Best columns: Europe
When Paris looks like Beijing
Parisians are choking on smog, and our city officials are busy pointing fingers, said Le Monde in an editorial. Across half of France, including Paris and Lyon, this winter’s haze is the worst in decades. The Eiffel Tower is barely visible and asthmatics are thronging the hospitals. The culprit is an anticyclonic weather pattern, which traps air over cities, allowing car exhaust fumes and other pollutants to accumulate. While nobody is to blame for the weather, we can fault municipal authorities for their incompetent response. To reduce traffic, Paris introduced alternate driving days—cars with license plates that end in an odd number are allowed on the road one day, even numbers the next. The overtaxed rail system promptly collapsed, requiring repair work that closed several key routes. Clearly, the city has underinvested in public transport, and “correcting this drift will take years.” Given this reality, the current war between the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the Republican president of the suburban regions, Valérie Pécresse, is “appalling.” The two snipe at each other about traffic and congestion, blaming each other and failing to come up with a workable plan. Pollution is “the health scandal of tomorrow.” Are we to let people die because of “partisan quarrels”?
A scandalous reliance on the Saudis
Our ever-bumbling foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has committed the gaffe of speaking the truth about Saudi Arabia, said Simon Tisdall. Too bad he won’t keep it up. At a recent international conference in Rome, Johnson complained that the Saudis and Iranians were “twisting and abusing religion” and “puppeteering and playing proxy wars,” and he blasted the Saudis for their illegal bombing of civilians in Yemen. For this recitation of what everybody knows, he was rebuked by the government, and he quickly went on television to repudiate his momentary honesty. Britain, you see, must defend its ally no matter what, and dares not mention Saudi Arabia’s “human rights abuses, its appalling record of judicial executions, and its repression and jailing of human rights campaigners.” Our silence has been bought, as British industry benefits from Saudi arms contracts and Saudi investment in real estate. Prime Minister Theresa May was in the Arabian Gulf just last week chasing a post-Brexit trade deal. Yet Johnson’s outburst proves that he, at least, realizes “Britain’s relationship with the Saudi regime has long been toxic, corrupting, and unhealthy.” He should demand a halt to British arms sales until the Saudis stop blowing up Yemeni children. Sadly, such a stand would require “a bit of courage”— and Johnson has so far shown none.
Netherlands: Far right loses in court, wins in polls
The Dutch justice system has just turned a far-right leader into a martyr, said Emma Graham-Harrison in The Guardian(U.K.). Geert Wilders, head of the populist Freedom Party, was convicted last week of inciting discrimination for asking a crowd in 2014, “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?” When they shouted back, “Fewer, fewer,” Wilders said, “We’ll take care of it.” A threejudge panel ruled that Wilders had violated the law, but rejected a request from prosecutors to fine him $5,300, saying that the conviction was punishment enough for a politician who faces a national election in three months. So far, though, the conviction has only boosted the popularity of the Freedom Party, which is now projected to win 36 out of 150 seats in the lower house of the legislature—making it the largest single group in the chamber.
Wilders has benefited from all the “free publicity” around the trial, said the Noordhollands Dagblad(Netherlands). He’s now appealing the verdict and can present himself as a brave truth teller persecuted for his honesty. He insists he’s no bigot, and it’s true that the Freedom Party isn’t homophobic or anti-Semitic. Instead it styles itself as the one party that will stand up for liberal values against conservative Islam, with promises to ban the Quran from public buildings and stop immigration from Muslim countries. “This sentence proves that you judges are completely out of touch,” Wilders said in a video released after the verdict. “The Dutch want their country back.”
He’s right—at least about the judges, said Thierry Baudet in NRC Handelsblad(Netherlands). Why should it be a criminal act for a politician to ask if we should have more or less of some group? These are the kinds of questions politicians must discuss. Do we want more or fewer public school teachers, police, refugees? A “culture of political correctness” has sprung up, based on the false idea “that problems will go away if we don’t name them explicitly.” In reality, criminalizing unpleasant views just pushes them underground, where they can’t be confronted and potentially changed. But we have to draw the line at racism, said Peter Kamps in Dagblad de Limburger(Netherlands). History teaches us that “unlimited freedom of expression is poison for tolerance and finally paves the way to hell.” That’s why Wilders had to be convicted.
This problem is much bigger than Wilders, said Rene Cuperus in De Volkskrant(Netherlands). This “anti-establishment revolt is caused by deeper divisions in our society,” and it’s part of “a Europewide, if not global, phenomenon.” The Left is reacting with elitist contempt, acting “as if better-educated people are morally better people.” The Right is trying to co-opt the xenophobes by aping their rhetoric. We need a third way that takes the root causes of populism seriously and addresses growing inequality and problems of integration. Only by returning to traditional Dutch consensus democracy can we counter “the divisive forces of Wilders’ populism.”