Newsmaker of the Year '09: Angela Merkel

Invisible woman

She has quietly blazed trails for the past four years as Germany’s first female chancellor and as the first to hail from the former Communist East. She’s the “most powerful woman in the world” according to Forbes and, in her slow, plodding way, has emerged as the de facto leader of the European Union.

Outside of Germany, however, there’s been scant interest in Angela Merkel, the earnest, apple-cheeked 55-year-old leader of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—but for when she brushed off former president Bush’s frat-boy neck rub at the 2006 G8 Summit or showed off impressive decolletage in Norway in 2008: “Merkel’s Weapons of Mass Distraction!” crowed the British tabloid Daily Mail.

Her re-election to another four-year-term in September barely registered in North America, which tends to think of Europe’s most populous country and largest economy in terms of BMW, not CDU. Far more ink is spilled on beleaguered male EU leaders: Britain’s Gordon Brown, whose Labour Party is slowly committing hara-kiri; French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with his decorous wife and ADD flitting from issue to issue; and Italy’s scandal-prone PM, Silvio Berlusconi.

The effective Merkel, who spends her leisure time hiking in the Alps and attending the Bayreuth opera festival, is glaringly dull in contrast. Her husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, is so publicity-shy he’s known in Germany as the “Phantom of the Opera.” Slate dubbed her the “anti-Obama,” citing her “zero charisma, zero glamour, beige pantsuits, and a spouse who rarely appears in public.”

Clearly it’s a winning formula for the female politician: at last Merkel is having her breakout moment, to judge from the thunderous standing ovations that greeted her address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in November. She pressed for an agreement on global warming and stressed the need to break down even more walls, a reference to the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall that again put her in the international spotlight. Days later, she became the first German leader to commemorate Armistice Day on French soil. Standing beside Sarkozy at the Arc de Triomphe, she expressed her nation’s contrition in a conciliatory speech that was classic Merkel: “When there is antagonism between us, everybody loses,” she said. “When we are united, everybody wins.”

Merkel’s sudden star turn is the most recent in a year that has seen older women reveal unexpected “wow” factor to a surprised audience. Consider Susan Boyle, whose talent was greeted with the shock one would rightfully associate with the spectacle of a chimp reciting T.S. Eliot. The documentary The September Issue pulled back the curtain at Vogue to show the brilliant machinations of its boldly innovative creative director, the 68-year-old Grace Coddington. Julie & Julia elicited amazement by portraying the matronly Julia Child as having a far more vibrant sex life than the younger protagonist.

But in a year that saw once-invisible women take the spotlight, no one shone more than Merkel, whose personal history mirrors national aspirations. Born in West Germany, she was raised in the country’s East. She knew a deprivation tinged with privilege due to her father’s position as a Lutheran pastor. The family had two cars—unheard of in a place where people could wait decades for one—and their library was stocked with Western books, banned to most East Germans. A brilliant student, she studied physics at the University of Leipzig, financing her education as a cocktail waitress. In 1977, she married fellow student Ulrich Merkel (she divorced him in 1982 and married Sauer in 1988). After receiving a Ph.D. in 1978, she took a job as a quantum chemist in East Berlin.

Merkel’s political life began quietly: swept up in Germany’s budding democracy movement, she joined the CDU in 1990, two months before Germany’s reunification. Merkel rose in the ranks quietly yet steadily, mentored by newly elected chancellor Helmut Kohl, who referred to her as “the girl” and appointed her women and youth minister in 1991 and environment minister in 1994. When a slush-fund scandal rocked the party in 1999, Merkel alone had the courage to tell Kohl to quit. The next year, she succeeded him as the CDU’s first female leader.

In 2005 she emerged as chancellor after an inconclusive election yielded a fractious coalition between the CDU, its sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the centre-left Social Democrats. Merkel kept it together, bending to the left when required: she ditched free-market reforms, imposed a minimum wage in some sectors and introduced a huge fiscal stimulus. She also pulled the country out of recession with a stringent economic program she compared to that of a “Swabian housewife.”

Merkel’s politics of expediency have proven efficacious. “What, and whom, does Angela Merkel stand for?” the daily Berliner Zeitung asked in an analysis of her “mysterious” character during the 2009 election. “Nobody knows. And that is the secret to her success.”

Her consensual style put an end to comparisons to former British PM Margaret Thatcher. If anything, she’s more steel than iron. When asked “Are you tough?” during the 2005 election, she deflected the question by saying, “Let’s just say I’m persistent.” Her reluctance to contribute to the international stimulus effort last year won her the derisive nickname “Madame Non.” When national interests are at stake, she’ll step on big toes: she fought off EU emissions caps on behalf of German industry. She has played tough with the U.S.: though intent on mending what she saw as predecessor Gerhard Schröder’s strident break with Washington over the Iraq war, she appears unmoved by Obama’s charm. She denied his request to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate during his 2008 presidential bid, saying it was not an appropriate campaign stop. She has challenged his handling of the economic crisis. Even his recent praise of Germany as “the centrepiece for an extraordinarily strong European Union” didn’t thaw her—she used the Berlin Wall anniversary to remind the U.S. it must channel its interests through international institutions.

On the world stage, Merkel has racked up an impressive series of policy coups, among them a hard-fought compromise on the EU budget in 2006 and a climate deal that helped forge a new global warming toward Germany itself. Seen as a moderating influence in the ongoing experiment of the EU, she’s also one of its chief architects, having negotiated key European bloc reform treaties. New EU President Herman Van Rompuy will find it difficult to do anything that contradicts her wishes.

One constituency that has failed to warm to Merkel is German women, many of whom are frustrated by her avoidance of “women’s issues.” In an interview with the German feminist magazine Emma, Merkel admitted the pay gap between the sexes is a “real problem” but ruled out state intervention. “I advise any woman who earns less than her male colleague for the same work to go to her boss self-confidently and say something has to change,” she said. “We politicians will keep up the pressure.”

But she did make a clear bid to appeal to female voters during the last election by joking about her dowdy image in a TV ad: “I still learn something new every day,” she said. “Like how important a hairstyle can be,” a reference to updating her severe bowl cut to a softer, blonder coif. Ever the pragmatic pol, Merkel’s willing to deliver what the electorate wants. Just don’t wait for the facelift: the world’s most powerful woman wouldn’t want the mass distraction.

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