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Year in Review

2019 in review: Protests, regime change and a world on fire

Year in Review
Year in Review France 24/Ashraf Shawly, AFP

Call it the year of people power. It was hard to find a country in 2019 where people weren't massing to make their desires known; in some cases they even managed to topple governments. But there was plenty of other incendiary news, from wildfires in the arctic to the burning of the beloved French icon Notre-Dame to a showdown between a teenage environmentalist and the most powerful man in the world. 

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FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the top 19 stories of 2019.

Worldwide demonstrations

It seemed as though there were few countries in which people weren’t making their voices heard in 2019. Leaders fell in Bolivia, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan after popular calls for their ouster, and people won significant concessions from governments in Chile and Ecuador.

Marches and protests continue in places including France, Iran, India, Hong Kong and Colombia.

Boeing in crisis after second 737 Max crash

The March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 Max jet came shortly on the heels of the October 2018 Lion Air crash of the same model plane. In all, 346 people died in the two crashes.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg initially suggested the pilots were to blame, but internal documents showed that Boeing had long fretted about flaws in the aircraft’s design. Investigators homed in on an automated system that was new to the Max; they said the company had not adequately informed pilots about the system and how to override it in case of a malfunction.

Boeing has suspended production of the aircraft, existing planes remain grounded and in December Muilenberg was pushed out of the company.

Mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand

More than 50 people were killed on March 15 when a 28-year-old self-described white supremacist toting semi-automatic weapons opened fire on worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately promised to change the nation’s gun laws. Just a few weeks later, parliament did exactly that, voting 119-1 to ban most semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles.

New protests erupt in Hong Kong

When Carrie Lam, the Beijing-backed chief executive of Hong Kong, introduced a bill in early April that would allow some criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, residents took it as an ominous sign that China was starting to renege on assurances made under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that the former British colony would be allowed judicial independence.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and Lam withdrew the bill in September, but by then it was too late and protesters wanted her out.

The ongoing demonstrations have escalated and at times turned violent. In November, students barricaded themselves in on the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University and in December protesters staged pop-up demonstrations in malls, including on Christmas Day.

Regime change in Sudan
 
In response to protesters who had taken to the streets late the previous year, the Sudanese army on April 11 deposed longtime authoritarian President Omar el-Bashir, who had led the country for 30 years.

His ouster and replacement with a ruling military council, though, was not enough to get the demonstrators to go home, because what they wanted was a civilian government. They eventually struck a transitional deal with the military, in which an 11-member Sovereign Council would lead the nation for 21 months followed by a civilian leader.

In December protesters massed publicly yet again, this time to celebrate the anniversary of Bashir’s departure, and to remind the transitional government that they still expect change.

Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral

All of France mourned the marring of Paris’s beloved Cathedral of Notre-Dame when a fire in April toppled the 850-year-old church’s iconic spire and destroyed its latticed wooden roof, which was known as “the forest”. The famed rose stained-glass windows were saved.

The French government has undertaken a five-year restoration of the gothic church, one of the most visited monuments in the world, and President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the cathedral would be “even more beautiful” when the work is done.

This year was the first year in more than two centuries that a Christmas Mass was not celebrated in the storied cathedral.

Mueller report released

Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report about Russian interference in the 2016 election was released on April 18. What the 448-page document found depended on one’s political leaning.

Though it did not explicitly recommend charges be brought against President Donald Trump, noting that guidance from the Justice Department prevents criminal indictment of a sitting president, the report also explicitly said that it was not exonerating Trump.

The report noted that there were multiple instances of contact between representatives of the Trump campaign and Russians and said that Russia was trying to get Trump elected. It also found potential instances of obstruction of justice on the part of the president.

Sri Lanka terror attacks

A series of Easter Sunday suicide bombings across Sri Lanka left more than 250 people dead and hundreds of others injured. Three churches and three luxury hotels in the country’s commercial capital Columbo were among the targets of the blasts.

Sri Lankan officials said the bombers were associated with a local militant Islamist group. Government officials said they believed the terror attacks, which targeted Sri Lanka’s Christian community, were carried out in retaliation for the mosque shooting in New Zealand, though experts elsewhere questioned the link.

Arrest and death of Jeffery Epstein

At least one conspiracy theory was born in 2019 when the financier and convicted sex offender was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell. Epstein – who had links to such illustrious individuals as Donald Trump, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew, to name just a few – had been convicted in 2008 in Florida for soliciting a minor for prostitution.

He was required to register as a sex offender but was given a sweetheart deal that allowed him to continue to go to work. He served just over a year before being released on probation. In July 2019, federal and New York law enforcement officials arrested him as he emerged from his private plane, which had just landed after a flight from Paris. Investigators raided his Manhattan mansion, where they found a trove of photos of young girls, and his Paris apartment.

Epstein was found dead in his New York prison cell with several breaks in his neck bones on August 10. The medical examiner deemed his death a suicide, but his lawyers were sceptical and conspiracy theorists were off to the races. The phrase “Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” has been seen everywhere from beer cans to the tweets of US congressmen. Women alleging that he sexually assaulted them, raped then, or forced them to have sex with other men continue to come forward.  

India tightens its grip on Kashmir

On August 5, a presidential decree revoked Kashmir’s special constitutional status, which granted the Jammu and Kashmir region a measure of autonomy, including the freedom to pass their own laws. The Indian government managed to minimise international scrutiny by putting the region on lockdown, sending in troops, cutting off the internet and shutting down mobile phone networks – and severely dampening economic activity.Despite warnings to stay home or be shot, demonstrators gathered in the streets, but information about developments there remains difficult to come by as the region is still offline.

Turkey invades northern Syria

US President Donald Trump announced – to the surprise of many – in February that the Islamic State group had been “100 percent” defeated in Syria. In October he pulled US troops out of the north of the country, effectively abandoning the US’s Kurdish allies and handing control of the region over to the Syrian government backed by Russian troops.

The move paved the way for Turkish forces to move in, and they soon did. Kurds, who had been guarding IS group prisoners, were left to defend themselves, leaving the detention facilities essentially unattended. The US military and other intelligence agencies believe that hundreds of IS group fighters escaped in the ensuing chaos.

Morales falls from power in Bolivia

He says it was a US coup, others see it as the will of the people being expressed after a disputed election. Either way, the Bolivian army and police compelled president Evo Morales to resign in November amid protests over elections held the previous month.

Morales, the son of a llama herder and the first Bolivian leader of indigenous origin, had been in office since he took the presidency in a landslide in 2006. He had declared himself the winner of the October 2019 poll, but the opposition alleged vote fraud and the election was annulled because international auditors found irregularities.

Morales, who has sought asylum in Argentina, denies any wrongdoing and says he’ll be back home by this time next year.

Russia slapped with Olympic ban over doping

In early December, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) unanimously agreed to ban Russia from the Olympics, the World Cup and other major sporting events for four years over doping non-compliance.Russian anti-doping authorities had refused to fully cooperate with probes. Under the ban, the Russian name, flag and anthem will be prohibited at the Tokyo Olympics next summer and the 2022 Beijing winter games, though Russian athletes who are not implicated in the doping scheme will be allowed to participate in the games under a neutral flag. Russia has vowed to appeal the decision.

Boris Johnson wins election, making Brexit imminent

The end to the more than three-year Brexit stalemate that felled former prime minister Theresa May loomed large on the horizon when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was resoundingly returned to office in the December election.

Johnson took the win as “as a mandate to get Brexit done” and said that, one way or another, the UK would no longer be part of the European Union come January 31, 2020.

While Brexit is now assured, what that will look like remains uncertain. Johnson will have until the end of 2020 to come up with a trade agreement with the European bloc – which must be signed off on by all 27 member states – or Britain will go back to World Trade Organisation terms, meaning border checks and tariffs on goods.

Historic strikes in France in protest over pension reform

When French President Emmanuel Macron proposed reforms to France’s complicated pension system – something virtually everyone agreed was necessary – trade unions showed the lengths to which they would go to protect the famed French social protection system. They paralysed the country by declaring a general strike on December 5.

The social action has continued since then, nowhere more intensely than in Paris, where the transit system has been barely limping along, with several metro lines shut completely and others offering severely reduced services. Parisian nerves frayed and the Christmas shopping season was decidedly short on cheer for retailers, yet the majority of French citizens continue to support la grève – which promises to continue into 2020.

India’s citizenship law

The world’s largest democracy erupted in protests after its Hindu nationalist government proposed legislation on December 11 that critics said ran counter to the spirit of India’s secular constitution and marginalised the country’s 200 million Muslims.

The law granted citizenship to people from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are in the country illegally if they can show they suffered religious persecution in their home countries. The law does not apply to Muslims. At least 23 were killed in clashes between police and demonstrators. The government responded by banning demonstrations and blocking access to the internet.

Greta goes global

Teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year on December 11, making her, at 16, the youngest ever. The award for the young Swede came a year after she launched a global environmental strike among schoolchildren, who walked out of their classrooms most Fridays.

It was a big year for Thunberg, netting her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination as well. Not everyone is in awe of her, though. US President Donald Trump finds her particularly triggering, tweeting that her Time accolade, with which he was honored in 2016, was “so ridiculous.”

Impeachment vote 
 
The US House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of congress in relation to a call he had with the newly elected president of Ukraine in which Trump pressured him to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival. 

The December 18 vote fell largely along party lines and it was only the third time in history that legislators voted on such charges against a president. Trump and Republicans derided the process as a sham and said that even Jesus Christ got more due process. 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has not thus far transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate, where the trial is to be held, leading legal experts to say that Trump has not technically been impeached yet.

... and the world burns

As the year ended, wildfires in New South Wales, Australia, continued to rage out of control. By December 21 nearly 800 homes had been destroyed and the fires showed little sign of letting up.They follow the worst fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest in nearly a decade, the worst in Indonesia since 2015 and unprecedented fires in Siberia and in the arctic. Fires forced evacuations on the Canary Islands and in other places.

All this as global temperature records were smashed, with July being the hottest month ever recorded on earth.

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