Angela Merkel's Image Problem The German Opposition Candidate Fails to Dress for Success

The opposition candidate in the up-coming German general elections, Angela Merkel, is better known for her sartorial slip-ups than for her policy proposals. And the latest unflattering photo-shoot showing her on holiday hasn't helped. Angela Merkel, as we have never seen her before -- the question is, do we really want to?

By Berlin

Angela Merkel has decided to run her election campaign without a media consult to advise on her image. As can be seen by this rather unflattering outfit from "Bild am Sonntag."

Angela Merkel has decided to run her election campaign without a media consult to advise on her image. As can be seen by this rather unflattering outfit from "Bild am Sonntag."

The photo session of Angela Merkel on a fishing holiday with her husband Joachim Sauer was announced at the very last minute. French photo-journalist Laurence Chaperon was commissioned to photograph her for the popular Sunday tabloid Bild am Sonntag. The story looked at "Angela Merkel's private world."

But it all ended up looking a tad too private for the taste of Merkel's campaign managers. Dressed in an unflattering baggy striped shirt, elastic-waist leisure pants and sneakers from a chain department store, while standing next to an enormous dead fish, Germany's highest-ranking female politician is barely recognizable as the same person seen smiling sophisticatedly on the glossy campaign posters.

Andreas Fritzenkötter, who was media advisor to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, is very critical about this strategy of opening up Merkel's home life to the world. "Merkel's private life has so far been very closed off. If you are going to open it up you have to do it bit by bit. These pictures give a very, very direct view into her life and that hits you like a slap in the face."

The photos are in fact so bad that you barely notice the interview, in which the head of the center-right CDU party talks about the face of the next government. After the pictures were published, Chaperon, who knows Merkel quite well, says that fellow journalists kept talking to her about them. She says how she heard again and again comments such as, "Oh, those shoes, those trousers!"

But Chaperon stands by her work. "Angela Merkel arrived at the session exactly how I photographed her," she says. "I think that shows how honest she is. Is she supposed to go fishing in a trouser suit? As soon as Ms. Merkel allows people a glimpse of her private life, all anyone ever talks about is her clothes."

Clothes Maketh the Woman

Given the fact that sartorial elegance is hardly Merkel's forte, most people believe that these glimpses might best be avoided. And indeed, left to her own devices, Merkel's clothes sense would have more in common with sandal-wearing members of the Green Party than that of leader of the center-right wing party. Certainly her background as an East German, protestant and scientist is hardly one that would be conducive to glitz and glamour -- the woman is an intelligent politician, after all, not a pin-up girl, and she is simply not interested in trendy gear.

The media obsession about whether Merkel wears lipstick or not may be sexist and it certainly has nothing to do with politics -- but pictures speak louder than words, often even louder than actions, and a politician's image is responsible for a lot of how he or she is perceived by voters. "Do I want someone who looks a shambles to represent me?" is what Germans are asking themselves.

Clearly Merkel's party colleagues are refusing to let her get away with her obvious dislike of make-up and her much ridiculed basin-haircut. Because this is politics, a haircut is a serious business -- think back to the furor created a couple of years ago by the suspicions of whether chancellor Schröder dyed his hair and what this meant about his leadership.

The Merkel make-over began about two years ago, a process not dissimilar to Hilary Clinton's transformation from happy hippy to slick suit-wearer.

Merkel has been put in the capable hands of the well-known celebrity stylist, Udo Walz, who said that it is important to transform her gradually, so as not to inspire ridicule. Since then, he has been banned from speaking to the press by the CDU party.

And Here's How It Should Be Done...

Stoiber in "Stern," looking sharp in Lacoste and chinos.

Stoiber in "Stern," looking sharp in Lacoste and chinos.

Angela Merkel's image problem compares unfavorably to her polished political partner Edmund Stoiber. In the current edition of the political magazine Stern, a few pages before a double-page spread showing Merkel's dodgy red-carpet moments, he is pictured tanned and smiling beside a pretty South German lake, complete with flowers, parasol and not a fish in sight. In a rather trendy bright blue Lacoste polo shirt and crisp chinos, Stoiber is standing next to his expensively but tastefully coiffed wife, who wears a coordinating outfit. It's like a lesson straight out of the how-to-portray-yourself-perfectly-in-the-media handbook. Given the choice, this is how most Germans would like to see themselves represented.

This latest image fiasco has got CDU party strategists asking themselves whether Merkel needs professional advice. Edmund Stoiber hired the former editor-in-chief of the Sunday tabloid Bild am Sonntag for his 2002 campaign. Merkel has decided to go it alone -- possibly a mistake. Even in Helmut Kohl's day photo sessions were never left to chance, and Fritzenkötter remembers how the former chancellor, known for his corpulence, would never, for example, have let himself be photographed on holiday lying on a sun-lounger.

The outcry that the pictures of Merkel on her fishing holiday sparked off, demonstrates what thin ice the CDU leader is skating on when it comes to how she portrays herself. And the uproar is not only among journalists but also within her own party -- especially worrying at a time when support ratings for Merkel appear to be sinking rapidly.

Even Peter Radunski, former CDU senator in Berlin and currently campaign manager, was surprised. "I would never have expected that Ms. Merkel would do an 'at-home' campaign." He believes that it would have been better if she had "concentrated completely on the political side of the campaign" and gave people more information about how she views future policy.

"What we are seeing at the moment seems a bit cobbled together. I can't as yet see any particular media strategy," Fritzenkötter says. He would have advised against last Sunday's pictures in the Bild am Sonntag. "I don't have anything particular against this story," he says. "But I certainly wouldn't have let it happen right now."


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