizens, and its path to full Euro-Atlantic integration." Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It is recognized by 114 countries, but not by Serbia.

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Czechs rally against country's president, finance minister

May 10, 2017

PRAGUE (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied on Wednesday in the Czech Republic's capital and other major cities against President Milos Zeman and Finance Minister Andrej Babis. The protesters gathered at Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague demanded Babis' firing and Zeman's resignation in the latest development of the Czech political crisis.

The public demonstrations follow Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka asking the president last week to get rid of the finance minister over his unexplained business dealings, especially charges that he hadn't properly explained suspicions that he avoided paying taxes.

Babis, one of the richest people in the country, has denied wrongdoing and refused to resign. He owned two major national newspapers, a radio and the Agrofert conglomerate of some 250 companies before he transferred them to a fund earlier this year after a new law limited the business activities of government ministers.

Zeman so far has refused to fire his ally, claiming the government's three-party ruling coalition first would have to dissolve their coalition agreement. Sobotka's left-wing Social Democrats are rivals of Babis' ANO centrist movement in a parliamentary election scheduled for October. ANO is a favorite to win the most seats, paving the way for Babis to become the next prime minister.

Zeman invited the leaders of the coalition parties to discuss the political crisis late Wednesday. Meanwhile, the lower house of Parliament approved a resolution alleging that Babis had "repeatedly lied" to the public and "misused his media" empire to damage his opponents.

The vote on the resolution followed a long and heated debate over recordings recently posted on social media that appeared to capture Babis and a journalist from his newspaper planning a press campaign against his rivals, including the Social Democrats.

Babis said Wednesday he "made a huge mistake" by meeting with the man in the recordings, but claimed it was a provocation to discredit him. The journalist was fired. Babis is sometimes dubbed the "Czech Berlusconi," a comparison to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics for many years.

Nighttime vandals smash some 70 headstones at Rome cemetery

May 12, 2017

ROME (AP) — Vandals have struck overnight at Rome's largest cemetery, smashing and shattering some 70 headstones and memorial monuments. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi decried the rampage at Verano Cemetery as a "vile deed." Officials said Catholic and Jewish headstones were among the smashed monuments.

Glass frames of loved ones decorating graves were shattered, and flower vases toppled. Italian news reports said investigators suspect that a group of youths slipped into the cemetery when it was closed at night and vandalized the tombstones.

Dutch group says it will soon start cleaning up ocean trash

May 11, 2017

UTRECHT, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch foundation aiming to rid the world's oceans of plastic waste says it will start cleaning up the huge area of floating junk known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the next 12 months, two years earlier than planned.

The Ocean Cleanup aims to use long-distance floating booms that act like coastlines to gather plastic as it drifts on or near the surface of the water while allowing sea life to pass underneath. The plan originally was to anchor the barriers to the sea bed with a system used by oil rigs, but the organization said Thursday it now will use anchors that float beneath the water's surface, making it much more efficient.

The Ocean Cleanup, founded by Dutch university dropout Boyan Slat, announced that testing of the first system will start off the U.S. West coast by the end of the year and barriers will be shipped to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii in the first half of 2018, two years ahead of the organization's earlier schedule. The patch is a huge area of the ocean where swirling currents concentrate the trash.

"At the ocean cleanup we always work with nature. So instead of going after the plastic, we let the plastic come to us, saving time, energy and cost," Slat, a shaggy-haired 22-year-old, told The Associated Press.

Floating barriers concentrate the plastic garbage at a central point where it can be fished out of the water and shipped back to dry land for recycling. The organization discovered that the barriers are more efficient if they are allowed to slowly drift instead of anchoring them to the sea bed.

Free-floating barriers begin to act like the plastic they aim to snare, so "the cleanup systems will automatically gravitate to those places where most plastic is," Slat said. "And that now causes the efficiency to be a lot higher because there is just more plastic in front of these systems and therefore we can now clean up 50 percent of the patch in just five years' time."

The innovative system is the brainchild of Slat, who decided to dedicate himself to cleaning up the world's oceans after he went scuba diving in Greece at the age of 16 and saw more plastic bags than fish.

The young entrepreneur's system is making waves among America's super-rich philanthropists. Last month, his foundation announced it had raised $21.7 million in donations since November, clearing the way for large-scale trials at sea. Among donors were Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said much of the garbage in the world's oceans is found throughout the water column — at different depths. That would likely put some of it out of reach of Slat's barriers.

However she applauded The Ocean Cleanup for bringing the issue to a broad public. "The more people are aware of it, the more they will be concerned about it," Wallace said. "My hope is that the next step is to say 'what can I do to stop it?' and that's where prevention comes in."

The organization's barriers don't catch tiny plastic particles floating in the ocean, but Slat says that by scooping up larger garbage like fishing nets, crates and other rubbish, they prevent those items breaking down into smaller particles that can be eaten by fish and other wildlife.

"Of course we will never get every last piece of plastic out of the ocean," Slat said. "There will always be a size that's too small to clean up but it's really about cleaning up the bulk — as much as possible for as little costs as possible."

Crime a battleground for German parties ahead of key vote

May 12, 2017

DUISBURG, Germany (AP) — Sarah Philipp is handing out red carnations to women browsing the lingerie stall at a quiet street market in Duisburg, adding a bright dash of color to the otherwise gray surroundings. The 34-year-old is hoping to defend her seat at Sunday's election for the regional assembly of Germany's westernmost state, which includes Bissingheim, an area built for railways workers serving the mighty steel and coal industry that once dominated the city.

The vote is a final test of the country's political mood before a general election in September and many of the issues on voters' minds in North Rhine-Westphalia are mirrored at the national level. Recently released figures on crime showing a sharp rise in violent offenses by migrants have propelled the topic to the forefront again, with nationalist parties seeking to capitalize on voters' fears.

Philipp, whose Social Democratic Party has governed North Rhine-Westphalia for the past seven years, is defensive when the topic comes up. "People tell us they feel less safe, but this isn't borne out by statistics," she says. At the same time, Philipp acknowledges that voters' fears need to be taken seriously: "You can't ignore the fact that safety is a very emotional issue."

Although Germany remains one of the safest countries in the world, a number of violent incidents have stoked angst about crime. Some of the most prominent cases have involved foreigners who had recently come to Germany as asylum-seekers.

Official figures show that while overall crime decreased slightly from 2015 to 2016, violent crime worsened. Non-Germans also accounted for a greater share of criminal suspects last year, with the biggest increase seen in the category of 'Zuwanderer' — comprising asylum applicants, people granted temporary permission to remain in the country and those resident illegally.

Zuwanderer make up 2 percent of the population yet accounted for 8.6 percent of all criminal suspects in 2016, up from 5.7 percent the year before. Easily overlooked in the broad statistics is that many of the violent crimes involved altercations in crowded refugee homes. The recent influx of migrants was also skewed toward teenage boys and young men, a population that experts say is disproportionately responsible for violent crime the world over.

The migrants who stand the greatest chance of being allowed to remain in Germany — Syrians being the biggest-single group — were underrepresented in the crime statistics. Young men from North Africa and some sub-Saharan African countries, who are unlikely to get permission to stay, have among the highest crime rates.

One of those was Anis Amri, 24, a Tunisian involved in small-time drug dealing and other petty crime until authorities decided to deport him. Before his paperwork came through, Amri stole a truck and killed 12 people at a Christmas market in Berlin. The Islamic State group later claimed responsibility.

The Berlin truck attack and a series of high-profile sexual assaults attributed to migrants over the past year appeared to support the dire predictions of critics of the government's decision under Merkel to allow in over a million asylum-seekers since 2015.

"Much of the violence we're seeing is due to the asylum and migration policy of Angela Merkel," says Marcus Pretzell, the regional head of Alternative for Germany, a nationalist party that is looking to make North Rhine-Westphalia the 13th state where it has political representatives.

A good result on Sunday would be seen as a sign that the party stands a good chance of entering the Bundestag for the first time in the Sept. 24 national election. Pretzell's party has been fanning fear of crime and migrants with a poster alluding to the sexual assaults that took place in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia's biggest city, on New Year's Eve 2015. Hundreds of women were groped and robbed, mostly by men from North Africa.

The failure by Cologne police to spot and stop the assaults prompted an outcry in Germany at the time. Merkel's party accused the state's left wing government of being lax on crime and branded governor Hannelore Kraft's most loyal aide, responsible for policing, a "security risk."

"There's a general sense of insecurity among voters, especially women, that's playing a role in this campaign," says Ina Scharrenbach, a regional lawmaker for Merkel's party, which currently is part of the opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia's parliament but is polling well.

Scharrenbach was part of the parliamentary inquiry into the New Year's assaults in Cologne. She cites measures to crack down on crime that the Christian Democrats introduced at the national level — where they share power with the Social Democrats — but denies that 'Merkel's refugees' are the main problem.

Instead, she blames the regional government for neglecting whole districts in large cities — of which this state of 18 million has many. One of those districts, Duisburg-Marxloh, made headlines last month when a 14-year-old boy was stabbed to death in a fight.

"We need to give people in these areas the feeling that the state isn't looking away," Scharrenbach says. Arnold Plickert, the regional head of Germany's biggest police union GdP, acknowledges that authorities ignored the problems in Marxloh and elsewhere for too long, but says a zero-tolerance policy is now in force.

"For the past year-and-a-half, we have been massively increasing police in these areas," Plickert says. "If someone fails to use their car indicator, listens to loud music or throws a cigarette butt on the ground, the police will ensure that the law is enforced."

But he says police and prosecutors can only solve part of the problem. Integrating migrants is key to turning crime trends around in the medium and long term, he says. "You have to say whoever comes to Germany needs to follow our rules," says Plickert. "And if they don't, then you draw a line and deport them."

Such tough talk is increasingly heard from all parties in Germany — and some migrants too. "If statistics make clear that crime is linked to migration then we need to look closely at it, but without emotion, empirically, scientifically," says Mohammed Assila. The Moroccan-born social worker has for years worked to prevent young Muslims from turning to Islamic radicalism and is familiar with all of the debates about immigration and crime.

Assila advocates a dual strategy: Offering migrants job training and education, and clearly spelling out the consequences for legal transgressions. "Repression but also prevention," agrees Philipp, the Social Democrat. "You have to do one, but you can't forget the other."

Merkel's conservative party does well in German local vote

May 08, 2017

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives came in first Sunday in a local election seen as a warm-up for her bid for a fourth term in a national election in the fall. The results in the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein were a blow to her main national challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, whose party's governing coalition was ejected from office there.

The Social Democrats had governed the region of 2.8 million people since 2012 in coalition with the Greens and the small SSW party of the region's Danish majority. Exit polls and early returns broadcast by ARD television showed Merkel's Christian Democrats, headed by local candidate Daniel Guenther, were in the lead with 32.8 percent of the vote, ahead of the second-place Social Democrats who had 26.7 percent.

Defeated Social Democratic governor Torsten Albig called it "a bitter day." Preliminary estimates indicated the Christian Democrats could form a 42-seat majority in the region's 69-seat parliament with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Or they could form a left-right coalition with the Social Democrats.

The Social Democrats would in theory have enough seats in a coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens. Local Free Democrat leader Wolfgang Kubicki called that outcome "unlikely," however. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party barely cleared the 5 percent hurdle to get into parliament and thus now has seats in 12 of Germany's 16 legislatures. But it won't play a direct role in forming the local government because other parties refuse to work with it.

Regardless of the outcome of local coalition talks, the result was a damper on the mood among Social Democrats and unexpected good news for Merkel. Polls had suggested a neck-and-neck race. The Social Democrats surged in national polls after Schulz, a former European Parliament president, was nominated as Merkel's challenger in January, but the party's ratings have since sagged. The latest polls show them trailing Merkel's conservatives by about eight points.

Nationally the Social Democrats play second fiddle in a governing coalition headed by Merkel, who became chancellor in 2005. Schulz could take over as chancellor if the Social Democrats come in ahead of Merkel in the national vote on Sept. 24.

The Schleswig-Holstein vote comes a week before an election for the regional parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest region and home to Schulz, although he is not on the ballot. The two local elections are the last ballots before the national contest.

50,000 evacuated in German city after 5 WWII bombs uncovered

May 07, 2017

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — German authorities are evacuating around 50,000 people from their homes in the northern city of Hannover while five suspected aerial bombs from World War II are made safe for removal.

City officials say two suspected bombs were found at a construction site and three more nearby. Germany was heavily bombed by Allied planes during the war and such finds are common. Leaflets in German, Polish, Turkish, English and Russian were delivered door-to-door to make sure everyone evacuated on Sunday. The city's museums are open for free and the senior citizen's agency organized an afternoon Scrabble and card-playing gathering so evacuated residents would have places to go.

Authorities say they hope people will be able to return to their homes by evening.

Vote in northern Germany a test for Merkel's challenger

May 07, 2017

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Voters in northern Germany cast ballots Sunday in a local election that will test the strength of the country's Social Democrats as they try to deny Chancellor Angela Merkel a fourth term.

The Social Democrats are trying to hold onto power in Schleswig-Holstein, where they have governed since 2012. A good showing Sunday in the region with a population of 2.8 million would reinforce their prospects for challenging Merkel in the nationwide election on Sept. 24.

Social Democratic governor Torsten Albig is defending a slim majority for his governing coalition with the Greens and the left-leaning SSW party, which represents the region's Danish minority. Polls point to a tight race with Merkel's Christian Democrats.

The Social Democrats surged in national polls after Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president, was nominated as Merkel's challenger, but the party's ratings have since sagged. The party currently plays second fiddle in a governing coalition headed by Merkel. Schulz has a chance to become German chancellor if the Social Democrats come in ahead of Merkel — either by taking over top spot in the current right-left coalition, or by forming a coalition with other parties.

The Schleswig-Holstein vote is a prelude to an election for the regional parliament in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest region and home to Schulz, although he is not on the ballot there. The two local elections are the last ballots before the national contest.

Nationally, Schulz's nomination had helped the Social Democrats draw roughly level with Merkel's conservative bloc, but the latest polls show them trailing by about eight points.

After the new president, new faces for France's parliament

May 11, 2017

PARIS (AP) — One led the elite French police unit that took down an Islamic State cell, another lost a sister in the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris. There is also a computer whiz who started working at age 16, a farmer and a primary school director whose family is known for its sparkling wine.

Their shared goal: to deliver French President-elect Emmanuel Macron the parliamentary majority he needs to be effective. Macron's Republic on the Move party on Thursday unveiled its eclectic, still partial, slate of 428 candidates for France's legislative elections in June. More than half — 52 percent — are citizens who, like Macron, have never held elected office.

They range in age from 24 to 72. The slate also adheres to an often-ignored parity law of 50 percent women and 50 percent men. A final batch of candidates is expected to be announced next week. The party plans to contest most — but not all — of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of France's parliament.

"Our candidates signal the permanent return of the citizen to the heart of our political life," the secretary-general of Macron's party, Richard Ferrand, said, underscoring the "boldness" of the venture for a movement created but 13 months ago.

Some districts will not be contested by a Macron candidate, including that of former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Macron's party rejected Valls as a candidate, but does not plan to put up its own to oppose him, the secretary-general of Macron's party, Ferrand said at a news conference announcing the initial campaign lineup.

Valls has held three parliamentary terms and is not a member of Macron's party, making him ineligible under the strict terms set out for candidates. "We won't change our criteria, no special treatment ...," Ferrand said, "but we note the singularity of this prime minister in office in recent years and we don't seek quarrels with this one or that one."

The rejection could prove troublesome for Valls, who risks expulsion from his Socialist Party for backing Macron's candidacy. Jean Launay, who was involved in Republic on the Move's selection process, said at least a dozen or so others who weren't selected won't face an opponent from Macron's party.

The novice candidates who made the cut hope to repopulate the political map of France with new faces and new ideas. An initial batch of 14 legislative candidates previously announced in April by Macron's camp offers a taste of how Macron's grassroots, startup-style movement sought to recruit outside the circle of career politicians.

Among them, Jean-Michel Fauvergue. He commanded the elite RAID unit during the 2015 siege in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a ring leader of the Paris attacks a few days earlier, was killed. There is also Claire Tassadit Houd. Her sister, Djamila, was among the 130 killed in the Nov. 13, 2015, Paris attacks, according to the party.

More than 19,000 would-be legislators answered Macron's call for candidates. The party asked them to sign up on its website with a resume and letter explaining their motivation to join the National Assembly.

"I signed up right from the beginning on the website," Jean-Baptiste Moreau, one of the initial 14, told The Associated Press on Thursday. The 40-year-old is contesting a seat in the Creuse region of central France where he farms.

Moreau said he was drawn by the profile of 39-year-old Macron, who will be France's youngest president when he takes power Sunday, and by the party's efforts to make grassroots ideas part of his campaign platform. Moreau is new to elected politics.

"If I'm elected, I don't want to become a political professional. I'll serve one or two terms," he said. Mireille Robert, the head of a primary school in a village of 1,000 people in the Aude region of southwestern France, will be up against a local Socialist Party heavyweight.

In a phone interview during the school lunch break Thursday, Robert likened herself to women who were on the front lines during the French revolution in 1789. She said one of her main motives for getting into politics under Macron's banner is fighting the rise in France of the political extremes.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen made the May 7 presidential election runoff for the first time; she was handily beaten by Macron but still achieved the highest-ever score for the National Front, her party with a history of anti-Semitism and racism. In the first-round ballot, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon got nearly 20 percent of the vote.

In the village of Pieusse where Robert lives, Le Pen received 271 votes in Sunday's presidential runoff, five more than Macron's 266. "That's really scary," Robert, 55, said. "I feel like we are in danger."

Also new to politics, she said she doesn't plan to do big campaign rallies reading prepared speeches to bored crowds. Instead, she'll do smaller gatherings to talk about specific local issues. Her family is well-known in the area for its sparkling wine, which she expects will help her pick up support.

"Yes, we can," she said. "It's going to be a great experience."

Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

UK Labor leader accuses Theresa May of 'pandering' to Trump

May 12, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain's main opposition leader on Friday accused Prime Minister Theresa May of pandering to an "erratic" U.S. administration, as defense and security took center-stage in the U.K. election campaign.

May was the first world leader to visit Donald Trump after his inauguration, and has stressed the importance of the trans-Atlantic "special relationship" to global security. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that "waiting to see which way the wind blows in Washington isn't strong leadership. And pandering to an erratic administration will not deliver stability."

He accused Trump of "recklessly escalating the confrontation with North Korea, unilaterally launching missile strikes on Syria, opposing President Obama's nuclear arms deal with Iran and backing a new nuclear arms race."

Corbyn, a longtime anti-war activist who opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, used a speech at the international affairs think tank Chatham House to outline his vision for defense and foreign policy.

He said he supported military action "as a genuine last resort" but accused recent British and U.S. governments of "bomb first, talk later" policies. Recent U.K. governments, both Conservative and Labour, have joined U.S.-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Corbyn said he would take a different direction, calling the U.S.-led "war on terror" a failure. "It has not increased our security at home. In fact, many would say, just the opposite," he said. Corbyn said that a Labour government would seek greater international cooperation to end the conflict in Syria and "work to halt the drift to confrontation with Russia ... winding down tensions on the Russia-NATO border."

May's Conservatives see Corbyn's opposition to military action and nuclear weapons as a major weakness to be exploited in campaigning for the June 8 election. The party's main slogan is "strong and stable" — in contrast to what May calls "a Corbyn-led coalition of chaos."

Corbyn's desire to scrap the U.K.'s fleet of nuclear-armed submarines also puts him at odds with the official position of the Labour Party. "Jeremy Corbyn is a guy who has campaigned all his life to weaken the U.K.'s defenses," Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.

Former Finnish President Mauno Koivisto dies at 93

May 13, 2017

HELSINKI (AP) — Mauno Koivisto, Finland's last president during the Cold War who led the Nordic nation out of the shadow of its huge eastern neighbor, the Soviet Union, and into the European Union, died Friday at the age of 93.

The Finnish president's office said that Koivisto died in the evening in a Helsinki hospital. It gave no cause of death or other details. His wife, Tellervo Koivisto, said earlier this year that he suffered severely from Alzheimer's disease and could no longer be cared for at home.

Koivisto served two six-year terms between 1982 and 1994, enjoying great popularity among ordinary Finns. His down-to-earth manner and dry humor, often laced with sarcasm and philosophical pondering, won him the heart of the nation but also brought political opponents.

For most Finns, his presidency marked the end of the long reign of predecessor Urho Kekkonen, who had ruled Finland with an iron grip for 25 years until his resignation in 1981. Koivisto was seen as ushering in a new, freer era, changing the face of the country by reducing the powers of the head of state and strengthening the role of Parliament.

Above all, he was recognized for his foreign policy skills with a fine balancing act of maintaining the small country's good relations with the West — particularly with the United States — and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War years.

His second term in 1988-1994 was crucial in cementing the Nordic nation's neutral status until the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — a great concern for Finland that shares a 1,340-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia.

A fluent Russian-speaker, Koivisto developed a particular bond with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev but also stayed in close contact with U.S. President George H.W. Bush with whom he regularly exchanged views on developments in the crumbling and rapidly changing Soviet Union. In 1990, he hosted Bush and Gorbachev at a U.S.-Soviet Summit in Helsinki.

Earlier, he reportedly also had a good rapport with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who stopped over in Helsinki in 1988 for talks with Koivisto en route to Moscow. Ahead of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991, Koivisto started to steer Finland out of international isolation. He unilaterally declared two treaties as null and void — the 1947 Paris Treaty, which placed restrictions on the Finnish military, and the 1948 Finnish-Soviet pact on mutual assistance, which hindered Finland's integration with European security structures.

In 1992, Koivisto initiated the country's application to join the European Community — the precursor of the European Union — and eventually led Finland to join the EU in 1995 after overwhelming support for membership in a referendum.

Born into a religious family in 1923, Koivisto was a rare breed among Finnish heads of state as he possessed first-hand war experience. At the age of 16, he served as a volunteer on the home front in the bitter 1939-40 Winter War against the Soviets.

He also fought in the Continuation War in 1941-44, when Finnish troops battled the Russians beside Nazi Germany. After the war, Koivisto joined the Social Democratic Party, completed his education, graduating with a philosophy degree and gained a Ph.D. in sociology in 1956.

Koivisto emerged a key figure among the Social Democrats in the late 1960s and helped raise the party's popularity in Finland, which had been dominated by the former president Kekkonen's agrarian Center Party in the post-World War II era.

Before becoming head of state, Koivisto held several ministerial posts, including of prime minister, and had served as the governor of the Bank of Finland. The tall and lanky Koivisto — a particular favorite figure among Finnish political cartoonists — was passionate about volleyball, playing into his elderly years with a group of industrialists and politicians.

Koivisto is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1952, and their daughter, Assi. Funeral arrangements were to be announced later.

4-nation drills postponed after craft runs aground on Guam

May 12, 2017

NAVAL BASE GUAM (AP) — Military drills on Guam in which four countries were to practice amphibious landings and moving their troops have been postponed indefinitely after a French landing craft ran aground Friday.

The weeklong exercises involving the U.S., U.K., France and Japan were intended to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns China may restrict access to the South China Sea.

The French catamaran ran aground just offshore and didn't hit coral or spill any fuel, said Jeff Landis, a spokesman for Naval Base Guam. No one was injured. Friday's landing was meant to be a rehearsal for a drill at Tinian island on Saturday, Landis said.

U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Grimes, chief of staff for Joint Region Marianas, said the authorities involved were working to assess the situation and didn't know when the drills would resume. "I have directed that we stop all operations associated with this exercise until we conduct a further assessment of the situation as we gather all the facts," Grimes said.

"NOAA in Honolulu is aware and is collecting information about the incident," said Michael Tosatto, administrator of a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration regional office. The drills around Guam and Tinian islands were scheduled to include amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols.

Two French ships on a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans were to be involved. Joining were Japanese forces, U.K. helicopters and 70 U.K. troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral. Parts of the exercise were to feature British helicopters taking U.S. Marines ashore from a French vessel.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has tried to fortify those claims by building islands — some with runways, radars and weapons systems — on seven mostly submerged reefs. The reclamation work is opposed by other governments that claim the atolls and by the United States, which insists on freedom of navigation in international waters.

China says its work is intended to improve safety for ships and meet other civilian purposes. It has said it won't interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.

This week members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed concern that the U.S. hasn't conducted freedom-of-navigation operations since October. Republican Bob Corker, Democrat Ben Cardin and five other senators wrote the letter to President Donald Trump, saying they supported a recent U.S. military assessment that China is militarizing the South China Sea and is continuing a "methodical strategy" to control it.

The letter, dated Wednesday and obtained by The Associated Press, urged the administration to "routinely exercise" freedom of navigation and overflight. Japan, which sent 50 soldiers and 160 sailors and landing craft, has been investing in amphibious training so it can defend its own islands. Japan claims a group of rocky, uninhabited outcrops in the East China Sea that Beijing claims. Japan calls the islands Senkaku while China calls them Diaoyu.

Guam and Tinian are about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) south of Tokyo and about the same distance to the east from Manila, Philippines.

McAvoy reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Washington.

US approves sale of $2 billion in missiles to UAE: Pentagon

Washington (AFP)
May 11, 2017

The US State Department has approved the possible sale of 160 missiles to the United Arab Emirates for an estimated $2.0 billion, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The UAE government has requested the possible sale of 60 Patriot missiles with canisters and 100 Patriot guidance enhanced missiles, among other military equipment, according to a Department of Defense statement.

"This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of an important ally which has been, and continues to be, a force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East," it said.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_approves_sale_of_2_billion_in_missiles_to_UAE_Pentagon_999.html.

US, Japan, France, UK practice amphibious landings on Guam

May 11, 2017

HAGATNA, Guam (AP) — The U.S., the U.K. and Japan are joining a French-led amphibious exercise at remote U.S. islands in the Pacific over the next week. Participants say they are showing support for the free passage of vessels in international waters, an issue that's come to the fore amid fears China could restrict movement in the South China Sea.

The drills around Guam and Tinian may also get the attention of nearby North Korea. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea spiked last month after Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile and the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region.

The drills, which are led by France and include the United Kingdom, will practice amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols. Two ships from France are participating, both of which are in the middle of a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Joining are U.K. helicopters and 70 U.K. troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral. Parts of the exercise will feature British helicopters taking U.S. Marines ashore from a French ship.

"The message we want to send is that we're always ready to train and we're always ready for the next crisis and humanitarian disaster wherever that may be," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col Kemper Jones, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. About 100 Marines from Jones' unit will be part of the drills slated for this weekend and next week.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has aggressively tried to fortify its foothold in recent years by transforming seven mostly submerged reefs into island outposts, some with runways and radars and — more recently — weapons systems. This has prompted criticism from other nations, who also claim the atolls, and from the United States, which insists on freedom of navigation in international waters.

Critics fear China's actions could restrict movement in a key waterway for world trade and rich fishing grounds. China says its island construction is mainly for civilian purposes, particularly to increase safety for ships. It has said it won't interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.

Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the exercises will send a strong message in support of a "rules-based order in Asia" at a time when China's actions have raised questions about this.

"A reminder in this exercise is that lots of other countries besides the United States have an interest in that international order," said Rapp-Hooper, who is a senior fellow with the center's Asia-Pacific Security Program.

The exercises come amid modestly growing European interest in the South China Sea, said David Santoro, a senior fellow for nuclear policy at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu think tank. "What I'm hearing from the French and to some degree the British, is an increased interest in what's going on in Asia and how they can help," Santoro said. As for North Korea, Santoro said Pyongyang would likely be watching but he didn't think the exercises were intended to send any signal to the country.

Japan, which is sending 50 soldiers and 160 sailors and landing craft, has been investing in amphibious training so it can defend its own islands. Tokyo is particularly concerned China might attempt to take over rocky, uninhabited outcrops in the East China Sea that it controls but Beijing claims. Japan calls the islands Senkaku while China calls them Diaoyu. Japan has also expressed an interest in vessels being able to freely transit the South China Sea.

Guam and Tinian are about 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) south of Tokyo. They're about the same distance to the east from Manila, Philippines.

McAvoy reported from Honolulu.

Nigeria negotiating with Boko Haram for more Chibok releases

May 11, 2017

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Nigeria's government is negotiating "seriously" for the release of more than 110 kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls still held by Boko Haram and will exchange more detained members of the extremist group for them if needed, an official said Thursday.

"We will not relent until all are back," the minister of women's affairs and social development, Aisha Alhassan, told reporters in the capital, Abuja. The mass abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school three years ago brought world attention to Boko Haram's deadly rampage in northern Nigeria. Thousands have been kidnapped or killed in the group's eight-year insurgency, with millions driven from their homes.

On Saturday, 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls were released. Nigeria's government exchanged them for five detained Boko Haram commanders, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to reporters on the matter. Negotiations with the extremist group, mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, also resulted in the October release of a first group of 21 Chibok girls.

Alhassan said Nigeria's government had no regrets about exchanging Boko Haram commanders for the schoolgirls' release. "We'll do it again if needed," she said in comments tweeted by Nigeria's government.

Families in Chibok were meeting with community leaders to identify the newly freed schoolgirls from photos to determine if they will travel to the capital to meet them. The young women were joining those released earlier in government care in Abuja, where they were undergoing medical screening that will take a couple of weeks, Alhassan said. Some must undergo surgery, she said.

The government has been caring for 24 previously released girls and four babies, Alhassan said. A small number of the schoolgirls managed to escape on their own. The group of girls released in October were in "bad shape" and spent two months in medical care, the minister said.

Human rights groups have criticized the government for keeping them so long in the capital, far from their homes. Alhassan said they traveled to Chibok for Christmas but upon their return to the capital said they were scared to go back to their community.

The girls said they wanted to go back to school so a nine-month reintegration program was designed for them, the minister said. The newly released girls will join the program. The parents of the freed Chibok schoolgirls "are free to visit them at any time. We will never prevent them from seeing their daughters," Alhassan said.

Some of the girls who escaped shortly after the mass kidnapping said some classmates had died from illness, and others were radicalized and didn't want to come home. Human rights advocates have said they fear some of the girls have been used by Boko Haram to carry out suicide bombings.

Sri Lanka refuse Chinese submarine docking: official

Colombo (AFP)
May 11, 2017

Sri Lanka refused permission for a Chinese submarine to dock at Colombo next week after a similar visit in 2014 angered regional super-power India, a top defense official said Thursday.

Chinese authorities had sought clearance for a port call at Colombo where a Chinese state-owned company operates a mega container terminal, the official said asking not to be named.

"They have asked for permission, but we have said no," the official told AFP. "It is a very sensitive matter." He did not elaborate.

The rejection came as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting Sri Lanka as chief guest of Vesak, the island's main Buddhist celebration making the birth, enlightenment and the passing of the Buddha.

The request for the Chinese submarine visit was for next week, after Modi's departure on Friday evening, official sources said.

There was no immediate comment from the Chinese embassy in Colombo, but two submarine calls at the Colombo harbor in 2014 had reportedly angered India which considered it as undermining their security.

New Delhi traditionally regards its smaller neighbor as being within its sphere of influence. New Delhi is said to have been worried about Beijing's growing influence on Colombo under the former regime of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January 2015 promising to loosen ties with China after a decade of hefty funding by Beijing under his predecessor.

However, analysts have noted that Beijing's influence was on the rise again as Colombo struggles to find alternative sources of much needed foreign capital.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Sri_Lanka_refuse_Chinese_submarine_docking_official_999.html.

Nepalese get 1st chance in 20 years to vote for local bodies

May 12, 2017

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Much has changed since Nepal last held local elections 20 years ago — the Himalayan country's 240-year monarchy was abolished, federal democracy was introduced and political wrangling took center stage. Earthquakes ravaged the country. A Maoist insurgency left thousands dead. And widespread poverty ensured daily life for many remained a struggle if not a misery.

Through it all, Nepal's 29 million citizens have had only government-appointed bureaucrats to look to for answers or help with settling local disputes. Many voters said they were excited for the chance this weekend to choose local representatives for the first time since 1997.

"We can finally get our true representatives back in our neighborhoods," said 19-year-old university student Suman Sharma of Kathmandu. "The last time these elections were held, I wasn't even born." Nepal will hold the first of two rounds of voting on Sunday — with nearly 50,000 candidates vying for 13,556 positions on village and city councils covering nearly half the country.

For weeks, campaign posters have lined village roads. Political party flags flapped in the mountain breeze. And more than 40,000 police officers were fanning out to polling stations to keep the peace.

Candidates were going door to door to greet villagers with promises of building roads and schools, improving water sanitation facilities, providing electricity or even metro systems. "This election is very important because these local bodies bring the government to people's front yard," said Surya Prasad Sharma, spokesman for the Election Commission.

More importantly, analysts said the local balloting offered a signal that Nepal's fractious democracy may be stabilizing. Two years ago, lawmakers passed a new constitution to replace the old system of monarchy, and to lay out the rules for provincial and parliamentary polls. The constitution was considered a major victory, following eight years of political bickering over its terms. But not everyone was happy, and its passage sparked months of protests by ethnic groups in the south that felt shortchanged by how the document divided the country's districts.

"A lot of issues like the ethnic troubles could have been avoided if there had been continued representation in the local level," said political analyst Dhruba Hari Adhikary. Janak Joshi, who works as a clerk in a government land registry office, agreed the lack of representative government at the local level had hurt society overall.

"For the past 20 years, government-appointed officials have been functioning in these positions. They didn't represent the people or care about what was wrong or needed in city or neighborhood," Joshi said. "Now we will finally get people who would at least listen and work for us."

Many voters said they were eager for help in pressing the government to reconstruct hundreds of thousands of homes toppled in a devastating earthquake in 2015. So far, less than 4 percent have been rebuilt.

Others hoped local representatives would prioritize the need for justice following a decadelong Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006, leaving 17,000 dead. The government has yet to address more than 58,000 complaints of murder, abuse and or other human rights violations. Nor has it been able to reveal what happened to some 1,500 who disappeared during the fighting.

Some voters wondered if newly elected representatives could help revive local economies, sorely needed with some 25 percent of the population living in poverty. And some saw a chance to advance progressive policies for improving education or rights and opportunities for women.

In the Tokha suburb of Kathmandu, Nepali Congress party candidate Rajani Thapa led hundreds of flag-waving supporters this week on a campaign march while promising to fight for women's empowerment and better days ahead.

"Many people still think women cannot do well in an elected office like men, but I want to prove that women can do the work much better," she told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Nearby, in the capital, 21-year-old student Ranju Darshana was urging voters to pick him for city mayor.

"I am here with courage, I am here with determination," Darshana said, dismissing criticism that she's too young or inexperienced. Little trouble was expected at Sunday's polls, though one small Maoist party has called a general strike, saying the country needs more political reform before it can be ready for such polls.

The second round of voting, scheduled for June 14, could see protests among ethnic groups unhappy with district boundaries in southern areas of the country, election officials said.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

German politician: no Turkish death penalty vote in Germany

May 05, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A leading German politician says the government shouldn't allow voting in Germany in a possible referendum on whether to reintroduce the death penalty in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken of reinstating the death penalty since narrowly winning expanded powers last month. Germany and other European countries vehemently oppose executions.

Germany's Foreign Ministry has noted that the government must approve sovereign actions by other countries, such as referendums, on its territory. It permitted polling stations for Turkish nationals in last month's Turkish constitutional referendum.

Martin Schulz, Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger in September elections, told Der Spiegel magazine Friday: "We cannot allow voting in Germany on an instrument that contradicts our values and our constitution."

Schulz's center-left party is the junior partner in Merkel's current coalition government.

Rising political star deals fresh blow to French far-right

May 10, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The party of failed French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen suffered a new jolt on Wednesday as her niece, the country's youngest lawmaker and an icon of the far right, announced she plans to leave politics.

The decision by Marion Marechal-Le Pen, who represents the National Front's conservative flank and core values, kicks another block out from under the party, which is looking to remake itself and even change its name.

That job won't be done in time for next month's elections for parliament — where the National Front desperately needs a good showing. Emmanuel Macron, an upstart centrist and the youngest man elected to the presidency, was the victor in Sunday's presidential election.

France's Constitutional Council on Wednesday announced the official results from the presidential runoff — 20,743,128 votes were cast for Macron and 10,638475 for Le Pen. The abstention rate was 25.4 percent.

Marine Le Pen took comfort with the number of votes she won, which were a historic high for her party but about half of Macron's total. She declared the National Front would be the main opposition to Macron's Republic On the Move.

With a handshake and a "Mr. President" to his successor, Francois Hollande — chief of state until Sunday — signaled the start of a new era in French politics where the new power brokers have all but wiped away politics as usual in favor of movements still in the making — Macron's and Le Pen's. Both say they are "neither left nor right."

On the far left, the Communist Party and the party of defeated presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are messily divorcing. They campaigned together for Melenchon's presidential run that saw him surge late in the campaign and get nearly 20 percent of the first-round vote, narrowly missing a place in the runoff. But they appear increasingly likely to field candidates separately in the legislative voting.

Hollande's Socialist Party, with a majority in the outgoing parliament, is tumbling into disarray. And the mainstream right is torn between wanting to work with Macron or clip the new president's wings.

Le Pen's National Front, meanwhile, is still dealing with its electoral defeat, searching for a road to change, and now this. National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was outraged by his granddaughter's decision to bow out.

"Without the gravest of reasons for this decision, I consider it a desertion," he told the daily Le Figaro. The elder Le Pen, kicked out of the party by daughter Marine for repeatedly compromising her efforts to scrub away traces of racism and anti-Semitism from the National Front, has been an influential force on his granddaughter.

Marechal-Le Pen, 27, one of two lawmakers representing the far right, said she won't be looking to renew her seat representing the southern Vaucluse district, or her role as president of the National Front group in the vast regional council.

In a personal message to her constituents, Marechal-Le Pen cited "personal and political reasons," her 3-year-old daughter and her wish to gain "legitimacy" for a political future by exiting the orbit they live in.

Politicians are "disconnected from the real" with a lifetime of political mandates and no reality checks with life, she said. That disconnect with the political class has been at the heart of the success of Macron, who formed his movement, Republic On the Move, just over a year ago.

An exit removes her from potential conflict with Marine Le Pen, a scenario that has been building, or any showdown with the National Front's No. 2, Florian Philippot, who represents left-leaning tendencies.

"As a political leader I profoundly regret Marion's decision but alas, as a mother, I understand," Marine Le Pen tweeted. Marechal-Le Pen avoided shooting poison arrows at Philippot, and she avoided any reference to her aunt.

Tensions with Philippot have percolated, and Marine Le Pen had notified her niece before the presidential election that she was too inexperienced to play a major role in government in the event of a win.

It was not immediately clear who might speak for those in the National Front who relied on Marechal-Le Pen to push the party's core values like national identity. The youngest in the Le Pen political clan represented a "hope for the future" of party militants, Jean-Marie Le Pen said, fearing "terrible consequences" for June legislative voting.

One person who may be as crisis-prone as Le Pen is Manuel Valls who served as prime minister under the unpopular Hollande. His bid to join Macron's party to run for parliament has so far failed, and he could face a disciplinary hearing by his Socialist Party, and eventual exclusion.

John Leicester in Paris contributed.

Macron buses highlight new French president's mixed legacy

May 09, 2017

ON THE A10 HIGHWAY, France (AP) — They're dubbed the Macron buses, cheap long-distance rides across France that were among Emmanuel Macron's few notable achievements before his meteoric rise to the French presidency — part of his efforts to loosen up France's monopoly-bound transport sector and invigorate the economy.

A ride on one such bus on the A10 highway out of Paris shows how the president-elect might try to change France — and the challenges he may face after his inauguration on Sunday. The ride took place on a national holiday — so most French businesses were closed and the streets of the capital were empty. But the bus was an exception. Fully booked, it was heading to Orleans, Poitiers, all the way south to France's famous wine region of Bordeaux.

Some on the bus were heading home after a weekend in Paris. Others were visiting family. All had one thing in common: a cheap ticket. "I find it good. Competition brings down prices, we see it with Uber taxis nowadays," said Anthony Coste, a 24-year-old sales manager returning to live with his family in Bordeaux after three years in Paris.

"It should happen with more things too," he told The Associated Press. "Competition forces companies to make an effort." A train ticket to Bordeaux would have set him back more than 70 euros ($76) — but his ticket with bus company Ouibus cost only 25 euros ($27).

Despite being unknown to the French public, Macron soon became a household name when he was economy minister because of a controversial 2015 work reform law. One of its most famous measures removed restrictions on new bus lines to increase competition and lower prices, nicknamed "transport for the poor."

The so-called "Macron Law," the 39-year-old's keystone achievement, has a mixed legacy. It aimed mainly to free up France's notoriously inflexible labor rules but was opposed by many on the left and provoked widespread protests.

Some 6.2 million people took Macron buses to get around in the year after the law, according to the National Federation of National Travelers. However, the law fell dramatically short of its goal of creating 22,000 jobs, according to French media.

Megabus, one of the Macron Law companies, went bust in 2016. And some see such budget services as a symbol of the erosion of France's worker-friendly labor model. "It represents this Uberization. We're willing to pay less and give up good service," said Pierre France, a 29-year-old researcher taking the bus to Poitiers.

"It's an economic choice that we make purely based on cost, because it's much cheaper, but without thinking about the long-term consequences it could have," he added. But he acknowledged the law has its benefits. A frequent traveler, he has encountered people from low-income communities on his bus trips who wouldn't have been able to travel at all otherwise.

One of the most noticeable — and most controversial — points of the Macron Law aimed to relax the strict rules that closed French stores on Sunday and in the evening, especially in tourist areas. Macron's law has left an indelible mark on tourist spots all around France, from the Normandy seaside town of Deauville to the glitz of Paris' Champs-Elysees. In major department stores, an agreement was made with powerful workers' unions that gave employees perks for working on Sunday.

On the other side, pro-business conservatives argue the Macron Law changes were too incremental, not fundamental enough to fix an economy with chronically high unemployment. Other than the labor law, in terms of Macron's political legacy, so far there's relatively little to go on, as the former banker has never held elected office.

His biggest impact on France has arguably been the ideological implosion of the French left. Macron's centrist base pulled votes away from the center-left, leading to the Socialists tallying one of their worst scores in a presidential election since 1969. Compounding the problem for the Socialists, failed presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon drew a large chunk of those on the far left away from the Socialists.

Back on the Ouibus, passengers used the long ride to rest or work. No one here is going to argue with a cheap ticket home.

Adamson reported from Paris.

French Socialist ex-premier wants to join Macron's movement

May 09, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French ex-Premier Manuel Valls suggested Tuesday that he wants to abandon France's Socialist party and run in June parliamentary elections under the banner of the president-elect's centrist political movement. But it's not clear if he will be able to do so.

Valls told RTL radio that France's Socialist party "is dead and behind us" and said he wants to join up with President-elect Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the Move. Valls is planning to run in the Essonne department, his fiefdom south of Paris, but Republic on the Move officials said his nomination won't be automatic.

"Every support to the president is welcome," said Jean-Paul Delevoye, the president of the commission in charge of assessing candidates. "But support doesn't necessarily translate in nomination. His voice is not insignificant, but his candidacy will be treated as anyone else's."

Valls, a center-leaning politician in favor of relaxing labor protections, had already thrown his support behind Macron before the presidential election after losing to Benoit Hamon in the Socialist primary.

Hamon, who gained popularity in recent years by leading a group of rebel Socialist lawmakers who opposed Valls, was a distant fifth in the first round of the presidential election after garnering just over 6 percent of the votes, the Socialist Party's worst result since 1969.

The poor result triggered a fierce debate within the party on the opportunity of sticking to the left platform defended by Hamon, or to switch back to the more centrist views of Valls and his allies. Guillaume Balas, who coordinated Hamon's platform, said Valls "excluded" himself from the party with his allegiance to Macon's movement.

Reflecting on Macron's victory over far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff on Sunday, Valls said it was a blow to populism in Europe that gave a "terrific" image of France abroad. "The old parties are dying, or are already dead," Valls said. "I'm not living with regrets. I want Emmanuel Macron, his government and his majority to succeed, for France. I will be a candidate in the presidential majority and I wish to join up to his movement, the Republic on the Move."

Macron's 577 candidates in the elections are expected to be announced Thursday. Macron has said he was aiming for an absolute majority in the lower chamber in June's elections. If so, he'll be able to choose a prime minister. If another party wins a majority, Macron could be pressured to choose a prime minister from that party, a situation the French call "cohabitation."

If Macron's party performs poorly, he could also be forced to form a coalition, a common occurrence in many European countries but something very unusual in France.

France's new leader untested on foreign policy, but no dummy

May 09, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Elected on a reform agenda for France, President-elect Emmanuel Macron will quickly discover that foreign policy — an area not yet in his comfort zone — will eat up buckets of his time. On Europe, Macron has been crystal clear and vocal: keeping France at the center of the European Union was the dominant theme of his campaign. On global crises beyond Europe, such as North Korea, France's youngest ever president has kept his cards closer to his chest.

That is partly because, in previous jobs as an investment banker and from 2014-16 as France's economy minister, foreign policy wasn't among Macron's areas of expertise. His careful, measured forays into foreign affairs during the campaign signaled that Macron is aware of his own limitations and is allowing himself time to bone up on the issues before crafting his diplomacy.

"You have politicians who know that they don't know and want to learn. And you have those who don't know that they don't know and who shoot off their mouths. He belongs, quite clearly, to the first category," says Francois Heisbourg, a leading French expert on foreign affairs, defense and terrorism who has been advising Macron and his campaign team.

Macron has given some broad outlines but, on more than one occasion, has been wishy washy. On the Middle East, Macron has repeatedly said his top priority will be to continue the fight against the Islamic State group, which has claimed or inspired multiple attacks in France since 2015 that killed more 230 people. French warplanes have flown thousands of sorties and carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the extremists, working in an international coalition.

Macron has also said he wants an engineered exit from power of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He labeled Assad "a criminal" after a sarin gas attack killed dozens in the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

The president-elect said the use of the deadly nerve agent should be punished with U.N.-sanctioned military force if Assad's involvement is proven. But Macron has also expressed concerns that Syria could become an even more chaotic failed state if Assad is ousted suddenly, without a carefully planned transition.

"It's very complicated," Macron said last month. "We have to be serious." With regard to Russia, Macron set himself apart from other candidates in the election by adopting a tougher stance toward President Vladimir Putin.

He said he wants to work with Russia, which backs Assad's regime, in the fight against IS. But he laced his appeals for cooperation with warnings that Moscow "doesn't share our values and preferences."

Vowing not to be "accommodating" with Russia, he said last month: "We need an extremely demanding dialogue." Macron favors renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine in order to gradually diminish sanctions against Russia.

Macron's tone hardened as the campaign wore on. There was widespread — but as yet unproven — speculation that Russia may have had a hand in the document leak that targeted Macron's campaign in the final hours of the race.

Foreign affairs expert Heisbourg said that Russia and France's allies will be watching how Macron now handles the aftermath of the hack, which is being investigated by the French government's cybersecurity agency, ANSSI.

"The cyberattack was timed exquisitely. Russia's fingerprints were all over the place. This was not simply a belated attempt to disrupt the campaign. It was a gauntlet, a challenge," said Heisbourg, an adviser at the Paris think-tank Foundation for Strategic Research.

"He will be expected to respond one way or another to the challenge," Heisbourg said. With the U.S., Macron says he wants continued intelligence-sharing and cooperation at the United Nations, and he hopes to persuade President Donald Trump not to pull Washington out of a global climate change accord.

Macron, committed to free trade, and Trump, who campaigned on promises to protect American jobs from foreign competition, appear poles apart. They're also from different generations — Macron is 39, Trump 70.

They will likely meet for the first time at a NATO summit in Belgium on May 25 and they could surprise everyone by showing they have more in common than first meets the eye. Macron's fluent English could help make personal chemistry easier. Both beat the odds and expectations by winning unlikely election victories. Both positioned themselves as outsiders in their respective political systems, which they promised to change. Trump was among the first world leaders to congratulate Macron on "his big win," in a tweet Sunday night.

"They flouted all the rules of the established game. They were unelectable and they both got elected," Heisbourg said. "They will probably find each other interesting." Trump used foreign policy on the campaign trail to project himself as defender of U.S. interests, notably with China, which he called a "tremendous problem." In power, he continues to shoot from the hip, recently calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a "smart cookie."

Macron has been more circumspect. One exception was during a televised debate with other candidates in March, when he launched into a long-winded and muddled explanation of what he called his "diplomatic roadmap."

"It was miserable. It was exactly what you shouldn't do: shooting off your mouth when you actually have a weak basis of knowledge, have not formed any reasoned and structured doctrine, and you just jabber and jabber," Heisbourg said.

"That was seen as a mistake. He tended to avoid repeating it."

Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

In a divided France, challenges await President-elect Macron

May 08, 2017

PARIS (AP) — It will be a short honeymoon for French President-elect Emmanuel Macron. France's youngest president, who takes office Sunday, faces the daunting task of reuniting a troubled, divided nation riven by anxieties about terrorism, chronic unemployment, immigration and France's relationship with the rest of Europe.

DIVIDED FRANCE

Unions held protests Monday in Paris' Place de la Republique against Macron, a pro-business centrist and former Socialist economy minister who they consider as a traitor for allegedly threatening worker protections with economic reforms.

In the Paris metro, an advertisement was defaced with the words: "Macron: Not even started, already hated."

It's nothing new. Violent protests, egg-throwing and heckling disrupted the campaigns of both the president-elect and his defeated far-right rival Marine Le Pen. Those who couldn't stomach either candidate in the presidential runoff protested with slogans reading: "Neither Fatherland, Nor Boss."

The French are worried about the cultural, economic and religious impact of immigration and fear France's ability to compete against giants like China and Google.

But the campaign's nastiness turned voters off both the candidates and their proposed remedies. The runoff Sunday saw a sharp spike in voters who abstained or handed in blank or spoiled ballots — representing a third of the electorate.

THE JUNE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION

In order to govern properly, Macron's fledgling political movement La Republique En Marche (Republic On the Move) must now scramble together a majority of lawmakers in June's parliamentary elections.

That won't be easy. Macron is the first president of modern France elected as an independent.

Rivals who backed Macron to counter Le Pen in the presidential runoff will now be mobilized to defeat him in the two-round June 11 and 18 parliamentary vote, aiming to elect their own party members to the National Assembly. All 577 seats in the Assembly are up for grabs.

If another party wins a majority, Macron could be pressured to choose a prime minister from that party, a situation the French call "cohabitation."

The Republicans, whose defeated presidential candidate Francois Fillon was hobbled by charges that his family benefited from taxpayer-funded jobs, still could emerge as the nation's strongest political party.

If they win a majority, Francois Baroin, the leader of their parliamentary election campaign, could become a right-wing prime minister under the centrist Macron.

The last time France had "cohabitation" was under President Jacques Chirac in 1997-2002, who described the setup as a state of "paralysis."

If Macron's party performs poorly, he could also be forced to form a coalition, a common occurrence in many European countries but something very unusual in France.

EUROPE

The choice of the pro-EU Macron as president of the eurozone's second-largest economy has prompted relief across the European Union.

In his victory speech, Macron vowed to "rebuild the relationship between Europe and the peoples that make it." Symbolically, Macron also said German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be the first foreign leader he will meet as president.

But the future stability of the bloc is far from certain. EU divorce negotiations with Britain could turn ugly or a populist vote in neighboring Italy might reject the EU.

Le Pen's "France first," anti-Europe message struck a chord with great swathes of the country. She had campaigned to ditch the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership.

Macron's task will be to show Le Pen's voters that he will follow through on promises to fundamentally reform the 28-nation bloc.

The French president's position in Europe will also become more powerful when Britain leaves the EU in 2019, as France will become the EU's only member with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

PROTECTING FRANCE

With more than 230 people killed in extremist attacks since 2015, Macron needs to prove he has a robust plan to protect the French from terrorism.

The former banker launched his presidential campaign with a plan to tackle extremist attacks by obliging internet companies to release encrypted messages.

But Le Pen tried to paint him as weak and inexperienced on security issues while she promoted her plans to expel individuals on the security-threat list and stamp out Islamic extremism.

Macron rejected Le Pen's plan to strip dual-nationals convicted of terror offenses of French nationality on rights grounds.

French presidency for Macron; name change for far-right

May 08, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France's far-right National Front party is gearing up for a name change — but not a makeover of its ideas — after its decisive loss to centrist Emmanuel Macron. In interviews Monday, the campaign director for Marine Le Pen, David Rachline, said the party founded by her father would get a new name as bait to pull in more supporters in France. Macron won the presidency with 66 percent of votes cast for a candidate. But a high number of blank or spoiled votes and unusually low turnout are signs of an electorate dissatisfied with its choices.

Legislative elections next month will determine wither Macron can cobble together a governing majority. Rachline said Le Pen will lead the opposition to Macron.

Banker, economic adviser and now youngest French president

May 08, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Emmanuel Macron has been a star student, a champion of France's tech startup movement, an investment banker and economy minister. But the man who will become France's youngest president has never held elected office. After a campaign based on promises to revive the country through pro-business and pro-European policies, the 39-year-old centrist independent defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and her protectionist, anti-immigration party.

In his victory speech, Macron vowed to "rebuild the relationship between Europe and the peoples that make it." He pledged to open a new page for France based on hope and "restored confidence." It won't be his first experience in the challenge of reforming France.

He quit his job as a banker at Rothschild to become Socialist President Francois Hollande's economic adviser, working for two years by Hollande's side at the presidential palace. Then as economy minister in Hollande's government from 2014 to 2016, he promoted a package of measures, notably allowing more stores to open on Sundays and evenings and opening up regulated sectors of the economy.

Opponents on the left accused him of destroying workers' protections. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets for months of protests, and the government had to force the law through parliament under special powers.

Last year, Macron launched his own political movement, En Marche, or In Motion, and quit the Socialist government. He promised to shake up the political landscape by appointing a government that includes new figures from business and civil society.

His next challenge will be to get a parliamentary majority in an election next month to make major changes — with no mainstream party to support him. The strong advocate of a free market and entrepreneurial spirit has called for France to focus on getting benefits from globalization rather than the protectionist policies advocated by the far right.

In his political rallies, he encouraged supporters to wave both the French tricolor and the European Union flags. Le Pen, who has tapped into working-class anger at the loss of jobs and once-secure futures, called him the face of "the world of finance," the candidate of "the caviar left."

"I'm not under control of the banks. If that was the case, I would have kept working for them," Macron answered. Macron had an unexpected test of his political skills following the first round of the vote during what became known as "the battle of Whirlpool," when Le Pen upstaged him at a Whirlpool factory in Amiens that is threatened with closure.

Le Pen's surprise appearance put him on the defensive and prompted him to meet with angry Whirlpool workers later the same day. He was whistled and booed when he first arrived. But he stood his ground, patiently debating workers in often heated exchanges about how to stop French jobs from moving abroad.

In a country shaken by recent terror attacks, he pledged to boost the police and military as well as the intelligence services and to put pressure on internet giants to better monitor extremism online.

To improve Europe's security, he wants the EU to deploy some 5,000 European border guards to the external borders of the bloc's passport-free travel zone. Macron did not campaign alone: His wife was never far away. Brigitte Macron, 24 years his senior, is his closest adviser, supporting him and helping prepare his speeches.

Macron and his wife have publicly described how their unusual romance started — when he was a student at the high school where she was teaching in Amiens in northern France. A married mother of three at the time, she was supervising the drama club. Macron, a literature lover, was a member.

Macron moved to Paris for his last year of high school. "We called each other all the time. We spent hours on the phone, hours and hours," Brigitte Macron recalled in a televised documentary. "Little by little, he overcame all my resistances in an unbelievable way, with patience."

She eventually moved to the French capital to join him and divorced. They married in 2007. Emmanuel Macron says he wants to formalize the job of first lady, adding "she has her word to say in this." Following his victory speech in the courtyard of the Louvre, his wife appeared on stage by his side, with tears in her eyes.

AP video journalist David Keyton contributed to the story.

Joy, relief and rousing Louvre party for France's Macron

May 07, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Screams of joy, sighs of relief and rousing dance music. A wave of human emotion wafted across the palatial esplanade of the Louvre Museum on Sunday night as thousands celebrated the victory of president-elect Emmanuel Macron — and the defeat of his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.

Across town at a wooded chalet, Le Pen's supporters remained combative, pledging to turn her party's strongest-ever electoral score into a major opposition force. "Relief, relief, relief! There was a fear that the French would choose nationalism. It's been a difficult moment - the country is so divided. The atmosphere of the election — while not exactly civil war — was of a deep clash of ideas," 20-year-old student Alice Whitehead said as she partied at the Louvre.

Crowds cheered with joy and frantically waved tricolor flags as the results were announced on large plasma screens in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum, a former royal palace on the shores of the Seine River in central Paris.

"Macron President!" they chanted. Supporters were of all ages, but including a notable number of young people and children. As dusk set in, strobe lights accompanied a loud DJ set that saw thumping hits by Rihanna and Sia — and a version of the Marseillaise — echo around the historic courtyard. Supporters danced, jumped and sang.

Sarra Zaoui, 8, enthusiastically waved a flag and grinned as she was hoisted up on top of a traffic light in front of the museum's famed Pyramid. Another group of girls who spoke in Arabic to their mother shouted in French "Vive la République, Vive la France!"

Emmanuel Oulai, a 35-year-old insurance broker from Paris, was subdued but hopeful. "This election has changed French politics a lot," he said. "This result shows that there are many people who believe in renewal."

"Also, he has a wonderful name!" Oulai joked. Parisians lined streets outside his campaign headquarters as Macron left in a motorcade to join the party at the Louvre. There, the European anthem, "Ode to Joy" played as Macron strode out to address his supporters.

Macron fans cited his commitment to a united Europe, his open-minded views — and the fact that he is not Le Pen, whose National Front party has tapped widespread frustration with globalization and immigration but is also tainted by a racist past.

Le Pen's election night event took place at a chalet in the Bois de Vincennes, a vast park on the eastern edge of Paris. After her defiant concession speech, Le Pen's supporters put on a happy face, pointing to her 36 percent support as a win for a party long seen as a pariah.

When the results appeared on a big TV screen in her election-night venue, people in the room chanted "Marine, the voice of the people!" and sang the French national anthem. Later, Le Pen herself did a mean jitterbug to the song "YMCA" with party dignitary Jean-Lin Lacapelle.

"Legislative elections are coming soon, so we are going to continue this beautiful fight that she started," said supporter Fabienne Chauvet. Didier Roxel, a National Front supporter, will run in France's June parliamentary election from the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-En-Laye.

"Now we enter combat," he said. "The true opposition is us."

French voters pick new president amid heightened security

May 07, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French voters decided Sunday whether to back pro-business independent Emmanuel Macron or far-right populist Marine Le Pen as their next president, casting ballots in an unusually tense and important presidential election that also could decide Europe's future.

With Macron the pollsters' favorite, voting stations opened across mainland France at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) under the watch of 50,000 security forces guarding against extremist attacks. A security scare caused by a suspicious bag prompted the brief evacuation of the Louvre museum courtyard where Macron plans to celebrate election night.

France's Interior Ministry said voter turnout at midday was running slightly lower than during the last presidential runoff in 2012. The ministry said 28 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, compared with a half-day tally of 31 percent five years ago.

Commentators think a low turnout would benefit Le Pen, whose supporters are seen as more committed and therefore more likely to show up to vote. Macron voted in the seaside resort of Le Touquet in northern France alongside his wife, Brigitte Macron. Le Pen cast her ballot just a hundred kilometers away in Henin-Beaumont, a small town controlled by her National Front party.

Macron, 39, a former Socialist economy minister and one-time banker who ran as an independent, was all smiles and petted a black dog as he stepped out of his vacation home. For security reasons, he was driven to his polling station nearby.

Le Pen, 48, was able to vote without any incident after feminist activists were briefly detained a couple of hours earlier Sunday for hanging a big anti-Le Pen banner from a church in the northern town.

Meanwhile, police and soldiers worked to secure the symbolic Paris venues where the next president will celebrate victory. The grand internal courtyard of the renowned palace-turned-museum Macron picked for his celebration party reopened after several hundred journalists preparing for the election event had to leave because of the security alert over the suspicious bag.

The museum itself was not evacuated, and tourists continued entering and leaving the site. The Louvre already was being heavily guarded after an extremist attacker targeted soldiers near the museum during the presidential campaign. Paris police said the evacuation was a "precautionary measure."

If Le Pen wins, she plans to celebrate at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes, a vast park on Paris' eastern edge. The most closely watched and unpredictable French presidential campaign in recent memory ended with a hacking attack and document leak targeting Macron on Friday night. France's government cybersecurity agency, ANSSI, is investigating the hack, which Macron's team says was aimed at destabilizing the vote.

France's election campaign commission said Saturday that "a significant amount of data" — and some fake information — was leaked on social networks following the hacking attack on Macron. The leaked documents appeared largely mundane, and the perpetrators remain unknown.

The fate of the European Union may hang in the balance as France's 47 million voters decide whether to risk handing the presidency to Le Pen, who dreams of quitting the bloc and its common currency, or to play it safer with Macron, an unabashed pro-European who wants to strengthen the EU.

Global financial markets and France's neighbors are watching carefully. A "Frexit" would be far more devastating than Britain's departure, since France is the second-biggest economy to use the euro. The country also is a central pillar of the EU and its mission of keeping post-war peace via trade and open borders.

The vote will help gauge the strength of global populism after the victories last year of a referendum to take Britain out of the EU and Donald Trump's U.S. presidential campaign. In France, it is a test of whether voters are ready to overlook the racist and anti-Semitic past of Le Pen's National Front party.

Le Pen has broadened the party's appeal by tapping into — and fueling — anger at globalization and fears associated with immigration and Islamic extremism. Macron has argued that France must rethink its labor laws to better compete globally and appealed for unity and tolerance that Le Pen called naive.

Either candidate would lead France into uncharted territory, since neither comes from the mainstream parties that dominate parliament and have run the country for decades. The winner will have to try to build a parliamentary majority in elections next month to make major changes.___

John Leicester in Paris, Alex Turnbull in Henin-Beaumont and Chris den Hond in Le Touquet contributed.