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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Poland police forcibly remove anti-nationalist protesters

April 29, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Police in Poland used force Saturday to remove a few dozen protesters who tried to block a march in downtown Warsaw by a nationalist organization celebrating its anniversary. The protesters chanted "Poland, free from fascism!" and sat down in the street as they waited for marchers from the National-Radical Camp to arrive.

The group, supported by Poland's nationalist government, was celebrating 83 years since its foundation. A few hundred members marched with white-and-red flags, chanting anti-migrant slogans. Police detained and handcuffed some in the group protesting the march, since they had not obtained authorization for it. The new law regulating public gatherings was introduced by the conservative ruling Law and Justice party. Police also used force on journalists reporting about the event, pushing and even kicking them.

The nationalists' march was directed down a different route in the Polish capital to avoid clashes with their opponents. Every march now must be authorized or face sanctions.

Polish leader welcomes NATO troops, hails 'historic moment'

April 13, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish leaders welcomed a new multinational NATO battalion to Poland on Thursday, with the president calling it "a historic moment for my country." The near-permanent deployment of a NATO battalion under U.S. command marks the first time NATO troops have been placed so close to Russian territory, a step the Kremlin denounces as a threat to its own security.

But Polish President Andrzej Duda said the deployment, to Poles, stands as a symbol of liberation and inclusion in the Western democratic world. "It's not an exaggeration to say that generations of Poles have waited for this moment since the end of the Second World War," Duda said in the northeastern town of Orzysz as he addressed the troops and the U.S. and British ambassadors.

The battalion of about 1,000 troops is led by the United States, but includes troops from Britain and Romania. Croatian troops are expected to join later. Their base of operations, Orzysz, is 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border with Kaliningrad, a Russian territory on the Baltic Sea separated from the Russian mainland.

While NATO has held exercises in the region in past years, the deployment marks the alliance's first continuous troop presence in the area that was considered by defense experts as vulnerable. Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said the NATO presence guarantees the security of NATO's eastern flank.

The NATO deployment is separate from a U.S. battalion of 3,500 troops that arrived in Poland earlier this year and which is headquartered in southwestern Poland, near the German border. Both missions are responses to calls for greater U.S. and NATO protection by a region fearful after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for a rebel insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Schism rifts Poland's ruling party over minister's assistant

April 12, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A conflict has erupted in the top ranks of Poland's ruling party that pits the party's powerful chairman against the country's defense minister. At the center of the dispute is a 27-year-old male assistant to Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz who has enjoyed unusual privileges, raising eyebrows in Warsaw.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski on Wednesday suspended the assistant, Bartlomiej Misiewicz, from the party and ordered a commission to investigate the lucrative defense industry jobs and other preferential treatment he has received. Misiewicz was to appear before the commission Thursday.

The moves are meant to "protect the good image of the Law and Justice party," party spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said. In his role as ministry spokesman, Misiewicz has been saluted by soldiers and called "minister," honors not normally imparted to civilians.

Misiewicz, a former pharmacy assistant without a university degree, also has been given lucrative jobs in the defense industry under Macierewicz. His treatment has raised ethics concerns in a party that won office promising to fight corruption.

He was appointed last year to the supervisory board of Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ), one of the largest defense consortiums in Central Europe. The company's bylaws state its board members must have college degrees, but the rules were changed to let Misiewicz join.

The Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper reported this week that Misiewicz was given a job with PGZ that pays 50,000 zlotys ($12,500) a month, huge sum in a country where the average pre-tax wage is about $1,150 a month.

The company denied the claim, but it appeared to be the trigger for Kaczynski's decision to order an investigation into Misiewicz. Some observers think Misiewicz is part of a larger power struggle between Kaczynski and the defense minister.

"It's a new war at the top," said Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz, head of a small opposition party, PSL.

Macedonia's head seeks emergency talks after parliament riot

April 28, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia's president called an emergency meeting of political leaders Friday, hours after demonstrators — mostly supporters of the country's dominant conservative party — invaded parliament and assaulted opposition lawmakers.

Police said 77 people, including opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, the head of a small ethnic Albanian opposition party and 22 police, were injured in the overnight riot when demonstrators stormed the legislature and attacked lawmakers to protest the election of a new speaker despite a months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

It was unclear whether opposition party leaders would heed President Gjorge Ivanov's call for a meeting to defuse the tension. The European Union condemned the violence, and said that the cornerstones of democracy should be respected.

Clashes lasted for hours Thursday night, with police initially doing little to stop the invasion. Eventually, they used stun grenades to evacuate the building, and free lawmakers and journalists trapped inside.

Macedonia has been gripped by a deep political crisis for more than two years, and repeated efforts — including international mediation — have failed to improve things. The country has been without a government since elections in December failed to give any party a governing majority.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Friday that "violence is unacceptable, even more so when it happens in the house of democracy." Mogherini, attending a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Malta, called the incident a "serious crisis that can be dangerous."

Lawmakers attacked as protesters storm Macedonian parliament

April 28, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Chaos swept into Macedonia's parliament Thursday as demonstrators stormed the building and attacked lawmakers to protest the election of a new speaker despite a months-old deadlock in efforts to form a new government.

Clashes over several hours injured 77 people, including 22 police officers and several lawmakers, authorities said. Neighboring countries along with the European Union and United States expressed concern at the small Balkan nation's escalating political crisis.

Dozens of protesters, some of them masked, broke through a police cordon after the opposition Social Democrats and parties representing Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority voted to name a new parliament speaker.

Many of the protesters were supporters of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, whose conservative party won elections in December but didn't get enough votes to form a government on its own. He has been struggling to put together a coalition government and his supporters have been holding nightly street rallies for two months across the country to protest the political situation.

Shouting, hurling chairs and grabbing camera tripods abandoned by startled journalists, the protesters attacked lawmakers, including opposition leader Zoran Zaev, who was seen bleeding from the forehead. TV footage showed a bloodied Zaev and other Social Democrat lawmakers surrounded by protesters waving national flags, shouting "traitors" and refusing to allow them to leave.

A tense standoff lasted several hours, and hundreds of protesters swarmed through the parliament building. Police said 30 lawmakers and a number of journalists who had been trapped inside were eventually evacuated safely.

After being initially overwhelmed, police fired flash grenades and clashed with protesters, expelling them from the building. Lawmaker Ziadin Sela, who heads a small ethnic Albanian party, was the most seriously injured, police said.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov went on television to appeal for calm and "for reasonable and responsible behavior." Speaking in a brief address to the nation, Ivanov said he had summoned the leaders of the country's main political parties for a meeting Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Macedonia and senior European Union officials condemned the violence, while neighboring Greece warned that Macedonia might be "sliding into deep political crisis." Zaev, 42, was later cheered by hundreds of supporters when he appeared with several lawmakers from his party outside the Social Democratic headquarters in the capital of Skopje.

In a statement, the party accused rival conservatives of inciting the violence and stirring "hatred and division" among the Macedonian people. Macedonia has been without a government since the elections. Coalition talks broke down over ethnic Albanian demands that Albanian be recognized as an official second language. One-fourth of Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian.

Amid the coalition negotiations, the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia, as the Balkan nation's parliament is known, has been deadlocked for three weeks over electing a new speaker. Zaev suggested early in the day that a speaker could be elected outside normal procedures, an idea immediately rejected by the prime minister's party as an attempted coup. Zaev went ahead with the vote, and a majority in parliament elected Talat Xhaferi, a former defense minister and member of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration. Protesters exploded in anger and fought their way into the building.

Despite the return of calm, a small group of demonstrators ignored instructions by police to leave the area early Friday and they set up tents in a small park near parliament.

Associated Press writers Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can't grasp it

April 22, 2017

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees "Solarfri" posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means "when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather."

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means "heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind."

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.

Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.

"Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin," she warned. Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension. Anna Jonsdottir, a teaching consultant, said she often hears teenagers speak English among themselves when she visits schools in Reykjavik, the capital.

She said 15-year-old students are no longer assigned a volume from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature chronicling the early settlers of Iceland. Icelanders have long prided themselves of being able to fluently read the epic tales originally penned on calfskin.

Most high schools are also waiting until senior year to read author Halldor Laxness, the 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who rests in a small cemetery near his farm in West Iceland. A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country's single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor.

That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic, experts say. "The less useful Icelandic becomes in people's daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use," said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland.

He has embarked on a three-year study of 5,000 people that will be the largest inquiry ever into the use of the language. "Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years," he said.

Concerns for the Icelandic language are by no means new. In the 19th century, when its vocabulary and syntax were heavily influenced by Danish, independence movements fought to revive Icelandic as the common tongue, central to the claim that Icelanders were a nation.

Since Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944, its presidents have long championed the need to protect the language. Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, said without a unique language Iceland could experience a brain drain, particularly among certain professions.

"A British town with a population the size of Iceland has far fewer scientists and artists, for example," he said. "They've simply moved to the metropolis." The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.

"Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field," Jonsson said. Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology — along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian — according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages.

Iceland's Ministry of Education estimates about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

Svandis Svavarsdottir, a member of Iceland's parliament for the Left-Green Movement, said the government should not be weighing costs when the nation's cultural heritage is at stake. "If we wait, it may already be too late," she said.

Hungary still defiant on US university after Brussels summit

April 29, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The Hungarian government remained defiant Saturday over the possible closure of Budapest-based Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros. The issue was on the agenda during Prime Minister Viktor Orban's meeting in Brussels with leaders of the European People's Party, of which his Fidesz party is a member.

The EPP was unusually direct in its criticism of Orban over CEU, a government campaign called "Let's stop Brussels" and a draft bill targeting civic groups which receive foreign funding. EPP president Joseph Daul said that in light of objections by the European Commission and after consultations with Hungarian civic groups and the academic community "we have come to the conclusion that dialogue alone is not enough."

The EPP "will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or rule of law is disregarded," Daul said in a statement. "The EPP wants CEU to remain open, deadlines suspended and dialogue with the U.S. to begin."

Both Daul and EPP spokesman Siegfried Muresan posted messages on Twitter saying Orban said Hungary would comply with the commission's requests and EU laws. While Orban said he was ready for cooperation with the commission, the EU executive, he indicated he was unwilling to eliminate new amendments to the law on higher education which could force CEU to stop operating as it currently does.

CEU, in Budapest since 1993, is accredited in Hungary and New York state, its graduate degrees are recognized both in Hungary and the U.S., but it has no U.S. campus. Orban says that issuing a U.S. degree without having a U.S. campus gives CEU an unfair advantage over other domestic universities.

"The existence of higher education institutions without actual activities operating as offshore mailboxes will not be permitted by Hungarian legislation in the future, either," Orban's press office said, adding that the government does not want to close the university and seeks to settle the legal dispute over the matter with the EU.

The government says it has no objections to the university issuing only Hungarian diplomas, but CEU says that would practically destroy its mission and its appeal to foreign students. CEU enrolls 1,440 students from 108 countries, including over 300 from Hungary.

If it fails to comply with the new conditions, CEU would be prevented from enrolling new students after the end of the year. CEU thanked EPP for its "unequivocal statement of support for our academic freedom."

"We are grateful for the EPP's call to suspend the deadlines and start negotiations," said CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff. "We have called for negotiations from the beginning and we want them to reach a successful conclusion so that we can get back to work."

Orban, who briefly studied at Oxford University thanks to a Soros scholarship in 1989, says he seeks to transform Hungary into an "illiberal state" modelled on countries like Turkey and Russia. He sees an ideological foe in Soros and his "open society" ideal and blames the Hungarian-born American for supporting migration through his backing of non-governmental groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Foundation and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which advocate for asylum-seekers.

The government says a draft bill on NGOs receiving more than about $25,000 a year only seeks to increase "transparency." NGOs, however, see the legislation scheduled to be passed in May as an attempt at intimidation and stigmatization.

Daul said that "NGOs are an integral part of any healthy democracy ... and they must be respected." Still, Daul's harshest words were for Orban's anti-EU campaign, which claims bureaucrats in Brussels want Hungary to raise taxes and energy prices and take in illegal migrants.

"The EPP has also made it clear to our Hungarian partners that the blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the 'Let's stop Brussels' consultation is unacceptable," Daul said. "The constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate."

Humor, sarcasm at Hungarian anti-govt protest in Budapest

April 22, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of Hungarians are attending a "peace march for the government, for Russia and against everything else" organized by the satiric Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party. Saturday's protest is a sarcastic take on current events in Hungary, like the government's close ties to Russia and its campaign against the pro-migration policies of billionaire George Soros.

The government's battle with Soros has resulted in legislation that could shut down the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest. Firmly tongue in cheek, party leader Gergo Kovacs told marchers while it's good Hungary hasn't adopted the euro it's a shame that Hungarians can't use the ailing Russian ruble.

Other slogans of the march through downtown Budapest included "No more of that nonsense called democracy" and "Enough already with the EU stuffing the country with money."

German nationalists elect top duo for general election

April 23, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's nationalist party Alternative for Germany on Sunday elected two new top candidates for the September general election after the party's best-known politician, Frauke Petry, said last week she would no longer be available.

Members of the far-right party, known by its acronym AfD, elected Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel at their weekend party convention in Cologne. Divisions erupted among the different factions of the German nationalists as delegates from the AfD rejected an appeal Saturday by Petry to seek a more pragmatic political path instead of turning into a "fundamental opposition" party. The defeat was a significant blow for AfD co-leader Petry, whose position in the party is now substantially weakened.

Gauland, 76, is one of the party's most prominent members and one of Petry's main rivals. "We want to keep our home country, keep our identity, and we are proud to be German," he said in his acceptance speech.

Weidel, 38, is a consultant from southwestern Germany who has not stood in the spotlight of the four-year-old party so far. "If we now stick together and fight together, then finally a true opposition party will be getting into German Parliament," Weidel told cheering delegates.

The party members also voted for an election manifesto that is harsh on immigration and Muslims and reiterates calls for leaving the European Union's euro currency. The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany condemned the AfD's further move to the far right, saying the party is trying to make "a chauvinist-nationalist way of thinking socially acceptable in Germany again."

Joseph Schuster warned that the party is "threatening Jewish and Muslim life in Germany." The conference in Cologne was overshadowed by massive protests on Saturday, when tens of thousands rallied against the populist party and blocked access to the hotel where the convention took place. On Sunday, the city remained relatively calm and police reported only a few small demonstrations.

Around 68 percent voted for the duo, with 28 percent voting against, the German news agency dpa reported. AfD's poll ratings soared amid the influx of migrants to Germany in late 2015 and early 2016. However, they have sagged in recent months as the issue faded from headlines and the party became increasingly mired in infighting, with Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell against other senior figures like Gauland even further on the right.

Petry, 41, announced Wednesday that she would no longer be her party's top candidate. She also irked some rivals by leading an effort to expel Bjoern Hoecke, AfD's regional leader in the eastern Thuringia state, after he suggested that Germany stop acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past. Gauland has repeatedly protected Hoecke, even after his remarks created an outrage in Germany.

German political parties choose lead candidates for elections who generally dominate their campaigns and, in the case of bigger parties, compete to become chancellor. The country holds general elections on Sept. 24.

Divisions, protests erupt at German nationalist convention

April 22, 2017

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) — Divisions among German nationalists erupted Saturday as delegates from the far-right Alternative for Germany party rejected an appeal by one of their leaders to seek a pragmatic political path instead of turning into a "fundamental opposition" party.

While tensions brewed inside the AfD party convention in the western German city of Cologne, outside the hotel hundreds of left-wing demonstrators tried to block about 600 AfD party members from entering. The delegates needed massive police protection to get into the convention, and protesters injured one police officer Saturday morning while trying to block the hotel.

Authorities had 4,000 police officers on the ground to prevent a violent escalation of anti-populist rallies by an expected 50,000 left-wing protesters. Speaking before AfD members, nationalist politician Frauke Petry said the party needed to set the course for a "spiritual-moral change" in Germany and the rest of Europe. But a majority of the delegates rejected a vote on the party's future path that she had suggested.

In comparison, Joerg Meuthen, a more far-right party leader who is one of Petry's rivals, was cheered strongly when he lashed out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government's migration policy.

Meuthen said when he's out in his own city he barely sees Germans out in the streets anymore — only migrants. "We don't want to become a minority in our own country — even though we've already become one in parts of it," Meuthen said, warning that one day Germany could even become a Muslim-dominated country.

The convention takes place days after Petry said that she won't be her party's top candidate in Germany's Sept. 24 general election, a move seen by many as a consequence of party leaders' infighting about the future direction of the AfD. The populist, anti-immigrant party is seeking to enter the national parliament for the first time in that vote.

Despite earlier fears, by noon most of the left-wing rallies in Cologne were peaceful. The state governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, who was attending one of the demonstrations, praised protesters for their activism.

"There are many upright democrats here and they say clearly: We want to remain as we are — a diverse, an open, a tolerant country," Kraft said. Petry became co-leader of the four-year-old AfD in 2015. She ousted fellow founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, shifting the party's focus from economic issues to immigration and Islam.

AfD's poll ratings soared with the influx of migrants to Germany in late 2015 and early 2016. However, they have sagged in recent months as the issue faded from headlines and the party became increasingly mired in infighting with Petry and her husband Marcus Pretzell on one side against other senior figures even further on the right.

Petry, 41, also irked some rivals by leading an effort to expel Bjoern Hoecke, AfD's regional leader in eastern Thuringia state, after he suggested that Germany stop acknowledging and atoning for its Nazi past.

Even though she won't be her party's top candidate, Petry did not hint at any plans to step down as party chairwoman. German political parties choose lead candidates for elections who generally dominate their campaigns and, in the case of bigger parties, compete to become chancellor. Her move has left AfD without such a figurehead.

Grieshaber reported from Berlin.

Macron hunts for French rural votes, Le Pen cheers new ally

April 29, 2017

USSEAU, France (AP) — French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron hunted Saturday for votes in rural France where his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, is making inroads among country folk who feel left behind.

Back in Paris, Le Pen announced that if she wins the presidency in the May 7 runoff she would name former rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, her new campaign ally, as her prime minister. The move aims to secure the nearly 1.7 million votes that the anti-European Union conservative got when he was eliminated from the presidential race in the first round of balloting.

Since many Dupont-Aignan voters had already been expected to switch to Le Pen for her second-round duel against the centrist Macron, his decision to ally himself with the far-right Le Pen was unlikely to prove a massive electoral boost for her.

Symbolically, however, the alliance punctured a hole in hopes — expressed by mainstream politicians on both the left and right — that France will unite against Le Pen's extremism in the runoff. That did happen in 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made the presidential runoff but lost overwhelmingly to Jacques Chirac.

At a news conference with Dupont-Aignan, Marine Le Pen celebrated his backing as the creation of "a great patriotic and republican alliance" and said they will campaign "hand-in-hand" for their shared program.

"It's a historic day, because we are putting France's interests before personal or partisan ones," Dupont-Aignan said. Macron said their alliance made the campaign battle lines even clearer going into round two.

"There is a reactionary, nationalist, anti-European right-wing that has structured itself and which, today, is an important political force," he said. "Facing it is a progressive bloc that I represent and which defends France."

Macron is not saying who he would name to lead his government if elected. In a radio interview Saturday, he merely said he has "people in mind" for the post. Venturing into rural France to combat Le Pen's arguments that he represents France's big-city elite, the former economy minister plugged his proposals to reverse the economic and social decline in farming areas. Macron promised to modernize phone and internet connections in rural areas and vigorously defended the EU as an essential market for French farmers.

On an impromptu tour of the farmers' market in the central town of Poitiers, Macron listened to a grain farmer complain about low-price competition from other EU countries and a vegetable farmer's laments about the difficulty of getting loans to upgrade farm technology.

As the smell of goat cheeses wafted across the dairy stalls, Macron rebuffed Le Pen's criticisms of the EU with a vigorous defense of European free trade, saying her plans to leave the EU and its agricultural aid program would spell the end of French farming.

"Rural areas need an open, conquering France," Macron said in his radio interview. "Our agriculture needs Europe and openness." Macron promised that no more schools would close in rural areas if he is elected and said his government would intervene directly if mobile operators fail within 18 months to install high-speed fiber optic and phone networks "everywhere."

Le Pen has made the plight of French farmers a theme of her campaign, citing farm closures, rural poverty and farmers' suicides. Usseau, the tidy village with a fairytale chateau where Macron visited farmer Patrick Moron on Saturday, gave 120 of its votes, one third of the total, to Le Pen in round one, almost double the 66 votes it gave to Macron.

"We have wines, we have cheeses, we had the advantage for a long time," said Moron, a Macron supporter. "But we are no longer moving forward." Neighboring farmer Dominique Marchand, who rotates harvests of colza, corn, wheat and sunflowers, lamented the growing scarcity of rural schools and medical facilities.

"Sometimes we have to go 30 kilometers (20 miles) to find a doctor, or drive 45 minutes to the nearest emergency room," he said. "It's getting worse and worse." Dupont-Aignan got 4.7 percent of the first-round vote — compared to Macron's 24 percent and 21 percent for Le Pen — with a platform that described the EU as "inefficient, intrusive, anti-democratic and authoritarian." The right-winger called for the EU to be replaced by "a community of European states" with greater national powers for its members.

Le Pen's far-right National Front rejoiced over the alliance with Dupont-Aignan. Florian Philippot, a National Front vice president, told BFM television this was "excellent news" and "a turning point in this campaign."

Still, the alliance caused splits within Dupont-Aignan's own party. It prompted the departure of a party vice president, Dominique Jamet, who told BFM that the Le Pen-Dupont-Aignan alliance is "a couple that doesn't please me."

John Leicester in Paris contributed.

Le Pen's party in new turmoil over alleged Holocaust denial

April 28, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen's far-right party is in new turmoil — its temporary leader is stepping down over allegations he expressed doubt about Nazi gas chambers. National Front vice president Louis Aliot said on BFM television Friday that interim party leader Jean-Francois Jalkh is leaving his post because of comments reported in a 2000 interview.

Jalkh took over this week after Le Pen said she would step aside to concentrate on her campaign. Aliot said that Jalkh is contesting allegations of Holocaust denial, a crime in France. Le Pen has worked hard to detoxify the party, tainted by racism and anti-Semitism in the past. She faces centrist Emmanuel Macron in a highly charged presidential runoff May 7.

Macron is visiting the site of a Nazi massacre later Friday.

After Whirlpool battle, Le Pen and Macron clash over fish

April 28, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron fought over fish and Europe's future as they courted France's blue-collar vote Thursday in an increasingly charged campaign. A day after "the battle of Whirlpool," when Le Pen upstaged Macron at a home appliance factory threatened with closure, she was up before dawn to cruise aboard a fishing trawler on the Mediterranean. It was her latest TV-friendly effort to portray herself as the candidate of workers against Macron, a centrist former banker and economy minister she paints as the candidate of the financial, political and pro-EU elite.

"My grandfather was a fisherman, so I am in my element," Le Pen said after her voyage aboard the trawler Grace of God 2. She said France will take back control of its maritime policies if she is elected in the second-round vote May 7. She again tore into Macron's more pro-market, free-trade economic program.

Macron fired back on Twitter, saying Le Pen's proposals to take France out of the European Union would sink France's fishing industry. "Have a nice trip. Europe's exit she proposes, it's the end of French fishing. Think about it," he tweeted, before visiting the ethnically mixed Paris suburb of Sarcelles.

As he met with Sarcelles residents, Macron called Le Pen's National Front party "xenophobic." "There's Marine Le Pen's project of a fractured, closed France. ... On the other hand, you have my project which is a republican, patriotic project aiming at ... reconciling France," he said.

Macron went to a gymnasium to meet members of an association that works to socially integrate local youths through sports and by helping them set up businesses and find jobs. Later, speaking on TF1 television, Macron dismissed Le Pen's appearance at the Whirlpool plant as a "communication stunt in a parking lot." He insisted that nationalizing Whirlpool, as Le Pen suggested, "won't work."

He said he admires Le Pen's "determination" but called her National Front as a "party of hate." Le Pen took her campaign later to the Mediterranean city of Nice, where 86 people were killed in an Islamic extremist truck attack last year, and pledged to "tame" globalization and protect workers.

Many voters can't stomach either candidate. French high school students scuffled with riot police in a cloud of tear gas during a Paris protest at which they painted Le Pen as an extreme nationalist with dangerous views and Macron as too cozy with the finance world.

Students blocked entrances to some high schools and marched through eastern Paris to the Bastille neighborhood, the heart of the 1789 French revolution. Most of the protesters were peaceful, but a few clashed with riot police ringing the crowds.

Many of the students aren't old enough to vote, yet they reflect a chunk of the French electorate that is expected to sit out the May 7 election, either because of dislike for both candidates or on the assumption that Macron will win.

While Macron has been considered the favorite for the runoff, pollsters have long noted that a very low turnout could propel Le Pen into the presidency — a risk Macron stressed Thursday. "Let's all face our responsibilities," he said, arguing that not voting would help Le Pen and amount to casting a ballot to abandon the EU, the euro currency and "the nation and its values."

Le Pen's surprise visit to the threatened Whirlpool clothes-dryer factory in northern France on Wednesday put Macron on the defensive and prompted him to also meet with angry Whirlpool workers later the same day.

Macron was whistled and booed when he first arrived. But he stood his ground, patiently and at times passionately debating workers in often heated exchanges about how to stop French jobs from moving abroad.

Associated Press writers John Leicester and Thomas Adamson in Paris and Alex Turnbull in Nice contributed to this report.

Analysis: Finally, crystal-clear clarity in French election

April 27, 2017

PARIS (AP) — When France's presidential election turned into a political boxing match this week at the gates of an appliance factory threatened with closure, the far-right populist Marine Le Pen showed that she wields a mean right hook. Her centrist rival, Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte contesting his first election, demonstrated that he can take a solid punch to the chin.

Before the chaotic scenes Wednesday at a Whirlpool clothes-dryer plant in northern France, the election campaign had no single dominant theme. But all that changed when Le Pen, followed closely by Macron, made back-to-back impromptu campaign stops at the plant to woo France's blue-collar vote. Against the backdrop of burning tires and angry workers, the diametrically opposed styles and programs of the two candidates in the winner-takes-all second-round vote was laid bare, with crystal-clear clarity.

Le Pen's closed borders against Macron's open ones. Le Pen's France that would pull up the drawbridge with the European Union against a future of ever-closer ties between France and its neighbors. Le Pen's promised economic protectionism against Macron's defense of free trade. Le Pen's selfie-snapping populism against Macron's refusal to simply tell the workers what they so desperately wanted to hear: that their jobs can be saved as Whirlpool shifts production to Poland.

In her second presidential contest after placing third in 2012, the 48-year-old Le Pen deployed all her political experience to spring a campaign trap that her 39-year-old rival fell headfirst into, but then managed to extract himself from, with barely a ruffle to his suit and tie. Instead of becoming Macron's Waterloo, his quick thinking and dogged determination in trying to reason with the disgruntled workers for over an hour turned the match into a stalemate.

A stalemate that spoke volumes about them both. Having led a largely lackluster campaign before the first-round vote Sunday that propelled her and Macron into round two on May 7, Le Pen has rediscovered her mojo. Bruised by first-round television debates where she was savaged by the sharp-tongued far-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon, now eliminated, she is outsmarting Macron, so far at least, in the use of TV. Likewise, now rid of Francois Fillon, the conservative whose financial scandals dominated the initial campaign, Le Pen now has a chance to turn the election into a debate about France, its future and her argument that one of the founding EU nations would be better off freed of the bloc's constraints.

By popping up at the Whirlpool plant while Macron was across town meeting with the workers' union leaders, Le Pen was devastatingly effective. TV news channels switched live to the surprise visit, showing her taking selfies and dispensing hugs and kisses with workers at the factory gates. It gave her a platform to project herself as the candidate of France's workers in an era of chronic unemployment and to highlight her pledge, repeated again Wednesday, that she wouldn't let the factory close if elected. Macron, shown simultaneously at his meeting in a nondescript room, looked every inch the aloof technocrat: in the wrong place at just the right time for Le Pen.

"I'm not eating little cakes with a few representatives who, in reality, represent only themselves," she sniffed. Pow! Take that, Macron. She used television to her advantage again Thursday, getting up before dawn to take a ride aboard a Mediterranean fishing trawler — candidate-in-action images played over and over on morning TV, in the absence of anything fresh from Macron, who didn't campaign until mid-afternoon.

Le Pen has said all along that among the 11 first-round candidates, she wanted to face Macron in round two. At Whirlpool's gates, it became clear why: The former investment banker and economy minister is, for her, the readiest canvas for her black-or-white assertion that the election is a clash between two polar opposites.

Her goal isn't simply to swing as many Fillon and Melenchon voters as possible to her side but to persuade enough of them not to vote at all on May 7, in hopes that her reservoir of committed voters will outnumber those who'll back Macron, many reluctantly, simply to keep her extremism from reaching the Elysee Palace.

Outflanked by Le Pen at Whirlpool, Macron faced his toughest campaign test yet. Failure to follow her example and rush from his meeting with union leaders to the factory itself would have made him look uncaring and out of touch — doubly so since the plant is in the town where Macron was born, Amiens.

Going, however, was also a risk. He seized it with both hands. The snap decision seemed, at first, to have backfired spectacularly when Macron was derisively whistled at and booed. For a few tense minutes, it seemed as though Le Pen had landed a KO. Had Macron retreated to the safety of his car, the campaign front-runner could have crashed and burned on live TV.

But he plowed on. The workers were a hostile audience for Macron's arguments that the state can't stop jobs moving abroad but can retrain the workers who lose them. By facing their frustration, by patiently, at times passionately, debating them, he at least seemed to win some respect — and without making off-the-cuff campaign promises that later, if installed in the presidential palace, he might regret.

"There is no miracle recipe," he said. Most important for Macron, his recovery from Le Pen's punch allows him to fight another day. And Le Pen still needs a knockout.

John Leicester has reported from France for The Associated Press since 2002.

Le Pen upstages Macron in battle for blue-collar votes

April 27, 2017

AMIENS, France (AP) — Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen turned an appliance factory into a battleground Wednesday for France's blue-collar vote, upstaging rival Emmanuel Macron with a surprise campaign stop at the plant threatened with closure.

Chaotic scenes followed as Macron, a pro-European Union centrist, sought to wrestle back the initiative by making his own, impromptu stop at the Whirlpool clothes-dryer plant in Amiens, spending over an hour in Le Pen's wake trying to reason with angry employees who asked why the former finance minister hadn't come there earlier.

The remarkable drama, broadcast live on French news channels, transformed the plant in northern France into a symbol of the diametrically opposed campaigns of Le Pen and Macron before their May 7 runoff election.

As Macron met elsewhere with the workers' union leaders, Le Pen displayed her political guile by grabbing the spotlight and popping up outside the factory itself. Surrounded by employees in bright-yellow hazard vests, she declared herself the workers' candidate and vowed that if elected, she would not let the factory close.

"We'll get you out of here," Le Pen said as she hugged a woman in the crowd outside the plant, its fences decorated with workers' banners. "I am the candidate of workers, the candidate of the French who don't want their jobs taken away."

Her wily campaign maneuver stole Macron's thunder and put him on the defensive. It prompted him to make his own trip to the factory a few hours later — which quickly looked like he had fallen into a trap set by Le Pen. Live TV coverage of his visit looked chaotic and potentially damaging, with people whistling, booing and chanting "Marine, president!" in the background.

"Why didn't you come before?" one woman asked. "Save our jobs, Monsieur Macron!" yelled a man. But Macron, appearing in a suit and tie amid the workers, held his ground. Where Le Pen's visit was short — with a few selfies, hugs, kisses and a quick speech to the cameras — Macron spent over an hour patiently, and at times passionately, explaining in often-heated exchanges that as president, he wouldn't be able to stop companies from laying off workers. The back and forth was shown live on Macron's Facebook page, signaling a desire not to let Le Pen hog the limelight.

"I won't lie to you," he said. "There is no miracle recipe." The contrasting images of Le Pen smiling with workers and Macron debating them spoke to her political experience and laid bare their contrasting styles.

The 48-year-old populist is fighting her second presidential campaign after coming in third in 2012, while the 39-year-old former investment banker is waging his first, having never held elected office.

Le Pen hit Macron close to home with her politicking: He was born in Amiens. Needing millions more votes to beat Macron in the runoff, Le Pen hammered home her arguments that more French jobs would be lost abroad under Macron's more economically liberal program.

"I'm here, in my place, exactly where I should be, in the midst of Whirlpool's employees, these employees who are resisting this wild globalization, this shameful economic model," Le Pen said. In a dig at Macron's meeting with union leaders, she added: "I'm not eating little cakes with a few representatives who, in reality, represent only themselves."

During an evening political rally in nearby Arras, Macron tried to reverse the unflattering image he gave in the afternoon. He vehemently attacked Le Pen, saying she "stirs up hatred, lies, speaks about fears in order to use them, but gives no answers."

While Le Pen presents herself as an anti-establishment candidate, Macron claimed on the contrary that she is "the heiress of this system. She was born in a party castle, even if she claims to be from the people."

He also criticized Le Pen for proposing that the French state take a share in the plant if needed. He dismissed such an idea, saying in an interview with BFM TV channel that "the mission of a state is not to produce clothes dryers."

In Arras, Macron also tried to appeal to left-wing voters and non-voters. "Faced with this threat, facing those who hate the Republic and create disorder and hatred, choose a camp," he said. "I need your vote. Your vote is not a blank check."

Even before Le Pen's surprise appearance at the plant, Macron's intervention in the Whirlpool factory's future, in a region where Le Pen got more votes in Sunday's first-round balloting, was fraught with risk. He had to tread a fine line between defending his program to tackle France's chronic unemployment without falling into the trap of making campaign promises that he may struggle to keep.

Because production at the Whirlpool plant is due to stop next year and move to Poland, the workers' plight is a prickly issue for Macron as he campaigns on a pro-EU platform. Le Pen seized on Whirlpool as a sign of the EU's ills, calling it "the symbol of this odious globalization, which leads to plants moving abroad, destroying thousands of jobs."

Macron insisted he did the right thing by meeting with union leaders before going the factory itself. "If you don't speak to employees' representatives and engage in direct democracy, using invective or false promises, you don't solve any of the country's problems," he said.

He shot down Le Pen's plans to re-establish French borders — part of her program calling for "French-first" economic and social protectionism. "The closure of borders is a promise made of lies," Macron said.

The Amiens factory joins a list of threatened plants that have become symbolic of job losses in French presidential campaigns. In the 2012 race, Socialist Francois Hollande traveled to a threatened steel plant in eastern France's rust belt in a similar pursuit of blue-collar votes. Union leaders later felt betrayed when the Hayange plant's blast furnaces were mothballed in a deal that Hollande's government struck with steel giant ArcelorMittal.

John Leicester reported from Paris. Philippe Sotto contributed to this report.

Tight, tense French presidential vote echoes around world

April 23, 2017

PARIS (AP) — As French voters cast ballots for president Sunday, they're making a choice that will resonate far beyond France's borders, from Syrian battlefields to Hong Kong trading floors and the halls of the U.N. Security Council.

The future of Europe is at stake as this country faces an election unlike any other, one that may reshape France's post-war identity and indicate whether global populism is ascendant or on the decline.

Here are a few reasons why the French election, taking place in two rounds starting Sunday, matters:


Most of the 11 candidates are campaigning against the European Union, blamed for myriad woes. Two with a chance at the presidency, far-right Marine Le Pen and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, could seek to pull France out of the union and its shared euro currency altogether.

A French exit of either would be far worse than Britain's — it could spell death for the EU, the euro and the whole idea of European unity borne from the blood of World War II. France is a founding member of the EU, and its main driver along with former rival Germany.

Financial markets are already jittery over a possible Frexit, fearing controls on money transfers, capital flight, a plague of defaults and lawsuits on bonds and contracts. Le Pen's team downplays apocalyptic scenarios, arguing that the euro is headed for a breakup eventually anyway.

Le Pen and Melenchon also blame free trade pacts for killing French jobs and want to renegotiate them, which would cause a financial tangle for the rest of the EU and France's trade partners.


If Le Pen or Melenchon reach the second round, it will be seen as a clear victory for the populist wave reflected by the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit. Many French workers who have lost out because of globalization are similarly fed up with establishment parties and especially attracted by promises of ditching the status quo.

Alternatively, if neither candidate makes it past Sunday's first round into the May 7 runoff, that's a clear message that populist nationalism is receding.

Centrist Emmanuel Macron and conservative Francois Fillon are committed to European unity and would reform labor rules but not make any drastic moves. Macron has framed himself as a bulwark against Trump's protectionism.


A nuclear power with a seat on the U.N. Security Council and tens of thousands of troops around the world, France is a key U.S. ally in the campaign against the Islamic State group and major diplomatic player.

Macron would likely keep up the French operations against extremists in Iraq and Syria and Africa's Sahel region — and keep up pressure on Russia over Ukraine and its actions to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The other three front-runners, on the other hand, had supported restoring dialogue with Assad to find a political solution for Syria. Le Pen firmly backs Assad and distanced herself from Trump over recent U.S. airstrikes targeting Assad's regime.

Le Pen also met recently with President Vladimir Putin and would push for lifting sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.

Fillon too has been friendly with Putin in the past, but has taken a harder stance lately — notably since chemical weapon attack blamed on Assad's forces.

French overseas territories begin presidential voting

April 22, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Election stations opened Saturday in French overseas territories that are voting first in France's unpredictable presidential election — one day earlier than on the mainland. Opinion polls showed a tight race among four top contenders vying for the two places in the May 7 runoff which will decide who becomes the next head of state. But the polls also showed the future of France was largely in the hands of the one out of three voters who were undecided — as a deadly attack on the Champs-Elysees avenue clouded the last days of campaigning.

Political campaigning was banned from Saturday across France, and online, as polling centers opened in the far-flung Atlantic Ocean territories of Saint Pierre and Miquelon and French Guiana, as well as in the Caribbean's Guadeloupe and elsewhere.

Unemployment and the economy topped voters' concerns as first-round ballots are cast for one of 11 candidates in the most nail-biting French elections in generations. Security was also a prominent concern after a wave of extremist attacks on French soil, including Thursday's attack by a gunman who fatally shot a police officer in Paris before being killed by security forces.

Polls suggested far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former economy minister, were in the lead. However, conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose campaign was initially derailed by corruption allegations that his wife was paid as his non-working parliamentary aide, appeared to be closing the gap, as was far-leftist, Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The mad-dash campaigning of the last few weeks came to a premature end Friday hours after the Champs-Elysees gun attack by 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi. Three suspects close to the attacker remain in custody, Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre of the Paris prosecutor's office said Saturday.

Le Pen and Fillon canceled their last campaign events Friday over security concerns. Macron did too, but also accused his rivals of trying to capitalize on the attack with their anti-immigration, tough-on-security messages.

On Saturday, flowers, candles and messages of solidarity with police adorned a makeshift memorial for the slain police officer, Xavier Jugele. Small groups of well-wishers continued to pay their respects at the site of the shooting.

Some believed French stoicism would prevent a lurch to the right, despite such predictions the shooting attack dominated newspaper headlines and the 24-hour television news cycle. "These 48 hours are not going to change everything... Terrorism is now an everyday occurrence. It's permanent, 24 hours a day. So we're not afraid. If we're believers, believers in freedom, we must live with it," said Marise Moron, a retired doctor.

Others, fearful Le Pen has been strengthened by the instability, said they would shift their votes from fringe candidates and try to vote strategically to keep the far-right out of power. "With an attack such as this one, I think the National Front will get a good score. Therefore, I'm going to change my intention and I'm going to cast a useful vote. Either Melanchon, or Macron," said physics teacher Omar Ilys, 44.

Unconventional Macron flies high in French presidential race

April 21, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French centrist Emmanuel Macron is a newcomer in politics with strong pro-business, pro-European views and an unconventional love story, all of which have captured the imagination of French people looking for something different but not extreme.

The tenacious 39-year-old was unknown to the French people only three years ago. He is now considered one of four front-runners, of whom the top two in Sunday's first round of voting will advance to the runoff on May 7.

It is unclear whether Macron's lack of experience in politics could weigh on the voters' choice following Thursday's attack on police officers in Paris. The centrist has a strong stance on economic issues, but he has also put more focus on security and the fight against terrorism in recent weeks.

He is backed by defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian —one of the most popular members of the Socialist government— and former chief of the police elite unit Jean-Michel Fauvergue. Macron has pledged to boost French police and military forces and intelligence services.

To improve Europe's security, he wants the bloc to be able to deploy at least 5,000 European border guards to the external borders of the Schengen passport-free travel zone. Macron promotes a pro-free market, entrepreneurial spirit, arguing France should focus on getting benefits from globalization rather than the protectionist policies advocated by both the far right and the far left.

"We need Europe, my friends, so we will rebuild it," he told the crowd at his Parisian rally this week. "Because we will be stronger, I will rebuild a strong and balanced alliance with Germany in order to give Europe a new boost."

He wants more robust counterterrorism efforts in a country marked by terror attacks and pledged to put pressure on internet giants to better monitor extremism online. He has also promised to renew the political elites by appointing a government mostly composed of new figures, some of them coming from business and civil society.

Macron has never held elected office. Socialist president Francois Hollande named him economy minister in 2014, after he worked for two years as a top adviser on economic issues at the presidential palace.

He launched his own political movement, En Marche! (In Motion!) last year to support his candidacy. Macron's wife Brigitte is 24 years his senior. The couple has publicly described the unusual way their romance started — when he was a student at the high school where she was a teacher, in the town of Amiens in northern France.

Then called Brigitte Auziere, a married mother of three children, she was supervising the drama club. Macron, a literature lover, was a member. Macron moved to Paris for his last year of high school. At that time, "we called each other all the time, we spent hours on the phone, hours and hours on the phone," 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've been together ever since. The couple finally married in 2007 and Brigitte Macron is now campaigning by his side. "I don't hide her," Macron told BFM TV this week. "She's here in my life, she has always been."

Macron studied philosophy and attended France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration for graduate school. After working as a public servant for a few years, he became an investment banker at Rothschild.

As economy minister, he promoted a package of economic measures — known as the Macron law— aiming at loosening some of France's stringent labor rules in the hope of boosting job hiring. The law notably allows more stores to open on Sundays and evenings and opens up regulated sectors of the economy.

Macron was accused by many on the left of destroying workers protection. The parliamentary debate on the law drove tens of thousands of people into the streets for months of protests across France.

EU leaders show firm united front ahead of Brexit talks

April 29, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders vowed Saturday to stand shoulder-to-shoulder behind their negotiating team during the divorce proceedings with Britain and warned that demands from British Prime Minister Theresa May will be dealt with "firmly."

The 27 EU leaders in Brussels finalized the cornerstones of their negotiating stance within minutes of starting a short summit, a month after the British leader triggered two years of exit talks on March 29. The negotiations themselves are to open shortly after Britain holds an early election on June 8.

"Guidelines adopted unanimously. EU27 firm and fair political mandate for the #Brexit talks is ready," EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted. The leaders say there can't be any discussions on the future relationship between the EU and Britain before some key issues are settled. Those include how much Britain owes the bloc, what to do about the Irish land border with Britain and, Tusk said, making sure the welfare of citizens and families living in each other's nations will be a priority.

The guidelines halted British hopes of having future trade relations being discussed concurrently all through the talks. Tusk said "before discussing the future, we have to sort out our past. We will handle it with genuine care — but firmly."

Some at the summit were already considering how to deal with possible British negotiating tactics. "Maybe the British government will do its utmost to split the 27 nations and it is trap we need to avoid," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Ever since the June 23 referendum last year in which Britons narrowly voted to leave the bloc, the remaining 27 EU nations have shown a rare exceptional unity. In contrast, citizens in Britain have been divided because of the momentous event looming.

Now, the EU is also intent on making Britain pay the divorce bill, which some EU officials have put as high as 60 billion euros ($65 billion). "If you are no longer part of a club, it has consequences. A Brexit for free is not possible," Michel said.

To kick off the negotiations, Tusk wants to center on the millions of people living in each other's nations who would be immediately affected. All sides "need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit on both sides. This must be the No. 1 priority," Tusk said. Some 3 million citizens from the 27 nations live in Britain while up to 2 million Britons live on the continent, all facing massive uncertainly on such issues as health benefits, pensions, taxes, employment and education.

Tusk said the sustained unity of the 27 will help May since she will have political certainty throughout the talks. "Our unity is also in the U.K.'s interest," he said. "I feel strong support from all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament, as well as all the 27 member states. I know this is something unique and I am confident it will not change."

Over the past years, the bloc has often been bitterly divided over issues like the financial crisis, the euro debt crisis, bailouts to financially-strapped members like Greece, and how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the bloc.

The 27 EU leaders also acknowledged that Northern Ireland could join the bloc in the future if its people vote to unite with EU member state Ireland. The two share the same island, and the difficulties of re-establishing a land border once Britain leaves are immense and politically fraught.

Ireland's Europe Minister Dara Murphy told The Associated Press that a statement on the Northern Ireland issue was added to the minutes of the summit, which is being held without Prime Minister Theresa May.

Future relations between Ireland and Britain, including how the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would work with the U.K. outside the bloc, have emerged as a key problem to be addressed during the Brexit talks.

Russian rallies urge Putin not to run again; dozens arrested

April 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Under the slogan "I'm fed up," demonstrators urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term rallied in cities across Russia on Saturday. Dozens were arrested in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

The centerpiece rally in Moscow went peacefully, despite being unsanctioned by authorities. Several hundred people rallied in a park then moved to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters telling Putin to stand down from running in 2018.

But in St. Petersburg, Associated Press journalists saw dozens arrested. The OVD-Info group that monitors political repression relayed reports of more arrests in several cities, including 20 in Tula and 14 in Kemerovo.

Putin has not announced whether he plans to run for president again next year. He has dominated Russian politics since becoming president on New Year's Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned. Even when he stepped away from the Kremlin to become prime minister in 2008-2012 because of term limits, he remained effectively Russia's leader.

Nationwide protests on March 26 appeared to rattle the Kremlin because of the demonstrations' unusual size and reach. The predominance of young people in those protests challenges the belief that the generation that grew up under Putin's heavy hand had become apolitical or disheartened.

Saturday's demonstrations were much smaller, but indicated that marginalized opposition forces will continue to push. The demonstrations were called for by Open Russia, an organization started by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

As an oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky was once listed as Russia's richest man, but his political ambitions put him at odds with the Kremlin. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on tax-evasion and fraud convictions that supporters say were political persecution. He was pardoned in 2013, left the country and revived Open Russia as a British-based organization.

On Wednesday, Russia's Prosecutor-General banned Open Russia as an undesirable foreign organization. But the group's Moscow branch says it is administratively separate and not subject to the ban.

Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this story.

Swedish cows in a great moooo-d as summer pastures open

April 29, 2017

DROTTNINGHOLM, Sweden (AP) — Despite a cold wind and chilling temperatures, spring has come to Sweden. At least, spring for the milk cows. In an annual event that warms hearts across the country, "koslapp" (KOOH-slep) — the cow release — has become a popular family outing for urban residents. That's when the farmers of Sweden free their cows from the barns and stables where they have spent the long, dark, cold winter.

Dozens of dairy cows were frolicking and jumping Saturday on the outskirts of Stockholm, the capital. "I live in the city and it's really nice to come out to the countryside," said 37-year-old Linda Lundberg from Stockholm who attended the event with her friends. "It's fun to celebrate spring together with the cows."

In recent years, milk farms across Sweden have seen a growing number of people attending what used to be simply a big day for Sweden's agricultural community. Last year, alone, dairy cooperative Arla Foods saw around 165,000 people flock to their farms across the Scandinavian country to watch the cows, frisky with excitement, race out into the sun and the lush summer pastures.

"We make a lot of people happy, both families and children," explained Elin Rydstrom, 37, who has spent the past week preparing to welcome about 1,000 people at her small organic farm in Drottningholm. She's noticed a real shift in people's attitude toward farmers.

"When I was little, people would tease me at school and say 'You smell like cows,'" she recalled. Now her children's classmates come to the farm "and everyone thinks it's really nice." Media-savvy farmers are now turning to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to change the perception of their profession and to encourage people to reflect on where their food comes from.

"Snapchat allows me to bring the farm to the city," explained 28-year-old dairy farmer Anna Pettersson. She posts farm-life photos on social media and answers questions from users, including about animal welfare, food production and the length of her working hours.

Pettersson told The Associated Press that she hoped social media will encourage people to better understand what they consume and the need to pay for quality produce. A mere 30 minutes after their release, the cows were settling into their new environment while groups of people elsewhere on the farm were searching for the best picnic spot.

"It's something special to have a farm and to be able to do this," Rydstrom said. "To show the importance of quality food and being out in nature."