Merkel: Chancellor who shops with the people
It was, Angela Merkel reflects, the most galling mistake of her childhood. Not a lie or a betrayal, some malicious gossip or a fist fight but the moment in which the young girl from East Germany crawled into the resinous hollow of a tree wearing a new tracksuit sent to her from the West.
The anecdote speaks volumes about the woman who, though pre-eminent in Germany for seven years, is still a relative enigma to her compatriots. It was a response to questions put to her by Suddeutsche magazine as part of a broader inquiry: "Who is this person who is governing our country?"
The answer: a woman who regrets not being able to go shopping without being recognised; who would most like to have supper with Spanish football team managerVicente del Bosque; who powers down through hiking, cooking or laughing; and whose biggest fear is getting caught unprotected in a thunderstorm.
A man who knows Merkel better than most is David McAllister (41) member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and prime minister of Lower Saxony who has been tipped as a future chancellor.
He puts her success down to her commonality. "She's very direct and down to earth," he says. "What Germans love is they see her on Friday in Brussels with Hollande, Obama, Cameron, whoever, and then they see in their newspaper the next day how directly after that she went shopping for her supper in the supermarket."
He credits her with modernising the CDU, a party whose members – typically Catholic, male, western, family-oriented – she has led as a Lutheran, eastern, childless woman.
Others are less charitable. Academic Gertrud Höhler describes her as furtive, dangerous and a threat to Europe in her new book, The Godmother: How Angela Merkel Is Reshaping Germany, in which she coins the phrase "System M" to describe Merkel's modus operandi. "For years, the press has concentrated on … whether she governs well, or badly, or perhaps not at all," says Hohler. "In reality, Merkel has developed an autocratic system" and has "already installed an autocratic regime".
She accuses Merkel of ruining the euro and undermining the political careers of many leading men in the CDU. But Höhler's book cuts against the grain of popular opinion.
According to the latest poll her popularity rating is 61%, making her Germany's most popular politician.
Wolfgang Nowak, director of Deutsche Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Society, says the reason many people are suspicious of Merkel is precisely because she keeps so much to herself. "The reason there's a System M is because it's the first time in German politics that a chancellor's office sticks so tightly together that nothing is leaked," he says.
Nowak adds it is true, as Höhler writes, that many men who once held big positions in the party are gone, "but not because Merkel killed them off; rather, they were simply unmasked for what they were – CDU career politicians, puppets or fraudsters".
Gunnar Beck, a reader in law from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is more sceptical. "She's entirely above criticism in her personal life and work ethic, but you've got to put it into perspective. While she's a very good domestic political operator she is helpless abroad and she's also a spectacularly bad judge of character," he says, citing her promotion of many who have since fallen (including the president, the defence minister and Nicolas Sarkozy) and others who have not, including the European Central Bank's president, Mario Draghi. Among those critical of Merkel's lack of vision is Hans Kundnani, Germany analyst and editorial director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "What's needed now is someone who can talk up the benefits of the single currency, of Germany's role in the euro narrative, including the fact that it bears responsibility for this flawed currency, rather than saying 'we're the victims of it,'" he says. "She's not particularly visionary or bold."
Although there is, a year before a general election, quite a degree of expectation that Merkel will be re-elected, much is still at stake. Despite the growing CDU disgruntlement with her, Languth says he finds it hard "to imagine a CDU governing without Merkel if they're standing high in the polls".
What he is sure about is that if Merkel is not re-elected "she'd disappear from politics altogether". Asked what he thought she would do, he said that, unlike her predecessor Gerhard Schroder, "she would not go to work for Gazprom". – © Guardian News & Media 2012