What We're Watching: Separatists vs far right in Catalonia, US-Turkey row, France's controversial bill

A pro-independence protester holds a placard that reads: "Independence. There's another way to live", during a demonstration on Catalonia's day of 'La Diada' in Barcelona, Spain, September 11, 2020

Catalonia's post-election mess: Spain's pro-union Socialist Party (which leads the national coalition government in Spain) won the most votes in Sunday's regional election in Catalonia. But for the first time ever, pro-independence parties collectively came ahead in the popular vote, reaping a majority of seats (though voter turnout was dismal). Separatist forces will now band together to form yet another government in Catalonia that will prioritize breaking away from Spain, and may again try to secede unilaterally. Adding to Catalonia's political polarization, the far-right Vox party won almost 10 percent of the ballots cast with a fiery anti-independence, anti-immigration message that resonated with some unionist Catalans. The result puts Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in a bind: he needs pro-independence parties to get legislation passed in the national parliament, but giving them what they want — a pardon for the Catalan politicians convicted of secession for the events of 2017 and more autonomy for the region — would be immensely unpopular among voters in the rest of the country, and could encourage many of them to gravitate towards Vox. Your move, Don Pedro.


France's anti-separatism bill: The French parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of legislation aimed at curbing what President Emmanuel Macron has called "Islamic-separatism," and strengthening France's secular character. The bill's 51 articles include limits on homeschooling, fines — and even jail time — for doctors that conduct so-called "virginity tests" for Muslim women, as well as harsher penalties for online hate speech. Critics say the new law is discriminatory, unfairly targeting 5.7 million French Muslims, and does not reflect France's contemporary melting-pot culture. But proponents of the bill — among them many imams — argue that the new measures are necessary as France grapples with a resurgence of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. Indeed, the gruesome beheading of a teacher outside Paris last fall, followed by a deadly rampage at a church several days later in Nice, sent shockwaves through a country that has lost more of its people to terror attacks in recent years than any other Western country. But there's also a political dimension at play: Macron faces a tough reelection battle in 2022, and currently trails his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the polls while his own approval rating remains sluggish. Will inching closer to the right help Macron's reelection bid?

Turkey hits US over Kurds: Weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken angered Ankara by saying it wasn't acting like a NATO ally because of its purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defense system, US-Turkey relations have deteriorated further. This time, Turkey has blasted Washington for questioning the reported involvement of Kurdish militants in the execution of 13 Turkish hostages in northern Iraq, summoning the US ambassador for a scolding (Turkey, which considers Kurdish militants to be terrorists, also criticized Washington's ongoing support for the Kurds in Syria). As Turkish journalist İpek Yezdani told GZERO Media last fall, Turkey's pugnacious President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no fan of US President Joe Biden, who a year ago irked Erdogan by calling for the opposition to beat him in the next election. By contrast, Trump appeased Erdogan by withdrawing US troops from northern Syria. We're watching to see how frosty US-Turkey ties will get in the near term — and if Erdogan and Biden will find any common ground.

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Tunisia, the only country that emerged a democracy from the Arab Spring, is now in the middle of its worst political crisis since it got rid of former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over a decade ago.

On Sunday, the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, President Kais Saied responded to widespread protests over the ailing economy and COVID by firing embattled Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspending parliament for 30 days. Troops have surrounded the legislature, where rival crowds faced off on Monday, with one side chanting in support of the move and the other denouncing it as a coup.

How did we get here, do we even know who's really in charge, and what might come next?

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Political division, disinformation and, frankly, stupidity are costing lives. It is not authoritarian to mandate vaccines in America. In fact, there is historical precedent. Making vaccine uptake a requirement will save tens of thousands of lives and maybe many more than that. There really aren't two sides to this argument, there is just the science.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Hope you're having a good week. I wanted to kick it off by talking about vaccines. We all know the recent spike in cases and even hospitalizations that we have experienced in this country over the past couple of weeks. It looks like that's going to continue. It is overwhelmingly because of Delta variant. The hospitalizations and deaths are overwhelmingly because too many people are un-vaccinated.

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24-year-old Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate recounts how in 2020 she was cropped out of a photo at Davos of her with other white climate activists (like Greta Thunberg) and what it revealed about how people of color and people in developing countries, like those in Africa, are frequently excluded from the climate conversation.

Watch the episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Predictable disaster and the surprising history of shocks

Now that the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, your Signal crew will be bringing you some fun, intriguing, uplifting, and quirky facts about the Games that have many people on edge.

First up — what's the Refugee Team?

At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the International Olympic Committee created for the first time the Refugee Team to allow those who had fled persecution in their home countries to participate in the Olympics. Up from 10 athletes in 2016, it now has 29 participants across 12 sports from conflict-ridden countries: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela.

A separate team of refugees will also participate at the Paralympics, both of which are managed by the IOC and the UN Refugee Agency.

Iranian-born Kimia Alizadeh, a Germany-based taekwondo champion, narrowly missed out on bronze this week, which would have been the Refugee Team's first ever Olympic medal. Follow the team here.

Dr Anthony Fauci says the US is again "going in the wrong direction" as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across America. Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations — an apt indicator of serious illness from COVID — have spiked in 45 out of 50 states as a result of the contagious delta variant and rejection of vaccines, which are leading many US states to now have a vaccine surplus. We take a look at the 10 states where hospitalization rates have increased the most in recent weeks, and their corresponding vaccination rates — and unused vaccine rates.

Iraqi PM's face-to-face with Biden: Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq's prime minister, met with President Biden at the White House Monday to discuss the future of US troops in Iraq. The US still has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq to engage in "counterterrorism" operations and train Iraqi forces. In an interview published this week, al-Kadhimi called for the withdrawal of all US combat troops, because, he said, Iraqi forces have proven capable of fighting ISIS militants on their own. (Just last week, some 30 Iraqis were killed when ISIS militants attacked a busy Baghdad market.) Al-Kadhimi still wants non-combat US troops to stay on in a training capacity. He became PM in 2020 as a consensus candidate after nationwide protests over corruption and joblessness forced the resignation of the unpopular previous government. At least 500 protesters were killed during a crackdown by Iraqi security forces, fueling demands for fresh elections, which are set to take place this October. The green PM has a tough job: he has to juggle relations with the Biden administration, which just pledged $155 million in aid to Iraq, and ties with Tehran, an influential player in Iraqi politics. (Iraq relies on Iran for energy imports, and Iran-backed militias inside Iraq are a force to be reckoned with.) Local sentiment has soured on the US presence as Iraqis resent being caught in the middle of US-Iran fights inside Iraqi territory.

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7,100: As a third COVID wave ravages Myanmar, the death toll has now risen above 7,100, a gross undercount because that total includes only those who died in hospitals. Myanmar, which has one of the weakest healthcare systems in Asia, is also dealing with a vaccine hesitancy problem: people are rejecting shots because they see vaccination as validation of the military, which overthrew the democratically elected government earlier this year.

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