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Germany

Martin Schulz, leader of Germany's Social Democrats in a bind

The SPD's party chief has been forced to perform a U-turn: From categorically ruling out another grand coalition with Angela Merkel's conservatives to accepting, albeit reluctantly, the inevitable.

Martin Schulz is from Würselen, a city of just 38,000 residents, just north of Aachen, in the far west of Germany. His roots there go deep: he grew up there, served as the city's mayor for 11 years from 1987 until 1998, ran a bookshop there with his sister, and still lives there today.

Before becoming the SPD's leader in January 2017 and accepting the candidacy to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in September's elections, Schulz was more a European politician than a domestic one. He was a European parliamentarian, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) national group in Europe, and the leader of the EU socialists' block. He was the socialists' top candidate in the 2014 European election, and served as the president of the European Parliament from 2012 to 2017.

Martin Schulz wearing the mayoral chain of Würselen

Martin Schulz became the mayor of the small town of Würselen in 1988 at the age of 31

Read moreOpinion: Merkel challenger Martin Schulz too desperate, too soon

'I was a pig'

Born in 1955 as the son of a policeman, Martin Schulz, was the youngest of five children. He dreamed of a sporting career as a football player - but a knee injury put an end to those aspirations. He became an alcoholic as a teen and did not complete his high school graduation.

In the mid-1970s, at age 20, he was unemployed for a year. Today, Schulz speaks openly about his past: "I was a pig, and not a very nice student."

But he was also active in the SPD during that time. When he became his city's mayor at age 32, it made him the youngest city leader in all of North Rhine-Westphalia. Schulz has also been a member of the SPD's national party leadership since 1999, serving on the executive board and executive committee - he proudly stresses that his 18 years there make him the party's "oldest serving member."

Read moreThe SPD: Germany's oldest political party

Not one to mince words

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Germany's SPD under pressure

Schulz rarely avoids a confrontation, and that's what initially made him appear vibrant and appealing to voters. Shortly after he assumed the mantle as the SPD's savior, polls showed him eating into Merkel's seemingly unassailable lead. Schulz peaked at 50 percent in the polls in February, while Merkel languished at 34 percent. However, three weeks before the election, the numbers almost completely reversed with Merkel at 52 percent and Schulz at 30 percent.

After his nomination in January 2017, he told the German Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that fairness and democracy were being called into question these days.

"Desperation threatens democracy," he said. "When people have the feeling that they are doing something for society but that society isn't doing anything for them, doesn't respect them, then they become radical. When people are not being protected by democracy, they look for alternatives."

Schulz speaks clearly when it comes to confronting the spread of right-wing populism, too: "I am often accused of being too impulsive. But you won't get anywhere with right-wing extremists if you use finely crafted arguments. Sometimes a rough block calls for a rough chisel."

Martin Schulz kicking a ball in the Cologne football stadium

Martin Schulz has always had a passion for football

Losing steam

The SPD leader has proven time and again, in Brussels and Strasbourg, that he can pack a punch on the issues that will confront him in German domestic politics. On Russia under President Vladimir Putin: "What Russia is doing is entirely unacceptable. The societal concept, the worldview, behind Russia's aggressive actions has absolutely nothing in common with our European philosophy of mutual respect."

In 2016, he called Donald Trump a problem "for the whole world," and linked his election success to that of far-right populism in Europe. He called Trump an "irresponsible man" who "boasts about not having a clue."

And on his favorite project, the European Union: "The EU finds itself in a woeful state. Centrifugal, extreme forces within it are winning elections and referendums. If we start to question the core of the European project now, we are playing with the future of our next generation." At a party conference in December, Schulz honed in even further on his passion, by calling for a"United States of Europe" by 2025.

Political observers have pointed out that Schulz' election fortunes may have gone differently if he had centered his campaign on the issue of the EU's future.

Now, under pressure from his own leadership and the party faithful, Schulz looks more beleaguered than ever. If he can't convince the in favor of coalition talks, his position as party leader seems untenable. 

Read more - Martin Schulz to let grassroots decide

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