The Capitol riot, the Taliban's return and a submarine dispute: 10 top news stories in 2021
FRANCE 24 looks back at some of the year's top news stories. © France Médias Monde

The 2021 news cycle was, just like in 2020, dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. But there were other major events around the world that hit headlines, from the US Capitol insurrection to the civil war in Ethiopia and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at 10 of the biggest news stories over the last 12 months.

Trump supporters storm the US Capitol

The year kicked off with a bang when hundreds of people stormed the US Capitol, the seat of American democracy, on January 6. Joe Biden had won the presidential election two months earlier but his predecessor, Donald Trump, refused to acknowledge the result, alleging that the vote had been rigged and the election “stolen”.

Soon after Trump held a rally in Washington for hundreds of his supporters, urging them to protest the election result, the crowd stormed the Capitol where members of Congress had gathered to certify Biden’s election victory. The violence that day led to four deaths. More than 700 people have so far been charged with participating in the riot.

Many people accused Trump of adding fuel to the fire with his stubborn refusal to admit defeat and his public support for debunked conspiracy theories about electoral fraud.

Nevertheless, Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States as scheduled on January 20. The enquiry into those behind the Capitol riot is ongoing.

The coup d'état in Myanmar

On February 1, military tanks started to fill the roads around Myanmar’s Parliament in Naypyidaw. The Myanmar army, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, arrested President Win Myint and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Between 300 and 400 people – including elected officials, politicians opposed to the military regime and activists – were also arrested.

The army was deployed throughout the country. Soldiers took over city hall in Yangon and blocked access to the international airport. Public television stations went off air, and internet and phone lines were disrupted.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and sentenced to a total of four years in prison for inciting public disorder and violating Covid-19 health restrictions. The sentence was later reduced to two years. She called on the Burmese people to rebel against the military coup d’état, a request that was largely followed by the population, who continue to carry out protests against the military junta despite violent crackdowns.

The conflict in Tigray worsens

Ethiopia’s civil war has become one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters. In the northern province of Tigray, pro-government forces have been fighting against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front since November 2020. Civilians have been on the front lines of the conflict, with at least 400,000 people facing starvation in the north and more than two million Ethiopians displaced.

Both sides have been accused of carrying executions, torture and mass rape. The conflict worsened over the course of the year, with some people denouncing it as an “ethnic cleansing”. In November, the rebels announced they would pull back to Tigray in order to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country, raising hopes of the possibility of peace talks.

Belarus diverts a passenger plane to detain a political opponent

On May 23, a Boeing 737-800 flying a Ryanair route between Athens and Vilnius was diverted to Minsk on the orders of the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The reason given was a bomb threat – an allegation that was never substantiated.

Aboard that flight was Roman Protasevich, a journalist and opposition activist, who was detained upon the plane’s arrival in the Belarusian capital. The incident horrified EU officials, who called it a “hijacking” and subsequently imposed economic sanctions on Belarus as well as banned its aeroplanes from using EU airspace.

After several public interviews that were reportedly made under duress, Protasevich was eventually moved from a detention centre to house arrest in Minsk. His girlfriend Sofia Sapega was also put under house arrest. They are accused of helping to coordinate the massive protest movement that erupted in Belarus in 2020 after Lukashenko was re-elected for a fifth time in an election widely denounced as illegitimate.

Read on FRANCE 24: How Belarus’s 'aviation piracy' broke international law

Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban resumes power

Kabul fell back into the hands of the Taliban on August 15 as president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. By the next day the streets had descended into chaos and foreign nationals as well as Afghans were racing to evacuate.

The Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 by an international coalition led by the United States. Twenty years later, US forces withdrew in a final, frantic exit marked by the deaths of 180 Afghans and 13 US soldiers.

On August 26, a suicide bombing carried out by an Islamic State group affiliate killed more than 180 people who had gathered at the Hamid-Karzai airport in Kabul. On August 30, the last American plane left Kabul. Since then, the country has been on the brink of collapse, struggling with poverty and humanitarian crises. Foreign businesses and humanitarian organisations have left the country, while America has frozen the country’s central bank assets. The Afghan economy is suffering from inflation and a currency depreciating in value.

The tragic sight of Afghans trying to cling to an American army plane in a desperate attempt to flee the country was one of the most unforgettable images of 2021.

At a summit in Pakistan in December, leaders from 57 Muslim countries agreed to work with the United Nations to unblock hundreds of millions of dollars in Afghan assets to create a fund in order to alleviate the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Climate change: UN warns of ‘code red’ for humanity

On August 9, just before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a bombshell report on climate change. Humanity is “unequivocally” responsible for global heating and drastic changes must take place if we are to limit the damage, the assessment said.

The report concluded that Earth’s average temperature will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030, a decade earlier than experts predicted only three years ago.

“There is no time to wait, and no place for excuses,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, adding that the report was “code red for humanity”.

The report said that some side effects of global heating are now irreversible, such as the melting of polar ice, which will lead to sea levels continuing to rise for “centuries, even millennia”. Sea levels have already risen by 20 cm since 1900, and could rise by as much as 50 cm by 2100.

In November, the COP26 summit wrapped up after two weeks of tense negotiations with a final pact that was widely criticised.

Start of the Paris attacks trial

Almost six years after the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015, the trial into those horrific events began on September 8 in Paris. It is the largest court hearing ever organised in the country and will go on for nine months.

On the first day of the trial, Salah Abdeslam, the only member of the terrorist group that perpetrated the attacks to still be alive, described himself as a “soldier of the Islamic State”.

Over the course of five weeks, more than 300 victims of the attacks provided moving witness testimonies in front of the court.

Submarine spat causes tension between France and Australia, the US and the UK

France called it a “stab in the back”: In September, a submarine contract that pushed out Paris led to a diplomatic crisis between France, on the one hand, and Australia, the US and the UK on the other.

Five years after Paris and Canberra signed a contract worth 50 billion Australian dollars (€31 billion) for France to build 12 diesel submarines, US President Joe Biden announced a new defence deal with Australia and Britain called AUKUS that would see the US and the UK help Australia develop a nuclear submarine fleet. During the fallout from this announcement, France recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.

“We had established a relationship of trust with Australia; this trust has been betrayed," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. "I'm very angry today, and bitter... This is not something allies do to each other." The war of words continued, with Le Drian characterising the UK as “opportunistic” and the “fifth wheel on the carriage”.

At the end of October, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to try and repair relations, and the French ambassadors were sent back to their respective posts. But France is still wary. Recovering from the breach of trust will “take time”, warned Le Drian.

The end of an era for Benyamin Netanyahu and Angela Merkel

Longtime leaders in Israel and Germany passed the baton as Benjamin Netanyahu and Angela Merkel stepped down, marking the end of their respective eras.

On June 13, the Knesset voted to ratify a new coalition led by the leader of the country’s radical right movement Naftali Bennett, putting an end to Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. Crowds celebrated in the streets with ‘Bye bye Bibi’ placards, but Netanyahu had a bitter parting shot, telling the Knesset: "If it's our destiny to be in the opposition, we'll do so with our heads high until we take down this bad government and return to lead the country our way."

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In Germany, the most powerful woman in the world received a warm send-off from all corners of the globe. After four mandates and a total of 16 years in power, the German chancellor handed over to Social Democrat Olaf Scholz.

“Take this office and work in the best interests of our country,” she told him.

Read on FRANCE 24: A year in review: The women who shaped 2021

Delta and Omicron open a new chapter in the pandemic

Vaccination campaigns ramped up globally, allowing some restrictions on daily life to be eased. French residents saw an end to the curfew with which they began the year, gyms, cinemas, bars and restaurants reopened, and even nightclubs were able to open again. France’s introduction of a health pass allowed people with proof of a negative Covid-19 test or vaccination to go to places that had previously been off-limits.

But the Delta variant, followed swiftly by Omicron, led governments around the world to start tightening restrictions again. People in France will now need a third vaccine dose for their health passes to be valid starting on January 15, 2022.