THE INDEX – March 19, 2009

Union protests paralyzed the French subway and train systems, airports, utilities, and much of the public sector today. This is the second major strike in two months in this European Union nation, all in response to the French government’s handling of the global economic downturn. In addition to the “inadequate” government reaction to the current crisis, unions are also upset at the lack of increases in minimum wages, the absence of reform in public service employment policies, and the heavy taxation of overtime pay. At least 213 demonstrations are expected across the country today. Like many other EU nations, France is seeing a growing dissatisfaction among it’s workers, while having to cut more jobs from a floundering economy. In January record number of individuals looking for work, while fourth-quarter unemployment hit 8.2 percent. The magazine Paris Match conducted a poll this week and found that 78 percent of French citizens support the strikers–the highest popular support that worker strikes have had in a decade in France. President Sarkozy announced in December a $35 billion stimulus plan, but has been largely mum about any other government actions besides the support packages for France’s auto industry and banking system.

After the tense transfer of power in Madagascar on Tuesday, when former Antananarivo mayor Andry Rajoelina seized the presidency with a “mutinous faction of the military,” Zambia has called for a immediate suspension of the country from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Calling what happened in Madagascar an “unconstitutional change of government,” Zambia is refusing to recognize Rajoelina’s new status and views the takeover as “a setback and a danger to the entrenchment of democracy and good governance in Africa.” The SADC is meeting today to discuss and possibly vote on Madagascar’s future with the organization. United States and EU embassy staff have since been removed from the country, and both international entities have threatened to cut off aid. Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries and surely faces more struggles in its future.

The World Water Forum, being held in Istanbul March 16-20, was organized to address Europe’s apparent over consumption of the resource, examine some alternatives and address responsibilities. Plagued from the start with “water justice” demonstrations, the forum has been having a hard time dealing with groups who wish to disrupt the discussions and presentations that mark this international meeting. Ironically, Turkish police today used water cannons to disperse a protesting group. Anita McNaught, writing a daily dispatch for Al Jazeera, captured the sentiment saying, “Clearly, the Turkish police had put a lot of thought into this. Water cannons must have a smaller carbon footprint than tear gas.” Today’s dispatch from McNaught also covers the role the private sector has taken at this forum. It seems that, with respect to water, the difference between public and private sectors lies in exactly what “profit” means to each. And so the debate continues at the World Water Forum, “an intriguing cocktail of the practical and the philosophical,” McNaught concludes.

A brigade of economists, legal experts, and agronomists will likely be sent to Afghanistan over the next few months by the Obama administration to help with redevelopment and reconstruction. The deployment of several hundred experts from various government agencies would be part of the plan that President Barack Obama is expected to approve soon to stabilize Afghanistan, which has seen an uptick in violence over the last year. Rebuilding the economy, which is in a shambles after decades of various wars, is imperative to fighting the insurgents.

The president of Sudan, who is facing an international warrant for his arrest, announced that no onecould “touch an eyelash” of his at a rally Wednesday in a town near Darfur. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant last week for Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of war crimes, but so far no arrest has been made. Al-Bashir has been defiant about the charges, accusing the West of wanting to “create chaos” in Sudan and break the country apart. Despite the atrocities in Sudan over the last decade, the Arab League and the African Union both expressed support for al-Bashir, observing that an arrest could destabilize the country, but criticized his decision to expel foreign aid workers.

The Japanese government is considering repositioning land and sea missile interceptors so that missiles from North Korea could be shot down. Japan is concerned about North Korean plans to launch a satellite in early April as observers suspect that Pyongyang will actually be testing a long-range missile that could theoretically reach Alaska. “We have to make an effort to secure the peace and safety of our people and assuage their concerns,” said Takeo Kawamura, a Japanese government spokesman.

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