What We're Watching: France tackles extremism, China’s vaccine goes global, Qatar-Saudi thaw

Art by Annie Gugliotta

France's anti-extremism law: On the 115th anniversary of France's famed laïcité laws that separate church and state, President Emmanuel Macron yesterday unveiled a controversial new bill meant to tackle religious extremism. While the bill doesn't single out Islam by name — that would be illegal under France's constitution — officials have made clear that its aim is to rein in Islamic extremism and organizations that support it. The proposed law comes as Macron is under tremendous pressure to respond to a recent spate of Islamic terror attacks in France, which has lost more of its people to terrorism than any other EU member state and seen thousands of its citizens join ISIS in recent years. The new law would scrutinize funding for religious institutions, restricts home-schooling, tightens rules on online hate speech, and even singles out punishment for doctors who issue "virginity certificates." It still needs to be approved in Parliament, where Macron (just barely) controls the lower house. Although close to 80 percent of French people believe that "Islam has declared war on France," debate over the law is expected to be fierce, with far-left and far-right groups saying it doesn't actually go far enough, while other critics say that the law needs to be part of broader efforts to better integrate French Muslims into society.


End to Qatar blockade? Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week made significant progress towards a deal to end Riyadh's three-year blockade of Qatar, imposed because of what the Saudis say is Qatar's support for terrorism. The latest diplomatic breakthrough was brokered by Kuwait and the US, which wants to end the standoff and give President Trump another foreign policy win in the Middle East before leaving office. The preliminary agreement hinges on Riyadh granting the Qataris access to Saudi airspace in exchange for the Qataris dropping their pending international lawsuits against the Saudis, which seek damages over the blockade. However, there's just one problem — Doha is also under blockade by Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, and it's not clear that they are willing to give up just yet. There's also bad blood over Qatar's moves since 2017 to cozy up to Iran, mortal enemy of most of the Sunni Gulf powers and Egypt.

China's vaccine diplomacy: A Chinese coronavirus vaccine was approved for use outside China for the first time on Wednesday, when the UAE announced that the Sinopharm shot, which can be stored at room temperature, is 86 percent effective. It's a potential game-changer for many developing countries that lack cold-storage facilities for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are more effective than Sinopharm's but require deep freezing. The UAE's approval is likely the first among dozens of countries where China aims to push its own brand of vaccine diplomacy, which consists of sharing its drugs with poorer nations as a "global public good" instead of trying (like the US is doing) to inoculate all its own people first. On the one hand, China's vaccine push will be a lifesaver for developing countries that can't buy enough doses now, as Western countries hoard COVID-19 vaccines. And it may help restore trust in China after Beijing allegedly covered up the initial Wuhan outbreak. What will China ask for in return for this largesse? It's hard to say, but with this kind of leverage, Beijing will be in a good position — as long as its vaccines really work.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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