Former chemist and entrepreneur seeks to transform Alternative for Germany (AfD) from party of protest to partner in power.
She has been dubbed the “smiling face” of Germany’s newly resurgent Right and sure enough, as Frauke Petry folds herself neatly into a well-upholstered armchair in a luxury Leipzig hotel, she is indeed smiling.
It is a smile that plays permanently across the face of the 40-year-old leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) and over the last few months has radiated disarmingly out of thousands of election billboards, glossy magazines and newspaper spreads all across Germany.
A research chemist and entrepreneur who only entered politics seriously in 2013, Mrs Petry has had an alchemical effect on the fortunes of Germany’s far-right, broadening the party’s appeal and scoring unprecedented success in this month’s regional elections.
Her party was condemned by Der Spiegel as a haven for “right-wing extremists and anti-refugee, Islamophobic rabble-rousers” but, much like Donald Trump’s populist provocations in America, the remarks apparently did Mrs Petry and AfD no harm at the polls.
“Donald Trump? Is that what people in England think?” she says, apparently wounded to be compared with the boorish Republican, before mounting a lengthy defence of her remark as nothing more than a factual statement of German law and accusing the media of being on a “hunt for a headline”.
But the numbers speak for themselves: at this month’s regional elections the AfD scored the best results by a far-Right party since the Second World War, winning nearly 25 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt and more than 15 percent in Baden-Württemberg.
Not only did AfD win big in the Right’s traditional hunting grounds in the former Communist East, but by winning more than 800,000 votes in Baden-Württemberg it broke new ground in a prosperous western state that is home to blue chip brands like Porsche, Mercedes and Bosch.
“AfD is a child of Merkel’s politics,” she says, “That is what describes us best. We are here because Merkel’s government failed to deal with important topics of society in Germany and Europe.”
A hint of what those topics might be – at least in the view of some members of the AfD – could be found last week in a leaked draft party manifesto which contained a hotch-potch of policies, centred around a return to “national values”.
These includes incentivising German women to have three or more children, locking up “therapy-resistant” drug addicts and psychiatric cases, a flat 20 per cent tax, as well as several evidently anti-Muslim policies such as a ban on male circumcision, minarets and wearing the niqab.
Mrs Petry, who speaks fluent English learned while studying for an undergraduate chemistry degree at Reading University, waves away the leaked document as “nothing official”, explaining away its rougher edges as the work of a few unauthorised individuals – “God knows who”.
Dismissing such voices as unrepresentative is Mrs Petry’s main strategy when dealing with AfD’s darker side, like Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, who has echoed Adolf Hitler in calling for a “thousand-year” Germany and made pronouncements on what he calls the differing “reproduction strategies” of European and African people.
It is the kind of language that has led Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats (SDP) to characterise the AfD’s ideas and language as a “a fatal reminder of the vocabulary used in the 1920 and 1930s”.
But Mrs Petry, who in January 2015 found common cause with Germany’s overtly anti-Muslim Pegida movement, denies the charge that she cynically makes political profit from pandering to her party’s darker side, even as she officially condemns it.
“No, no, no. This is not true,” she says, suddenly animated, “Especially Björn Höcke with his sayings about ‘a thousand years’ of Germany, that didn’t help us at all. It damaged us a lot. We suffer from that sort of rhetoric.”
And yet despite the official condemnation Mr Höcke remains in his post, appealing to the baser instincts of the party’s political base – mostly old, white and male – that has undergirded its sudden rise to prominence.
Still, on some controversial aspects, like the “three-child policy” to encourage the production of more German babies and defuse Germany’s demographic time-bomb, Mrs Petry is unapologetic.
“If you call our policy stupid, then please tell me what you call a policy that asks for more migration into the country to do something about our birth deficit?,” she says, “That’s as stupid as thinking we can solve all problems in Germany just by having more children – we never suggested that.”
She turns the charge of Naziism on its head, arguing that it is the liberals who are truly being illiberal – a trick also used by Mr Trump, who like Mrs Petry courts and berates the media in equal measure.
“The best we can do to learn from our past is to preserve and create a democratic and liberal society,” she says, not a little primly, “Pushing away your political opponents, calling them ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’, even suppressing different ideas of society, calling anyone who criticizes this EU and ‘enemy of Europe’, this is losing our responsibility. This is giving up what we should have learned from Nazi regime.”
Full article: Frauke Petry: meet the smiling new face of Germany’s far-right (The Telegraph)