The French commute could be in chaos for the next three months. State railway workers launched a massive series of strikes this week against the labor reforms of President Emmanuel Macron. Employees with state rail giant SNCF, including train drivers, will walk off the job two days out of every five for the next 90 days. Only one in eight high-speed trains will run during the strike, and only one in five regional trains. Buses are packed, and car traffic has soared. Macron has proposed phasing out job-for-life guarantees and other benefits for new hires at state rail firms. It’s the second big test of Macron’s reforms: Last fall, strikes failed to prevent the passage of laws that made it easier for companies to hire and fire employees.
Yes, there is a hell
The Vatican this week denied that Pope Francis had told a prominent Italian reporter that “There is no hell” and “Souls are not punished.” La Repubblica published a front-page story last week in which Eugenio Scalfari—a 93-year-old left-wing, anticlerical journalist who prides himself on not taking notes or recording interviews—claimed the pope made those surprising comments during a recent meeting. The Vatican said they were not “a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.” Catholic Church doctrine affirms the existence of hell, where the souls of sinners suffer “eternal fire.” Scalfari, a longtime friend of the pope, has previously reported that Francis wants to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion, which the Vatican also later denied.
Populist against Trump
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election officially began last week, and the front-runner kicked off his campaign with a rant against President Trump. “Mexico won’t be any foreign government’s piñata,” said left-leaning populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known in Mexico as AMLO, at a rally in the border town of Ciudad Juárez. “No threat, no wall, no arrogant attitude from any foreign government will prevent us from working and being happy in our homeland.” López Obrador, 64, has been running on an anticorruption platform for decades and finally has a chance to win; he came in a close second in 2006 and 2012.
San José, Costa Rica
A center-left former cabinet minister and novelist won Costa Rica’s presidential runoff this week, roundly defeating a conservative evangelical pastor who shot to prominence by campaigning against same-sex marriage. Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the ruling Citizen Action Party took 61 percent of the vote, while the National Restoration Party’s Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz took 39 percent. Alvarado Muñoz had pledged to oppose attempts to legalize same-sex marriage if elected, and said he would tighten Costa Rica’s already strict abortion laws. Alvarado Quesada, 38, who supports marriage equality, said his election victory sent a “beautiful” message to the world. “My commitment is to a government for everybody,” he said, “in equality and liberty.”
More dangerous than NYC?
London’s murder rate has overtaken that of New York City for the first time since records began in 1800, largely because of a spike in knife attacks in the British capital. There were 22 murders in London in March and 15 in February, one more than New York for each month; 31 of the London killings were committed with knives. Both cities have similar populations of about 8.5 million people. But while New York’s murder rate has dropped by nearly 90 percent since the 1990s, London’s has increased by about 40 percent in only three years. Experts blamed the surge on a rise in gang violence and cuts to police funding by the ruling Conservative Party.
La Paz, Bolivia
Protesting Sánchez de Lozada
Indigenous activists in Bolivia celebrated this week after the conviction in the U.S. of former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain. A federal court in Florida found the two guilty of directing the so-called October Massacre, when the Bolivian military killed at least 64 indigenous peasants and wounded some 400 more during widespread antigovernment protests in 2003. It’s the first time a former head of state has been held legally responsible in the U.S. for human rights violations under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows human rights abuses abroad to be prosecuted in U.S. courts. The two must pay $10 million in damages to the families of the victims.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised his country’s deepening ties with Russia this week during a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders launched the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which Russia’s state-owned Rosatom is building at a cost of $20 billion. And they said Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile-defense system—which has drawn concern from Turkey’s NATO allies—would be speeded up. The two also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara this week to discuss the war in neighboring Syria. Moscow and Tehran have backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has supported rebel forces fighting his regime.
State funeral for Winnie
South Africa held a state funeral this week for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the 81-year-old former wife of Nelson Mandela and a leading figure in the fight against apartheid. She was thrust into the spotlight in 1964 when her husband of six years was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. She continued the struggle and rallied blacks against white-minority rule during Mandela’s 27-year detention, and was arrested herself in 1969. She was held for 18 months—16 in solitary confinement—and was tortured. Madikizela-Mandela could be brutal toward those suspected of betraying the movement. She advocated “necklacing”— putting a flaming tire around informants’ chests and arms—and she was convicted of kidnapping after her bodyguards tortured and killed a 14-year-old boy falsely accused of snitching. Mandela filed for divorce in 1996, saying she had become cold and was unfaithful.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai returned to her hometown in Pakistan last week for the first time since 2012, when the Taliban shot the then-15-year-old schoolgirl in the head for advocating girls’ education. She and her family traveled with heavy security for the unannounced, four-day visit to the Swat Valley. “It is still like a dream for me,” said Yousafzai, now 20 and studying at Oxford University. “Am I among you?” Yousafzai has lived in the U.K. since she was attacked. Many Pakistanis admire her, but many others believe her to be part of a Western conspiracy to make the country look bad. One official in Swat said last year that the shooting was staged.
U.S. troops to leave?
The future of America’s military campaign in Syria was uncertain this week after President Trump said he wanted to quickly withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops now in the country, only for the White House to say a day later that the U.S. was committed to continuing the fight against ISIS there. “I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said during a news conference. “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.” His announcement apparently took military leaders by surprise: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said repeatedly over the past few months that troops would remain indefinitely. A U.S. and a British soldier were killed last week and five others wounded in a bomb blast in northwestern Syria during a mission to kill or capture an ISIS commander. The American, Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, was part of the Army’s elite counterterrorism Delta force.
No deal on migrants
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week canceled an agreement with the United Nations to resettle thousands of African migrants in Western nations, just a day after making the deal. The agreement would have seen some 16,000 of the 38,000 mostly Sudanese and Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers in Israel settled in countries including Germany and Canada, and the same number would have been given residency status in Israel. That outraged hard-line members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, who saw the deal as rewarding illegal immigrants, and Netanyahu backtracked. He said he would now consider other options “to remove the infiltrators.”
El-Sissi wins sham election
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi won re-election this week with an implausible 97 percent in a vote that international observers said was neither free nor fair. El-Sissi, a former general who took power in a 2013 coup and was elected president a year later, faced only a token opponent after all credible challengers were pushed out of the race. He has governed much like former strongman president Hosni Mubarak—who was ousted during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising—banning critical media and jailing or disappearing political opponents. President Trump congratulated el-Sissi on his victory in a phone call and “affirmed the strategic partnership” between the two countries, said the White House. Egypt is a key ally of the U.S. and receives some $1.6 billion in American military and economic aid each year. ■