Folksy Merkel long on caring but short on detail

The German chancellor is having a hard time explaining party opposition to the minimum wage

A worker passes concrete blocks atop a building covered with a banner depicting the hands of German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. The banner is composed of single photographs and  is accompanied by the message: “Germany’s future in good hands.” Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

A worker passes concrete blocks atop a building covered with a banner depicting the hands of German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. The banner is composed of single photographs and is accompanied by the message: “Germany’s future in good hands.” Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

 

They’re called rallies, but Angela Merkel’s election appearances are so low-key they risk dropping out of the range of human hearing.

We’re two hours south of Berlin in the town of Finsterwalde, best known for its singing competition and the century-old hit, The Singers of Finsterwalde.

The music setting the tone this evening is more contemporary: a dance remix of Mika’s Relax, take it easy. At 6pm, Angela Merkel saunters onstage in a cobalt blue blazer, giving a few stilted waves.

The name Finsterwalde translates loosely as gloomy wood and, with bed and breakfast for €18 and chiropodists for €12, the place clearly isn’t booming. But hardly gloomy either: the pretty market square has upmarket restaurants and even a shabby chic interior shop.

To warm up her audience, and distract from grey rain clouds above, she engages in some stilted on-stage small talk about the most-talked about feature of Sunday evening’s television debate: her black-red-gold chain.


Floating voters
“I wore something dark so I needed some colour, I looked in my chain box and thought it seemed nice,” says the German leader somewhat helplessly.

Its European neighbours trapped in a vicious circle of low growth and high unemployment and Germany, two weeks before election day, is discussing Angela Merkel’s jewellery.

Small talk complete, Merkel glides gently to the podium and her election speech. In the big cities, she plays to young floating voters with talk of childcare. In small towns like Finsterwalde, it’s jobs.

Her core message: I’m caring without being prescriptive. “Thank you mammy,” shouts one joker; the audience laughs.

Her main challenge is to explain why her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) oppose an €8.50 minimum wage and wealth taxes. They will endanger jobs and demotivate entrepreneurs, she says. The CDU’s alternative: force a minimum pay floor in sectors without tariff agreement, otherwise leave pay to employers and unions.

“I know things aren’t in order on pay, here in the east more than anywhere,” she adds. “Whoever works needs to earn more than those who don’t work.”

Her audience listens with little visible enthusiasm. Germany has a record low unemployment rate of under 7 per cent, but everyone here knows someone who has a so-called mini-job: part-time employment paying just €400 a month, topped up with welfare.

“Her minimum wage arguments are too wishy-washy,” says Wolfgang Soyk (65). “That anyone is expected to work for less than €8.50 is simply a scandal.”

Even the Merkel fans agree that low-pay, the shadow side of Germany’s economic boon, is gearing up to be an election issue – one the CDU will have to address more convincingly.

“Merkel’s got my vote because she’s strong in a man’s world,” says Angela Ziedler, a 50-year-old nurse, bearing an “Angie” placard.

“But I have friends working in doctors’ offices who earn so little they have to top up their pay at the welfare office.”

Back on stage, the chancellor sidles into the “very complicated” euro crisis and explains how Greece, Portugal and Ireland, didn’t stick to their EU fiscal promises, prompting investors to jack up lending rates to unsustainable levels.


Keeping it simple
“I don’t want that Germany ever faces that situation where no one wants to give us money,” she says. So how to get out of the mess? Germany was and is showing solidarity, she tells her audience, but expects reforms in return.

“That might sound a little strict but it doesn’t help anyone if Germany at the end is weak too,” she says. “What makes Europe strong, helps us.”

And that is pretty much it: jobs, the euro crisis and her election rally for her Finsterwalde audience.

Though she is addressing a home crowd, not all women in Finsterwalde are Merkel fans. Rita Baumann (62) said she couldn’t think of anything concrete the German had done in the last four years.

“There are a lot of people like me, who don’t know who to vote for,” she says. “I think it’s going to be tight and she knows that, too.”

While Merkel stands on the stage singing the national anthem, the long-threatened drizzle comes down, umbrellas open and the crowd drifts away.