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Main suspect tells Paris attacks trial he's 'an Islamic State soldier'

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The main suspect in a jihadist rampage that killed 130 people across Paris described himself defiantly as "an Islamic State soldier" and shouted at the top judge on Wednesday (8 September) at the start of a trial into the 2015 attacks, write Tangi Salaün, Yiming Woo, Michaela Cabrera, Antony Paone, Ingrid Melander, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Blandine Henault and Ingrid Melander.

Salah Abdeslam, 31, is believed to be the only surviving member of the group that carried out the gun-and-bomb attacks on six restaurants and bars, the Bataclan concert hall and a sports stadium on 13 November 2015, in which hundreds were injured.

He appeared in court dressed in black and wearing a black face mask. Asked his profession, the French-Moroccan removed his mask and told the Paris court: "I gave up my job to become an Islamic State soldier."

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While the other defendants, who are accused of providing guns, cars or helping plan the attacks, simply answered routine questions on their name and profession and otherwise remained quiet, Abdeslam clearly sought to use the start of the trial as a platform.

Asked by the court's top judge to give his name, Abdeslam used the Shahada, an Islamic oath, saying: "I want to testify that there is no god except Allah and that Mohammad is his servant."

He later shouted at the court's top judge for two minutes, saying the defendants had been treated "like dogs", BFM television reported, adding that someone in the public section of the court, where victims and victims' relatives sit, shouted back: "You bastard, 130 people were killed."

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Victor Edou, a lawyer for eight Bataclan survivors, had said earlier that Abdeslam's statement that he is an Islamic State soldier was "very violent".

"Some of my clients are not doing too well... after hearing a statement that they took as a new, direct threat," he said. "It's going to be like that for nine months."

Others said they were trying not to attach much importance to Abdeslam's comments.

"I need more to be shocked ... I'm not afraid," said Thierry Mallet, a Bataclan survivor.

Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by Islamic State, which had urged followers to attack France over its involvement in the fight against the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

French Police forces secure near the Paris courthouse on the Ile de la Cite France before the start of the trial of the Paris' November 2015 attacks, in Paris, France, September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
A commemorative plaque for the victims of Paris' November 2015 attacks is seen near the bar and restaurant previously named Comptoir Voltaire in Paris, France, September 1, 2021. Twenty defendants will stand the trial of Paris' November 2015 attacks from September 8, 2021 to May 25, 2022 at Paris courthouse on the Ile de la Cite, with nearly 1,800 civil parties, more than 300 lawyers, hundreds of journalists and large-scale security challenges. Picture taken September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier/File Photo

Before the trial, survivors and victims' relatives had said they were impatient to hear testimony that might help them better understand what happened and why it did so.

"It is important that the victims can bear witness, can tell the perpetrators, the suspects who are on the stand, about the pain," said Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son Thomas was killed in the attacks.

"We are also waiting anxiously because we know that as this trial takes place the pain, the events, everything will come back to the surface."

The trial is expected to last nine months, with nearly 1,800 plaintiffs and more than 300 lawyers involved in what Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti called an unprecedented judicial marathon. The court's top judge, Jean-Louis Peries, said it was an historic trial.

Eleven of the 20 defendants are already in jail pending trial and six will be tried in absentia - most of them are believed to be dead. Most face life imprisonment if convicted.

Police mounted tight security around the Palais de Justice courthouse in central Paris. Defendants appeared behind a reinforced glass partition in a purpose-built courtroom and all people must pass through several checkpoints to enter the court. Read more.

"The terrorist threat in France is high, especially at times like the attacks' trial," Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told France Inter radio.

The first days of the trial are expected to be largely procedural. Victims' testimonies are set to start on 28 September. Questioning of the accused will start in November but they are not set to testify about the night of the attacks and the week before them until March. Read more.

A verdict is not expected before late May, but Bataclan survivor Gaetan Honore, 40, said being there from the start mattered.

"It was important to be here on the first day, symbolically. I'm hoping to understand, somehow, how this could happen," he said.

France

French envoy to return to US after fence-mending Biden-Macron call

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The US and French presidents moved to mend ties on Wednesday (22 September), with France agreeing to send its ambassador back to Washington and the White House acknowledging it erred in brokering a deal for Australia to buy US instead of French submarines without consulting Paris, write Michel Rose, Jeff Mason, Arshad Mohammed, John Irish in Paris, Humeyra Pamuk in New York and by Simon Lewis, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Heather Timmons in Washington.

In a joint statement issued after US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by telephone for 30 minutes, the two leaders agreed to launch in-depth consultations to rebuild trust, and to meet in Europe at the end of October.

They said Washington had committed to step up "support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states" which US officials suggested meant a continuation of logistical support rather than deploying US special forces.

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Biden's call to Macron was an attempt to mend fences after France accused the United States of stabbing it in the back when Australia ditched a $40 billion contract for conventional French submarines, and opted for nuclear-powered submarines to be built with U.S. and British technology instead. Read more.

Outraged by the US, British and Australian deal, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

"The two leaders agreed that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners," the joint U.S. and French statement said.

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"President Biden conveyed his ongoing commitment in that regard."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, interacting for the first time since the submarine crisis erupted, had a 'good exchange' on the margins of a wider meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday, a senior State Department official told reporters in a call.

The two top diplomats were likely to have a separate bilateral meeting on Thursday. "We do expect that they’ll have some time together bilaterally tomorrow," the official said, and added that Washington 'very very much welcomed' France and European Union's deep engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a collective award ceremony at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France September 20, 2021. Stefano Rellandini/Pool via REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a joint statement with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (not seen) after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, September 6, 2021. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo

Earlier on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki described the call as "friendly" and sounded hopeful about improving ties.

"The president has had a friendly phone call with the president of France where they agreed to meet in October and continue close consultations and work together on a range of issues," she told reporters.

Asked if Biden apologized to Macron, she said: "He acknowledged that there could have been greater consultation."

The new US, Australian and British security partnership (AUKUS) was widely seen as designed to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Pacific but critics said it undercut Biden's broader effort to rally allies such as France to that cause.

Biden administration officials suggested the US commitment to "reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel" region of West Africa meant a continuation of existing efforts.

France has a 5,000 strong counter-terrorism force fighting Islamist militants across the Sahel.

It is reducing its contingent to 2,500-3,000, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European countries to provide special forces to work alongside local forces. The United States provides logistical and intelligence support.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US military would continue to support French operations, but declined to speculate about potential increases or changes in U.S. assistance.

"When I saw the verb reinforce, what I took away was that we're going to stay committed to that task," he told reporters.

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France

EU backs France in submarine dispute, asking: Is America back?

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European Union foreign ministers expressed support and solidarity with France on Monday (20 September) during a meeting in New York to discuss Australia's scrapping of a $40 billion submarine order with Paris in favor of a US and British deal, write Michelle Nichols, John Irish, Steve Holland, Sabine Siebold, Philip Blenkinsop and Marine Strauss.

Speaking after the closed-door meeting on the sidelines annual U.N. gathering of world leaders, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said "more cooperation, more coordination, less fragmentation" was needed to achieve a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region where China is the major rising power.

Australia said last week it would cancel an order for conventional submarines from France and instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology after striking a security partnership with those countries under the name AUKUS. Read more.

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"Certainly, we were caught by surprise by this announcement," Borrell said.

The decision enraged France and earlier on Monday in New York French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused US President Joe Biden's administration of continuing his predecessor Donald Trump's trends of "unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality and not respecting your partner."

The United States has sought to assuage the anger in France, a NATO ally. French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden are due to speak on the phone in the next few days.

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"We are allies, we talk and don't hide elaborate different strategies. That's why there is a crisis in confidence," Le Drian said. "So all that needs clarifications and explanations. It may take time."

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday that she expected Biden to "reaffirm our commitment to working with one of our oldest and closest partners on a range of challenges that the global community is facing" when he speaks with Macron.

It is not clear if the dispute will have implications for the next round of EU-Australia trade talks, scheduled for 12 October. Borrell met with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne in New York on Monday.

European Council President Charles Michel said that he found it difficult to understand the move by Australia, Britain and the United States.

"Why? Because with the new Joe Biden administration, America is back. This was the historic message sent by this new administration and now we have questions. What does it mean - America is back? Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don't know," he told reporters in New York.

If China was a main focus for Washington then it was "very strange" for the United States to team up with Australia and Britain, he said, calling it a decision that weakened the transatlantic alliance.

Top officials from the United States and European Union are due to meet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, later this month for the inaugural meeting of the newly established US-EU Trade and Technology Council, but Michel said some EU members were pushing for this to be postponed.

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Commission authorizes French aid scheme of €3 billion to support, through loans and equity investments, companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic

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The European Commission has cleared, under EU state aid rules, France's plans to set up a € 3 billion fund that will invest through debt instruments and equity and hybrid instruments in companies affected by the pandemic. The measure was authorized under the Temporary State Aid Framework. The scheme will be implemented through a fund, titled 'Transition Fund for Businesses Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic', with a budget of € 3bn.

Under this scheme, support will take the form of (i) subordinated or participating loans; and (ii) recapitalization measures, in particular hybrid capital instruments and non-voting preferred shares. The measure is open to companies established in France and present in all sectors (except the financial sector), which were viable before the coronavirus pandemic and which have demonstrated the long-term viability of their economic model. Between 50 and 100 companies are expected to benefit from this scheme. The Commission considered that the measures complied with the conditions set out in the temporary framework.

The Commission concluded that the measure was necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of France, in accordance with Article 107 (3) (b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the temporary supervision. On this basis, the Commission authorized these schemes under EU state aid rules.

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Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager (pictured), competition policy, said: “This €3bn recapitalization scheme will allow France to support companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic by facilitating their access funding in these difficult times. We continue to work closely with member states to find practical solutions to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic while respecting EU regulations.”

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