GEERT WILDERS, the Eurosceptic, anti-Muslim populist leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), has spent the past decade testing the limits of the Netherlands’ tolerance for intolerance. On December 9th he discovered he had at last managed to go too far. A court in Amsterdam found Mr Wilders guilty of public insult and incitement to discrimination, over a speech in which he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the country.
Members of the Moroccan-Dutch and other ethnic minorities were pleased to see the state take their outrage seriously. But Mr Wilders vowed to appeal, and he responded to the verdict with an all-out attack on the Dutch judiciary. “The Netherlands has become a sick country,” he said in a video message. He accused the judges who sentenced him of political bias and of infringing freedom of expression, and added: “No one trusts you anymore.” He will no doubt repeat this attack incessantly during his campaign for the national elections, scheduled for March 15th. He is currently leading in the polls.
At the trial, Mr Wilders and his lawyer repeated the claim that he had meant to refer to criminals. They also argued that Moroccans were not a race and were thus not a protected category, and that a conviction would be a dangerous encroachment on freedom of speech. The panel of three judges rejected these arguments, but did not impose the fine of €5,000 ($5,300) requested by the government, saying the conviction itself was punishment enough.
Dutch Muslims were enthused by the verdict. Many have felt increasingly alienated by the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands since the late 1990s. In their eyes, the judgment showed that the system can treat their complaints of discrimination fairly. “It has given a boost to people’s faith in the state,” says Ahmed Marcouch, a Moroccan-Dutch MP from the Labour party. “It shows that there are established norms, that nobody is above the law.”
Mr Wilders, however, cast the decision as yet another stroke in a conspiracy against him by the ruling elite. During the trial he cited a poll his party had commissioned that found that 43% of Dutch agreed that the country had too many Moroccans. After the verdict, he tweeted that the judges had condemned not just him, but “half of the Netherlands”. This strategy of persuading white Dutch that liberal efforts to combat discrimination are implicitly calling them racist has been an important element of Mr Wilders’s success.
Many Dutch, across the political spectrum, were angered by Mr Wilders’s attacks on the independence of the judiciary. Others worried that the verdict had indeed limited freedom of expression. Next week the Dutch parliament is scheduled to debate the possibility of eliminating the section of the law under which Mr Wilders was prosecuted, though most parties favour keeping it. Yet even those who celebrated the verdict against him acknowledge that his supporters’ anger will only lead to greater political division. “The gap between the two sides is getting bigger,” says Munire Manisa, a city councillor in an Amsterdam neighbourhood with large ethnic Moroccan and Turkish populations. “And it doesn’t help when the politician who’s leading in the polls attacks the state and the rule of law.”