Belfast Telegraph

What really makes Angela Merkel a fascinating role model for women

By Mary Kenny

Well, one thing seems pretty likely for 2015 - and 2016, and 2017: Angela Merkel will remain in power. The majority of Germans want her to stay on for a fourth term - she is only halfway through her third term as leader of Germany, and some would say, of Europe. Recently, the influential New Yorker magazine called her "the world's most powerful woman".

Is Frau Merkel (as she is respectfully called, although Merkel is her first husband's name: they divorced after a short early marriage) a role model for women in politics?

She herself brushes aside notions of "role models", although it has been observed that she has a portrait on her office wall of a particularly strong role model: Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the minor German princess who became Czarina Catherine the Great of All the Russias - enlightened but ruthless in the wielding of imperial power. When pressed to name another woman to admire Angela Merkel nominated Marie Curie - who was also a scientist.

Yet Angela Merkel is a fascinating role model for women in power because she goes against many stereotypes. She travels with a "stylist", but you'd hardly know it from her wardrobe, as she always seems to wear the same boxy trouser suit, and her hairdo hasn't altered since 1991. No one would say she is measured by her appearance and couture.

She disdains comparison with Margaret Thatcher, but, like Maggie, she only sleeps five hours a night. Like Maggie, she is a scientist (her present husband Joachim Sauer is a quantum chemist, and speaks of little else - at least in public). Merkel also had a strong Protestant formation - her father was a Lutheran pastor - which she retains, at least in her values.

And like Mrs Thatcher, Angela Merkel chose a conservative party in which to advance her political career. Her official biographer Stefan Kornelius writes that she decided against joining a socialist party because there was "too much egalitarianism". Having grown up in the German Democratic Republic, Angela Merkel had scant regard for rhetoric about "equality". She prefers "freedom" - a word she uses frequently, often bracketing it with "responsibility".

Yet, unlike Thatcher, Angela Merkel is not stridently ideological: she invokes German (and Lutheran) virtues about "consensus" and "solidarity", and often strikes observers watching her in the Reichstag, as a spectacularly dull speaker. Oratory is not her thing. Neither is praise - she hates ovations.

Angela's route to success was never flamboyant - she never wants to put herself in the foreground - always quiet, diligent, even stealthy. She has seen off strutting males (like Berlusconi and Sarkozy) through silence, prudence and patience. She brings an analytical mind to every situation.

Growing up in East Germany - where she spent her first 35 years - she learned the virtues of discretion and even cunning. Privacy was also valued at the parsonage - it was a happy, protected childhood - and she has retained that outlook. Private life remains private, and few have seen the inside of her apartment near the Pergamon Museum in Berlin or her weekend cottage in the Uckmark. She has a right-hand woman, Beate Baumann, who is an indispensable aide whom she has known for years: but is said to still address Ms Baumann with the formal "Sie", and not the intimate "du".

She prefers foreign affairs to domestic policies - "pettiness" is said to bore her. Though her first portfolio was a Minister for Women, she's never shown a huge interest in feminist issues. She is able to outdo macho-men with her watchful, analytical mind, and yet, surprisingly, she gets along well with Putin, the epitome of would-be macho-man. That is probably because she speaks excellent Russian - she excelled at Russian and maths at school - and loves Russian culture. (She is also a quarter Polish, and has a strong sense of sensibility towards the Slav traditions.) Unexpectedly, she also personally seemed to like George W Bush, especially when he took her to his Texas ranch and talked a whole lot about fishing.

Angela Merkel has had one great benefit for any politician: she has been lucky. She had a lucky break and a great opportunity soon after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. There was a vacancy for a political figure who could bring the two Germanies together. It may also be an advantage that she is childless. She is too private to explain whether she is childless by choice, or whether it just happened that no baby appeared. But not being a mother probably frees her psychologically and emotionally - she has offered no hostage to fortune. In the coming years, Angela will command all our lives.

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