TWO STORIES IN THE KEY OF: LANGUAGES AND NATIONS

Around the world, national governments in countries that are home to large diasporas or immigrant populations face the challenge of expanding people’s inclusion (by conducting official business in many languages) without encouraging the fragmentation that can result when people don’t need to learn the primary official language. Here are two stories in that key:


Putting Arabic in French Schools…

In a controversial bid to blunt the appeal of Islamic extremism in his country, French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration is pushing a proposal to teach Arabic in public elementary schools. At the moment, French citizens of Arab origin who want their kids to learn the language have few options beyond local mosques, which teach it in a religious context. Amid concerns that mosques in poorly-integrated neighborhoods have become fertile recruitment grounds for radicals (ISIS has drawn more recruits from France than from any other Western country), Macron wants to provide an alternative, government-sponsored option. But critics of the idea say that allowing kids to study Arabic in French schools will just make it harder for them to integrate in a society where French is the official language. And lack of integration among minority groups in France is seen as a contributor to radicalization in the first place.

...while taking Russian out of Latvian ones.

The tiny Baltic nation of Latvia has courted controversy by banning the teaching of Russian in elementary schools. The government sees the move as a necessary step to reinforce a sense of unity and nationhood in a country where only 60 percent of citizens are ethnic Latvians. By way of background, Latvia – whose own language has nothing to do with Russian – was forced into the Soviet Union during World War Two, and for decades thereafter the population and school system were Russianized under Soviet control.

After the USSR fell apart in 1991, many Russians (and other ethnicities who never learned Latvian) stayed in the newly independent country rather than “return” to Russia. They are understandably upset about the new law, as is Moscow, which has blasted the “odious” measure.  The role of Russian in Latvian public life has long been a contentious issue – a 2012 referendum shot down a proposal to make it the country’s second official tongue. And the plight of Ukraine now looms large over the entire debate – in 2014, after the pro-Russian government in Kyiv was overthrown, the new authorities immediately passed a bill limiting the use of Russian. That was one of the main pretexts for the Kremlin’s decision to annex Crimea and back rebels in the East. Russia, President Putin said, reserved the right to defend “Russian-speakers” everywhere.

Brazil's governors take on Bolsonaro: We've previously written about the tensions between local and national governments over coronavirus response, but few places have had it as bad as Brazil. As COVID-19 infections surged in Brazil, the country's governors quickly mobilized – often with scarce resources – to enforce citywide lockdowns. Brazil's gangs have even risen to the occasion, enforcing strict curfews to limit the virus' spread in Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mocked the seriousness of the disease and urged states to loosen quarantines in order to get the economy up and running again. "Put the people to work," he said this week, "Preserve the elderly; preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that." In response, governors around the country – including some of his allies – issued a joint letter to the president, begging him to listen to health experts and help states contain the virus. The governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, has even threatened to sue the federal government if Bolsonaro continues to undermine his efforts to combat the virus' spread.

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The major outbreaks of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States have garnered the most Western media attention in recent weeks. Yesterday, we went behind the headlines to see how Mexico and Russia are faring. Today, we'll look at three other potential hotspots where authorities and citizens are now contending with the worst global pandemic in a century.

Start with India. For weeks, coronavirus questions hovered above that other country with a billion-plus people, a famously chaotic democracy where the central government can't simply order a Chinese-scale public lockdown with confidence that it will be respected. It's a country where 90 percent of people work off the books— without a minimum wage, a pension, a strong national healthcare system, or a way to work from home.

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In the end, it took the coronavirus to break the year-long deadlock in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will still face corruption charges, but he has yet another new lease on political life, as he and political rival Benny Gantz cut a deal yesterday: Bibi will continue as prime minister, with Gantz serving as Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. After 18 months, Gantz will take over as prime minister, but many doubt that will ever happen.

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With large parts of the American economy shuttered because of coronavirus-related lockdowns, the number of people filing jobless claims in the US last week exceeded 3.2 million, by far the highest number on record. Here's a look at the historical context. The surge in jobless claims, which may be an undercount, is sure to cause a spike in the unemployment rate (which tells you the percent of work-ready people who are looking for a job). At last reading in February, unemployment was at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent. Economists warn that it could reach 5.5 percent in the near term. Even that would be far lower than the jobless rates recorded during previous economic crises such as the Great Depression or the Great Recession. Have a look.