BARCELONA: Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Barcelona today (15th of April) to protest the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders facing trial on “rebellion” charges.
Chanting “Freedom for the political prisoners”, they marched along Parallel Avenue, a main thoroughfare, many waving the red-and-yellow Catalan flag.
The protest comes six months after the first incarcerations of top Catalan separatist leaders for misuse of public funds, sedition and rebellion – which carries a prison sentence of 30 years and implies that a “violent uprising” took place – over their separatist push. “Since they could not decapitate separatism, they are trying to do it through the courts,” Roser Urgelles, a 59-year-old teacher held.
“They need to demonstrate that there was violence to execute the sentences that they want, so they invent it,” Roser Urgelles said, adding: “But we will continue to protest peacefully.”
Like thousands of others at the march, she wore a yellow ribbon to show solidarity with the jailed leaders, whom Catalan separatists consider to be “political prisoners”.
Spain’s justice minister, Rafael Catala, has called the use of yellow ribbons “insulting”, arguing that Spain has no political prisoners but “politicians in prison”. The Guardia Urbana, a Catalan municipal police force, said 315,000 people turned out.
EU demands greater clarity from May on her Brexit blueprint
BRUSSELS: The EU’s top negotiator Michel Barnier expressed doubts Friday over Britain’s new Brexit blueprint for future trade ties with the European Union, as he called for “rapidly” settling outstanding issues like the Irish border.
But Barnier also welcomed good points in London’s fresh proposal, such as plans for a free trade agreement, after he discussed it Thursday with Britain’s new Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab. Raab took up the job following a rebellion against Prime Minister Teresa May’s Brexit proposal.
But before talk of future ties, Barnier said the priority should be on clinching a Brexit divorce deal over the next weeks, with 20 percent of the so-called withdrawal agreement still to be achieved.
Britain is set to leave the bloc on March 30, but the two sides want to strike the divorce agreement by late October in order to give parliaments enough time to endorse a deal.
“On the future economic partnership, the white paper (blueprint) raises three sets of questions for which we are expecting answers,” Barnier told a press conference after consultations with EU ministers.
He said he wanted answers on whether the offer met EU guidelines, including on the free movement of goods, capital, people, and technology.
He also sought to know whether the blueprint supported the integrity of the EU single market and the autonomy of European decision-making.
He cited concerns about border controls, potential fraud, and unfair competition. “We need choices and decisions, clarity and legal certainty,” the French negotiator said.
But he said the blueprint contained “several elements for a constructive discussion”, including on security cooperation.
Britons voted to leave the 28-nation bloc in June 2016, but negotiations were only launched a year later and have bogged down frequently since then.
Barnier and others are concerned about the slow pace of talks against the backdrop of political discord in Britain, including the rebellion against May over her blueprint.
May’s blueprint for the future would see Britain ask the EU for a free trade area for goods through a “facilitated customs arrangement” alongside a “common rulebook”.
Brexiteers believe that keeps Britain too close to the EU, while pro-Europeans think it fails to protect the country’s dominant services sector, among other gripes.
“We must rapidly find an agreement on all the subjects that are still open in the withdrawal agreement,” Barnier said, recalling there were just 13 weeks left.
He listed as a top concern the lack of progress on the future of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland stay aligned with the bloc after Brexit if no other solution to the hard border can be found.
Under its guidelines, the EU stipulates there should be no “hard border,” such as customs checks, in order to preserve the gains of the Irish peace process.
“This requires, in particular, a legally operative backstop,” Barnier said after recalling May’s commitment to a backstop in March.
“We cannot afford to lose time on this issue,” he added. Barnier said that is why he had asked his British counterparts next week to work on the backstop, which he calls an “all-weather insurance policy.”
But London is concerned the EU proposal would break up the UK. It has suggested instead that the whole country remain aligned with the EU in certain areas, only until the end of 2021, but Brussels knocked that idea back.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, published a document on Thursday urging the remaining 27 member states and businesses to “step up preparations” for all outcomes, including the lack of a deal. It warned of disruptions, including to business supply chains.
Cycling: Sagan strikes again as Thomas keeps yellow jersey
VALENCE (France): Slovakian Peter Sagan underlined his sprint credentials for the third time on the Tour de France today after powering to victory in the 13th stage from Bourg d’Oisans to Valence.
Sagan, of the Bora team, is one of the few real sprint specialists still in the race after surviving an Alpine stage trilogy that proved fatal to the hopes of rivals Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Dylan Groenewegen. All the aforementioned exited the race over two tough days in the Alps, and Sagan – who had won two stages on this edition so far – was quick to capitalise.
“It was very beautiful to win today after three days in the Alps,” said Sagan, whose 11th career win on the race helped take his tally in the points competition to 398 points. Norwegian Alexander Kristoff (UAE), who finished a close second, has 170 points while Frenchman Arnaud Demare, of Groupama, has 133. “I was on the wheel of (Alexander) Kristoff, then I made my move. It’s amazing. The team did an amazing job today.”
Sagan, wearing the green jersey for the leader of the points competition he has won five times previously, was given extra work to do after Belgian upstart Philippe Gilbert (Quick Step) brazenly attacked a leading peloton full of ambitious sprinters 930 metres from the line.
But Sagan, and his rivals didn’t flinch. They kept the pace high and one-day classics specialist Gilbert was caught with 245m remaining. The Groupama team of Demare, as well as Kristoff’s UAE outfit had been key in chasing down a relatively tame four-man breakaway in the closing kilometres of the race.
But the Frenchman came up short when it came to payback. He launched his burst first, but, as Kristoff and Sagan came up on his left, Demare ran out of juice. “It’s strange to be sprinting like crazies after being on the small ring (of the bike) in the Alps,” said Demare. “I thought I was going to win, I started my sprint well but I came up short.”
The Frenchman banged on his handlebars in frustration as Sagan held up his palm in triumph.
The Slovakian now has one hand on his fifth green jersey, and one eye now on winning the final stage to the Champs Elysees. But Sagan said he won’t be performing any of his trademark wheelies just yet.
“There’s a lot of tough stages to do before we get to” the Champs Elysees, said Sagan. “I have to be a bit closer to Paris before I start doing a wheelie. Britain’s Geraint Thomas, fresh from winning two stages in the Alps, remained in the leader’s yellow jersey. Welshman Thomas leads Sky teammate Chris Froome by 1min 39secs, with Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) third overall at 1:50.
Although Froome is Sky’s team leader, Thomas said: “I hope to keep the jersey as long as possible. “But it’s a three-week race and the Pyrenees are going to be even tougher.” The 14th stage on Saturday is difficult and technical ride over 188 km between Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Mende.
Macron under fire as security aide detained in assault inquiry
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron, trying to curb what has become the most damaging scandal of his presidency, on Friday fired a top security aide who has been taken into custody after videos emerged showing him strike a young man during a demonstration in Paris in May.
The Elysee Palace said that Alexandre Benalla would be dismissed after “new elements” emerged in the case, namely that he is suspected of unlawfully receiving police surveillance footage in a bid to clear his name.
A source close to the inquiry said that three police officers, including two high-ranking officials, have been suspended on suspicion of providing the footage to Benalla.
He is facing charges of violence by a public official, impersonating a police officer and the illegal use of police insignia, and complicity in the unauthorized use of surveillance footage, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.
Macron and his government are facing fierce criticism over the affair, with some opposition lawmakers saying Interior Minister Gerard Collomb’s job is on the line if he knew about the incident but kept quiet about it.
A source close to the inquiry said Friday that Macron’s cabinet chief, Patrick Strzoda, had been questioned by investigators on Thursday.
“The very core of the state has been tainted. Our work must stop immediately and the prime minister must come and explain this,” said Christian Jacob of the rightwing Republicans party.
The scandal erupted this week when French daily Le Monde published a video taken by smartphone showing Benalla, wearing a police helmet, manhandling and striking a protester during a May 1 demonstration.
In a second video published by the newspaper late Thursday, Benalla – who has never been a policeman – is also seen violently wrestling a young woman to the ground.
It was not clear who informed Benalla’s superiors of the incident, but a few days later he was suspended without pay for two weeks and transferred to an administrative role instead of organizing security for Macron’s trips.
But the incident was not reported to prosecutors.
The affair is particularly embarrassing for Macron since he won the presidency with pledges to restore transparency and integrity to the nation’s highest office.
Adding to the controversy, Le Monde reported Friday that despite his suspension Benalla was given this month a prestigious government-owned apartment in the chic Seventh Arrondissement.
He is also being provided with a car and driver, the paper reported.
The BFM news channel meanwhile reported that Benalla was back on duty doing security work this week, traveling on the bus carrying France’s World Cup-winning football team down the Champs Elysees for a victory parade.
Newspapers on Friday assailed the president’s refusal to address the scandal despite repeatedly being questioned by journalists during a visit to southwest France on Thursday.
“By not immediately managing a disciplinary problem, Emmanuel Macron now faces a political crisis,” wrote the right-wing Le Figaro daily — which usually makes no secret of its admiration for the president.
Just days after the May 1 demonstrations, which were marred this year by anarchists who clashed with police, Macron tweeted that “everything will be done so that those responsible will be identified and held accountable for their actions.”
Interior Minister Collomb confirmed in parliament Thursday that Benalla had “no right to intervene” at the gathering of leftwing student protestors on the Rue Mouffetard, a picturesque Left Bank street loved by tourists.
The case has also prompted unflattering accounts of Benalla’s behavior from other officials who have worked with him.
Arnaud Montebourg, a former minister in ex-president Francois Hollande’s government, recalled dismissing Benalla from his service after just a week because of a “serious professional failure.”
“He caused an accident while acting as my driver and tried to flee the scene,” Montebourg told Le Monde on Thursday.
The scandal comes with Macron’s popularity at a record low, defying analysts’ expectations of a post-World Cup bump — with an approval rating of just 39 percent in a BVA poll carried out on Wednesday and Thursday.