Saudi Arabia will be razed except for Mecca & Medina if it attacks Iran – defense minister

Saudi Arabia will be razed except for Mecca & Medina if it attacks Iran – defense minister
Responding to Saudi Arabia’s latest threats to take their conflict inside Iran, Tehran said it will leave nothing standing in the kingdom except for Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina if the Saudis do anything “ignorant,” Al-Manar reports.

“We warn them against doing anything ignorant, but if they do something ignorant, we will leave nowhere untouched apart from Mecca and Medina,” Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan told Arabic-speaking Al-Manar channel, as cited by Reuters.

“They think they can do something because they have an air force,” he added in an apparent reference to Riyadh’s bombing of Yemen, where Iran-affiliated Houthi forces are being routinely targeted by the Saudi Air Force.

Dehghan’s comment followed unusually blunt remarks by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said on Tuesday that any struggle for influence between Riyadh and Tehran would take place “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

In a rare interview broadcast on multiple Saudi TV channels, the 31-year-old prince, who was named in 2015 by his father, King Salman, as successor to the throne, outlined his vision of modern-day Iran.

Making use of sectarian terms, Prince Salman said Iran is eager “to control the Islamic world” and to spread its Shiite doctrine, according to AP.

When asked if there is a mere possibility to mend ties with Iran, the prince said: “How can I come to an understanding with someone, or a regime, that has an anchoring belief built on extremist ideology?” 

The prince, who is also in charge of the Sunni kingdom’s economy, argued that the predominantly-Shiite Iran aims to reach Mecca – the holiest site for all Muslims.

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Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. © Fayez Nureldine

“We will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia,” he threatened without elaborating.

Ties between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strained since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but tensions began to mount rapidly over the past few years.

Perhaps the most significant flare-up happened in January last year, when Riyadh executed Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite preacher. Massive demonstrations erupted in Tehran, with some protesters ransacking the Saudi embassy and setting it ablaze.

The next day, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran, though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there was no justification for the assault.

The incident took place amid the infamous Saudi intervention in Yemen aimed at restoring the power of ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Riyadh accuses Tehran of waging a proxy war there by arming and supplying Houthi rebels, though Iran denies the allegations. According to UN estimates, the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen killed over 13,000 civilians during the two years of the conflict.

Russia’s Gazprom starts building TurkStream gas pipeline under Black Sea

Russia’s Gazprom has begun construction on the TurkStream gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey. Feeder lines are planned to also supply EU markets.

Ostsee Pipelineverlegeschiff Solitaire von Allseas (picture-alliance/dpa/Allseas)

Russian gas giant Gazprom said Sunday it had started construction of a gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey that also aims to provide gas to the European Union.

Gazprom said its Swiss partner Allseas Group’s vessel Audacia had started laying pipes on the Russian shore of the Black Sea.

“By late 2019, our Turkish and European consumers will have a new, reliable source of Russian gas imports,” Alexey Miller, Chairman of the Gazprom Management Committee, said in a statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward the TurkStream project in 2014 after plans to build a gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, known as South Stream, collapsed under EU pressure during the Ukraine crisis.

The project was later put on ice after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border, triggering a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. The plan was revived after the two sides reconciled their some of their differences in October last year.

Russland Gasförderung (Getty Images/AFP/O. Maltseva)A Nord Stream pipeline operator in northwestern Russia

From southern Russia to northwestern Turkey

TurkStream will run from near Anapa in southern Russia under the Black Sea to northwestern Turkey. A planned feeder line to Greece would then bring gas onwards to southern and southeastern Europe.  Two lines each with an annual capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters (1.1 trillion cubic feet) will be built.

For Russia, which is already Turkey’s largest gas provider, the pipeline would allow it to reduce dependence on Ukraine and Eastern Europe for transporting gas while helping to further seal its dominance over European gas markets.

Turkey aims to become a regional oil and gas hub for energy from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean in order to ensure domestic energy security and cement the country’s geostrategic importance.

Infografik Karte Gazprom Turkish Stream englisch

 

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UNHCR defends NGO charity groups over migrant rescues in Mediterranean

The UNHCR has defended charity groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean as they come under criticism in Italy. It also reported on a dire situation for children in South Sudan.

Mittelmeer Gerettete Flüchtlinge (picture-alliance/abaca/I. Pastor)

The UN refugee agency has defended private aid groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Some of them have been accused in Italy of cooperating with smugglers in Libya.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday there needed to be a greater effort to rescue a rising number of migrants using Libya as a springboard to reach Europe by boat.

“This is a matter of life or death which appeals to our most basic sense of humanity and should not be called into question,” Grandi said.  “The tireless efforts of the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and of NGOs are truly remarkable.”

Italy’s ruling center-left Democratic Party and the European Commission have also defended the NGOs.

NGOs have rescued about one-third of the more than 43,000 migrants who have made the crossing so far this year. On Friday and Saturday alone, some 6,000 migrants were picked up at sea by NGOs, the Italian navy and Frontex reported.  More than 1,150 migrants have drowned so far this year.

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Italy: Refugees welcome

Accusations of collusion

Italian Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro has in recent weeks accused some private charity boats of colluding with Libyan traffickers, allegations that have been picked up by some politicians in Italy.

The EU border control agency Frontex in a February report described the NGOs as “unintentionally” acting like a “pull factor” for more crossings by saving migrants close to the Libyan coast. But Frontex says there is no evidence of collaboration between the smugglers and NGOs.

The NGOs, led by SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), have defended their actions and denied cooperating with Libyan smugglers. They say they are simply carrying out rescues that should be organized by European governments.

Zuccaro has said bigger charities like MSF and Save the Children were beyond reproach, but he accused smaller private NGO boats of cooperating with smugglers. He has presented no hard evidence to back up the claims, which have since been echoed by Italy’s populist Five Star Movement and right-wing Northern League.

Migrants from Africa fleeing war and poverty have created an opportunity for smugglers based in Libya.

War, famine and poverty

The UN said on Monday that war and famine have forced more than two million children in South Sudan to flee their homes.

Seven-month-old Gire is one of over a million children fleeing violence in South Sudan. Help is urgently needed http://bit.ly/2pO2AOf 

Describing it as the most worrying refugee crisis in the world, Valentin Tapsoba, the UNHCR director in Africa, said, “No refugee crisis today worries me more than South Sudan.” He added: “That refugee children are becoming the defining face of this emergency is incredibly troubling.”

In the country of 12 million people, nearly 75 percent of children do not attend school, more than a million children have fled outside South Sudan and a further million are internally displaced.

cw/jm (AFP, dpa)

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Israeli right-wingers in cabinet push for Jewish state status to be set in law

The move comes just two weeks before US President Tump is expected to visit the region to discuss renewing peace talks. Critics say the measure would relegate Israeli Arabs to second class citizens.

Symbolbild Israel Siedlungen im Westjordanland (picture-alliance/newscom/D. Hill)

Right-wingers in Israel’s cabinet have renewed their push to anchor the country’s status as a Jewish state into law. Opponents say it would relegate the Arab minority to second-class citizens and further diminish any hopes for a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

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German President Steinmeier mends ties with Israel’s Netanyahu after diplomatic spat

President Steinmeier has underlined the strength of German-Israeli ties in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Relations between the two countries have suffered due to a spat over an anti-occupation group. (07.05.2017)

Before Netanyahu talks, Steinmeier vows to back Israel

A bleak prediction for peace between Israel and Palestine

Two-state solution in the air, but Trump still confident of Middle East peace

The revision of a bill, first proposed in 2011, declares the “State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people,” its author, Avi Dichter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, wrote on Facebook.

The legislation still has to pass through the Justice Ministry and wind its way through parliament. But the cabinet level move, coming just two weeks before a visit by US President Donald Trump, carries political significance.

The bill could help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firm up relations with far-right members of his cabinet and underpin his bid to press Palestinians to recognize Israel as the “nation-state” of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu has long demanded such recognition as a precondition for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which had been moribund for years and collapsed outright in 2014.

Trump has pledged to jumpstart peace talks. But Palestinians say accepting Netanyahu’s demand could deny Palestinian refugees of past wars any right of return.

Second-class citizens

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has characterized such “nation-state” legislation as putting “obstacles in the way of peace.” Others, such as Arab legislator Ayman Odeh, have been more blunt in their criticism.

Odeh slammed the proposed bill, writing on Twitter: “The nation-state law is tyranny by the majority and ‘legally’ turns us into second-class citizens.”

Critics also note that the proposed legislation, which also declares that the “right to self determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people” impinges on the rights of its Arab minority, who make up some 20 percent of the population.

Israel Frank-Walter Steinmeier und Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (picture alliance/dpa/Newscom/R. Zvulun)German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has visited Israel

The bill designates Hebrew as the country’s only official language, although it requires government services and forms to be available in Arabic as well.

But Dichter defended the new bill calling it, “an important step in entrenching our identity, not only in the consciousness of the world but primarily in our own minds.”

The revised bill appears to soften previous language that would have given Jewish values prominence in law-making and judicial decisions.

Centrist resistance

But the bill is not only opposed by political opponents but even centrists in Netanyahu’s government have argued against a “nation-state” bill, calling it unnecessary and noting that the 1948 Declaration of Independence already proclaimed Israel a Jewish state.

They have accused Netanyahu of pandering to right-wingers.

During his upcoming visit to the Middle East, Trump is expected to discuss how he plans to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians – a goal that has eluded US presidents for decades. He is also expected to meet Abbas during his trip.

Odeh told the Times of Israel, “The danger of this bill is that it creates two classes of citizens.”

bik/jm (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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After Boko Haram Releases Nigerian Girls, an Anguished Wait for Parents

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Some of the recently freed girls from Chibok in Abuja, Nigeria, on Sunday.CreditNigeria State House, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

DAKAR, Senegal — The father of two girls kidnapped by Boko Haram was suspicious when friends told him that dozens of girls had been freed, because he had heard similar rumors countless times during the three years the schoolchildren have been missing.

But by Sunday morning, it became clear to the Rev. Enoch Mark that the news was true. The Nigerian government announced that 82 of the girls who had been taken from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, had been released in exchange for handing over as many as six suspected militants to Boko Haram.

While Mr. Mark was thrilled with hearing some of the girls were safe, his joy was mixed with the awful, gut-wrenching torment of not knowing if his own two daughters were among those released.

“We are hoping God will do something for us,” Mr. Mark said.

By midday Sunday, the released schoolgirls — some of the nearly 300 who were initially captured — had been handed over to intermediaries, taken from a town in the northeast near the border with Cameroon and flown to the capital, Abuja, where they met with Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria.

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Only late on Sunday did an unofficial list of names begin to circulate, as well as photos that showed the faces of some of the girls. Some appeared sullen, and one had her arm in a sling, but they did not appear sickly.

The names of Mr. Mark’s daughters did not appear on the unofficial list.

Nigerians were anxious not only about the well-being of the Chibok girls on Sunday, but also the health of the president. Immediately after his meeting with the girls, Mr. Buhari announced he was going to London to visit with doctors.

Mr. Buhari left the country for weeks earlier this year for an undisclosed medical ailment and has missed recent cabinet meetings. Before he left for London, a photo of a gaunt-looking Mr. Buhari speaking to some of the freed girls was posted on his Facebook account.

The release of the girls was a victory for Mr. Buhari, who has promised to secure the freedom of all of them.

Photo

The girls were taken to a military base in Borno State, in northeastern Nigeria, before being flown by helicopter to the capital, Abuja. CreditInternational Committee of the Red Cross, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Imagess

The handover began about 7 a.m. Sunday. Talks to free them had been going on for several months. The Nigerians worked with the government of Switzerland and the International Federation of the Red Cross to secure the release.

On Sunday, some parents quickly departed from Chibok by road on a long journey to the capital to see if their daughters were among the freed. Others stayed behind, joyful but anxious about whether their girls had been liberated.

For those in Abuja, the strain of not knowing the status of their loved ones was particularly acute. One mother of a missing girl sat at a rally in the capital, uncertain whether her daughter was across town, safe and in the custody of the government, or still in the bush in the clutches of the Islamic militants.

When she combed the list made available late on Sunday, the mother, Esther Yakubu, did not find name of her daughter, Dorcas, on the list.

The kidnapping by Boko Haram of nearly 300 girls from a school at a small village in a remote corner of Nigeria is among the countless heinous acts by a group that has carried out of a campaign of murder, rape and the torching of whole villages, largely against some of the world’s poorest people. More than two million people have fled their homes to escape the group’s violence.

Yet it was the singular act in Chibok that trained the world’s sights on this war in Nigeria. Images broadcast by Boko Haram not long after the kidnapping of the veiled girls sitting on the ground in captivity resonated with celebrities and everyday people alike and spread across social media, where a #BringBackOurGirls hashtag became popular.

More than 100 girls are still missing. Twenty-one others were released six months ago, and one kidnapped student was rescued after being found wandering in the forest scrounging for food. Officials did not immediately release their identities.

The newfound freedom of so many of the kidnapped girls is a major victory in the war and is a lift for Mr. Buhari, who vowed when he took office in 2015 to destroy Boko Haram.

While hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, many of those have been rescued in recent months by military operations that have liberated entire areas from militant control.

Photo

The girls met with the Nigerian president in Abuja and then waited to be sent home to Chibok.CreditNigeria State House, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The military has penetrated Boko Haram’s large encampments and forest enclaves. Large numbers of the group’s fighters have been killed or jailed in an aggressive campaign that sometimes has ensnared innocent civilians.

On Sunday, it was unclear precisely which or how many Boko Haram suspects had been traded in exchange for the girls’ freedom. Government officials declined to identify the suspects even as some media reported they were high-ranking Boko Haram commanders. Western diplomats said as many as six may have been handed over.

With their forces now scattered throughout the countryside, Boko Haram’s most effective strategy recently has been launching suicide attacks. They have strapped bombs to dozens of young girls and children as young as 7, sending them into crowded markets or camps for people displaced by the war. The group has also attacked military outposts and convoys and still is regarded as a threat to soldiers and civilians in the region.

But with many of their hide-outs gone, fighters can no longer gather in huge groups and instead exist in pockets in Nigeria and in bordering countries. Fighters are suffering from a lack of supplies and food, just like many of the residents, in an area that is experiencing famine-like conditions.

Boko Haram has also suffered infighting that has split the group into factions, one of which has been recognized by the Islamic State.

Another faction, run by Abubakar Shekau, known for his YouTube rants and vicious battlefield activity, was the one holding the 82 girls. Mr. Shekau’s brutality led to a major split in the group last year.

Last week, the Nigerian military said it seriously injured Mr. Shekau, one of many similar claims made by soldiers through the years. Mr. Shekau rushed to release a proof of life video titled “Sermon to the Lying Disbelievers of Nigeria,” that has not been verified as authentic.

Over the weekend as news of the girls’ release circulated, speculation was rampant that the government had paid a steep ransom in exchange for the girls. Government officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ransom money has fueled the war chests of Al Qaeda offshoots operating elsewhere in West Africa and of the Islamic State. The American and British embassies recently issued a warning that Boko Haram intended to kidnap foreign workers in northeast Nigeria. The move would be a new strategy for a group that for the most part has targeted locals.

Advocates for the kidnapped girls were pushing to make sure the more than 100 still held captive were not forgotten. At a rally, a few dozen people, including several parents of the girls, chanted, “Bring back our girls now and alive!”

Macron Decisively Defeats Le Pen in French Presidential Race

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Video

Emmanuel Macron Delivers Victory Speech

France’s president-elect spoke at the Louvre after defeating the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen.

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. Photo by Christian Hartmann/Reuters. Watch in Times Video »

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron, a youthful former investment banker, handily won France’s presidential election on Sunday, defeating the staunch nationalist Marine Le Pen after voters firmly rejected her far-right message and backed his call for centrist change.

Mr. Macron, 39, who has never held elected office, will be the youngest president in the 59-year history of France’s Fifth Republic after leading an improbable campaign that swept aside France’s establishment political parties.

The election was watched around the world for magnifying many of the broader tensions rippling through Western democracies, including the United States: populist anger at the political mainstream, economic insecurity among middle-class voters and rising resentment toward immigrants.

Mr. Macron’s victory offered significant relief to the European Union, which Ms. Le Pen had threatened to leave. His platform to loosen labor rules, make France more competitive globally and deepen ties with the European Union is also likely to reassure a global financial market that was jittery at the prospect of a Le Pen victory.

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Her loss provided further signs that the populist wave that swept Britain out of the European Union and Donald J. Trump into the White House may have crested in Europe, for now.

“I understand the divisions of our country that have led some to vote for extremists,” Mr. Macron said after the vote. “I understand the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that a great part among us have also expressed.”

Mr. Macron pledged to do all he could in his five-year term to bring France together. “I will do everything I can in the coming five years to make sure you never have a reason to vote for extremism again,” he said later Sunday evening, standing before the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, once the main residence of France’s kings, as thousands of flag-waving supporters gathered in the courtyard to celebrate.

But the election results showed that many people chose not to vote for either candidate, signaling skepticism about his project. And Mr. Macron quickly made clear that he understood the magnitude of the task before him after an often angry campaign.

Video

Supporters Elated by Macron’s Election

French citizens hoping the centrist candidate would become France’s next president were overcome with joy and relief as the final result came in.

By CAMILLA SCHICK and STEFANIA ROUSSELLE on Publish DateMay 7, 2017. Photo by Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »

“It is my responsibility to hear and protect the most fragile,” he said.

With nearly 100 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Macron had 66 percent, compared with 34 percent for Ms. Le Pen, according to the official count from the Interior Ministry.

The outcome was a watershed for Ms. Le Pen’s party, the far-right National Front, giving it new legitimacy even though the results showed that the party remains anathema to much of the French electorate for its history of anti-Semitism, racism and Nazi nostalgia.

As significant for France and for Mr. Macron’s future, nearly 34 percent of eligible voters did not cast a ballot or cast a blank or null one, suggesting that a large number of people could not bring themselves to vote for him. The abstention rate was the highest since 1969.

That lack of support presaged a difficult road ahead as Mr. Macron tries to build a legislative majority to push through his program. French parliamentary elections are next month. Currently, he has no party in Parliament.

Among the odds stacked against Mr. Macron, a former economy minister in the departing Socialist government, are deep doubts about the merits of a market economy.

“We saw the emergence of very strong anticapitalist forces,” said Gaspard Koenig, the director of the French think tank Generation Libre.

“You have 50 percent of the electorate that reject the market economy in a very radical way,” Mr. Koenig added. “Thus, he must during the next five years convince people that there are alternatives to the destruction of capitalism that can help them.”

The runoff election was groundbreaking for being a choice between two political outsiders, as well as for its rancor and for an apparent attempt to sway the vote with the hacking of Macron campaign emails, similar to the attack directed at last year’s election in the United States.

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How France Voted

Detailed maps of the French presidential election show how Emmanuel Macron decisively beat right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen.

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Ms. Le Pen, 48, conceded the election not long after polls closed in France, saying voters had chosen “continuity,” denying Mr. Macron his outsider status and linking him to the departing Socialists.

The vote was a record for the National Front and, she said, a mandate for it to become a new “patriotic and republican alliance” that would be “the primary opposition force against the new president.”

Ms. Le Pen earned 10.6 million votes, close to twice the number her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, received when he ran a losing presidential campaign against Jacques Chirac in 2002. The 34 percent of the vote Ms. Le Pen won was the highest share the French had ever given to her party.

The election was also the first in which the National Front candidate — rather than being a pariah who was shut out of debates and kept off the front pages of major newspapers, as happened in 2002 — was treated more like a normal candidate despite the party’s anti-Semitic and racist roots.

After taking over the party leadership in 2011, Ms. Le Pen worked to distance the National Front from her father, its founder. Stéphane Ravier, a National Front senator and a close adviser to Ms. Le Pen, said the party needed to go further in remaking its identity.

“We will need to make some changes, do things differently,” he said in an interview as the returns came in. “We will have to talk about our positions on the euro with more pedagogy. We may also have to change the name of the party.”

In her concession speech, Ms. Le Pen acknowledged that the party had to “profoundly” renew itself to become a “new political force.”

Ms. Le Pen clearly failed to persuade enough voters that her party had sufficiently changed. Many of the votes Mr. Macron received on Sunday were no doubt cast less in support of him than in rejection of her. Nearly the entire political establishment spoke out against a Le Pen presidency.

Video

Marine Le Pen Concedes French Election

The far-right French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, thanked her supporters and congratulated her opponent, Emmanuel Macron, after pollsters projected that he would be the next president.

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS and REUTERS. Photo by Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video 

Mr. Macron formed his political movement, En Marche! (Onward!), a little more than a year ago. He was initially given a slim chance of winning in a country that has never elected a president from outside the traditional left-wing or right-wing parties, with the exception of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a centrist who led from 1974 to 1981.

Since then, French politics has been dominated by the Socialists on the left and the Republicans (or their precursors) on the right.

Mr. Macron’s campaign benefited from canny timing and no small dose of luck, with the collapse of the governing Socialist Party under President François Hollande, the incumbent, who was so unpopular that he took the extraordinary step of not seeking re-election.

Mr. Macron was also helped by an embezzlement scandal that damaged the candidacy of the center-right candidate François Fillon, who, at the start of the campaign, seemed certain to claim the presidency.

Mr. Macron’s message — that his new movement was neither right nor left, but represented a third way, with elements of both — seemed to appeal to numerous urban voters, as well as to many young voters.

As the results appeared on a screen set up at the Louvre, Macron supporters shouted with joy. Some started singing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

“This is a historic moment,” said Jacques Pupponi, 60, who came with his children: Noé, 11; Dora, 12; and Eden, 13.

“I’ve lived moments like this before, in 1981,” he added, referring to the election of the Socialist president François Mitterrand. “I’m very happy about the score — it’s very, very important,” Mr. Pupponi said of Mr. Macron’s decisive victory.

For Mourad Djebali, 30, a Tunisian engineer who obtained French citizenship a few months ago, the result felt like a personal affirmation. “I’m moved,” Mr. Djebali said. “I recognize the France that has received me.

“It’s a great symbol of France,” he added. “It’s a sign of hope. Everyone doesn’t agree with each other, but that one thing we agree on is that we should not open the door to the extremes.”