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Where Danes Butt Heads (Politely) With Their Leaders

ALLINGE, Denmark — For four days a year in June, Danes like to pretend there are no boundaries between them.

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Martin Selsoe Sorensen
, New York Times

ALLINGE, Denmark — For four days a year in June, Danes like to pretend there are no boundaries between them.

They gather for Folkemodet, a political festival where the prime minister, chief executives of top companies and other respected leaders remove their ties and stilettos and mingle with members of the public on the remote island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.

Here, the young, the old and the in-betweens have frank debates about the state of their democracy, holding forth over hot dogs and beer, ducking in and out of tents to hear speeches on issues both profound and personal, and, perhaps, helping to find solutions to problems in their society.

Over four days recently, 110,000 people descended on the postcard-perfect island town of Allinge, with its two-story houses with red tile roofs, stone hedges and gardens with fruit trees and roses.

The gathering is held far from Copenhagen, the capital, to incubate the casual meetings between politicians and their constituents. Danes say that Folkemodet disconnects the media filter between people in power and the rest of the populace, shifting the political debate from “likes” on social media to the spoken word and face-to-face encounters.

The first test of Folkemodet is getting there. To travel to Bornholm (365 square miles; population 40,000), one has to head to the southern tip of Sweden, take a ferry to the island and drive for a half-hour to Allinge on winding roads that cut through villages with stone churches and green fields billowing in the sea breeze.

One ferry to the island was jam-packed with Folkemodet participants. Students carrying backpacks were crammed in with the secretary-general of the Danish branch of Amnesty International, the head of the largest union for teachers — dressed in Lycra, having hopped off his bicycle — and a former pornography star.

“It’s difficult to get here, and once you do, it’s sneakers, jeans, sandals and draft beer,” Margrethe Vestager, the European Union commissioner for competition, said in a tent where she was speaking. (She, too, was wearing jeans and sneakers.) “It makes for an informal atmosphere, because everybody overcame the same barriers,” she said.

The first Folkemodet, held in 2011 around the historical port of Allinge, drew about 10,000 people. (It was inspired by a similar event in Sweden.) But the festival became bigger and more popular over the years. This year, every available piece of land and every ship in port was used to host 3,000 events.

On opening day, a group of activists made a bold statement: They strolled through the area in front of the main stage in black niqabs to protest a recent push to ban the full Islamic veil. Members said they were naked underneath the garments, clearly a ploy to rattle the police should they try to intervene. The police didn’t.

Tents were everywhere, and the Conservative Party’s tent was equipped with its own draft beer supply. When the ministers for justice and integration showed up, a man took the opportunity to denounce the proposed burqa ban, arguing that it harmed Denmark’s reputation. The audience applauded, but the ministers deflected the issue.

When I cornered the man afterward, he said that his name was Kumar Maini and that he was a Dane of Indian origin. He praised Folkemodet as an event that “couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world.” But he said the law to remove burqas and niqabs from the few Danish Muslims who wear them in public should be scrapped.

“We shouldn’t try to straighten up everybody else so we end up believing the same, eating the same and doing the same. That would be dead boring,” he said.

At Folkemodet, there’s an unwritten rule: Questions can bite, but the overall atmosphere shouldn’t. The language is far removed from the vitriol permeating social media. So members of the public can challenge any politician who shows up.

“That’s what’s so unique here,” said Hans Helgren, an off-duty police officer who got to question the justice minister on crime prevention. “Normally, I would never meet him. He’s packed away in Parliament behind so many people.” The CEO of the scandal-hit Danske Bank found himself in the hot seat when he attended an open-mic event to answer “anything.”

Danske Bank had made headlines recently when a newspaper revealed that the bank had allowed Russian money laundering and then had failed to alert the authorities immediately when senior management discovered the misconduct. (Danes pay some of the world’s highest taxes to sustain their welfare state and have little tolerance for tax evasion and disrespect for rules.)

A client of the bank, Lars Prahm, raised his hand to politely but insistently ask Thomas F. Borgen, the bank’s CEO, about the money laundering. “It’s difficult to understand why it took so long for you to react. Can you explain that?” Prahm asked.

Borgen admitted that the bank should have done more: “We took a year and a half. We should have been faster.”

But the crowd wasn’t done, peppering him with more queries: Did you learn any humility from the financial crisis? Why didn’t the bank follow its own ethics guidelines? Are you the right man for the job?

The most popular topics this year were health, democracy and youth, according to a survey by Radius, the communications firm behind the yearly poll of Folkemodet topics. But immigration — the one issue that for more than 20 years has decided elections and profoundly changed Denmark’s international image — didn’t even make the Top 20.

“That doesn’t match how the political debate normally is,” said Asbjorn Haugstrup, chief executive of Radius. “My thesis is that Bornholm is a feel-good event. We drink draft beer with people we disagree with,” he said. “The debate about foreigners is too harsh. It doesn’t fit here.”

But over a meal of red curry, a Danish structural engineer said he was very curious about Islam. The engineer, sitting at a large table with food from a street wagon run by a Michelin-star restaurant from Copenhagen, said he discussed Islam “a lot” with a colleague from Afghanistan. At Folkemodet, he had taken the opportunity to learn more from Muslims dressed in T-shirts that said, “Ask a Muslim.”

In a survey of last year’s Folkemodet, 82 percent of the participants said they had gained new knowledge on political issues; 62 percent said that the festival had inspired them to become more active in politics. Amid Denmark’s homogeneity, the festival provided a safe space to hash out differences. In one tent, 40 people listened to a judge, a lawyer and an IBM representative explore the pros and cons of having robots support or even supplement judges in the courtroom.

In another, about 100 people followed an emotional and sometimes good-humored debate on a potential age limit on male circumcision. The participants were a rabbi, a Muslim member of Parliament and a former porn star.

Lillan Kempf, a doctor who had traveled seven hours to get here, said that at Folkemodet she got a chance to share deep concerns about her hospital’s psychiatric ward with a member of Parliament. Money’s being wasted, she says.

“He agreed with what I said — that was great,” she said. “It’s so important that they hear what’s moving among the people.”

Her husband, Richard Kristensen, called Folkemodet “a fun fair” of “something you hate and something you love,” lots of talking about politics plus live music, comedy and plenty of cute towns and artisan workshops to get away from all the talking.

“People wouldn’t come if it was only about politics,” he declared.

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