Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
This week was the usual chaotic mess we’ve come to expect over the course of 2018. There was madness in Washington. Yet more instability in London. Riots in France. Oh, plus a whole load of violence unfolding in Brazil, Russia, and France (again). Par for the course for this freewheeling year? We’ll let you be the judge of that.
By some measures, the “yellow vests” movement in France has to count as one of the most successful protests in modern history. Began in the wake of a fuel tax hike, they soon ballooned into an angry howl against the current government, against Emmanuel Macron, and against a near-decade of plummeting living standards.
Finally, on Monday, Macron cracked. After refusing to back down on the fuel price hike, he not only axed it, but he also raised the minimum wage, slashed certain taxes, and undid recent changes to the pension system. Had he come storming out with this three weeks ago, he’d be right at the top of his game again.
But he didn’t. And now there’s serious concern that his concessions may have been too little, too late. Many yellow vests have said they will continue to protest until real change comes—a likely euphemism for Macron resigning.
The big question is: Will they retain public support after Macron’s climbdown? Some foreign leaders certainly think so. This week, Egypt banned the sale of yellow vests in case locals tried to mimic the French protests.
Thankfully, 2018 has seen very few Islamist attacks on France, following the horrible heights of 2015 and 2016, when over 200 people were killed in around 18 months. Unfortunately, “very few” isn’t a synonym for “none at all.” On Tuesday, a gunman shouting “Allahu Akbar” opened fire at the crowded Christmas market in Strasbourg on the German border. His attack killed two people, injured 12, and left another brain-dead.
The shooter has been identified as Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old petty criminal who was on French terrorism watchlists. As with many of the attackers in Europe in recent years, Chekatt seems to have been radicalized in prison, a sign that something’s clearly very rotten in the prison system. Chekatt was wounded in the attack, and on Thursday, he was killed during a police operation in Strasbourg.
While Chekatt’s actions were undoubtedly horrifying, his attack was thankfully relatively low-impact. We’ve noted before that the days of Islamist attacks with casualties in the double figures seem to be on the wane in Europe. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before even the sort of shooting we saw in Strasbourg becomes a thing of the past.
Sticking with our unhappy theme of mass murder for a moment, this week also saw a gunman bring carnage to the Brazilian city of Campinas. Forty-nine-year-old systems analyst Euler Fernando Gandolfo walked into the local Catholic cathedral during midday mass. He took a seat among some elderly worshippers and briefly prayed before standing up and opening fire on the congregation. By the time he stopped, four people were dead. Gandolfo then committed suicide.
Although Brazil is one of the most violent countries on Earth, US-style mass shootings are extremely rare. This makes the massacre in Campinas something of an outlier—a story more familiar to American audiences than those used to the gang violence of Brazil.
Police are currently saying they believe Gandolfo was mentally ill. Unwell or not, his actions still robbed four defenseless elderly people of their lives.
Right now, we’re living through the twilight of the Merkel era. Following last year’s disappointing national elections and a string of poor performances in regional ballots, the chancellor of Germany has been left limping toward a finish line it’s not at all certain she’ll cross.
Last Friday, we got the first glimpse of what might come next. Following a hotly contested vote, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK for short) beat Fredrich Merz to become the new leader of Merkel’s CDU party. Although Merkel stays on as chancellor, her party is now done with her.
So, what should we expect of the possible next holder of the title “most powerful woman in Europe?” Well, AKK’s a little complicated. She’s extremely pro-EU and pro-women’s rights, but she’s also none-too-friendly toward LGBT rights, has questioned the right of Turks living in Germany to hold dual citizenship, and is all for mandatory military service.
Still, she was seen as the moderate choice in the face of Merz’s pitch to make CDU ape the far-right AfD. Whether she can counter the rising tide of both right- and left-wing populism in Germany remains to be seen.
It’s curious that the big three leaders of the EU (Macron, Merkel, and May) are all watching their authority erode at precisely the same time. As Macron was battling a revolutionary street movement and Merkel was being shunted offstage into lame duck status, Theresa May was—once again—clinging desperately on as her party tried to throw her out the nearest window.
This week’s attempt came in the form of a vote of no confidence in her leadership, triggered by fellow Conservative MPs angry at her Brexit deal. The ballot was held in secret on Wednesday night. Had May failed, she would have been ejected as both party leader and prime minister, leaving Britain rudderless as the gigantic turd storm known as Brexit looms.
In the end, though, May survived. Just barely. A total of 117 of her own MPs voted to remove her, while 200 voted for her to stay. Even her most pessimistic allies had predicted a maximum of 80 MPs voting against her. May may have made it through alive, but a third of her party (plus the entirety of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and Britain’s many small parties) now want her dead. And the vote hasn’t even healed the divisions that were already there. The closer we get to Brexit, the bigger these will become. Expect more UK chaos in the future.
It says something about 2018 that this was the year we identified the likely worst serial killers of three separate countries. In October, we learned that Niels Hogel had killed more than any other German serial killer in modern history, and in November, we learned that Texas felon Samuel Little may be the worst killer the US has ever seen.
Now, as we plod into December, it’s Russia’s turn. Mikhail Popkov was already known as a brutal murderer, having been jailed in 2015 for the killing of 22 women in his Siberian city of Angarsk. This week, a Russian court convicted him of 56 more murders. He is now likely the most prolific serial killer modern Russia has ever known.
Popkov’s tale is one of a monster hiding in plain sight. A one-time policeman, he would offer women lifts home in his cruiser, drive them into the woods, rape them, and kill them with an ax or hammer. The one time he killed a man, it was a fellow police officer he feared might expose him. So brutal were his crimes that he was dubbed “the Werewolf.”
Remember the Armenian revolution? Earlier this year, this column spent around five weeks covering those crazy events, as one man’s lone protest snowballed into a nonviolent “velvet” revolution that toppled the entire government without a single shot fired. The lone protestor who started it all, Nikol Pashinian, became prime minister. But his story wasn’t done yet.
On the weekend, Armenians voted in a snap poll Pashinian called after complaining that the current legislature was blocking his reforms. He was expected to win, but no one could have foreseen by how much. Pashinian’s alliance brought home over 70 percent of the vote. His closest rival pulled down under nine percent. As for the former ruling party his peaceful revolution dethroned? They didn’t even scrape the five-percent threshold for seats in the parliament.
Pashinian now has a thumping democratic mandate to push through his reforms and—hopefully—make Armenia into a more equal, less corrupt place. We can only hope he succeeds.
Earlier this month, Canada unexpectedly arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of China’s Huawei telecoms company. The arrest was made at the request of US authorities, who believe Wanzhou may have avoided US sanctions on Iran and lied to American banks about it.
In Beijing, the apparent clampdown on one of its top companies by America set alarm bells ringing. Although Wanzhou has not yet been extradited to the States, China is already piling on the diplomatic pressure. This week, that pressure got seriously ugly. In what appears to be tit-for-tat retaliation, China separately arrested two Canadians—including a former diplomat.
The move appears to be Beijing flexing its muscles in the face of what it sees as unfair persecution. It also places Ottawa in a difficult bind. If Wanzhou is extradited, yet more Canadian citizens in China could face arrest. If she’s set free, it’ll be Washington that’s fuming. It seems to be a lose-lose situation.
It really says something about the sheer number of dum-dums out there in Internet land that one of the top Google searches for Alex James Fields Jr. (aka the attacker who killed a protestor in Charlottesville) is “Hillary Clinton supporter.” Yep, that’s right. The hate-filled white supremacist who murdered a leftist demonstrator is apparently the liberal here. Jesus wept.
Thankfully, the knuckle-dragging imbeciles of the online world are apparently in the minority in America’s court system. This week, the jury in Fields’s case advised handing him life, plus 419 years, for the vehicle ramming attack that killed Heather Heyer. While the presiding judge will not issue a formal sentence until March next year, it seems likely that Fields will be going away for a long, long time.
This can only be a good thing. The wounds from Charlottesville are still fresh in American society, and hate remains dangerously close to the surface. Hopefully, Fields’s long term in prison will go some way toward helping those affected by his actions.
Not so long ago, Michael Cohen was the right-hand man of the most powerful person on the planet. The long-time lawyer and fixer for President Trump was one of the biggest fish Robert Mueller’s investigation landed. Now he becomes the first member of the president’s inner circle to face jail time for his misdeeds. After prosecutors alleged he lied after a plea agreement had been made, Cohen was sentenced to three years in jail on Wednesday, to be served concurrently with a separate two-month sentence for lying to Congress.
Cohen’s crimes focused on campaign finance violations, tax evasion, and fraud. While the latter two are unrelated to his work for the president, the first is intimately connected. Cohen was found guilty of directing hush payments to keep Trump’s affairs out of the papers. His conviction for lying to Congress, meanwhile, relates to his knowledge of a Trump Tower project in Moscow.
With Cohen’s conviction, it seems like we’re finally starting to see the fruits of Mueller’s investigation. Surprisingly, it appears that the special counsel is focusing more on crimes committed by Trump’s business empire than on Russian collusion. Where things go from here is anyone’s guess. But rest assured: This circus will drag on for months yet, at least.