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Trump Backlash In Germany Gives Merkel Challenger Martin Schulz A Boost In Polls


Now to Europe where several top-elected positions are in play. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term this fall. But a challenger has emerged in the German race that polls suggest could give Merkel a fight. He is Martin Schulz, who was confirmed as the Social Democrats candidate for chancellor last week. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Martin Schulz loves to crack jokes, as he did at a political gathering in a Bavarian beer tent earlier this month.


MARTIN SCHULZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He poked fun at the chancellor and her center-right party's tense relations with its Bavarian counterpart, comparing a recent comment she made to something a spouse might say before straying.


SCHULZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: But Schulz told his fellow social democrats that the German election won't be anything like the recent American contest.


SCHULZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He said, even in a beer tent, a political opponent should be beaten with arguments, not insults. Schulz added, we could have a Donald Trump-style campaign, but we won't. Calling out Trump on his actions and foreign policies is something the two German candidates agree on. Although Schulz, who at 61 is a year younger than Merkel, is more direct.


SCHULZ: (Speaking German).

NELSON: In his speech, he accused the American president of demeaning women and minorities and threatening democracy with his attacks on the press. Merkel and Schulz also support a strong European Union and its obligation to take in refugees. But as people, the two candidates couldn't be more different. Merkel is a scientist with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, the straitlaced daughter of a pastor who grew up in the former communist East Germany.

Schulz, on the other hand, is a recovering alcoholic who never finished high school and hails from a small western German town near the Dutch border. His father was a policeman and his mother a housewife. Schulz's ambition wasn't politics but to be a soccer star, says Karl Lauterbach, his close friend and vice chair of the Social Democrats in the German Parliament.

KARL LAUTERBACH: He was badly injured. He was no longer able to play. He had a drinking problem, and he also was threatened by unemployment and was working in a small bookstore which he owned but which was not going well. So he was living through a major crisis.

NELSON: His friends say he rebuilt his life by turning to literature and writing. They say Schulz speaks at least five languages. He became the mayor of a small town in western Germany, and until earlier this year, served as president of the European Parliament. His normal-guy image appeals to many German voters, who feel disconnected from the political elite. But his critics claim Schulz will take Germany backwards. They object to his plan to roll back 15-year-old reforms credited with restarting the economy here but costing job security and welfare payments.

Steffen Kampeter, who heads the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, says Germany faces stiff competition from China and Eastern Europe. He says doing away with reforms is a mistake and that whoever ends up in charge should find another way to reconnect with Germans who feel the reforms have made their lives worse.

STEFFEN KAMPETER: So you have to take the concern seriously. But the message has to be that countries like Germany deeply integrated in global economy cannot just say bye-bye to them.

NELSON: Some German voters already appear to be having second thoughts about Schulz. His double-digit lead last month evaporated, and he and Merkel are now running neck and neck. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.