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Wall Street Falls on China, NAFTA Concerns

The three major U.S. stock indexes ended lower Wednesday after a choppy trading session as investors worried that China would slow U.S. government bond purchases and that U.S. President Donald Trump would end a key trade agreement.

The S&P and the Nasdaq snapped a six-day rally after Bloomberg reported that China, the world’s biggest holder of U.S. Treasuries, could slow or stop buying the government bonds.

The report sent Treasury yields to a 10-month high.

The S&P 500 pared some losses as yields backed away from their intraday peaks and investors digested the China report.

But the index lost ground again in mid-afternoon trading after Reuters reported that Canada is increasingly convinced Trump will soon announce a U.S. exit from the North American Free Trade Agreement. It cited two unnamed government sources.

“It’s a fairly light week for economic and financial data. In a week like this, political headlines can have a bigger impact than they normally would,” said Jon Mackay, investment strategist at Schroders Investment Management in New York.

While Mackay said the selloff was overblown, he noted that a change to NAFTA could hurt corporate earnings.

“If that news is true, you’d expect a higher dollar price and a negative impact to earnings,” Mackay said.

Indexes fall

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 16.67 points, or 0.07 percent, to 25,369.13, the S&P 500 lost 3.06 points, or 0.11 percent, to 2,748.23 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 10.01 points, or 0.14 percent, to 7,153.57.

Investors were particularly skittish about the China report as they worried that the market was overdue for a correction.

“It’s a reflection of investor weariness and awareness that the market has risen for four straight months without seeing a major pullback,” said Robert Pavlik, chief investment strategist, SlateStone Wealth in New York.

“As the day wore on, Treasury yields started to move lower on the realization the story doesn’t have any legs,” he said. “There’s no way on earth the Chinese stop buying U.S. Treasuries.”

The S&P financial index was the best performer among the S&P 500’s 11 major sectors with a 0.9 percent rise, helped by gains in Berkshire Hathaway, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo.

Banks and insurance companies often rise with bond yields as investors expect a profit boost from higher interest rates.

Rate-sensitive sectors such as utilities and real estate were the biggest losers with declines of 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent.

Earnings

Investors started 2018 with high hopes for strong U.S. earnings growth. Banks will kick off earnings season Friday.

Earnings for S&P 500 companies are expected to increase by 11.8 percent, with the biggest contribution from the energy sector, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Berkshire Hathaway rose 1.3 percent after the conglomerate promoted two top executives, cementing their status as the most likely successors to Warren Buffett.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.59-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.09-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 74 new 52-week highs and 7 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 98 new highs and 24 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 6.93 billion shares, above the 6.38 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

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7-Eleven Probe Opens New Front on Immigration

U.S. immigration agents descended on dozens of 7-Eleven stores before dawn Wednesday to open employment audits and interview workers in what officials described as the largest operation against an employer under Donald Trump’s presidency.

Agents targeted about 100 stores nationwide, broadening an investigation that began with a 4-year-old case against a franchisee on New York’s Long Island. The audits could lead to criminal charges or fines over the stores’ hiring practices.

 

The action appears to open a new front in Trump’s sharp expansion of immigration enforcement, which has already brought a 40 percent increase in deportation arrests and plans to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico. Hardliners have been pressing for a tougher stance on employers.

 

Derek Benner, a top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told The Associated Press that Wednesday’s operation was “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers. He said there would be more employment audits and investigations, though there is no numerical goal.

 

“This is what we’re gearing up for this year and what you’re going to see more and more of is these large-scale compliance inspections, just for starters. From there, we will look at whether these cases warrant an administrative posture or criminal investigation,” said Benner, acting head of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, which oversees cases against employers.

 

“It’s not going to be limited to large companies or any particular industry, big medium and small,” he said. “It’s going to be inclusive of everything that we see out there.”

 

7-Eleven Stores Inc., based in Irving, Texas, with more than 8,600 stores in the U.S., didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

 

Though agents arrested 21 people suspected of being in the country illegally during Wednesday’s sweep, the action was aimed squarely at management.

 

Illegal hiring is rarely prosecuted, partly because investigations are time-consuming and convictions are difficult to achieve because employers can claim they were duped by fraudulent documents or intermediaries. Administrative fines are discounted by some as a business cost.

 

George W. Bush’s administration aggressively pursued criminal investigations against employers in its final years with dramatic pre-dawn shows of force and large numbers of worker arrests. In 2008, agents arrived by helicopter at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and detained nearly 400 workers. Last month, Trump commuted the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, former chief executive of what was the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking operation.

 

Barack Obama’s administration more than doubled employer audits to more than 3,100 a year in 2013, shunning Bush’s flashier approach. John Sandweg, an acting ICE director under Obama, said significant fines instilled fear in employers and draining resources from other enforcement priorities.

 

Trump is pursuing “its own kind of unique strategy” tied to its broader emphasis on fighting illegal immigration, including enforcement on the border, Benner said. Some workers may get arrested in the operations but authorities are targeting employers because they are job magnets for people to come to the country illegally.

 

“We need to make sure that employers are on notice that we are going to come out and ensure that they’re being compliant,” Benner said “For those that don’t, we’re going to take some very aggressive steps in terms of criminal investigations to make sure that we address them and hold them accountable.”

 

Wednesday’s operation resulted from a 2013 investigation that resulted in charges against nine 7-Eleven franchisees and managers in New York and Virginia. Eight have pleaded guilty and were ordered to pay more than $2.6 million in back wages, and the ninth was arrested in November.

 

In the 2013 investigations, managers used more than 25 stolen identities to employ at least 115 people in the country illegally, knowing they could pay below minimum wage, according to court documents. The documents say 7-Eleven corporate office does automated payroll, requiring franchisees provide employee names and Social Security numbers to pay workers through direct deposit or check.

 

The 7-Eleven stores served on Wednesday will be required to produce documents showing they required work authorization, which Benner said will become more common. Audits may lead to criminal charges or administrative penalties.

 

In Los Angeles’ Koreatown, seven agents arriving in three unmarked cars closed a store for 20 minutes to explain the audit to the only employee there, a clerk with a valid green card. Agents, wearing blue jackets marked ICE, told arriving customers that the store was closed briefly for a federal inspection. A driver delivering cases of beer was told to wait in the parking lot.

 

The manager was in Bangladesh and the owner, reached by phone, told the clerk to accept whatever documents were served. Agents said they would return Tuesday for employment records they requested.

 

Neither 7-Eleven nor was its parent company, Seven & i Holding Co. based in Tokyo, was charged in that case.

 

“Just as the IRS performs audits of people all the time of their tax returns, the same purpose here is to ensure a culture of compliance in this area,” he said.

 

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Disregarding Geography, Britain Hopes to Join Pacific Trade Deal

Britain is making known its hopes to one day join the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a free trade agreement currently being negotiated by eleven countries bordering the Pacific and the South China Sea.

The British government hopes trade with fast-growing economies will make up for losses that may occur after it leaves the European Union as scheduled in 2019.

On a recent trip to China, Britain Trade Minister Liam Fox tentatively suggested his country could one day join the TPP.

“We don’t know what the success of the TPP is going to yet look like, because it isn’t yet negotiated. So, it would be a little bit premature for us to be wanting to sign up to something that we’re not sure what the final details will look like. However, we have said that we want to be an open, outward-looking country, and therefore it would be foolish for us to rule out any particular outcomes for the future,” Fox told reporters during the trip last week.

London sits some 7,000 kilometers from any Pacific coastline. So, does geography no longer matter in 21st century trade? Not so, said Jonathan Portes, an economist and professor at Kings College London.

“There has been an argument put forward that particularly as trade in services expands, and as a result of technology, it will matter considerably less in the future, and that seems to make a lot of sense. However, unfortunately, so far at least, the actual data and evidence don’t really support this contention. For whatever reason, geography at the moment seems to matter as much as it ever did,” he said.

By leaving the European Union’s Single Market and Customs Union on its doorstep, Britain will abandon a free trade agreement that accounts for about half of its global trade. In contrast, all eleven countries currently negotiating the TPP combined accounted for less than 8 percent of British goods exported last year.

Portes said it will take decades for other trade deals to make up ground.

“Our companies are in many cases very closely integrated with the European Union, meaning that there will be substantial disruption as a result of the likely implications of Brexit.”

The countries negotiating the TPP include Chile, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

During his tenure, U.S. President Barack Obama was a driving force behind TPP, but his successor, Donald Trump, pulled the United States out of the deal, claiming it would be bad for America. Negotiations between the eleven remaining countries are progressing slowly.

“The TPP, already as a consequence of the U.S. withdrawal, has its own internal problems. And they’re going to have to work out how to get that back on track,” said Portes.

But Britain’s interest in the TPP has been welcomed by some of the parties involved, particularly Australia.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to visit Asia later this year in an attempt to boost ties ahead of Brexit.

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2017 Most Expensive Year for Natural Disasters

2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States, according to scientists. Sixteen disasters caused an estimated $306 billion in damage. VOA’s Steve Baragona reports.

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Ecuador to Probe Legality of Debt Under Ex-president Correa

Ecuador’s comptroller’s office on Monday announced it will open an audit of debt contracted in the last five years of the government of former President Rafael Correa to determine the legality of the operations and the use of the funds.

The move follows a report by the comptroller’s office revealing that some documentation relating to debt operations had been declared secret and that official reports on public debt had excluded some of the operations.

President Lenin Moreno, a former Correa protege, since his election last year been has criticized the ex-president’s handling of the economy and is seeking to unwind some Correa-era reforms. Correa says such efforts constitute a “coup” by Moreno.

A team of economists, lawyers and businessmen will analyze debt operations carried out between January 2012 and May 2017 and will present recommendations in April.

Comptroller Pablo Celi said Correa and former Finance Ministry officials had been notified about investigation.

Shortly after taking office last May, Moreno said that total public debt was $42 billion dollars, plus additional liabilities including some associated with payments to oil services companies.

I have just learned of a supposed preliminary report on the audit of the debt and a commission that includes several haters of the (Citizen’s Revolution),” Correa said via Twitter, referring to his political movement.

During a later speech in the city of Guayaquil he described the probe as “persecution.”

The former president is leading a campaign for the “No” vote in a Feb. 4 referendum on constitutional reforms include a measure to prohibit indefinite re-election, a measure Correa created that allowed him to run for a second term.

Correa himself in 2008 commissioned a team of experts to study the country’s prior debt operations. The experts concluded that several debt operations were “illegitimate,” leading his government to declare a default.

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Tunisian Protester Killed in Clashes with Police Over Price Hikes, Unemployment

One person was killed Monday during clashes between security forces and protesters in a Tunisian town, a security official and residents said, as demonstrations over rising prices and tax increases spread in the North African country.

A man was killed during a demonstration against government austerity measures in Tebourba, 40 km (25 miles) west of Tunis, the security official said, without giving details.

The protest had turned violent when security forces tried stopping some youths from burning down a government building, witnesses said. Five people were wounded and taken to a hospital, state news agency TAP said.

Tunisia, widely seen in the West as the only democratic success among nations where Arab Spring revolts took place in 2011, is suffering increasing economic hardship.

Anger has been building up since the government said that from Jan. 1, it would increase the price of gasoil, some goods and taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotel accommodations and other items, part of austerity measures agreed with its foreign lenders.

The 2018 budget also raises customs taxes on some products imported from abroad, such as cosmetics, and some agricultural products.

The economy has been in crisis since a 2011 uprising unseated the government and two major militant attacks in 2015 damaged tourism, which comprises 8 percent of GDP. Tunisia is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to speed up policy changes and help the economy recover from the attacks.

Violent protests spread in the evening to at least 10 towns with police and crowds clashing in Fernaneh, Bouhajla, Ouslatia, Moulouche, Sabitla, Gtar and Kef.

There was also a protest turning violent in Ettadamen district in the capital, residents said. Security forces had already dispersed small protests in Tunis late Sunday.

On Monday, about 300 people also took to the streets in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the country’s Arab Spring revolution, carrying banners aloft with slogans denouncing high prices.

A lack of tourists and new foreign investors pushed the trade deficit up by 23.5 percent year-on-year in the first 11 months of 2017 to a record high $5.8 billion, official data showed at the end of December.

Weakened dinar

Concerns about the rising deficit have hurt the dinar, sending it to 3.011 versus the euro Monday, breaking the psychologically important 3 dinar mark for the first time, traders said.

The currency is likely to weaken further, said Tunisian financial risk expert Mourad Hattab.

“The sharp decline of the dinar threatens to deepen the trade deficit and make debt service payments tighter, which will increase Tunisia’s financial difficulties,” he said.

Hattab said the dinar may fall to 3.3 versus the euro in the coming months because of high demand for foreign currency and little expectation of intervention from the authorities.

Last year, former Finance Minister Lamia Zribi said the central bank would reduce its interventions so that the dinar steadily declined in value, but it would prevent any dramatic slide.

The central bank has denied any plans to liberalize the currency, but Hattab said Monday’s decline showed there was an “undeclared float” of the dinar.

A weaker currency could further drive up the cost of imported food after the annual inflation rate rose to 6.4 percent in December, its highest rate since July 2014, from 6.3 percent in November, data showed Monday.

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Retail Workers Feel Disruption From Shifting Shopper Habits

 With new options and conveniences, there’s never been a better time for shoppers. As for workers… well, not always.

The retail industry is being radically reshaped by technology, and nobody feels that disruption more starkly than 16 million American shelf stockers, salespeople, cashiers and others. The shifts are driven, like much in retail, by the Amazon effect — the explosion of online shopping and the related changes in consumer behavior and preferences.

As mundane tasks like checkout and inventory are automated, employees are trying to deliver the kind of customer service the internet can’t match.

 

So a Best Buy employee who used to sell electronics in the store is dispatched to customers’ homes to help them choose just the right products. A Walmart worker dashes in and out of the grocery aisles, hand-picks products for online shoppers and brings them to people’s cars.

 

___

 

Yet even as responsibilities change — and in many cases, expand — the average growth in pay for retail workers isn’t keeping pace with the rest of the economy. Some companies say that in the long run the transformation could mean fewer retail workers, though they may be better paid. But while some workers feel more satisfied, others find their jobs are just a lot less fun.

Bloomingdale’s saleswoman Brenda Moses remembers the pre-internet era, when the upscale store was regularly filled with customers ready to buy. These days, department stores are less crowded and the customers who do come in can make price comparisons on their phones at the same time as they pepper staff with questions.

 

“You tell them everything, and then they look at you and say, ‘You know what? I think I will get it online,'” she said.

 

Moses has seen her commission rate rise to 6 percent from a half a percent, but her hourly wage dropped from $19 to as low as $10 before it came back up to $14. Depending more on commissions means her income fluctuates, and she’s competing with her colleagues for each sale.

 

“Now,” Moses said, “you have to fight to make your money.”

 

The same could be said for the retailing industry, overall. In 2017, 66,500 U.S. retail jobs disappeared (not taking into account jobs added in areas like distribution and call centers). In the past decade, about one out of every seven jobs have vanished in the hardest-hit sectors like clothing and consumer electronics, says Frank Badillo, director of research at MacroSavvy LLC. Though department stores have suffered the most, smaller businesses also have struggled to compete with online sellers.

 

Many of the survivors are rushing to adapt. Of the retail jobs that remain, over the next decade as many as 60 percent will either be new kinds of roles or will involve revised duties, says Craig Rowley, senior client partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group, a human resources advisory firm. He estimates the number is about 10 percent now.

How fast retail jobs will change and what they’ll look like depends on three factors, Rowley said: the pace at which online shopping advances; the speed at which robotics and other technology progress; and shifts in the minimum hourly pay.

 

“Jobs for workers will get more interesting and be more impactful on the company’s business,” Rowley said. “But the negative side is that there will be fewer entry-level jobs and there will be more pressure to perform.”

 

Some retail workers at the vanguard of the changes — like Laila Ummelaila, a personal grocery shopper at a Walmart in Old Bridge, New Jersey — speak glowingly of their new responsibilities.

 

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, has scrutinized every job in its stores as it looks to leverage its more than 4,000 U.S. locations against Amazon’s internet dominance.

The company now has 18,000 personal shoppers who fill online orders from store shelves, and 17,000 check-out hosts whose responsibilities are more extensive than the greeters of old, including keeping the area clean and making sure registers move efficiently. The company has also shifted workers from back-room clerical jobs and eliminated some overnight stocker positions in favor of more daytime sales help. The customers like the changes, company officials say, pointing to more than three years of sales growth at its established U.S. stores — a contrast with other, suffering retailers.

 

Ummelaila became a personal shopper after joining the company three years ago. To meet her store’s goals, she must pick one item per 30 seconds. If she can’t find something, she has to quickly get a substitute that’s as good or better.

 

“You start to get to know the customers, you know what they like,” she said, `”How they like their meat … and how long they keep milk in the fridge.”

Best Buy, meanwhile, has begun a free service in key markets where salespeople will sit with customers in their own homes and make recommendations on setting up a home office to designing a home theater system. Best Buy said shoppers spend more with a home visit than they do at the stores. The project follows Amazon, which reportedly has been testing a program that sends employees to shoppers’ houses for free “smart home” recommendations.

 

At Steve Frederick’s townhouse in Chicago, Billy Schuler offered advice about speakers that can be adjusted from a smartphone. Schuler, who had previously worked at Best Buy for 14 years, returned to the company to take on the new role.

 

“Customers are more relaxed when they are in their home,” he said. “We can do a walkthrough of the house and see their needs.” He likes to “break the ice” by calling the person and chatting a day or two before the visit.

 

Frederick, who’s spending close to $20,000 on the equipment, describes himself as “old-school” and says he needed a lot of help. He thinks it was worthwhile.

 

“When you are spending that kind of money, you want to have someone come in and explain it,” he said.

 

Schuler declined to give specifics but says he is well compensated. Ummelaila says her pay went up to nearly $12 per hour from $10 when she became a personal shopper.

 

Target credits its strategy of assigning dedicated sales staff in areas such as clothing, consumer electronics, and beauty for helping increase sales, and says having visual merchandisers create vignettes like shoppers would see in specialty stores inspires people to buy. “You are making an outfit and telling a story on each rack,” says Crystal Lawrence, who works at a Target store in Brooklyn, New York. She likes the variety in her new job, and Target says it plans to keep paying higher wages for those specialized roles.

 

But a survey of nearly 300 retail workers — conducted by the Center for Frontline Retail and Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center — found that of those workers whose job responsibilities have changed, more than 40 percent said they hadn’t received pay increases to reflect that.

 

Wages for hourly retail workers have risen less than 9 percent since 1990, compared with 18 percent for overall workers in the private sector. There has been some progress recently; some of the biggest retailers, like Walmart and Target, have made moves to increase pay in the face of low unemployment and competition for workers.

 

“For a long period, these retail jobs were just terrible on average,” said Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Retail stores have been following one strategy: high turnover, low wages. That strategy is no longer viable.”

 

Mandel sees hope in technology, which he says has historically created more and better-paying jobs than it has eliminated.

 

The National Retail Federation trade group points to government data showing that even in large supermarket chains where self-checkout has become standard, the number of employees per store has held steady over the 15 years through 2014. And the demand for grocery cashiers increased in the past few years, says Burning Glass Technologies, a company that analyzes labor market data.

 

McDonald’s says the self-serve kiosks it has been rolling out won’t result in mass layoffs, but will mean that some cashiers shift roles to accommodate changes like offering table service.

 

But a report prepared by Cornerstone Capital Group for the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute predicts that more than 7.5 million retail jobs are at risk of being eliminated by automation over the next several years.

 

Amazon is testing a grocery store in Seattle without cashiers, using cameras and shelf sensors to keep track of the items that shoppers grab and charge them. Eatsa, an automat-style restaurant in San Francisco, lacks cashiers as well — diners order at kiosks and workers prepare the food behind an opaque wall, with virtually no interaction between them.

 

A labor group representing 1.3 million grocery and food workers is trying to combat automation by highlighting that workers’ specialized skills — like the care they take in icing a rose on a wedding cake, or arranging flowers, or the ability of human workers to recognize spoiled food — provide a benefit to shoppers.

 

“Separating progress for the consumer, for the worker, for the economy versus the stockholders … those are completely different things,” says Erikka Knuti, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

 

Others say automation and happy workers are not necessarily incompatible.

 

Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon foresees fewer sales associates at his stores, but they’ll be better paid and better trained. Walmart has trained 225,000 supervisors and managers on topics like new apps and better customer service. It says managers who go through the academies have better retention rates than those who do not. Workers who report to those managers stay longer. And entry-level workers who complete a new training program are more likely to remain.

 

It’s a shift retailers may have to speed up. Government figures show the rate of retail workers quitting their jobs in 2016 was at its highest since 2007.

 

Alfredo Duran, who started as a sales associate at Gap and worked at six retailers over 15 years, left the industry two years ago. As a manager at clothing chain Mango, he was making $75,000 a year. But once the store closed, he had trouble finding another job in retail because no one wanted to pay him for his experience.

 

“It’s gone down. One person is doing three jobs. And you can’t move up,” said Duran, 38, of Queens, New York.

 

He’s now a concierge at a Manhattan hotel, making half of what he used to earn — but happy he left retail.

___

 

Editor’s note: This story is part of Future of Work, an Associated Press series that explores how workplaces across the U.S. and the world are being transformed by technology and global pressures. As more employers move, shrink or revamp their work sites, many employees are struggling to adapt. At the same time, workers with in-demand skills or knowledge are benefiting. Advanced training, education or know-how is becoming a required ticket to the 21st-century workplace.

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Velib Bike-Sharing Scheme Hits Road Bump in French Capital

Paris’ pioneering Velib bicycle hire service, which has been copied from London to Seattle, has ground to a virtual standstill after the new concession holder failed to install revamped docking stations on schedule.

In May 2017, Paris awarded a new contract to the French-Spanish Smovengo consortium to operate its bike-sharing scheme from 2018 to 2032, replacing outdoor advertising group JCDecaux, which had run it since 2007.

Under the 700 million euro ($838 million) contract, about half of the new bikes should have become available at the start of 2018, but fewer than 100 out of a planned 1,400 stations opened on time, while the old Velib bikes have been withdrawn.

“There are major delays to the new Velib system. Very few docking stations have been installed and hardly any bikes are available,” said Charles Maguin, head of Paris cyclist organization Paris en Selle.

A Smovengo spokeswoman said that of the roughly 100 newly-installed stations about 60 were operational and that the group aimed to get all 1,400 stations and more than 20,000 bicycles operational by the end of March.

The consortium — which includes bike share operator Smoove, car park operator Indigo, mobility group Mobivia and Spanish transport group Moventia — said in a statement that legal action by JCDecaux and technical problems with electricity supply to the new stations were part of the reason for the delays.

With fewer Velibs available, many Parisians have returned to using public transport or cars, or one of three new Asian-owned dockless bike-sharing schemes which have mushroomed during the switch between the old and new Velib.

Gobee.bike, oBike and Ofo’s brightly colored free-floating Asian bikes — which have no docking stations and can be parked anywhere — have already become a fixture in Paris, although with just a few thousand bikes on the road, they cannot make up for the missing Velibs.

Paris city hall is offering Velib subscribers three hours for free on Velib’s new electric bikes and a 50 percent discount on new subscriptions from January to March to compensate for the inconvenience.

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