BERLIN – 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 and to vent anger over 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 United States have taken pains to avoid criticizing 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 polarized.”
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 reelected 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 criticize, especially when it's very obvious that they are concerned that the United States 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 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 United States, 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 United States 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 criticizing 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 United States but “he did not wish to speak for the moment.” He's expected to address the nation Sunday but his office did not give further details.
A few leaders have spoken out more strongly, like Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who criticized the response to the protests in the U.S. as “authoritarian” when pressed in parliament last week for an explicit response on Floyd’s killing.
“I share and stand in solidarity with the demonstrations that are taking place in the United States,” he said.
And Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told the country’s NTB news agency last week that she was “deeply concerned about what is happening in the United States.”
“The fundamental challenge of making minorities feel part of a society is essential. We must all work with that,” she said. “One has to try to bridge the gap. It is not good for any society to be as deeply divided as the United States is now.”
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said last week that it "cannot be right that, in the 21st century, the United States, this great bastion of democracy, continues to grapple with the problem of systemic racism.” And South African President Cyril Ramaphosa noted the “naked racism in the United States,” calling the protests a turning point. Neither mentioned Trump by name.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not weighed in, but Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the situation in the U.S. “ridiculous.”
“I would like to believe that before showing their zeal in protecting the rights of the ‘suppressed’ and ‘dissenters’ in other countries, U.S. authorities will start to scrupulously observe democratic standards and ensure the freedoms of their citizens at home,” she said.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Jill Lawless and Sylvia Hui in London, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Cara Anna in Johannesburg and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.