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LES ECHOS
France's top business daily, Les Echos covers domestic and international economic, financial and markets news. Founded in 1908, the newspaper has been the property of French luxury good conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) since 2007.
Passenger on ferry
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Timour Ozturk

How Istanbul Became The Top Destination For Russians Fleeing Conscription

Hundreds of thousands of men have left Russia since partial mobilization was announced. Turkey, which still has air routes open with Moscow, is one of their top choices. But life is far from easy once they land.

ISTANBUL — Sitting on a bench in front of the Sea of Marmara, Albert tries to roll a cigarette despite the wind blowing his blonde hair strands. This 31-year-old political philosophy doctor is staying at a friend’s place in Kadıköy, a trendy neighborhood on the Asian bank of Istanbul and popular amongst expats.

On Friday, Sept. 23, Albert left Moscow, where he was visiting his parents, with two shirts and two pairs of pants hastily shoved in a backpack. “When I heard about the annexation referendums in the new Ukrainian territories, I knew the situation would get worse. I thought I had a few more days. But when Putin announced the partial mobilization on the morning of Sept. 21, I booked my tickets right away.”

Albert had tried to stir up a student movement against the war in St. Petersburg. He was arrested with his partner on Feb. 27, spent a night in jail and was fined a few hundred euros. They persevered and took part in protests but in April, while he was going to a demonstration, he was arrested once again. His detention lasted five days.

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Putin 3D sculpture
Geopolitics
Dominique Moïsi

Why Putin's Threats Are More Dangerous Than The Cuban Missile Crisis

Unlike the U.S.-Soviet showdown in 1962, Vladimir Putin's allusions to his nuclear arsenal come with no sense of rules or limits, and with a more distant memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

-Analysis-

PARIS"Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace.”

It was with this quote from Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday in mind that I spent the past hot and dry summer in the French region of Normandy. Zweig had started writing his memoir in 1934, as the Nazi menace was spreading.

Were we living our last summer of peace? The funeral of Edward VII in 1910 preceded the outbreak of World War I by four years. Could it be that the funeral of his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, preceded the outbreak of World War III by four months?

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We are not there yet, but this scenario, although highly unlikely, is nonetheless becoming "possible." I am by nature rather optimistic. I never want to be accused of being a doomsayer, but a new and qualitatively different level of escalation has just been reached by Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Russia has been humiliated on the military front, increasingly isolated on the diplomatic front, abandoned by even its closest ally, China, and criticized by the previously "neutral" great power, India.

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How Western Sanctions Are Quietly Undermining Russia's Fighting Power
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Yves Bourdillon

How Western Sanctions Are Quietly Undermining Russia's Fighting Power

Despite what the Kremlin claims, Western sanctions against Russia are working. Perhaps most important is the embargo on electronic component exports, which prevents the Russian army from rebuilding tanks and missiles severely depleted in the war.

-Analysis-

PARIS Europe is shooting itself in the foot.

That was the narrative that spread among both the public and economists: the European Union sanctions against Russia were bound to backfire, without ever really taking a toll on Moscow — power shortages this winter in the West, while Russia "bathes in cash" thanks to soaring energy prices and a rising ruble. All the while, the received wisdom told us, Moscow will be able to skirt any EU export embargoes via the black market or thanks to its Chinese ally.

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The ever masochistic European Union was blindly following the U.S, rather than truly defending our interests by advocating a rapid diplomatic solution, a formula that ultimately means "just let Putin take Ukraine".

The only problem is that this narrative is that it's a myth. It is a line of rhetoric based on a lack of understanding of the real objectives and functioning of sanctions.

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Commuters in Tokyo
Economy
Yann Rousseau

Abenomics Revisited: Why Japan Hasn't Attacked The Wealth Divide

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised to tackle wealth inequality and help struggling workers. But a year after he came to power, financial traders are once again the winners.

-Analysis-

TOKYO — Panic on the Nikkei, the Japanese stock market. Almost a year ago, at the end of September 2021, traders went into a panic in Tokyo. On Sept. 29, Fumio Kishida had just won the general election for the country's main conservative party, the Liberal Democratic Party. He was about to be named Prime Minister, succeeding Yoshide Suga, who'd grown too unpopular in the polls.

Kishida had won through a rather original reform program, which was in stark contrast with years of conservative pro-market politics. In his speeches, he had promised to generate a “new capitalism”. A phrase that makes investors shudder.

While he did not completely renounce his predecessors’ strategy called “Abenomics” — named after free-market stalwart Shinzo Abe, who was killed last July — Kishida declared that the government needed to tackle the issue of the redistribution of wealth in the island nation.

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Benjamin Button For Real? Scientists Are Close To Cracking The Code To Reverse Aging
Future
Yann Verdo

Benjamin Button For Real? Scientists Are Close To Cracking The Code To Reverse Aging

The discovery that earned Japan's Shinya Yamanaka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine has paved the way for new research proving that aging is a reversible process. Currently just being tested on lab mice, will the cellular reprogramming soon offer eternal youth?

PARIS — Barbra Streisand loved her dog Samantha, aka Sammy. The white and fluffy purebred Coton of Tulear was even present on the steps of the Elysée Palace, the French President’s official residence, when Streisand received the Legion of Honor in 2007.

As the singer and actress explained inThe New York Times in 2018, she loved Sammy so much that, unable to bring herself to see her pass away, she had the dog cloned by a Texas firm for the modest sum of 50,000 dollars just before she died in 2017, at the age of 14. And that's how Barbra Streisand became the happy owner of Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet, two puppies who are the spitting image of the deceased Samantha.

This may sound like a joke, but there is one deeply disturbing fact that Harvard Medical School genetics professor David A. Sinclair points out in his book Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have To. It is that the cloning of an old dog has led to two young puppies.

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Ming dynasty painted ceremonial warriors
Green
Gabriel Grésillon

Did Climate Change Cause The Fall Of The Ming Dynasty?

In the mid-17th century, the weather in China got colder. The frequency of droughts and floods increased while some regions were wiped out by tragic famines. And the once-unstoppable Ming dynasty began to lose power.

The accounts are chilling. In the summary of his course on modern Chinese history at the Collège de France, Pierre-Etienne Will examined journals held by various individuals, often part of the Chinese administration, during the final years of the Ming dynasty. These autobiographical writings were almost always kept secret, but they allow us to immerse ourselves in the everyday life of the first half of 17th-century China.

In the Jiangnan region, close to Shanghai and generally considered as a land of plenty, the 1640s did not bode well. The decade that had just ended was characterized by an abnormally cold and dry climate and poor harvests. The price of agricultural goods kept rising, pushing social tension to bursting points.

Pierre-Etienne Will writes that in the town of Suzhou, a scholar named Ye Shaoyuan described starving peasants, some of whom climbed the walls of the homes of the wealthy, while others broke in “after smashing their gates with axes”. Some wealthy people were murdered before the intervention of the army put an end to the violence.

Breakdown of the natural order

The beginning of the decade then turned into a tragedy. Droughts followed one another in 1641 and 1642, and “for the first time, there is mention of the bodies of people starved to death lying on the sides of the roads” while “the price of rice went through the roof.”

In early 1642, some even reported accounts of cannibalism in the region. Not far from there, Songjiang offered the nightmarish sights of “countryside strewn with the corpses of people who died of hunger, people trying to feed themselves with the bark of trees, troops of abandoned children.” The starving populations wandered hopelessly and the few soup kitchens arranged were nowhere near sufficient to remedy the ongoing disaster.

The teenage Yao Tinglin described the surroundings of Shanghai where “death was everywhere”. Pierre-Etienne Will writes: “Yao mentions refugees who suddenly collapsed in the middle of the street; there was also a sort of canopy in front of his house where starving people came to die every night.” Cannibalism, again, is alluded to, including on “young victims”, which triggered judiciary sanctions of a boundless brutality, which were cheered by crowds.

“All this shows a complete breakdown of the natural order, which is reflected in the social order by the aberrant crimes mentioned above,” the Sinologist writes.

Weather patterns disrupting a regime

In addition to droughts, floods ravaged the country, particularly the Yellow River’s basin. Pandemics wiped out a part of the population and unprecedented locust invasions destroyed some harvests. In a China where the emperor was believed to hold his power from a “celestial mandate,” the disruption of the world and the unleashing of natural disasters do not only have real-world consequences. They are also heavy with symbolic significance. It seems these elements were an important factor in the fall of the Ming dynasty, which came to power in 1368 and ended in 1644 when its last ruler committed suicide following a military defeat.

All studies agree on one certainty: the final century of the Ming dynasty was characterized by an abnormally cold climate and by a high frequency of extreme weather events. Is this the manifestation of the “little ice age” described in Europe? In northern China, the average temperature dropped by 1.18 °C (33.8 °F) between the 1610s and 1650s, according to Chinese scholars.

Droughts became more intense. Other Chinese scholars believe that, in the period from 1627 to 1642, eastern China “very likely experienced the most persistent drought since 500 A.D.” Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, paid the political price for these disasters. For historian Tim Brook, author of The Troubled Empire, a seminal book on the subject, "no emperor of the Yuan or Ming dynasties faced such abnormal or severe climatic conditions as Chongzhen.”

In their study on the “impact of climate change on the fall of the Ming dynasty,” Chinese scholars led by Zheng Jingyun combed the climatic and economic data of the era to reach a conclusion. The climate disruptions observed at that time accelerated the collapse of a regime that was already subjected to strong internal and external pressure.

A fiscal crisis

The decline in agricultural production led to famines. Starting in the 1570s, the amount of grain per capita fell from 20% to 50% towards the end of the period.

As the Ming dynasty came to an end, tax collection became more and more crucial.

Above all, the effects induced by this situation were especially politically harmful. One of those effects is fiscal. As weather conditions became increasingly harsh, the system of military farms that provided food for a part of the army quickly deteriorated. While, according to researchers, the military effort accounted for 64% of the central government’s spendings between 1548 and 1569, this figure rose to 76% between 1570 and 1589.

These averages only provide a glimpse of a trend that became even more pronounced thereafter. As the Ming dynasty came to an end, tax collection became more and more crucial, particularly in the form of the grain tribute that the provinces had to send to Beijing. Faced with worsening living conditions, the provinces begged for tax relief and were instead met with the increasingly harsh inflexibility of a desperate central government.

\u200bTourists wearing face masks visit the Forbidden City in Beijing after a snowfall

Tourists wearing face masks visit the Forbidden City in Beijing after a snowfall

Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Rebellions fueled by grievances

Then there was the appearance of local rebellions, increasingly structured and massive, fighting the Ming army. Such rebellions were dismissed by the doctrine of Communist China as mere conflicts involving starving peasants against landowners.

In fact, they were fueled by multiple grievances, including against the regime. Among the fighters were soldiers furious at being demobilized, but also postal workers who lost their jobs following Emperor Chongzhen’s decision to cut this service’s funding, or people who suffered from the government’s inability to help them when natural disasters struck. Rebel troops appealed to a large number of people who were exasperated by the State’s negligence, and they eventually reached a size sufficient to bring down the system.

One of those troops managed to capture Beijing and to end the regime in 1644. Its leader, Li Zicheng, had himself been a postal worker for a time. He advocated for an egalitarian doctrine and promised to distribute land equally between all and to abolish the tax on agricultural production. Victorious in Beijing, Li Zicheng proclaimed himself king and then founder of the short-lived Shun dynasty that would quickly be overturned.

Implosion of a system

Was climate change the cause for the doom of the Ming dynasty? This theory is indeed convincing, but there are some caveats. In all the aforementioned events, natural disasters aggravated trends that were already at work. And the fiscal crisis? Perhaps it did not need the help of the climate to occur in a political system progressively eroded by corruption.

In this worn-out political system, the landowner class had invented mechanisms to evade tax.

As José Frèches explains in his book on the history of China, the decline of Chinese finances accelerated “at a dizzying pace” from 1580 on, and also owed much to ”colossal life annuities that the members of the imperial family had arrogated to themselves over the years." He adds: "The State's backbone was not sufficient enough to face the general mayhem and corruption that undermined the country from top down."

In this worn-out political system, the landowner class had invented mechanisms to evade tax. “A large number of simple individuals even sought the protection of the wealthy to avoid paying taxes by selling them their lands more or less fictionally,” Pierre-Etienne Will says, describing a “fairly massive” phenomenon. A form of tax avoidance thriving on the breakdown of the State apparatus can therefore be added to the list of factors that led to the implosion of the system.

The Manchu offensive

As for the increasingly unbearable rise in military expenditure, in the end it also owed much to the pressure exerted by the Manchus, the barbarians from the North who defeated Li Zicheng in 1645 and who would rule over China under the name of “Qing” until their doom in 1911 and the advent of the Republic.

As the Ming dynasty sank into internal crisis, the Manchus managed to unite and shape an ambitious imperial project. All at once, the Ming had to fight internal armies and to push back the attacks of these unparalleled fighters who made their first incursions into the national territory as early as 1618 before intensifying their offensive in the 1640s. This increasingly unstoppable offensive relied massively on Chinese fighters who had defected from the Ming army.

The natural disasters that China faced during the final decades of the Ming dynasty thus accelerated the sinking of a ship that was already taking on water. And if the “celestial mandate” eventually seemed to be taken away from Emperor Chongzhen, it is also because the State he was in charge of was too paralyzed by internal clan struggles and the elite’s corruption to find the means to fight effectively against the calamities befalling its country.

Vladimir Potanin plays chess with Ian Nepomniachtchi
Geopolitics
Benjamin Quenelle

Vladimir Potanin, How The Mega-Rich Russian Oligarch Defies Western Sanctions

French daily Les Echos profiles Vladimir Potanin, Russia's incarnation of a never-turn-back oligarch. The owner of Nornickel, Russia's leading company in the metals and mining industry, Potanin continues to grow his business despite Western sanctions. He recently took over French bank Société Générale's Russian subsidiary — with the Kremlin's approval, of course.

“Me an oligarch? No… On the other hand, Vladimir Potanin — with his politics and business — is the true incarnation of an oligarch!”

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Among Russia's top 10 billionaires, relationships have always been riddled with fratricidal wars involving millions of dollars and petty phrases.

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The Paglia Orba (Corsica linea ferry) near the Frioul islands in Marseille​
Green
Jean-Marc Vittori

My Failed Attempt At An Eco-Friendly Summer Vacation

Mass tourism developed by taking advantage of cheap and abundant energy. But those days are over and we are all going to have to reinvent how we holiday. But as I found out, that is no easy task.

-Essay-

PARIS — I had a wonderful vacation, thank you for asking. At the same time, I couldn't let go and relax fully because one question has been on my mind all summer. Is my vacation sustainable? In other words, will my kids be able to take the same kind of vacation 20 years from now?

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