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Politics and Carnival: Friedrich Merz on the defensive

Rina Goldenberg
February 9, 2023

The leader of Germany's largest opposition party, the center-right CDU, was not amused by jokes made about him in a Carnival speech. He has been criticized before for his pointed anti-immigrant remarks.

CDU party leader Friedrich Merz
Friedrich Merz, a successful businessman, appeals to the CDU's conservative wingImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Opposition leader Friedrich Merz of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) was not amused to become the butt of the jokes in a Carnival speech by government politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

She poked fun at Merz for proudly flying his private airplane during the energy crisis, for needing three attempts to secure the party chairmanship and for his populist pandering to the country's far-right by denigrating Ukrainian refugees and children with an immigrant background, while staying silent on far-right extremists such as the Reichsbürger plotters.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann dressed up as a vampire
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, dressed up as a vampire, gave fiery carnival speechImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

Carnival in Germany is traditionally marked by satirical jabs at authorities, the traditional parades also feature satirical floats that include political commentary. 

Strack-Zimmermann gave her speech at the award ceremony for the Order of Combating Deadly Seriousness and it was full of digs at politicians across the political spectrum.

At the same event, the recipient of the prize, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also triggered a backlash with her digs at Chancellor Olaf Scholz

But Friedrich Merz's CDU went as far as to ask Strack-Zimmermann to apologize to their leader.

Over the past few months, Merz has ruffled feathers with remarks that some have seen as fishing on the far right of the political spectrum.

Far-right flirtations

Following violent confrontations between police emergency services and young people in Berlin on New Year's Eve, the conservative leader pointed out that many of the young male perpetrators in the city's Neukölln district were from immigrant families.

On the TV talk show "Markus Lanz," he went on to claim that female school teachers in Germany suffered a lack of respect from what he called "little pashas," apparently referring to sons of Muslim parents, who then intervene on behalf of their children. This, according to Merz, shows a worrying lack of integration.

Those remarks came only weeks after Merz referred to some Ukrainian refugees as "welfare tourists" — claiming that many of them had come to Germany seeking safety, only to then travel back and forth between both countries once they have secured social benefits.

Merz later offered an apology of sorts: "I regret using the word 'welfare tourism.' It was an inaccurate description of a problem observed in individual cases."

Merz: 'It bothers me that voters attach themselves to populist movements'

Third time's the charm

The CDU elected Merz as the party's new leader at a party conference in January 2022, his third attempt to take the post.

The first time was in 2018,when Angela Merkel announced she would step down as party chairwoman, but Merz lost to Merkel's protégé Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. When she stepped aside following a series of gaffes, Merz took his chance again in early 2021 but had to concede to Armin Laschet, who then went on to lose in Germany's general election later that year.

Both Kramp-Karrenbauer and Laschet were proponents of Angela Merkel's more centrist political course, of which Merz had always remained critical. His own leadership bid was founded on a platform of reconnecting the party with its conservative traditions.

But after the CDU's soberingly poor performance in the Bundestag election in September 2021, Merz began striking a more inclusive tone. He announced his intention to unite the party so that different political currents would again find their place in it.

He has repeatedly stated that he would reject any cooperation between his party and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose support he also vowed to halve by bringing disenchanted conservative voters back into the fold.

Armin Laschet fist-bumping Friedrich Merz
Merz threw his weight behind chancellor candidate Laschet in the 2021 election campaignImage: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Inclusive overtones

Merz was also keen to ensure that the newly elected members of the CDU's federal executive board would include significantly more women than before. Most CDU party officials are elderly white men.

He has also been at pains to counteract his conservative reputation by showing a willingness to change legislation to allow LGBTQ couples to adopt children. In 2020, he had drawn accusations of homophobia with a video interview for the newspaper Bild, where he appeared to be making made an association between being gay and pedophilia.

Merz also wants to win back young voters, many of whom had turned to the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the environmentalist Green Party in the September 2021 general election.

His rhetorical style has seen him suited to the opposition in parliament, where he regularly makes fiery condemnations of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's performances. Merz adheres to the CDU's business-oriented platform, often complaining about the regulatory hurdles that companies face.

He once suggested that one should be able to write a tax return "on a beer mat" instead of having to fill out pages of forms. But he couldn't answer how this would be implemented in practice.

Friedrich Merz and Angela Merkel laughing and talking to each other in the year 2000
Friedrich Merz and Angela Merkel have long been rivals within the CDU partyImage: Michael Jung/dpa/picture alliance

Locking horns with Merkel

Merz, a commercial lawyer who was born in 1955, hails from a rural area of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. He is a Catholic and has been married to his wife Charlotte, a judge at a district court, since 1981. They have three daughters.

He first joined Germany's parliament in 1994, and even back then, he and former Chancellor Angela Merkel stood for different camps within the conservative party. At the time, Merkel was supported by the younger party members, while Merz was distinctly more traditionally conservative. After losing the battle to lead the party's parliamentary group in 2002, he gave up his post in the party leadership in 2004 and left parliament in 2009.

BlackRock and private planes

He went on to make a career in business, most recently as the head of the supervisory board of the German branch of BlackRock, one of the largest wealth management companies in the world.

Merz became a multimillionaire and acquired a pilot's license. He made headlines in the summer of 2022 when he piloted his private plane to the wedding of Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats (FDP) on the island of Sylt.

But Merz was defiant about the ensuing uproar. "To put it in a nutshell: I use less fuel in this small plane than any official car of a member of the German government. And that's why I fly," Merz told public broadcaster ZDF afterward. Fact-checkers were divided on the claim.

Merz added that he uses his plane "primarily for professional purposes." "I stand by it, and it is, if you like, an old dream of mine. Always has been," he said.

Friedrich Merz and his wife aboard the private plane
Merz made headlines in the summer of 2022 when he piloted his private plane to a wedding on the island of Sylt.Image: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

International connections

Merz is a staunch European and wants the bloc to be economically, financially, and strategically assertive toward China, Russia, and the US. Before joining Germany's federal parliament in 1994, he had been a lawmaker in the European Parliament for five years.

And he has strong trans-Atlantic connections. In the past 10 years, nobody from the CDU leadership has been to the US more often than Merz, who says he is impressed by that country's economic liberalism. "We'd get along fine," Merz said in 2020 of then-President Donald Trump.

An earlier version of this article was published in 2021 it has been extensively updated to reflect the most recent developments.

Christoph Strack contributed to this report

Edited by Ben Knight

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