How Europe Can Avoid Viktor Orbán's Trap, And Save Its Soul

If Europe is to stand firm against Viktor Orbán's illiberal and anti-establishment policies, scapegoating him or excluding him from the EU risks consolidating his hold over his fellow citizens

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meets with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — "Tact in audacity," Jean Cocteau famously said, "is knowing how far you can go without going too far." By enacting a repressive and retrograde law on homosexuality, has Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gone too far? Or is he setting a trap for us by deliberately choosing a topic that is so emotionally charged in our society? He may present himself as the vanguard of a counter-revolution in the area of morality.

One could summarize his strategy as follows: "Let's be serious, you hardly reacted when I engaged in a systematic undermining of the fundamentals of liberal democracy: checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, migrants' rights. And now you are rediscovering the central importance of the notion of the Europe of values from the question of the place of homosexuality in our societies!"

Everything was happening as if the European Union, which was hardly moved by the systemic and repeated attacks of the Hungarian regime against the rule of law, suddenly woke up after the fact. The defense of the great principles of political liberalism seemed quite abstract, compared to the rights of LGBTQ communities.

A little more than 20 years ago, in 2000, the question of values seemed more central. As Jörge Haider's far-right party came to power in Vienna in a coalition government with the center-right, the question of Austria's exclusion from the European Union was hotly debated. Wasn't Austria, a full member of the Union, suffering from a form of political gangrene embodied by the extreme right?

It was necessary to amputate the Austrian arm.

To prevent this contagion from spreading to the entire European body, it was necessary to amputate the Austrian arm. This painful and radical choice was not taken, and a few years later, Haider's party, dragged down by the fall of its leader, suffered very serious setbacks, before being reborn in more acceptable forms, at least in appearance.

What lessons can be drawn from this past? Just over a century ago, Austria-Hungary offered another one. In 2021, the contrast between the former capital of a huge empire, Vienna, and the capital of the Magyar nation, Budapest, could not be greater. Of course, Vienna still gives the impression of floating in clothes too big. But the city is open to modernity and curious about everything.

Under Orbán, despite the courageous resistance of the most enlightened part of its population, Budapest no longer lives — to say the least — on Vienna time. As if by a mysterious movement of tectonic plates, the city that Sissi, Empress of Austria, loved so much has moved towards an increasingly reactionary East, far from the center of Europe.

An anti-government protestor in Ljubljana, Slovenia sports a Viktor Orban mask — Photo: Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/ ZUMA Wire

One might think that the Union woke up very late and that its softness, hesitations and divisions have encouraged Orbán to go further and further into provocation. The more difficult the health and economic situation in his country, the more the Hungarian Prime Minister seeks to consolidate his camp to maintain his power. He uses the scapegoat of the hostile foreigner, of the invading Union which intends to impose not only its laws but even more so the "shameless laxity" of its morals, on a country proud of its "traditionalist" behavior.

Orbán knows that on the issue of homosexuality, the vast majority of his voters think like him. In the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, George W. Bush won in a traditionally Democratic state like Illinois, thanks to the votes of blue-collar workers who wanted to punish their party for its support of same-sex marriage. But that was almost 20 years ago. Sensitivities in the West have changed, mindsets have opened up. What may seem unacceptable today in Hungary are the prejudices, calculated or real, of the country's leader.

It would be premature to rejoice for the end of populism or predict the imminent fall of the proponents of "illiberal democracy." We should not write off Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or even the Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen in France. Yet — even as Orbán's close friend, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa (The "Marshal Twito") takes over the EU's rotating presidency for the next six months — the skies are darkening for the populists.

After Trump's defeat, a Biden Doctrine is beginning to emerge in the United States. It emphasizes the priority of defending democratic values. In Israel, Viktor Orbán's "favored accomplice," if not mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has left office. Likely, he will not be back in office any time soon. Are fear and hope about to flip positions on the question of progress?

Being homosexual is not a choice, being homophobic is.

The fact remains that the European Union has a narrow path to follow. To do nothing in the face of Orbán's provocations is to show how little regard we have for those values that define us.

On the other hand, to follow the Hungarian Prime Minister in the trap he is setting for us, with this tactical anti-LGBTQ diversion, is to take the risk of consolidating the hold he has on his fellow citizens. Is his main objective to revise the Constitution and thus allow a transfer of public funds to private foundations controlled by the ruling power, to constitute a state within a state that survives the vagaries of politics?

The European Union must be firm and clear on its principles. As the Prime Minister of Belgium, Alexander de Croo, says: "Being homosexual is not a choice, being homophobic is."

Not falling into Orbán's trap means first of all not insulting the future. There is and will be life in Hungary, beyond the current regime. If we cannot economically support such a transgressive regime, it is necessary to give firm, constant and discreet help to the Hungarian democratic and liberal opposition. It will return to power one day.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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