French far-right party joins Meloni’s group in the EP

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 9th February 2024

The French anti-Islam Reconquête! party has said its sole European lawmaker will sit with the eurosceptic group that is home to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, as alliances on Europe’s right shift ahead of the MEP elections. The move comes as far right parties across the continent, divided into two main groups inside the European Parliament, grapple with how they might coalesce into a more cohesive force ahead of a June vote in which polls show populists making gains.

Polls show the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), which also counts Poland’s Law and Justice, Spain’s Vox and Finland’s The Finns among its ranks, may overtake French President Macron’s Renew Europe party in size. “Reconquête! shares ECR’s political DNA! The real political right which acts upon its convictions: defence of the identity of nations and our civilisation when faced with immigration and Islamisation, defence of economic freedoms, … the safeguarding of our values against wokeism,” Reconquête! co-chair Marion Marechal has said. Marechal is the niece of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s biggest far-right party, Rassemblement National (National Rally), which is aligned with the hard right Identity and Democracy (ID) group in the European Parliament.

A late January opinion survey for Les Echos newspaper showed Reconquête! winning seven per cent of voter support in France compared with 27 per cent for the Rassemblement National. Analysts say Europe’s far right will remain somewhat hobbled as a political force if the two factions do not work together.

Marechal’s Reconquête! party was founded by Eric Zemmour who ran for president in 2022 on a nationalist programme promising to save France from a downward spiral that he blamed largely on what he described as unfettered immigration and the increasing influence of Islam. He holds several convictions for inciting racial hatred.

Wilders struggles to find coalition partners

Far-right firebrand Geert Wilders’ chances of becoming prime minister of the Netherlands are narrowing after one of his key potential partners walked out of coalition talks on Tuesday night, reports The Financial Times. Pieter Omtzigt, founder and leader of the centre-right New Social Contract (NSC), said he could not join the government but might support it from outside. He has long raised questions about the anti-Islam campaigner’s suitability for office, but NSC has now said it is “shocked” by new information about budget shortfalls.

“Unbelievably disappointing,” said Wilders on social media. “The Netherlands wants this cabinet and Pieter Omtzigt throws in the towel even though we were in talks today. I don’t understand it at all.” Wilders has the right to try first to form a government after his Freedom Party (PVV) won 23.5 per cent of the vote in elections in November, making it the biggest in parliament. But prospective talks with centrist and right-wing parties have been fraught.

Photo: EFE/EPA/Remko De Waal

Biden gets roasted on memory loss

A long-awaited report cleared US President Joe Biden of any wrongdoing in his mishandling of classified documents yesterday but dropped a political bombshell by painting the Democrat as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. The report removed a legal cloud hanging over Biden as he seeks re-election in a contest expected to be against Donald Trump – who is facing a criminal trial for removing large amounts of secret documents after he lost the White House, then refusing to cooperate with investigators. However, in a shock for the Biden campaign, special counsel Robert Hur said his probe had found a President with such reduced mental capacities that he could not remember the dates of his vice presidency under Barack Obama and the death of his son Beau to cancer in 2015. Top Republican leaders of the House of Representatives called the report “deeply disturbing” and showed Biden was “unfit” for the presidency.

Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

My memory is fine, says Biden

Answering a question from Fox News at the White House, regarding his memory, 81-year-old Biden said: “My memory is fine: look what I’ve done since I’ve been President of the United States.” And, during a fiery press conference on Thursday in response to the report, Biden denied that he forgot the year of his son’s death. However, CNN reports that minutes after saying his memory was fine, Biden mixed up the names of Mexico’s and Egypt’s presidents, adding, “this is the only moment that people will remember from Biden’s speech.”

Of the investigation into the handling of classified documents when he was vice president, he said, “I never released classified information” but admitted: “I should have paid more attention to how those documents were handled”. He reiterated that he had not “broken the law”. He said the “exhaustive” investigation found he had cooperated “completely”, in contrast with Trump, who refused to return top secret documents and “obstructed justice”.

Business Insider reports: “The 2024 US presidential race offers voters two main choices: a 77-year-old man who has been charged with 91 felony counts (he denies any wrongdoing) and an 81-year-old man accused of memory issues by special counsel Robert K. Hur. Voters have already expressed dread for a second Trump-Biden matchup, with 67 per cent of respondents in a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll saying Biden shouldn’t seek another term, while 57 per cent say the same for Trump. Both candidates also come with baggage – at least according to the voters.”

Photos: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US Supreme Court skeptical of Trump ballot disqualification

The US Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments in former President Donald Trump’s battle to avoid being kicked off state presidential ballots for his involvement in the 2021 Capitol attack. Colorado’s top court had disqualified Trump from the state’s Republican primary ballot under the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment after it found that he had participated in an insurrection. The nine justices must rule whether Trump is ineligible to appear on the primary ballot in Colorado. Colorado’s Supreme Court in December ruled that Trump should not be allowed to stand because of his role in an insurrection – the 6th January 2021 assault on the US Capitol by his supporters. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has received the green light to be on New York’s Republican presidential primary ballot.

Photo: Shawn Thew/Shutterstock

Pakistan: early results show neck and neck contest among rival parties

Counting of votes of Pakistan’s general election started earlier today, Friday, amid an unusual delay yesterday which prompted the electoral commission to issue a late-night warning to polling officers on Thursday, 10 hours after polls closed, to release results immediately. According to reports, an “internet issue” was the reason behind the delay in results. Observers say early results show a neck and neck contest between rival parties, although a clear picture was likely to emerge only later in the day.

By early Friday morning (6.15am Malta time), the commission had announced results for 15 of the 265 contested seats in parliament: five were taken by supporters of jailed cricket star Imran Khan, who were contesting as independents, while another five were won by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Still, five seats were taken by the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto. The main battle is expected to be between candidates backed by Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the last national election, and the PML-N of Sharif, who analysts say is being backed by the powerful military. A party needs 133 seats in parliament for a simple majority but many analysts believe the vote may not produce a clear winner. Sharif, considered by many observers to be a strong candidate, dismissed talk of an unclear result.

Photo: AP

Russia has no interest in attacking Poland or Latvia” – Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview that aired on Thursday that Russia will fight for its interests but has no interest in expanding its war in Ukraine to other countries such as Poland and Latvia. Putin made the comment in a more than two-hour interview with Tucker Carlson, his first with an American journalist since before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago. Asked if he could imagine a scenario in which he would send Russian troops to Poland, a NATO member, Putin replied: “Only in one case, if Poland attacks Russia. Why? Because we have no interest in Poland, Latvia, or anywhere else. Why would we do that? We simply don’t have any interest.” He said, “Peace plans were almost finalised but Ukraine threw them away and obeyed the West’s orders to fight Russia to the last.” The Kremlin said Putin agreed to the Carlson interview because the approach of the former Fox News host differed from the “one-sided” reporting of the Ukraine conflict by many Western news outlets.

Photo: Reuters

Zelensky fires Ukraine’s military chief

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced the dismissal of his top commander, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in the biggest military shakeup since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion almost two years ago. The President’s move follows tensions between Zelensky and his hugely-popular military chief after the failure of Ukraine’s much-vaunted counter-offensive, and with Ukraine facing a renewed Russian onslaught, manpower and ammunition shortages, and US aid stalled in Congress. Zaluzhnyi’s replacement will be Oleksandr Syrskyi, who since 2019 has served as the Commander of Ukrainian Land Forces.

“Israel would allow Sinwar to go into exile in return for all hostages”

Israel is open to allowing Hamas leader and 7th October mastermind Yahya Sinwar to go into exile in exchange for the release of all hostages and the end of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, NBC reports. Quoting six “Israeli officials and senior advisers”, NBC says the plan has been discussed since November. “We don’t mind if [Sinwar] will leave like Arafat left Lebanon,” a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells NBC, referring to PLO leader Yasser Arafat being allowed to sail from Beirut to Tunis in 1982. “We will allow it to happen as long as all of the hostages are released.” Israel had previously pledged that all the leaders of the Hamas terror group in Gaza would be killed or captured. Israel reportedly told US negotiators in Paris last week that it has a list of six Hamas leaders, including Sinwar and senior military Mohamed Deif, that it wants to see out of the Gaza Strip. NBC says the plan never reached Hamas, because the group has already said it would not countenance exile.

Photo: LAURENT VAN DER STOCKT/GETTY IMAGES

US warns Israel that Rafah operation risks “disaster”

The United States yesterday warned Israel that staging a military push into the southern Gaza city of Rafah without proper planning would run the risk of becoming a “disaster”. Netanyahu has said he ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, after rejecting what he labelled as Hamas’ “bizarre demands” in truce talks, and air strikes have been stepped up. Netanyahu announced the order despite UN chief António Guterres warning that a military push into Rafah “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare”. State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel emphasised that any such military offensive was “not something we’d support”, noting that Rafah is a crucial entry point for humanitarian aid destined for Gaza.

Israel bombs Rafah city as battlefront nears

Al Jazeera says at least eight people were killed and 18 others injured in attacks by Israeli forces on two houses in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The Palestinian news agency Wafa reports two more dead and several injured in bombings that hit a house last night in the city of Deir al-Balah, in the centre of the Palestinian enclave. AFP journalists reported that Israel carried out at least seven air strikes overnight in the Rafah area, terrifying civilians crowded into shelters and makeshift camps. Israel’s armed forces stepped up air strikes on Gaza’s far-southern Rafah yesterday as fears of ground fighting grew among the more than one million Palestinians crowded into the city. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Israel without securing a pause in fighting, wrapping up his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the war started.

Photo: SAID KHATIB / AFP

At least 300,000 at risk from lack of food in Gaza – UN

Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are at risk in north and central Gaza because of a lack of food, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned on Thursday. UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said the last time the agency was allowed to deliver supplies to the area was more than two weeks ago, on 23rd January. Other agencies providing humanitarian aid also reported blocks on getting relief into the Palestinian territory, which has been bombarded by Israel since Hamas’s deadly attack on 7th October. “Since the beginning of the year, half of our aid missions requests to the north were denied,” Lazzarini wrote on X. The UN has identified deep pockets of starvation and hunger in northern Gaza where people are believed to be on the verge of famine. “At least 300,000 people living in the area depend on our assistance for their survival,” Lazzarini said. Israel, which has blockaded the coastal territory, ordered people living in north and central Gaza to move south as it goes after those responsible for the October attack. More than half of Gaza’s estimated 2.4 million population is now crowded in the city of Rafah in the south.

Georgios Petropoulos, head of the UN humanitarian agency OCHA in Gaza, said the territory was being turned “into a wasteland of hunger and despair”. Aid agencies were being blocked, while the few trucks that make it through are mobbed by locals, who in north Gaza were “on the edge of starvation”, he told AFP. “They congregate by trucks and other vehicles carrying goods sometimes in their thousands, and unload them in minutes,” he added.

Photo: MAHMUD HAMS

Viagra may reduce men’s risk of Alzheimer’s, new study finds

Men prescribed erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra and Cialis were 18 per cent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a new study in the journal Neurology has found. The research found that the link between the drugs and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s was stronger among those who had the most frequently issued prescriptions. The new UK study included nearly 270,000 men who were diagnosed with erectile dysfunction and had no cognitive problems at the beginning of the study. Around 55 per cent of the men were taking drugs such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), vardenafil, and avanafil, which are known as phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitor drugs that act by dilating blood vessels. The finding provides some hope that these drugs could be repurposed to prevent a common form of dementia, but more clinical trials are needed to determine whether there is a causal link.

Photo: Getty

Football: France to play Italy and Belgium in Nations League

World Cup runners-up France, European champions Italy and Belgium will face off in the 2024-25 UEFA Nations League, while holders Spain will be favourites to win a group comprising Denmark, Switzerland and Serbia. Israel are the fourth team in Group A2 alongside France following their promotion to the top tier for the first time. Croatia, who lost last year’s final to Spain on penalties, are in Group A3 with former winners Portugal, Poland and Scotland. Euro 2024 hosts Germany meet the Netherlands in Group A3 along with Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina. England will play the Republic of Ireland, Finland and Greece after Gareth Southgate’s team were relegated to League B. They avoided being grouped with Kazakhstan because of UEFA rules pertaining to excessive travel conditions. Each league contains four groups of four teams except for the bottom League D, which has six teams in total and just two groups. Malta is in  Group D2 with Moldova and Andorra. Group D1 has Gibraltar or Lithuania, San Marino and Liechtenstein. Russia remains banned due to the invasion of Ukraine.

Photo: IMAGO/Inpho Photography/Dave Winter

Main photo: Sipa Press

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