$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Macron to Give Trump Seedling From World War I Battle Site

French President Emmanuel Macron is bringing an environmentally friendly gift to the White House when he visits President Donald Trump this week: a tree sapling.

The young oak also has historical significance — it sprouted at a World War I battle site that became part of U.S. Marine Corps legend. Macron’s office said Sunday he hopes it will be planted in the White House gardens.


The oak sapling grew up near what’s known by the Marines as the Devil Dog fountain, in Belleau Wood. About 2,000 American troops died in the June 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood fighting the German spring offensive.


Macron arrives Monday in Washington for the Trump presidency’s first state visit. The two men have an unlikely friendship, despite strong differences on areas such as climate change.



$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Iran Deal, Transatlantic Trade Loom Over Macron Visit

U.S. President Donald Trump will host French President Emmanuel Macron for a state visit next week as the Iran nuclear agreement hangs in the balance, and the expiration of EU’s exemptions from steel and aluminum tariffs nears.

Macron’s visit will be the first state visit of the Trump administration. Over the past year, Macron and Trump have forged an unlikely partnership. U.S. media dubbed the relationship a “bromance” and “one of history’s oddest diplomatic couples.”

“The Trump-Macron relationship is perhaps one of the most unexpected partnerships of the Trump era,” observed Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at Heritage Foundation in an interview with VOA. “Clearly, Emmanuel Macron is very different to Trump in many respects ideologically, but the two leaders have formed a very pragmatic working relationship.”

Iran deal​

A senior administration official said the themes of the visit include celebrating the close ties between France and the United States, trade and investment issues, and security concerns, such as combating terrorism and the way forward in Syria.

It is expected that the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will be front and center of the bilateral discussions. Analysts see Macron’s visit, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House later in the week, as last-minute efforts to save the deal ahead of Trump’s May 12 deadline for the U.S. to pull out of the agreement if the terms are not changed.

A senior administration official told reporters it’s difficult to say the degree of detail the two leaders will go into regarding the Iran accord. He noted the discussions between European allies and the United States are “not quite done yet,” so the timeframe for the president make a decision on the deal will be “mid-May.”

“The president’s three priorities with respect to JCPOA are the sunset clause, the ballistic missile program, and more broadly, Iran’s malign activities throughout the region and throughout the world,” the official said.

Trump has demanded these flaws be fixed in the 2015 deal Iran made with six major powers — the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — to curb its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions that hobbled its economy.

Trump has called the agreement crafted under the Obama administration “the worst deal ever negotiated.” Trump contends Iran would quickly achieve nuclear capability at the end of the 10-year agreement and often assails its current military adventures in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Heritage Foundation expert Gardiner said it will be very interesting to see what Macron has to offer.

“Unless measures are taken to strengthen the deal, the deal should be dropped by the United States. I expect actually that’s what the president is going to do, unless there is a convincing case made by European leaders that Europe is committed to fundamentally strengthen the agreement. We haven’t seen that commitment yet,” he said.

Eric Jones, director of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, also doesn’t see Trump changing his mind about Iran after meeting with Macron, and he believes the Europeans see that as well.

“They’re hoping to convince the president they are going to introduce their own sanctions outside of the agreement in order to punish Iran for its behavior in Syria and other places, and that will be adequate reasons for the president to continue to waive U.S. sanctions under the deal where it stands. That’s what they want, a short-term achievement, not a long-term change in the president’s perspective,” Jones told VOA.

​US-European trade

Regarding trade, for Macron, extending the steel and aluminum exemption for the EU will be the first priority. A senior administration official said it’s hard to say if there will be any trade announcement following the state visit.

Jones said there are a lot of differences on trade, the most important of which is that Trump’s team hasn’t wrapped its collective mind around the idea that the European Union is a single trading entity.

“President Trump’s team has repeatedly approached not just France, but Germany and other European countries with the eye of making bilateral deals with these countries. Unfortunately, that’s a category error. These countries can’t make bilateral deals with the United States, so I think part of what President Macron is going to try to do, is better to push the conversation forward as a way of suggesting the United States should imagine the European Union as a single trading entity and a bilateral arrangement between the US and EU is what the White House should aspire to achieve,” he noted.


WATCH: Trump Rolls Out Red Carpet for French Leader

Macron’s state visit will start Monday with a tour of Mount Vernon and a private couples’ dinner hosted by Trump. Macron and Trump will meet at the White House Tuesday morning for a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, followed by a joint press conference. That evening, Trump will host Macron for a state dinner at the White House. On Wednesday, Macron will address a joint session of Congress.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Chemical Monitor Gathers Samples in Douma, Site of Suspected Gas Attack

An international chemical weapons monitor group said a team of inspectors collected samples Saturday at the site of an alleged gas attack two weeks ago in the Syrian town of Douma.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said a report based on the findings and other information gathered by the team will be drafted after the samples are analyzed by designated laboratories.

The group added it will “evaluate the situation and consider future steps, including another possible visit to Douma.”

The fact-finding team’s attempts to enter the town were postponed several days due to a series of security-related setbacks.

Emergency responders said at least 40 people were killed in the suspected April 7 gas attack, which the U.S. and its allies blamed on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons, a violation of international law, and invited the inspectors to investigate.

They arrived in Syria on April 14, the same day the United States, Britain and France launched a barrage of missiles targeting three chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Ken Ward, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, claimed on April 16 the Russians had already visited the site and “may have tampered with it,” a charge Moscow rejected.

On April 9, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador told the U.N. Security Council that Russian experts had visited the site, collected soil samples, interviewed witnesses and medical personnel, and determined no chemical weapons attack had taken place.

U.S. military officials have said the air strikes were designed to send a powerful message to Syria and its backers, showing that the United States, Britain and France could slice through the nation’s air defense systems at will.


$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Significant Drop in Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals in Europe

The U.N. migration agency has measured an impressive drop in the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea this year, compared to the same period the two previous years.

Through mid-April of this year, data shows 18,575 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain by crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  The International Organization for Migration says that is less than half of last year’s pace.  

More impressive is the steep decline this year, to nine percent, of the number of arrivals in Europe from 2016, which exceeded 200,000.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman says much of the drop can be explained by changes in the central Mediterranean route linking North Africa to Italy.  He says it is likely the repatriation of some 25,000 African migrants from Libya as well as stepped up activity by the Libyan coast guard have reduced the number of people crossing to Italy.

“Return to shore by coast guard is now almost 3,500 this year — 3,479,” said Millman. “This, we think, contributes to the same repatriation flights.  We think that people have endured, sometime, months of onerous conditions in unofficial detention centers or for better …who do get rescued by the coast guard …Maybe they are more susceptible to greater repatriations.  So, maybe those two things are happening in tandem.  But, they have brought the numbers down considerably.”  

Millman says there also is good news regarding fatalities.  He says 53 deaths in the Mediterranean have been recorded in April this year compared to 1,222 deaths during the same period in April three years ago.

While 53 deaths is tragic, he says this relatively low number of sea fatalities at the start of what is usually a very busy and deadly migration season is worth noting.  

He says the IOM hopes this is the start of a virtuous cycle and that this problem finally will disappear.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Red Carpet and Tough Issues Await Macron in Washington

After laying out a dazzling Bastille Day parade and an Eiffel Tower dinner complete with stunning Paris vistas, French President Emmanuel Macron can expect return treatment when he heads to Washington Monday, for the first official state visit of Donald Trump’s presidency.

But along with dining at the historic landmark of Mount Vernon and a chance to address Congress, lie talks on serious transatlantic differences. Macron’s three-day visit to the U.S. will test whether he can translate his reputation as Trump’s “go-to” European leader into deliverables for France and for Europe.

“If he gives the impression that he is too much aligned with Washington and Trump in particular, this can backfire domestically in France,” says Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Paris office head of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Especially if French and European interests are at risk by a decision President Trump could take.”

Trade, Iran and Syria count among key issues of discussion where the two leaders do not see eye-to-eye.  The talks will also center around the broader French-U.S. security cooperation that forms the bedrock of today’s relationship.



More broadly, Macron’s visit will underscore two clashing world visions, analysts say.

“On the one side, there is a strategy of withdrawal, on the other a strategy of opening,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a former French diplomat and international specialist, comparing Trump to Macron. “But the disagreements are quite clear, and (this clarity) can help them settle their differences.”

Less than a year ago, few would have thought France’s youngest president and America’s oldest one could have built such a close rapport. From work habits to extracurricular passions — art versus golf — 40-year-old Macron and 71-year-old Trump appear diametrically opposed. And indeed, their first encounter, sealed in snapshots of Macron bypassing Trump to greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a NATO meeting last May, then the famous arm-wrestling handshake, did not appear promising.

Yet both men are also political outsiders, whose ascent to power toppled the status quo. And Trump’s trip to Paris last July helped to mark a U-turn in their relations.

“They talk to each other frequently. It’s obvious that Macron tries to keep the United States within the circle of countries and leaders — and that means speaking to Donald Trump respectfully, frequently and strongly,” says French historian and U.S. expert Nicole Bacharan.

“And on Donald Trump’s side, he seems to enjoy this dominant alpha male relationship. (Macron’s) youth and popularity is something he likes to be close to.”

The military linchpin

Long gone are the Freedom Fries’ days that marked a nadir in bilateral ties, after former French leader Jacques Chirac refused to join the 2003 U.S.-led coalition to topple former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The “special” transatlantic relationship then was forged between U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Then came U.S. President Barack Obama, who made German Chancellor Angela Merkel his top European interlocutor.

But today, Merkel is perceived as waning and weakened — and criticized by Trump for not spending enough on defense. For her part, Britain’s Theresa May is busy with Brexit.

Macron’s new “special” status in Washington helps to burnish his international credentials in Europe, not to mention France’s place on the world stage, analysts say. It amounts to a bright spot amid a cascade of domestic problems facing both leaders.

But today, many are waiting to see whether it can produce concrete results. On areas like the status of Jerusalem and climate change, Macron and Trump are far apart — although some experts say the French president still hopes to persuade his U.S. counterpart to rejoin the Paris climate treaty.

Defense is another matter. From targeting militants in the Sahel to the recent joint strikes against suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, France and the U.S. work closely together.

“What really sticks France and the United States together — and what Germany and the UK cannot sell to Washington — is this military cooperation,” says The German Marshall Fund’s De Hoop Scheffer. “This general-to-general cooperation …which gives (Macron) leverage on many issues where France and Europe have interests.”

Indeed, on some issues, such as the need for other European allies to spend more on defense, the two leaders broadly agree, experts say. Others, such as a longer-term strategy on Syria, are more complex.


Following the Syria strikes, Macron said he had persuaded Trump to a limited campaign and to stay engaged in the country for the longer term — then appeared to walk back on his remarks after a swift rebuttal from the White House. More fundamentally, perhaps, observers doubt the U.S. president will sign onto Macron’s call for investing in a longer-term political solution in Syria — one that engages key Trump administration nemesis Iran.

But fundamentally, analyst Moreau Defarges believes their views are not so far apart.

“Basically they agree, but they won’t say that,” he says. “They are not ready to intervene in Syria. Because they cannot forget what happened in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq.”

Sticking points: trade, Iran

Trade may prove a trickier matter. Europe wants Washington to make permanent a temporary European exemption for U.S. iron and steel tariffs. The European Union has drawn up a list of U.S. products it may slap retaliatory duties on, if this doesn’t happen.

“We are close allies between the EU and the United States. We cannot live with full confidence with the risk of being hit by those measures and by those new tariffs,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday, saying this was necessary to then work with the U.S. on trade issues with China. “We cannot live with a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”

Yet paradoxically, Trump’s “America First” trade policies may also have its upsides for Europe, De Hoop Scheffer says — manifest for example, by accelerated trade pacts with Japan and Canada.


“We could say a positive outcome of the Trump presidency and disruptive approach to international relations is it has allowed the European Union to become much more assertive on such issues,” she says, “and much more collective in its response.”

Iran is another big sticking point, as France and other EU nations seek to persuade Trump not to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement. With a May 12 deadline looming for Trump to decide on the deal, the Europeans are reportedly considering tougher sanctions against Tehran as an added incentive.

While some analysts, including Moreau Defarges, doubt Trump can be persuaded to stick with the nuclear accord, others believe the U.S. and Europe are narrowing their differences.

And for some, whether Macron leaves Washington with more than just the smiles and handshakes of last year’s Bastille Day visit, may be a key test of Macron’s credibility. Others believe simply being Trump’s main man in Europe is a plus.

“Just the fact he is the one leader who can talk frankly to Donald Trump, who can keep the United States as a reliable — or semi-reliable —  partner, and insists on protecting the post-World War II world order,” says analyst Bacharan, “He has almost everything to win, and nothing to lose.”

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Are Illiberal Democracies on the March in Europe?

Among the issues pressing on the mind of French President Emmanuel Macron as he prepares for a state visit to Washington on Monday is what he describes as a “civil war” between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism in Europe. 

In a recent speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron called on the European Union to resist the siren song of populism.

“There is a fascination with the illiberal and it’s growing all the time.”

Macron’s comments come after euroskeptic populists won elections in Hungary and Italy, and as the EU confronts Poland’s right-wing government over the rule of law.

“I reject this idea that is spreading in Europe that democracy would be condemned to powerlessness. In the face of authoritarianism that everywhere surrounds us, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” Macron said. 

Many on both sides of the Atlantic are pondering the dangers of illiberalism and autocracy — especially in Central and Eastern Europe — and what it might mean for the future of the continent.

Illiberal democracy or populism?

In front of an audience of Washington policy experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski challenged the view of Hungary’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, that a democracy “is not necessarily liberal.”

Sikorski said that while there can certainly be democracies where non-liberals win, populists are distinct. 

“In order to win, populists first need to focus on something that is popular and they did. They focused on an issue that was at the height of public attention in all of Europe, namely migration,” Sikorski said.

Orban, whose Fidesz party and its allies won a sweeping election victory earlier this month, said the outcome gave him “a strong mandate” to restrict migrant rights and push for a European Union of independent nations rather than a “United States of Europe.”

Charles Gati, professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland, said that by and large, the Eastern and Central European countries that have been admitted to the European Union are on a good path. He did, however, add that “backsliding democracies” would not be the right way to describe what is happening in Poland and Hungary. 

“They are either authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian regimes that maintain the facade of democratic processes.”

Heather Conley is a senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said many factors may be contributing to the current trend in Europe.

“Weakened opposition and then policies and structures that purposely reduce and weaken that opposition, that’s really for me a hallmark of this trend toward illiberalism,” she said.

Central European or global trend?

Sikorski warned against applying regional labels when talking about populist or illiberal tendencies. 

“This is not a Central European phenomenon. This is a Pan-Western phenomenon,” he said.

In its latest issue, Foreign Affairs magazine asks the question, “Is Democracy Dying? — A Global Report,” which analyzes the issue not only in Europe, but the United States, China and other countries. According to the magazine, “Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution.”

For David Frum, a senior editor with The Atlantic magazine, democracy is better seen “as a dimmer switch, rather than a light switch, not on or off but brighter or darker.”

“If it’s possible to become a more liberal democracy in one direction, in the same way you can become gradually a less liberal democracy, without going through the full overthrow of your state,” he said.

Sikorski said he worries that illiberal tendencies in formerly communist countries may have larger consequences.

“We have reawakened stereotypes about the region that were on the way to being buried and we have contributed to the decline in the willingness of Western Europe to consider further Eastern enlargement.”

Can the trend be reversed?

In an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, academics, writers and activists criticized her for not standing up to Orban’s attacks on Hungarian democracy.

Sikorski, however, said the EU cannot do much because the whole confederation is based on the idea of mutual trust among institutions in individual member countries. 

“If this mechanism of trust is broken, then the consequences are very profound for the whole union.”

The EU may have important leverage. The last seven-year budget granted Poland nearly one-fifth of the EU’s cohesion funds and negotiations over the next budget begin in May. So, under pressure for its controversial changes to the legal system, which critics say put judges under the control of the ruling party, amendments have been submitted to parliament to reverse some of those revisions. 

Gati says the way to counter illiberalism in Hungary is through voting. 

“I think it’s possible that next year when there are municipal elections, Budapest will go to the opposition,” he said.

And Frum said it is important not to pathologize Central and Eastern Europe. 

“There is a flu going around the neighborhood; some people have got a much worse case than others and some people have weaker immunity than others, but do understand that it’s the same flu that we are all getting.”

Whether this is a flu or an epidemic, one thing is for sure: there are no clear prescriptions. 

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Report: Sanctions-Hit Russian Firms Seek $1.6B in Liquidity

Russian companies hit by U.S. sanctions, including aluminum giant Rusal, have asked for 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) in liquidity support from the government, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Friday.

The United States on April 6 imposed sanctions against several Russian entities and individuals, including Rusal and its major shareholder, Oleg Deripaska, to punish Moscow for its suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and other alleged “malign activity.”

Rusal, the world’s second-biggest aluminum producer, has been particularly hard hit as the sanctions have caused concern among some customers, suppliers and creditors that they could be blacklisted, too, through association with the company.

“Temporary nationalization” is an option for some sanctions-hit companies, but not Rusal, Siluanov was quoted as saying. He did not name the companies he was referring to.

A Kremlin spokesman had said Thursday that temporary nationalization was an option for helping Rusal.

According to another news agency, RIA, Rusal has requested only government support with liquidity and with demand for aluminum so far, Siluanov said.

RIA quoted the minister as saying the government was not considering state purchases of aluminum for now.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

US Says China, Iran, Russia Are ‘Forces for Instability’

The United States has labeled China and Russia “forces of instability” because of their human rights records, along with North Korea and Iran.

In its annual global human rights report released Friday, the State Department singled out those four countries for violating basic human rights, including freedom of expression and the protection of religious and ethnic minorities.

Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said in an introduction to the report that the four countries “violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis.”

Sullivan said states that restrict freedom of expression and allow violence against members of religious, ethnic and other minority groups are “morally reprehensible and undermine our interests.”

The report says Russia allows a “climate of impunity” for human rights abuses, doing little to punish those who carry out such crimes. It also describes Russia’s government as an “authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”

On China, the report says the government carries out arbitrary detentions, executions and forced disappearances. It also says the government puts “significant restrictions” on freedoms of speech, religion and movement.

The report also condemns the violence against Burma’s Rohingya minority.

Sullivan told reporters that the United States was working with its partners to address the crisis in Burma, in which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled the country after a government crackdown on Rohingya militants. The United Nations accuses Burma of conducting coordinated attacks against the population, likening the action to “ethnic cleaning.”

“Those responsible for the violations, abuses and attacks must be held accountable,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also spoke about Syria, saying the “entire world is aware of the horrendous human rights abuses in Syria, including barrel bombing of civilians, attacks on hospitals, and widespread reports of rape and abuse by Syrian government personnel.”

Human rights groups were quick to criticize Friday’s report, noting that it had been stripped of its reporting on reproductive rights. This is the first year the report does not contain a section on reproductive rights since 2012, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added the topic. 

Rights group Amnesty International said “reproductive rights are human rights, and omitting the issue signals the Trump administration’s latest retreat from global leadership on human rights.”

The group also criticized the report for not being critical enough of the governments of U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

VOA’s Cindy Saine contributed to this report.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Commonwealth Leaders Ponder Future as Britain Prepares to Exit Europe

Heads of state from across the world are gathered in London this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The organization emerged from the breakdown of the British Empire in the last century, and critics say it has failed to shake off its colonial legacy. But as Henry Ridgwell reports, the Commonwealth is under renewed focus in London, as Britain looks for new global partnerships after it leaves the European Union next year.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

US Tells Russia to Address Election Concerns, Chemical Weapons

White House national security adviser John Bolton told Russia’s ambassador on Thursday that better relations between the two countries required addressing U.S. concerns on election meddling, a chemical attack in Britain, and the situations in Ukraine and Syria, the White House said.

It was the first meeting between Bolton, who started at the White House this month, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov, the administration said in a statement.

Bolton told Antonov it was in the interest of both countries to have better relations, but Russia must address allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and poisoned a former Russian spy in Britain, the statement said. Moscow has denied both allegations.

The statement said the United States also had concerns about the situations in Ukraine, where Russia backs separatists, and in Syria, where Moscow’s military support has tipped the balance in favor of the Damascus government in a seven-year-old civil war.