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Ratings agency Fitch cut France's credit grade by one notch to "AA" on Friday, saying Paris's efforts to trim its fiscal deficit have fallen short to avoid a downgrade.

"The weak outlook for the French economy impairs the prospects for fiscal consolidation and stabilizing the public debt ratio," Fitch said.

The AA grade -- two steps below the top triple-A rating -- was decided despite France having reduced its projected deficit for fiscal 2015 to 4.1 percent of GDP, down from 4.3 percent, under pressure from the European Commission.

"On its own, this will not be sufficient to significantly change Fitch's projections of France's government debt dynamics," the agency said.

"The 2015 budget involves a significant slippage against prior budget deficit targets."

It noted that the draft 2015 budget projected government debt to GDP ratio will peak at 98 percent in 2016, higher and later than previous projections.

But Fitch doubted those targets could be met.

 

 

 

Dressed as Santas and sexy snowflakes, exuberant revelers roared out Jingle Bells, gulped down beer and danced in Times Square on Saturday, kicking off New York's controversial SantaCon bar crawl.

Thousands -- many young and a few old -- are expected to frequent more than 30 Manhattan bars which are opening their doors to a party slammed by critics last year after drunk merrymakers brawled, vomited and urinated in the streets.

But when one neighborhood in Brooklyn tried to ban this year's gathering, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel played Santa to SantaCon, coming to the rescue to help redesign a festive, but law-abiding gathering.

To ease pressure on New York police, who will be out in force at a major civil rights rally to condemn police killings, the organizers agreed to start early and restrict themselves to Midtown.

"It's going to be a crazy day," said Greg Packer, a retired highway maintenance worker, taking part for the first time.

"It's part of the holiday season, it's New Year's, it puts you in a festive mood," he added, squeezing his portly frame into a Santa suit, buckle and hat.

Revelers gathered in Times Square from 9:00 am, dressed as Santas, reindeers, elves and snowflakes, drapped in Christmas lights and tinsel. A few young men sipped beers hidden in paper bags.

 

- Good Santas this year -

 

Bellowing out Jingle Bells, they danced and hoisted each other onto one another's shoulders as women in stockings and suspenders, mini skirts and thigh-high stilettoed boots huddled in the cold.

Jose Solorzano, a 23-year-old student, and accountant friend Benny Riccardo said complaints were unjustified, pointing out SantaCon ("con" for "convention") raises money for charity.

 

 

 

 

From her days as a local politician to her role as the US Senate's chief intelligence overseer, Dianne Feinstein has been forced to confront human wickedness on levels personal and political.

As a San Francisco official she held a slain colleague in her arms moments after a gunman's bullets cut him down.

As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2009, she has been privy to details of the war on terror and extremists who have killed Americans.

Feinstein pushed back against the savagery this week, in a way that could define her career.

She released a 500-page report summary detailing ghastly interrogation practices by the CIA which she and others say amount to torture of detainees.

It capped a years-long effort to investigate and expose the enhanced interrogation techniques of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose leaders she infuriated last March when she dropped a bombshell by publicly accusing its agents of spying on Senate computers.

"I have grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution," Feinstein declared in a dramatic floor speech.

 

 

The case recalled the dark years of the agency, and Feinstein said it pained her to expose it to the public.

It triggered one of the worst rows between Congress and the intelligence community, but the matter was too grave to ignore.

As investigators put finishing touches on their massive probe, she said, the CIA breached Senate computers in a bid to delete files confirming the committee's suspicions.

It was amid such frayed ties that Feinstein, following an intense tug-of-war with the CIA and White House, released a declassified version of the report Tuesday, offering 20 damning conclusions about the ineffectiveness and brutality of many post-9/11 interrogations.

"Excellent," is how Senator John Rockefeller described Feinstein's performance this week.

"I've worked really closely with her," Rockefeller told AFP on Friday.

"We've dealt with the same issues. I sit right beside her, and I think she's done a wonderful job."

Feinstein, 81, has lost none of her fighting spirit, but the intensity of negotiations over the report appears to have left a mark.

Approached by reporters as she headed to yet another classified briefing ahead of the report's publication, she said "I don't even know what day it is."

 

 

 

 

US Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday urged lawmakers to adopt a new legal authorization to underpin military action against Islamic State militants for at least three years.

But during a heated debate, the top US diplomat came under fire from Republicans and Democrats who argued that if President Barack Obama wanted new powers to combat the jihadists, he should have drawn up a draft text to propose to the Senate.

The US-led coalition has already carried out some 1,100 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since September targeting IS extremists in a bid to defeat the group which has seized a large territory and imposed harsh Islamic law.

So far, the Obama administration has used the existing authorization for use of military force against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their branches approved in the days after the September 11, 2001 attacks as the legal justification for going after IS.

Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations committee: "I think we all agree that this discussion must conclude with a bipartisan vote that makes clear that this is not one party's fight against ISIL (IS), but rather that it reflects our unified determination to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL."

 

 

"Our coalition partners need to know it. The men and women of our armed forces need to know it. And ISIL's cadres of killers, rapists, and bigots need to understand it."

He asked the committee to help draw up a new authorization which "provides a clear signal of support for our ongoing military operations against ISIL," referring to the group by another acronym.

Kerry also urged that the text should not limit US actions geographically to just Syria and Iraq, and suggested it should be valid for three years with room for a possible extension.

 

Controversially, the top US diplomat also appealed to senators not to rule out the use of ground troops.

Obama has insisted he will not send US ground troops into combat operations against IS, saying that "will be the responsibility of local forces."

"That does not mean we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander-in-chief -- or our commanders in the field -- in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee," Kerry said.

 

 

The World Bank on Tuesday predicted that Russia's economy would shrink by 0.7 percent in 2015, but warned that the contraction would be worse if oil prices were to keep sliding.

The World Bank said its forecast is based on the "most likely" scenario of crude prices averaging at $78 in 2015.

But if oil prices fell to $70, Russia's output would shrink by 1.5 percent, it said.

"In the baseline scenario, investment is projected to contract for a third year in a row in 2015 because of continued uncertainty, restricted access to international financial markets by Russian companies and banks, and lower consumer demand," Birgit Hansl, the World Bank's lead economist for Russia, was quoted as saying.

Consumption growth is expected to decline in 2015 for the first time since 2009 after "negligible expansion in 2014," Hansl said.

The World Bank said that Russia would avoid recession in 2015 in a best case scenario if oil prices averaged $85.

On Tuesday, oil prices fell to fresh five-year lows, at around $65, battered by OPEC's decision last month to maintain its output levels despite a global supply glut.

Russia's economy has slowed in recent years, after GDP averaged eight percent during Vladimir Putin's first two terms in office from 2000 to 2008. In 2013, growth was just 1.3 percent, attributed by economists to over-reliance on oil and gas revenues.

 

 

 

Consider it a bargain: The world's largest white truffle sold at auction Saturday for $61,250 -- far less than the cool $1 million its owner reportedly had hoped for.

The White Alba's Truffle weighed 4.16 pounds (1.89 kilos) when unearthed last week in the Umbrian region of Italy, making it by far the largest ever found.

Sotheby's said it was purchased by a gourmand from Taiwan, who had placed his winning bid by telephone.

Bidding started at $50,000 for the record-breaking fungus.

It was owned by the Balestra Family of Sabatino Truffles, whose CEO told the New Haven Register newspaper this week that he hoped it would fetch seven figures.

"I told everybody I wanted a million dollars," said Federico Balestra telling the newspaper that a Sabatino employee in Italy "was hunting truffles for us and found the truffle for us."

Balestra added that the massive fungus -- slightly smaller than an American football -- was large enough "to feed a party for 300-400 truffle dinners."

Long after the dinner plates are cleared away, the Balestra truffle was expected to enjoy immortality as an entry in next year's edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

News reports said this new record holder was about twice the size of the previous champion.

 

 

 

 

A runaway horse sparked mayhem in evening rush-hour traffic in Vienna, galloping along a busy road pursued by nine police cars and the animal's distraught owner, police said Thursday.

The young animal was being trained to pull one of the Austrian capital's famous Fiaker carriages popular with tourists when it escaped at dusk on Wednesday, police spokesman Roman Hahslinger said.

Tearing along one of the main routes out of the city, "the horse collided with a car, damaging the vehicle, and then jumped onto another, smashing the windscreen with its hooves," Hahslinger told AFP.

 

 

The Baltic nation of Lithuania on Saturday unveiled what it billed as the world's largest-ever coin pyramid ahead of its switch from the litas currency to the euro on January 1.

Volunteers spent nearly three weeks arranging one million coins, worth 10,000 litas (2,900 euros), into a pyramid over one metre (yard) tall.

"We have certainly beaten the world record. Previously, the biggest pyramid of this kind was made up of 600,000 coins", said 26-year-old volunteer Domas Jokubauskis.

All the coins will eventually be donated to a children's charity.

The Baltic nation of three million, which joined the EU in 2004, will become the 19th member of the eurozone on January 1, 2015.

Its neighbours Estonia and Latvia joined the European single currency in 2011 and 2014 respectively, eyeing improved investor confidence.

Lithuanians are divided over the currency switch, with 47 percent supporting it and 49 percent against it, mainly due to fears of price hikes, according to a Eurobarometer survey in September.

 

A dinosaur tooth found in Malaysia is at least 140 million years old and belongs to a new species within the "bird-hipped" Ornithischian order, researchers said Thursday.

While still unsure of the exact species of dinosaur, lead researcher Masatoshi Sone from the University of Malaya said the discovery means "it is plausible that large dinosaur fossil deposits still remain in Malaysia".

"We started the programme to look for dinosaur fossils two years ago. We are very excited to have found the tooth of the dinosaurian order called Ornithischian in central Pahang state" last year, he said.

Researchers from Japan's Waseda University and Kumamoto University also took part in the project.

Ornithischian, or "bird-hipped", is a major group comprised of herbivous dinosaurs such as triceratops.

The dinosaur would have been about as big as a horse, Sone said.

 

 

 

 

A set of panda triplets, the world's only known surviving trio, celebrated reaching their 100-day milestone in a Chinese zoo Wednesday as the public were allowed to visit them for the first time.

Their births at the end of July were hailed as a "miracle", given the animal's famously low reproductive rate, and fears that they may not survive have been quelled.

A video from Guangzhou's Chimelong Safari Park showed the three cubs sprawled on their fronts on a blanket in a small enclosure, nudging each other with their snouts and lying back yawning.

The two male and one female cubs, which first opened their eyes in September, now weigh six kilograms (13 pounds) each, the zoo said.

Visitors to their glass enclosure will be limited to 1,000 a day.

The celebration video traced the triplets' lives so far and portrayed the two young male cubs as looking up to their sister.

"Our older sister 'Long Long' leads us, and we are happy," the birthday song said.

The animals have not yet been officially named but will be soon, according to the zoo.