Bottom-feeders do their sums and rise to the top(less)

SO, WHICH aspect of the royal nipples scandal is the most eye-rolling? That depends, it seems, on which part of the press is pontificating.

The lefties point out the naivety of an heir to the throne who has not yet twigged to the potential of the telephoto lens – after Fergie’s topless toe-sucking pics? – and wonder also about the possibility of confected outrage.

The Observer’s Catherine Bennett filleted the royal response, saying the reports of the BBC’s Peter Hunt developed ”in the manner of a grief counsellor illustrating the seven stages of bereavement”.

She wrote: ”At first, he said, the couple were ‘annoyed’. Also ‘saddened’ and ‘disappointed’. But they were also ‘philosophical’. Then, just when you might have expected them to enter ‘acceptance’ followed with luck by ‘hope’, the labile pair became ‘hugely saddened’, then ‘furious, upset’ over this ‘grotesque’ event, passing through ‘disbelief’ to become ‘angry’ and next ‘incandescent’ to the point of consulting lawyers. By teatime on Friday, legal proceedings had been launched and for William there had to be real concerns about spontaneous combustion.”

All a bit much from a pair who needed to understand that they were ”contracted national pets”.

But the part-owner of an Irish tabloid is not nearly so sanguine. A furious Richard Desmond has promised to shut down the Irish Daily Star for publishing 13 of the paparazzi shots of a topless Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing while holidaying in France.

Mr Desmond’s company, Northern and Shell, co-owns the Star and insiders say he has told lawyers to start the necessary legal action to close the tabloid. He said: ”The decision to publish  has no justification whatsoever and Northern and Shell condemns it in the strongest possible terms.”

The paper’s website has been taken down.

St James Palace has said the publication of the pictures by the French magazine Closer was ”totally unjustifiable”: ”There can be no motivation for this action other than greed.”

Well, yes. Closer, the French magazine that published the pictures originally, has long been a bottom-feeder, as has its Italian stablemate Chi, which has also run with the topless pictures and was previously best known for having published photographs of Princess Diana immediately after her fatal car crash. Both magazines are part of publishing group Mondadori, which is controlled by sleazy former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

France has supposedly strict privacy laws but the fines are not high – a maximum of €45,000 ($A56,000). The royals are also suing in the French courts but that might not net them more than €100,000.

So Closer and its colleagues just do the sums. Potential millions in earnings from resale of naughty pix, versus up to €150,000 in slaps on the wrist? No contest. Publish and be damned.

The damnations are coming fast and furious; it is, after all, the only way the British press can get its hooks into a story that must be making its own bottom-feeders salivate. Renaud Revel, media commentator with L’Express magazine, has pointed out that it is hypocritical of British media outlets to denounce the pictures: ”The world’s gone upside down. English paparazzi are totally lawless.”

The Sunday Mirror reports that William wants someone jailed over the photos, and French law does allow for a criminal sentence over breach of privacy. But that won’t stop the photos going viral.

In the absence of international privacy legislation, the internet remains a wild and lawless realm, and royal breasts are safe only in captivity.

First published on

Paper may be shut over topless pictures


The owner of an Irish tabloid that published paparazzi shots of a topless Duchess of Cambridge has promised to shut down the paper.
Richard Desmond’s company, Northern and Shell, co-owns the Irish Daily Star, which ran 13 of the shots taken of the Duchess sunbathing on a terrace while holidaying in France with her husband at a private chateau.
Insiders say he has told lawyers to start the necessary legal action to close the tabloid. He said, “I am very angry at the decision to publish these photographs and am taking immediate steps to close down the joint venture. The decision to publish … has no justification whatsoever and Northern and Shell condemns it in the strongest possible terms.”
The paper’s website has been taken down in the interim.
St James’s Palace has said the publication of the pictures by the French magazine Closer was “totally unjustifiable”.
“There can be no motivation for this action other than greed.”
Closer’s Italian stablemate Chi, which has also run with the topless pictures, was previously best known for having published photographs of Princess Diana immediately after her fatal car crash.
Both magazines are part of the publishing group Mondadori, which is controlled by the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who once fought a court battle to halt the publication of shots of topless women at his villa in Sardinia, claiming they violated his right to privacy.
France has supposedly strict privacy laws but the fines are not high – a maximum of €45,000 ($56,000). The Cambridges are also suing in the French courts, but that might not net them more than €100,000.
Closer and the other magazines that publish the pictures stand to earn millions from their resale.
In Rome, Alfonso Signorini, the editor of Chi, said he was not afraid of lawsuits because the images are “not damaging to her dignity”.
“They are certainly images of historical import,” Signorini said. “For the first time, the future queen of England is seen in her natural state.”
Signorini dismissed the idea that publishing them might be seen as revenge by Mr Berlusconi on European tabloids that had mocked him. Mr Berlusconi, who left office in November, is facing trial on charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute.
But if for the European publications it is a case of publish and be damned, the damnation is coming fast and furious; it is, after all, the only way the British press can get their hooks into a story that must be making their own tabloids salivate.
A media commentator with France’s L’Express magazine, Renaud Revel, has pointed out that it is hypocritical of British media outlets to denounce the pictures: “The world’s gone upside down. English paparazzi are totally lawless.”
Britain’s Sunday Mirror reported that Prince William wanted someone jailed over the photos, and French law does allow for a criminal sentence over breach of privacy. But that will not stop the photos going viral.
In the absence of international privacy legislation, the internet remains a wild and lawless realm, and royal breasts are safe only in captivity.

First published on

Dutch voters back eurozone in election


IN A strong show of support for Europe, Dutch voters have rejected Euro-sceptics and backed two pro-Europe centrist parties.An election that was a litmus test for Dutch willingness to back Europe and the euro during its debt crisis has resulted in Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte claiming victory for his centre-right VVD Party.

The centre-left Labour Party was a close second, with vote-counting continuing last night and a coalition government of the two still probable.

The anti-immigrant Freedom Party of far-right firebrand Geert Wilders looked to have been devastated, with an exit poll suggesting its 24 seats could be slashed to as few as 13.

Mr Wilders, a harsh critic of the European Union, had triggered the election by refusing to back Mr Rutte’s plans for an austerity package to rein in the budget deficit.

Mr Wilders had also called for the Netherlands to ditch the euro and leave the European Union.

He complained that the government was ”throwing money over the dykes” to help Greece and Spain while cutting social services to its own people.

The VVD was set to take 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, two more than the Labour Party.

Voters also rejected the far-left Socialist Party, which had opposed eurozone rescue deals and had led in polls over the past three months.

The result is an embarrassment for pollsters, who had not predicted the abandonment of smaller anti-Europe parties in favour of the two main players, who have both consistently backed eurozone rescue packages.

In essence, Dutch voters seem to have backed further integration with Europe, despite anger that they were being asked to increase contributions to bail-outs of southern nations.

But there might also have been an element of strategic voting, with voters swinging towards the major parties at the last minute in the hope of pushing the one that best represented their views to victory.

Mr Rutte said the result was an endorsement of his austerity platform: ”This is a strong boost for the agenda that we have laid out for the Netherlands, to go on with our policy in this splendid country.”

Mr Rutte had promised to bring down the Dutch deficit and stimulate the economy – which has been flat because of the eurozone crisis – with budget cuts and investment in infrastructure.

Labour leader Diederik Samsom leaned more towards the fiscal stimulus policies of French president Francois Hollande and had campaigned on job-creation programs.

If the two unite in coalition, there is likely to be a moderation of Mr Rutte’s strong support of the austerity policies championed by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr Rutte had earlier warned against a result that might undermine the close ties between the two nations.

”Will we continue our close relationship with Germany and fighting the euro crisis, or will we shift towards a more France-oriented Europe, which I will be against?” he said after casting his vote.

But Mr Samsom said German-led austerity policies had hurt the Dutch economy: ”It is wrong to assume that this crisis will be solved by a choice between Paris and Berlin. Europe is not about axes. Europe is about co-operation. Otherwise you will never get out of this crisis.”

Mr Wilders, best known for his anti-Muslim views, said of the result, ”I would rather have stood here with good news, but the voter has spoken. We have lost badly.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt welcomed exit-poll results, tweeting, ”Looks as if populist anti-Europeans are losing big-time in Dutch election. Distinctly good news.”

A provisional voting result was expected overnight but the official result will not be confirmed until Monday.

First published on

German court opens door to euro rescue

Austerity, bailout fatigue take toll

A CONSTITUTIONAL crisis for Germany and a financial shock to the euro have been averted by a court decision that will allow Germany to contribute to Europe’s permanent euro bailout fund.
The German Supreme Court last night ruled that it was legal under the constitution for Germany to participate in the bailout, but imposed conditions, including a limit of €190 billion ($234 billion).
If the government wants to contribute more than this to the €700 billion European Stability Mechanism, the decision must be referred to the German parliament for a vote.
This means that heavily indebted countries such as Greece and Spain can continue to receive the support they need in order to avoid bankruptcy.
The court case had threatened the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and risked plunging European sharemarkets into turmoil and the world economy into a downturn.
The case was mounted by 37,000 petitioners, including the group More Democracy, academics, ordinary Germans and members of Dr Merkel’s own party. They were angry that their taxes were being used to support olive-belt countries they regarded as financially reckless and claimed Germany was taking on “unlimited and irreversible liability risks”.
Germany was the only eurozone country not to have ratified the treaty establishing the ESM. As it is also the largest, the fund had been unable to open for business.
In line with its share capital in the European Central Bank, Germany must give €22 billion in cash to the fund and provide guarantees totalling €170 billion. But critics warn that much more will be required to support the unsteady euro.
The fund’s war chest is not considered enough to finance a full bailout of both Spain and Italy.
The court decision was in line with expectations, with many observers having predicted that the court would be reluctant to bring down either the government or the euro and would likely steer a middle path that set limits.
Mattias Kumm, of Berlin’s Humboldt University, said, “It means that Germany will now be able to move forward and ratify the ESM, providing an additional clarifying interpretation of the conditions under which Germany can assume responsibility. So in effect, this means that the ESM can enter into force.”
It also means that regular reports on where Germans’ money is going will be made public in the run-up to the German federal election.
Meanwhile, voters in The Netherlands went to the polls overnight in a general election triggered by the refusal of Geert Wilders the leader of the Freedom Party, to support cuts to reduce the Dutch deficit.
Opinion polls put radical eurosceptic parties in third and fourth place in elections that were expected to rob Dr Merkel of a key ally as the Netherlands swings to the left, away from Berlin’s doctrine of fiscal discipline and towards French President Francois Hollande’s support for reduced austerity.
Many commentators are predicting the biggest swing to the left in Holland’s history.

First published on

Child witness to family shooting wakes from coma

LONDON< THE seven-year-old girl who was shot and beaten during an attack in which her parents were killed has regained consciousness in a French hospital with relatives at her side, but has not yet been questioned by police. Zainab al-Hilli is viewed by police as the “key witness” to the shootings last Wednesday in which her mother, father and grandmother and a passing cyclist were gunned down at a tourist spot in the French Alps near Lake Annecy. The chief prosecutor leading the inquiry, Eric Maillaud, said: “She has been in a coma and is under sedatives and cannot be questioned for now. The members of her family who came are by her side. Without doubt, it is their responsibility to inform her of the death of her family. “We hope that the age of seven is the age of reason and that she will be able to provide descriptions about the number of people, whether men or women, the colour of their clothes, and who could have committed this.” Zainab has a fractured skull from a suspected pistol-whipping as well as a gunshot wound to the shoulder. She has been under armed guard in intensive care in hospital at Grenoble and has undergone surgery. Mr Maillaud described her survival as a miracle. She will be questioned by police who specialise in child witnesses. Her sister Zeena, four, who was found cowering under her mother’s legs in the back of the family car eight hours after the bodies were discovered, has flown back to Britain accompanied by relatives, police and a social worker. Mr Maillaud said Zeena had identified family members and described the “fury” and “terror” of the attack to French police. He said she had heard shots and cries but was unable to advance the inquiry. “The most important thing is to get her back to her family.” Last Wednesday, Iraqi-born Saad al-Hilli, his wife Iqbal, her mother Suhaila al-Allaf and passing cyclist Sylvain Mollier, 45, were gunned down by assassins who put two bullets into each person’s head, leading to speculation of a professional hit. A builder working at a house near where the family was killed said he saw their car pass but did not hear any shots fired. Laurent Fillion-Robin told The Times: “You do hear shooting from the hunters sometimes, but I didn’t hear anything that afternoon. Perhaps [the killers] had a silencer.” Meanwhile, a childhood friend of the Hilli brothers has revealed a letter that victim Saad al-Hilli wrote in which he savaged his older brother Zaid, 53, a month after the death of their father, and hinted at a dispute over inheritance. He wrote: “Zaid and I do not communicate any more as he is another control freak and tried a lot of underhanded things even when my father was alive. He tried to take control of father’s assets.” Police are also investigating Saad al-Hilli’s work as an aeronautical design engineer for Surrey Satellite Technology, a company which helped to develop Britain’s first military surveillance satellite. A colleague, Derek Reed, said he did not think his job would have put Mr Hilli at risk.First published in The Age.

French police hunt for at least two gunmen after Alps murders

LONDON: Two or more killers were last night being hunted over the murders of a family in the French Alps, as police continued to probe the dead father’s relationship with a brother and his work with a defence-satellite technology company.
While French authorities continued to insist they could not say if the killings had been the result of a professional hit, they confirmed each murder victim had received at least three bullets, including two shots to the head, a technique seen as a signature of assassination.
One investigator said: “We know the number of weapons that were used and the kinds that were used. Examination of the grooves on the cartridges and of the system for firing the bullet shows there was more than one killer.”
The seven-year-old daughter of the family, Zainab, was reported to be out of danger following operations to repair a fractured skull. Police said it was not yet known how she had been bludgeoned. There has been speculation she was pistol-whipped. Eric Maillaud, the chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation, said of speculation that Zainab might have been tortured to force her parents to reveal something, said, “This is not the main hypothesis.”
Last Wednesday, British-based aeronautics engineer Saad al-Hilli, 50, his wife Iqbal, 47, their two daughters and a 77-year-old woman thought to be Iqbal’s mother were on holidays in the Alps near Lake Annecy when they were attacked by gunmen.
A cyclist, Sylvain Mollier, 45, is believed to have been passing on the same road but apparently became a witness and was also murdered. He took seven bullets.
The younger daughter, four-year-old Zeena, was found crouching under her mother’s legs eight hours after the bodies were discovered in a BMW near the village of Chevaline.
The Mail on Sunday reported that Mr al-Hilli was working on a secret contract for one of Europe’s biggest defence companies, Surrey Satellites Technology. The newspaper said he was part of a team involved in an undisclosed project linked to European Aeronautic Defence and Space, a company that has contracts with Russia, China and the Foreign Office. Its clients include NASA, the European Space Agency and the British Ministry of Defence contractor Thales.
Claude Moniquet, the director of the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre, said, “Mr al-Hilli’s company was also a renowned leader in satellite mapping, and if it was secretly doing this in countries which would not welcome such an intrusion, then we have a possible motive.” He also suggested Middle-Eastern groups might have pressured the Iraqi-born Mr al-Hilli for access to technology and killed him for refusing.
Meanwhile Mr al-Hilli’s brother Zaid, who had previously issued a legal caveat to delay the settling of his father’s will, denied a family feud. A cousin who lives in Australia, Ali al-Hilli, told London’s Telegraph that Zaid was in tears when he spoke to him on the telephone after the killings. “He kept saying, ‘Why? Why? Why? How did this happen? … He was clearly devastated. He wasn’t coping.” Ali al-Hilli said he knew of no disagreement over money. He said Zaid al-Hilli was innocent and intended to care for the girls.
Police continued a detailed search of the al-Hillis’ home in Claygate, Surrey, while French police widened their search to Italy and Switzerland, with Mr Maillaud saying it was possible the killers had fled across borders that were only 90 minutes away.
Mr Maillaud said Zeena would soon re-join relatives who had travelled to France to take her home. Zainab, a “key witness”, was still in hospital in an induced coma, he said.
A former head of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, John O’Connor, told The Independent he believed the murders were probably the result of a state-sponsored assassination.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.


WHEN Eva Valiente finished her university studies in advertising, she fired off written applications to 200 companies in Madrid. She did not get a single reply. So Valiente got part-time work with a chain of fashion shops. They sacked her when she turned 25 — she was too old for their look now, they said.
“It is illegal but the laws are weak for beginning people,” she says, with the hard-earned wisdom of a 26-year-old.
She tells of a friend who was offered a “job” in which she would work from 9am to 9pm five days a week — and get no salary for a year. Talking of the desperation of young Spaniards for work, she says “it’s for crying.”
Spain’s youth unemployment rate is a staggering 53 per cent, the highest in the 17-member eurozone. Among the jobless are Valiente’s boyfriend, a qualified lawyer who has never had work in his field, and two of her sisters: one a graphic designer who has never worked and the other a psychologist who recently lost her job. All of this in a middle-class, educated family — Valiente’s father is a doctor.
The eurozone now has a total of 3.3 million young people who cannot find work. Leading this dismal set of statistics are Spain and its fellow victim of financial crisis, Greece (52.8 per cent). With half the eurozone nations in recession, there are now enough unemployed people of all ages to make up a middling-sized country: 25 million.
There are warnings of a “lost generation” from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. In a report in July, it demanded urgent action to stop the cyclic jobless problem becoming permanent, particularly for young people. “We need to avoid the risk of a lost generation by all means,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria.
An alarming report by the World Economic Forum, Global Risks 2012, used even tougher language. It warns that with unemployment and systemic financial crises, the world is sowing “the seeds of dystopia”, defined as “the opposite of utopia, a place where life is full of hardship and devoid of hope”.
The report, based on the views of 469 leaders from industry, government, academia and NGOs, warned that rapid global changes risked producing misery for much of humanity. The risks included “a large youth population [that] contends with chronic, high levels of unemployment, while concurrently the largest population of retirees in history becomes dependent upon already heavily indebted governments.
“Both young and old could face an income gap, as well as a skills gap so wide as to threaten social and political stability.”
Declining economic conditions could jeopardise the social contracts between states and citizens and increase nationalism and populism. The Forum warned of the emergence of “critical fragile states — formerly wealthy countries that descend into lawlessness and unrest as they become unable to meet their social and fiscal obligations”.
The number one risk to global stability, according to the report? Major systemic financial failure — that is, the collapse of finance or banking institutions, or even a whole currency.
All of which leads back to Spain and its potential to wreak economic disaster upon the rest of Europe and, perhaps, the world.
Madrid does not look like the capital of a struggling nation. Its broad, proud boulevards and graceful old buildings speak of majestic confidence. Its pavements are smooth and its many public gardens green and manicured, despite a summer so hot that there have been bushfires in the provinces. Madrid does not seem to have in any numbers beggars such as the Romanies on Parisian streets, or the English homeless holding out plastic cups for coins in London.
But Spain is suffering. While Greece’s public writhing under the agonies of austerity in a recession has been the focus of headlines, this is because if the eurozone falls, Greece is likely to be the first domino. In many ways, however, Spain is the bigger worry.
Greece is a small nation and accounts for only 3 per cent of the eurozone economy. While its exit from the euro might trigger a crisis of confidence in Europe’s financial markets, the euro would have a chance of surviving it. But Spain is Europe’s fourth-largest economy and is widely considered too big to bail.
That did not stop the European Central Bank deciding in June to lend Spain up to €100 billion to help its struggling banks in an attempt to ward off a more serious emergency.
Spain is in financial crisis — and Valiente and her family and friends are out of work — because of what Spaniards call “the brick bubble”. When Spain joined the euro, credit became cheap as the European Central Bank kept interest rates low for the whole zone. Spaniards bought property, leading to a construction boom. In 2007 came the bust.
Credit tightened. People stopped buying. The value of houses plummeted, some by more than 50 per cent, leaving many people owing big mortgages worth more than the property involved. Banks found themselves weighed down with mortgage defaults and toxic assets worth a fraction of their previous value. The countryside is dotted with ghost towns, huge housing developments that remain unfinished and unsold. Federal and regional governments that had spent big as revenues flowed found themselves unable to balance budgets.
The human cost is dire. Spain now has 1.7 million households in which no one is working, and the government says it does not expect joblessness to fall below 22 per cent until at least 2015.
For Valiente and others like her, this means adult life is on hold indefinitely. She and her boyfriend would like to live together but they can’t afford it, she says in frustration: “You can’t leave home. You can’t be in a couple. You can’t be a mother. You feel like you are too old for everything, but at the same time, you have to live like you’re a 15-year-old. You live with your parents; you live like a teenager.”
This pattern of delayed adult milestones is also showing up in statistics, says sociologist Almudena Moreno Minguez of Valladolid University. “If you compare us with other European countries, Spaniards are now marrying three or four years later, on average, and having children six or seven years later.”
This is partly because many of those aged between 25 and 34 who moved out of home a few years ago when they started work are returning because they’re unemployed and broke. Parents call them “boomerangs”, she says.
“The parents aren’t happy. There comes a point when even the family cannot support another three or four members at home.”
She says research shows that young people are feeling angry and alienated from the formal structures of society; they feel they have no voice in the deciding of public affairs. Recent improvements to welfare benefits did not include them, she says, and Spain spends less of its GDP on training and education than the rest of the eurozone.
Many Spaniards talk with disdain of the “botellones” (from the word for big bottles) — young people who gather at night in public places to drink and party because they can’t afford clubs or bars.
Moreno says, “Even worse than not investing in them, people here try to make them feel guilty. ‘You are responsible for this situation.’ It’s like they have spat them out.”
A survey of young people aged 15 to 29 asked them to rank different institutions according to how well they respected them. Moreno says, “They gave justice 3, unions 4.5 — and politicians 2.”
Their disdain for politicians is shared by their elders. Newspaper columnist Luis del Pino, who contributes to El Mundo, says Spaniards have an old saying, “Two things are bad for your health — politicians and smoking, in that order.”
He says “legal” political corruption is to blame for many of the financial problems. Regional politicians manipulated local banks to encourage finance for local projects: “They put boards of directors that oriented these savings banks towards giving credit to big construction companies who were friends of the politicians. All this subsequently collapsed.”
Four Spanish banks that have been part-nationalised because of toxic debts have at least €71 billion ($A87 billion) in bad loans on their books.
Politicians also made many political appointments to get friends and supporters on the public payroll, he says. “Mayors and ministers have a total of 17,000 ‘personal advisers’, according to my colleagues at El Mundo. That’s an €850 million expense each year.”
And some politicians also manipulated the “brick bubble” for personal profit, buying land they knew was to be rezoned and reselling it for many times the original value, he says.
But Spain also has tight labour laws that need reform. Both right-wing and left-wing economists agree regulations, generous but not all unreasonable in boom times, now serve to lock young people out of work.
Sick employees can get most or all of their wages for 18 months. Employees can only be sacked without a payout in the first year, and many long-serving staff would cost €80,000 or more to let go. Businesses stay small because once they reach 50 employees, they must have five workplace reps to bargain on wages and conditions, each of whom receive 15 paid hours a month for these duties. Companies also pay higher rates of tax once they have more than 25 staff.
Inigo del Toro Calonje lost his job as an environmental engineer with a company designing golf courses when the boom bust. Golf courses had sprung up to add value to housing developments in the middle of nowhere but suddenly his company’s clients stopped paying and Calonje, unable to find another job, decided to set up his own consultancy.
It cost him €4000 and took three months to set it up to comply with government regulations. He earns only 60 per cent of what he earned as an employee but must pay company taxes each month and is driven mad by the different environmental regulations in Spain’s 17 regions. “They punish us for trying to be independent,” he says.
He is not the only one feeling punished by “la crisis”. “Social instability is a risk because we will have a large group of young unemployed for a long, long time,” warns Almudena Moreno (pictured). “It will produce social conflict and the social structure will break down because young people don’t see any future; they don’t see any solution. What is going to happen in three or four years if we don’t find a solution?
“Here, democracy is quite young. It’s less than 40 years [since dictator General Franco died], it’s nothing. Our structures are quite weak. It’s hard to predict but if groups such as the long-term unemployed, the young people with no future and the people who have been evicted join together, their social power could be terrible, and dangerous too.”
Luis del Pino is another who can foresee potential trouble. He warns of the “amazing speed” with which the middle class, the backbone of any developed society, is disappearing.
“It would be a disaster if this led to the rise of political extremism. Franco is within living memory here. When you put several million people in a desperate enough situation, then they will hear anyone who promises them some hope, even if that anyone is the most despicable man.”
Right now, those questions are too big for most of the young jobless, for whom the main question is where to go next. Many are considering joining the tens of thousands leaving the country to seek fortune in foreign lands.
Enrique Melendez, 30, who lost his job writing for a public relations firm, is thinking about migrating to South America. It’s far away but they speak Spanish there, he says.
He is grateful to have worked at all: “At least the people around 30 had a job and lost it. At least we have had the experience of work. It’s more dangerous for the next ones coming behind us, who’ve never had a job and have no experience.”
Eva Valiente is wondering about moving too. She has two ideas; to become a cook and move to a rural town — “life is cheaper there” — or to go to England and improve her English and, therefore, her saleability. Maybe both. She cannot see anything changing for her in Madrid any time soon: “They say the crisis will go on for five or 10 years. I don’t know. Young people are very sad.”
■ The number of people helped by Spanish Catholic charity Caritas
2007: 400,000
2011: 1 million, mostly families with children
■ Unemployment
2005: 8.7%
2012: 25%
■ On the edge of poverty
10.5 million people, 22% of the population
■ Court orders for evictions
2007: 25,943
2010: 93,636
■ Homes in which no one works
2005: 2.6%
2012: 9.1%

First published in The Age.

The pain in Spain falls on ghost towns

Half-vacant Sesena is symptomatic of the economic blight in Spain. Karen Kissane reports from Madrid.

THE blunt brown apartment blocks of Sesena rise into the sky and spread wide along the dry paddocks. Around them, dirt from bare ground whirls in the summer wind, crane towers lie piled like matchsticks, and cyclone fencing surrounds the dream that turned to dust.
Block after block of apartments stand shuttered and empty, monuments to the folly and greed of Spain’s “brick bubble” — the property boom that went bust in 2007. Five years later, only 5000 of the 13,000 homes planned for Sesena are completed, and 2000 of those have yet to be sold.
This is the Spanish paradox: as huge property developments all over the country fade into ghost towns, an average of 159 people a day are being evicted because they can no longer pay their mortgages.
Foreclosures have quadrupled, with the courts granting 530,000 eviction orders between 2008 and 2011. Homelessness has increased as an estimated one in five houses — up to 5.6 million homes — stand empty.
An action group, Stop Evictions, has profiled the typical evictees: Spanish-born, with children in their care, and unemployed. The Spanish jobless rate is now the highest in Europe, 23 per cent, and its youth unemployment is a staggering 53 per cent, the worst in the industrial world. This means many people cannot afford to buy a home even though some houses and flats are now one-third the price they were five years ago in the heady days of cheap credit.
A young mother pushing a pram in the otherwise empty streets of Sesena, half an hour’s drive south of Madrid, says she and those in her block have been lucky; they paid only €72,000 ($A87,000) for their fire-sale apartments.
She would like the landscaping to be finished — “This should be garden,” she says, gesturing at the dirt — but her neighbours in the block opposite have a more serious problem: “They are worried and angry; they paid €200,000, big money.”
The property crash has been devastating to Spaniards who, unlike most Europeans, are as obsessed with home ownership as Australians. Retirees have lost their savings, young couples are stuck with big mortgages on houses they cannot sell, and Spanish banks are overloaded with toxic debt.
This week the government of Catalonia, with a budget as big as Portugal’s, became the second region to ask the Spanish government for a financial bailout. It wants an emergency credit line of €5 billion to help fund payments on its €42 billion debt.
In another barometer of rising fear, private depositors in Spanish banks withdrew more money in August than at any time since the country joined the euro.
Meanwhile Sesena has no chemist, its only public transport is a bus to Madrid once an hour, and the ground floors of all its blocks stand shuttered and blank — the retail businesses that were meant to fill them have never eventuated.
A young jogger living in blocks of nearby townhouses — who, like the mother, did not wish to give his name — says he regrets having bought a home in Sesena: “It’s too quiet. If we want to go out and do things, we have to go to Madrid.”
Then, realising he has just talked down his own property value, he bids a quick farewell and jogs off down a weed-filled street of withered front gardens.

First published in The Age.