Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Ségolène, président!

No big surprises in the first round of the French presidential election yesterday, but the result was promising for Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, who got a larger percentage in this round than had been expected. It was also interesting to see how poorly Le Pen did with just 10%, following the mini crisis that ensued in 2002 when he got past the first round.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is a far-right French nationalist who exploits Xenophobia and anti-semitism. 2002 saw a record low turnout in the first round and this, coupled with a splintering of the left, allowed Le-Pen to squeak past the first round and get into the second, in which the top two candidates compete. This result shocked and horrified the French people, and this led to the bizarre situation of the left holding rallies and urging people to vote for Jacques Chirac, who is a conservative, which they did in enormous numbers.

It would appear that the French people learned their lesson from that incident. This year saw a record turnout of 85 percent, the highest since the early days of the republic. When the US struggles to get past 50 percent for a presidential election and past 30 percent for a mid-term, 85 percent is definitely impressive.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

More European VTech coverage

I thought I'd give a little round-up of the European coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. There's been a lot of talk about Charlton Heston and the NRA (apparently people here were left with the impression, from "Bowling for Columbine," that he's one of the most powerful people in America). He keeps coming up on radio and TV coverage. Everyone is also mentioning the 2004 expiration of a 10-year ban on semi-automatic weapons under the then Republican-controlled Congress.
"Only the names change—And the numbers," read a headline in the Times of London. "Why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?"
The French daily Le Monde said the regularity of mass shootings across the Atlantic was a blotch on America's image.
"It would be unjust and especially false to reduce the United States to the image created, in a recurrent way, from the bursts of murderous fury that some isolated individuals succumb to. But acts like this are rare elsewhere, and tend to often disfigure the 'American dream.'"

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Virginia Tech massacre

Wow, what a day. At work today I saw some short items coming over the wires starting in the early afternoon about a shooter at Virginia Tech, but even by the time I left work they were still reporting just one death. I went to the grocery store, and by the time I got back and turned on the telly and I find that actually 33 people have been killed and many more have been injured.

This thing is so crazy, and I can't believe it's now 11pm and they still don't know whether there was one shooter or two, whether the two shooting sprees at the two different buildings were related, or even who the dead are. The scale of the killings is difficult to grasp, but what is equally unbelievable is how the school allowed this to happen. What we know now is there was a shooting incident at a dorm at 7am, two people were shot and the shooter was on the loose. The school decided to lock down, and then for some reason, before the shooter was caught, they rescinded the lock down and told everyone to go to class. Then somehow two hours later the shooter, with at least two large guns and tons of ammunition, got to the other side of campus, entered an engineering building and killed 31 more people. And this is after multiple bomb threats were called into the school last week.

It is now the worst mass shooting in American history.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Just say no to EU roaming

This is funny, I’ve been complaining for the last week about how Europeans should demand an end to roaming mobile charges within the EU, and then the issue goes before the EU parliament today.

The assembly voted to restrict the amount that mobile phone carriers can charge EU consumers for roaming in other EU countries. Right now, if I wanted to use my phone when I go to France next weekend, for instance, I would have to pay over a dollar a minute to make or receive a call. Same with text messages or internet use.

I’ve been complaining about this because I gave in last week and signed up for a monthly mobile plan. I really shouldn’t have one, I don’t like talking on the phone very much (I really just have short conversations to make plans) so I don’t use many minutes, pay-as-you-go would have been the better system for me. But I really wanted the new N95, and without signing up for a plan it would have been $1,000.

I also got the free unlimited internet and GPS locating. But what’s annoying is that the times when I’ll most want to be using it, namely when I’m traveling, I can’t use it. Since the UK is a tiny country, when I’m traveling I’ll most likely be in a different country in Europe. At those times the rate for going online or using GPS would be outrageous, as would be any attempt to make a call.

I’ve been trying to get my British friends to understand how unfair and frustrating this is. In the US, when you travel you are most likely staying within the country. That means anywhere you go, you are never roaming. I can take a trip to LA, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, anywhere I like, and I will never be roaming. And, it isn’t any extra to call numbers in those places either. Every cell phone plan comes with nationwide calling, no long distance anywhere domestic, ever. That means when I moved around so much the past few years I was able to keep my New York number, because it wasn’t any extra for people in Chicago to call me.

This wasn’t always the case. When cell phones first came out most plans were just regional, meaning that if you left your individual coverage area (Connecticut, for instance) you were roaming. But eventually the market took action, one company offered nationwide coverage, and soon they all followed. Once again, the large unified market of the US worked to the benefit of consumers.

What angers me is that all of the big mobile carriers in Europe, TMobile, Vodaphone, and Orange for instance, operate all over the country. I have TMobile. But if I use the TMobile network in Germany, I get charged roaming. I think that’s pretty outrageous. So I’ve been asking, since the EU is trying to encourage open borders and an open trade zone, shouldn’t the force the mobile carriers to allow their customers to use their entire network?

Now I guess they’ve taken a step in the right direction by voting to cap roaming rates at 40 Euro cents a minute to make a call and 15 Euro cents a minute to receive one. If it passes the final hurdle the changes will hopefully go into effect by this summer.

While I welcome this decision, I think it doesn’t go far enough. I think the major carriers should be forced to allow consumers to use their entire network within the EU. I really don’t understand why one of them hasn’t done it. Think about it, if TMobile suddenly said we’re going to open up our entire European network, they would get tons of people switching to it. It would shut down their small local competitors and give them a huge edge in every market.

For all you Eurosceptics out there this is just another example of how not having a single market hurts you as a consumer. Think about the myriad advantages Americans have because we have such a gigantic open market. This point is rarely made by politicians here, but it would go a long way in swaying the public toward the EU project.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Could a strong EU solve the Iranian hostage crisis?

It looks like the Iranian hostage crisis (it’s like déjà vu all over again) may be cooling down, although any hope in this direction obviously has to be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s been over a week now since Iran stopped a British vessel in the Persian Gulf and arrested 15 British sailors, saying they had entered Iranian territorial waters. Britain is denying that they were in Iran’s territory and have showed GPS records and photographs to prove it. But Iran has refused to back down and is demanding an apology from the UK in order to even begin discussing the sailors’ return, along with an agreement to never violate Iran’s territory again. With images of the one female seaman being paraded in a headscarf all over British media, many are naturally outraged and are furious at the government’s inaction.

But the reality is, Britain doesn’t have a whole lot of options here. The UN security council couldn’t get a resolution condemning the Iranian action (Russia refused to go along). Everybody involved in this, including the Iranians, know that the ship was not actually in Iranian territory. The cause for this situation goes much deeper than that, having little to do with Iran and the UK and everything to do with Iran and the US, which still have no direct talks with each other. Iran is still seething over the detention of several Iranian diplomats in Iraq who have not been released. Just today this story broke in the Independent which casts some light on the real reason for this diplomatic stand-off. Apparently the US tried to kidnap some very high-ranking Iranian officials and failed. This move may have been a rush by the Iranians to get something to bargain with before the US makes another attempt. And since the US refuses to speak directly with Iran through diplomacy, kidnapping soldiers from a country allied with the US may be the only way they're choosing to communicate.