World joins US protests but leaders restrained about Trump

BERLIN (AP) – People have taken to the streets of Berlin, London, Paris and other cities around the world to demonstrate in support of Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States (US) and to vent anger over US President Donald Trump’s response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

But at the top, the leaders of traditional allies of the US have taken pains to avoid criticising Trump directly, walking a fine line to reconcile international diplomacy with domestic outrage.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau let silence speak for itself when asked to comment on the decision to forcibly clear peaceful protesters outside the White House to make way for a Trump photo-op at a nearby church, standing pensively at his lectern apparently mulling his answer for more than 20 seconds before answering that Canada also suffered from “systemic discrimination” – never mentioning the American president.

“We need to be allies in the fight against discrimination, we need to listen, we need to learn, and we need to work hard to fix, to figure out how we can be part of the solution on fixing things,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel sidestepped questions from ZDF public television about Trump last week, saying the killing of Floyd was “really, really terrible. Racism is something terrible, and society in the United States is very polarised”.

Hundreds of people turned out for the BLACK PRIDE RVA March to protest the police killing of George Floyd and racial justice in Richmond, Virginia. PHOTO: AFP

When pressed, she conceded that Trump’s “political style is a very controversial one” but would go no further when asked if she had confidence in him.

A combination of factors are at work, including diplomatic courtesy but also pragmatism based on the possibility that Trump will be re-elected to another four years in November, said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund think tank.

“It wouldn’t be proper for his peers to criticise, especially when it’s very obvious that they are concerned that the US is going through an incredibly difficult time – you have the triple whammy of an economic depression, health crisis and now, of course, social unrest due to questions of racism,” she said.

But she said it’s difficult for leaders like Trudeau and Merkel, who “are seen as defenders of liberal democracy, and President Trump has trampled on many of the values that undergird liberal democracy, such as the protection of minorities, such as the freedom of assembly, such as the freedom of the press”.

Merkel’s verbal gymnastics could have been anticipated – in more than 14 years as chancellor, she has steered clear of ever critiquing allied world leaders – but even leaders who typically support Trump, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu have stayed silent on this issue.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has sought to cultivate close ties with Trump, called Floyd’s death “appalling” and said people have a “right to protest to make their feelings known about injustices such as what happened to George Floyd” but urged peaceful demonstrations.

Britain has seen several protests turn violent, and last weekend demonstrators in Bristol toppled the statue of a 17th-Century slave trader. They also spray-painted an iconic statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London, calling him “a racist”.

Asked on Wednesday in Parliament to name Trump’s good qualities, Johnson stuck to generalities.

“Mr Trump, he has, amongst many other things, he is president of the US, which is our most important ally in the world today,” Johnson said. “Whatever people may say about it, whatever those on the left may say about it, the US is a bastion of peace and freedom and has been for most of my lifetime.”

France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has in the past steered clear of criticising Trump specifically but has been vocal in speaking out against policies like the wine tariffs introduced by the administration, has not made a public appearance since Floyd was killed on May 25.

Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped responding. Three days later, another black man writhed on the street in Paris as a white police officer pressed a knee to his neck during an arrest.

France had several protests over the past week, with growing pressure on the government to address accusations of brutality and racism within the police force.

Macron’s office said the president is closely monitoring the events in France and the US but “he did not wish to speak for the moment”.