At 78, Alice Schwarzer is still Germany’s most famous feminist. Founder of the magazine Emma, she met Angela Merkel in 1991, when she was Minister for Women and Youth. Since then, these two powerful women have seen each other once or twice a year. For L’Express, Alice Schwarzer looks back on the legacy of the one who demonstrated that a leader could go down in history by being neither a “mother of the nation” like Golda Meir, nor a “dominator of neoliberalism” like Margaret Thatcher.
L’Express: You have known Angela Merkel for thirty years. Did you envision such a career for her?
Alice Schwarzer: In 1991, Angela Merkel joined Helmut Kohl’s cabinet because of an informal double quota: as a woman, and as an East German. Both were to be represented in the first government of reunited Germany and, thanks to Merkel, the men of the West only had to vacate one post. In the early 1990s, the press used to write derisively about this inexperienced young woman. But when, as Minister of the Status of Women, she wanted to introduce an anti-discrimination law against sexual harassment in the workplace (almost thirty years before #MeToo), the tone became hateful. I have known this well in my personal experience. Reactions quickly become aggressive when it comes to women’s rights.
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I then called Angela Merkel to offer her a lunch. She came to Cologne, and I was pleasantly surprised: she was intelligent, full of humor and seemed to me to have integrity. But that she would become chancellor, no one could foresee it. It was then unimaginable that a woman would come to power. Germany was not yet ready.
The SPD recently ran an ad in your magazine Emma showing Olaf Scholz with the slogan “He can become chancellor”. There is also a joke in Germany, where a child asks his mother: “Mom, can men be chancellors?”
This is Merkel’s greatest legacy. She just showed that a woman can do it at least as well as a man. For sixteen years! And through many crises.
“It is no coincidence that the first Chancellor in history is from East Germany,” you wrote in your autobiography. Why ?
It should be remembered that in 2005 Merkel was a candidate almost by chance. His predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had unexpectedly called early parliamentary elections, and so the CDU, albeit a chauvinist party, could do nothing to prevent the candidacy of the then president. A woman from West Germany, in view of the sexism that reigned in the CDU, would have long since cracked.
But Merkel, a pastor’s daughter from the GDR and moreover a physicist, didn’t seem to have the slightest idea what to expect. She said to herself: the important thing is that I do my job well, and it doesn’t matter if I am a woman. Nay! In Germany, in 2005, there was a three-week debate as to whether the winner of the election should become chancellor. The loser, Schröder, did everything to prevent it. The media and parties, including Merkel’s, dithered for weeks on end to decide whether she could come to power when she was half a million votes ahead. All this only because she was a woman. What an absurd spectacle in a democracy!
“She just doesn’t play the role one expects of women at this level,” British feminist Angela McRobbie said of her. Has Angela Merkel made of her style, “non-feminine” and neutral, a feminist weapon?
What you call non-feminine seems to me to be a new role model for career women. Merkel neither played the submissive female on her high heels nor ape the men. By wanting to imitate men, women always lose, if only with the competition of “who pisses the furthest?”. Angela Merkel is more of a mix between a young girl and a good mate: with comfortable pants, jackets and flats. Competent, but also quite charming. It was notably observed during her meetings with Emmanuel Macron, for whom she had a weak manifesto.
“After the macho Schröder, this serene woman was a blessing”
For the first time this month, the Chancellor defined herself as a feminist against the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, when she had long refused to endorse this word. Do you consider it as such?
Yes and no. She never made a special commitment to women. Even if, for her, equality between men and women was taken for granted. But by virtue of her very existence, Merkel has become a role model for women around the world. Her life, her career, her successes are pure feminism.
With sixteen years in power, has Angela Merkel changed the subconscious of your country?
In any case, she brought her own style: modest, factual and respectful. Very different from that of its predecessors. Kohl was still a traditional patriarch. Schröder, whom we women expected to be a modern man, did much worse. He was a cocked-legged, smug macho, smoking Cuban cigars, and treating his ministers like children. After him, this serene woman was a blessing.
What do you think is Merkel’s greatest success?
I consider the forty-eight hours of negotiations in 2015, without a break, between Minsk, Washington and Brussels, to be one of its greatest acts. At the time, Obama was serious about supplying Ukraine with arms against Russia. It could have quickly slipped into a global conflict. But Merkel avoided the escalation on her own.
“Merkel still does not distinguish between Islam and Islamism”
On the other hand, you criticized her for her blindness to Islamism …
Like many politicians in Germany – but also elsewhere … – Merkel still does not distinguish between Islam, as a belief, and Islamism, which is an ideology. The religious practice of Muslims in Germany has long been a private matter, until political Islam began its offensive in the 1990s. We know that he dreams of replacing law with Sharia, and democracy with a theocracy. We are currently seeing in Afghanistan where this can lead. But Merkel does not seem to have understood it, until today. She is still content to speak of “freedom of belief”.
In doing so, Islamists are taking religion hostage and, with it, the majority of non-fundamentalist Muslims. But Merkel only sees the danger when there are deaths. Without understanding that the jihadist attacks in Germany are only the tip of the iceberg. Political Islam begins with the separation of the sexes. However, the veil at school or the burqa in the street are still not prohibited in Germany, unlike at home. And even though 61% of the population is against wearing the headscarf for teachers, and 90% is in favor of banning the full veil.
Despite the migrant crisis of 2015, the AfD is now only 11% of voting intentions. In France, Marine Le Pen exceeds 20% and an application from Eric Zemmour is looming. How did Merkel manage to contain populism?
11% is still more than double what the radical right represented in recent decades in Germany. Because, after 1945, the country had learned its lesson. But Merkel has failed to contain populism, quite the contrary. The majority of voters who are in the AfD today previously voted for the CDU, the SPD or even the Greens. The main reason for their change is that these parties have done nothing against political Islam. In May, together with the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), we commissioned a survey from the Allensbach Institute. The result is very alarming: only 21% of those polled trust Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU, to deal appropriately with the threat of Islamism. For the SPD, we are at 9%, and for the Greens, 5%. On the other hand, 43% of those polled believe that the AfD is the only party that wants to stop the Islamists. The situation is therefore quite similar to that of France, where one of the central motivations among current Le Pen voters is the inaction of political leaders in the face of the Islamist threat.
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How do you see the future of Germany without Merkel?
His successor will not have an easy task. He will never cease to be compared to her. And, despite all the criticism, Angela Merkel will be missed.