Europe’s Love-Hate Protests Against America

The world believes the United States has gotten worse under Trump—and they genuinely want it to be better.

Protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Paris
Protesters hold placards reading "We are all George Floyd" and "Racism is suffocating us" during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Paris on June 1. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

In the past two weeks, Europeans have taken the streets to echo the marches against racial injustice across the United States after the gruesome death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Vast crowds in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, and London brandished Black Lives Matter signs, while many took to social media to express their solidarity with the U.S. protesters and journalists attacked by police with tear gas and brute force, including those violently dispersed to create space for a presidential photo-op.

European protests have taken different forms and often echo local issues. But for many European observers, more is at stake than police brutality and race relations in the United States, or the similar debates it sparks in their own societies. Europeans are expressing their frustration with American leadership after over three years of the Trump administration—and their sympathy for a nation they still want to believe in.

A seasoned German observer went as far as to tweet: “what’s being negotiated here is the future of democracy.” This could be seen as confirming fashionable accounts of the end of U.S. leadership, and the beginning of the so-called Asian century, which have dominated analysis during the coronavirus pandemic. But the global response to the U.S. protests—the first mass movements in many countries after months of lockdown—are as much a sign of America’s continued power and relevance.

In Europe, these are not simply social movements. Political leaders have been asked to weigh in. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled and sickened” by Floyd’s murder. Others chose to stress the difference between the United States and Europe. The European Commission vice president in charge of “promoting the European way of life” claimed: “I do not think that we have issues now in Europe that blatantly pertain to police brutality or issues of race transcending into our systems. … But we do have an issue in Europe, which is the issue of inequalities and income distribution—making the best for everyone of what we have.” In a viral moment, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau awkwardly went silent for 20 seconds when asked about U.S. President Donald Trump’s reaction to the protests.

In some cases, the American situation reopened local wounds. In France, the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died in 2016 in police custody, was brought back to the fore. Traoré was arrested in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise as he tried to run away from the police after being stopped and asked for identification. For years, the police rejected any wrongdoing, and official reports showed Adama Traoré dying of heart failure due to an underlying condition. An independent autopsy report published last week, after a legal struggle led by his sister Assa Traoré, showed that he died of “positional asphyxia” due to being tackled during the arrest. Despite ongoing coronavirus-related restrictions, around 20,000 people marched in Paris last Tuesday.

European societies have struggled with their own legacies of colonialism and more recent questions of integration, multiculturalism, and far-right nationalism. Comparisons between European societies and the United States also have their historical and philosophical limits, however. France, for instance, upholds a very different definition of citizenship where abstract adherence to universal republican values is supposed to trump ethnic or religious identities. Collecting religious and ethnic data is even forbidden by law and the few examples of affirmative action programs, such as at Sciences Po, the preeminent government affairs university, are based on socio-economic factors. Last year, French lawmakers voted to erase the word “race” from the constitution, a move advocated by many anti-racist activists to erase an ugly concept from the national consciousness, but which would likely be seen as a dangerous gesture by Americans upholding similar intentions. This tradition has made Paris a welcoming refuge for many African American artists and intellectuals, such as Josephine Baker or James Baldwin, during times of segregation, but critics say it prevents an open conversation on contemporary challenges. A new generation of anti-racist activists in France have imported many of the American themes to support their grievances. Rokhaya Diallo, a black French filmmaker very present in American media, has been an outspoken critic of this French attempt to push back against a multicultural definition of French citizenry and has denounced what she calls “state racism”.

But beyond race relations in Europe, these protests do not happen in a vacuum. They occur at a time when American popularity in Europe is at an all-time low after three years of trans-Atlantic crisis. A survey released by the German foundation Körber-Stiftung last month showed only 10 percent of German respondents designating the United States as Berlin’s most important foreign-policy partner (a mere 4 points above China), while 73 percent said their opinion of the United States had deteriorated with the pandemic. Similar polls have shown high dissatisfaction with the United States in other European countries. Two-thirds of the French think that the United States handled the virus worse than France. As Noah Barkin of the German Marshall Fund put it, “the United States is losing Europe.”

Trump’s recurrent attacks against the European Union, calling the EU “a foe” set up “to take advantage of the United States” and “worse than China,” have taken a toll. So have the president’s many unilateral moves, including withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated with Europeans. More recently, the uncoordinated move to close borders with European countries in March, as the pandemic spread, sparked a rare rebuke from European leaders. In many countries, the protests thus represent a “disappointment with a beacon of hope,” as a European diplomat put it to me.

Massive European marches reacting to U.S. policies are nothing new for anyone who can remember the outcry against the 2003 Iraq War. How to account for the fact that other revolts—from Hong Kong to Syria—didn’t spark the same outbursts of support in Europe? Or that too often racism and anti-Semitism in their own societies don’t mobilize Europeans similarly? Such hypocrisy is an expression of European publics’ schizophrenic relationship to the United States: a complicated mix of fascination and contempt, negative opinions paired with binge-watching of American shows on American tech products. This was already the case in 1968, when the student revolts on American college campuses took on a global significance.

A love-hate relationship, however, is not one of indifference. The last few days have shown a paradoxical reflection of American leadership. The terms of the global revolt against America’s president and the inequities of its political and social structures are dictated by American protesters themselves. That they resonate in societies across the world is a testament to the high regard that Europeans still have for the U.S. public.

The next U.S. administration will certainly have plenty of work to do to shore up relationships with its traditional partners, and it will likely have to its accept that its allies are intent on seizing more autonomy after the economic impact of the pandemic. But the global response of the last few days show that the world is not ready to turn away from the United States just yet.

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.