Frauke Petry: the acceptable face of Germany’s new right?
Frauke Petry is, unusually for her, a little flustered. The 41-year-old politician has turned up for a television interview very late, wearing a checked shirt, a no-go for the camera, she quickly realises. Swiftly changing into a cream jacket borrowed from the TV presenter, she pleads for the camera not to show her scuffed boots. “It was all a bit of a dash this morning,” she admits afterwards. Two of her four children are at home sick – “on the sofa, headache, stomach ache” – and she didn’t want to leave them until she knew they would be OK on their own.
But this, she insists, is how she wants it to remain, with family as her number one priority, despite her swift since becoming leader of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). After , it is now the most threatening challenger to Angela Merkel’s coalition government, and she is the most talked-about female German politician after the chancellor.
“It’s not a problem as such, being a woman in politics – in fact, it’s easy to move up precisely because you’re in a minority,” she says. “The problem has to do with actually managing to still see your children and to look after them.”
Time management, she says, has become even more crucial since she recently separated from her husband, a Lutheran pastor, and formed a romantic attachment with the AfD’s representative in the European parliament, , himself a father of four, who has advocated forming closer ties with France’s Front National. “Before last summer I left family almost completely to my husband, but since the autumn we have separate times with the children. So I’m forced to organise my appointments so I can have breakfast with them, take them to school, read the goodnight story, all that normal stuff.”
It’s hard to reconcile this woman – affable, intelligent, quoting philosophy and making references to classical music – with the cold, hardboiled image she has projected since she became the party’s de facto leader last year.
AfD has a strong profile in the former communist east of but a growing following in western parts as well. She calls the party “liberal-conservative”, rejecting labels such as rightwing populist, far right, anti-immigrant…
“The idea of the party is embodied in its name, ‘Alternatives’,” she says, a response to Merkel’s repeated insistence that her policy on the euro was “alternativlos” (“without alternative”). “Basically we are a very necessary corrective in German and European politics.”
She predicts that, like the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) in neighbouring Austria, the AfD will benefit from “a breakdown of the big parties”.
But any attempts she makes to dismiss the far-right labels might seem hollow after the party’s recent announcement of a European alliance with the FPÖ. “True, our meeting with the FPÖ could be seen as moving the party to the right, but on the other hand the FPÖ is something you just cannot ignore from a German point of view because it’s so near in terms of language and political structure – it would be stupid not to talk to each other. We found similar characteristics with other parties, whether the Danish People’s party, the Swiss People’s party, the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns, also the Front National,” she says.
The growing cosiness between the parties found no better expression than when Petry and Pretzell joined the FPÖ for beer and goulash under the linden trees at their election celebrations in Vienna earlier this month, with “Pretzy” – the name given to the couple by the German media – clearly in awe of the FPÖ’s success after its candidate, Norbert Hofer, .
Petry took to the helm at AfD after the , who complained that the party had become too xenophobic and pro-Russian. Formed in 2013, the party was originally focused on its opposition to the euro but gained real prominence through fears triggered by last year’s influx of refugees, which saw an estimated 1.1 million newcomers arriving in Germany.
“The migration crisis was the catalyst for our success,” Petry admits, although she angrily rejects the phrase used by Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in the Brandenburg state parliament, who called it “a gift from heaven”. She also rejects the idea that her party is opposed to Germany having welcomed refugees. “Not the real refugees,” she says, arguing that many of the arrivals are not genuinely in need. “There is enough space for refugees in Germany but the problem is that we don’t distinguish any more between migrants and asylum seekers.”
Now that new arrivals have largely ceased – due to the closure of the Balkans route, the erection of fences and sealing of borders around – the AfD has markedly shifted its campaign agenda to one of stopping the “Islamification” of Germany.
Among Petry’s concerns are separate swimming classes in schools for boys and girls, the rise in sexual harassment, which she puts down to migrants (she quotes a website she follows daily that collects new data from police reports), and the destruction of Christian prayer rooms in asylum-seeker homes.
Meanwhile, Petry complains, her party’s other policies get little media attention. They want to see more balance between the state and the individual (“at the moment the state interferes in everything”). They want to improve state television (“a regimen of football, telenovelas and American movies with no sign of its legal obligation to inform and educate”). And they oppose plans to introduce sex education to toddlers (“How can you possibly teach three-year-olds about masturbation?”).
Such issues have been buried, she says, while headlines are made by the party’s frequent confrontations with religious, cultural and political figureheads and its more “colourful” controversial remarks. There was outrage from liberal Germans when AfD’s Thuringia chief, Björn Höcke, who is on the right of the party’s nationalist faction, claimed that Europe’s readiness to accept refugees would only encourage Africans to reproduce. In a lecture, he referred to an “African life-affirming propagation type” which had led to the “overpopulation” of Africa, insisting “as long as we are prepared to take on this population surplus, Africans’ reproductive habits will not alter”.
Then there were Petry’s remarks in an interview – repeating comments made by Pretzell some months before – that, according to German law, border police were allowed to “use firearms if necessary” in their attempts to control the refugees. The reporter suggested she had used the term “order to shoot” – to German ears, a chilling reference to the orders East German guards had to shoot anyone trying to escape illegally from the GDR. Petry denied having used the term, insisting no policeman “wants to shoot a refugee, and I don’t want that either. Armed force is the last resort.”
Newspapers that Petry had advocated firing on refugees. Even the party’s unofficial organ, , said Petry had not tried to withdraw the statement “perhaps because she recognises that 25% of Germans are in favour of deploying firearms, even on unarmed refugees”. For two days she failed to respond to her critics. Deputy AfD head and MEP Beatrix von Storch then by answering “yes” to a question on Facebook as to whether firearms should be used against women and children trying to cross the German border.
Von Storch – whose real title is Duchess Beatrix Amelie Ehrengard Eilika of Oldenburg, and whose grandfather served as finance minister under Hitler – later suggested her computer mouse had slipped.
Petry is at pains to address the controversies. “The [storm] about the ‘order to shoot’ was a clear case of people wanting to purposefully misapprehend me,” she said. “What I said is that the use of armed force if necessary is in line with German law, even though it’s not something I would personally ever want.”
As to Höcke, she appears to find it hard to contain her rage towards him or her desire to see him thrown out of the party. “Björn Höcke is a very difficult figure, to be honest,” she says, lowering her voice as if someone might be listening in. “He’s sometimes just beyond the line. When he talked about Africans and Europeans, putting a genetic argument to it – well, having studied genetics myself at university for a couple of years, I can distinguish very clearly between fairytales and facts.”
She talks about the intentions of some within the AfD to try to shift the party further to the right by saying things that are outrageous, or what she repeatedly refers to as “beyond the line”. Is it not the case that therein lies the AfD’s key strategy for gaining social acceptance and respectability? To put a message out that is then withdrawn, but as it’s already in the public realm – on social media, and perhaps most crucially at the Stammtisch (the German term for a regulars’ reserved table in the pub) – it usefully sticks and cannot be properly recalled?
“Well, sometimes, I don’t deny, we think we have to use provocative arguments in order to be heard,” Petry says. “Because we tried very hard at the beginning of 2013 to be heard with lots of very sensible thinking and arguments, and we simply couldn’t get through to anyone. So what do you do? You put forward a provocative argument, and sometimes you are given the chance to explain what you meant. I know it’s a difficult choice to make but sometimes, for us, it feels like the only way.”
She was at it again at the start of June when she appeared to criticise one of Germany’s biggest heroes, Arsenal midfielder and member of the national football team Mesut Özil, after he posted on Facebook, standing outside the Kaaba, the Muslim shrine in Mecca, just days after other party members had condemned the visit as an “anti-patriotic signal”.
“Was it necessary to present it to the whole world?” Petry asked in an interview. “One could ask Özil whether he intended to make a political statement with this confession of faith.” She went on to suggest that the way he lived his life “contravened sharia law” because “the women with whom he appears in public certainly don’t wear headscarves”.
The party’s relationship with the Dresden-based hardline protest movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), which thinks nothing of demonstrating with mock-up models of Merkel in a noose, has come under much scrutiny, with the AfD often referred to as the group’s political arm, “which it never was,” Petry swiftly insists. But the overlaps are undeniable. Not only are the complaints of Pegida and AfD supporters very similar (everything from anti-Muslim sentiments to opposition to Russian sanctions, and even to Germany’s high television licence fee), many at the demonstrations who are often disillusioned Christian Democrats, desperately negative in their outlook, call the AfD their natural home.
“You’re totally right about the overlap,” Petry says. “Pegida started as a small group of friends demonstrating against German weapons deliveries to the [Kurdish] PKK and then morphed into a movement critical of asylum and immigration laws. They were simply expressing that something is wrong in society, and expressed it on the streets. I think that’s fine, as long as it’s peaceful.” Patriotism and the fear of “Islamisation” are as central to the AfD’s raison d’etre as they are to Pegida’s. In its new manifesto, the party recently called for a ban on minarets, Muslim calls to prayer, headscarves and halal slaughter.
Petry says she sees a direct connection between the rise of radical Islam and the often allergic reaction in Germany – as a response to the country’s past – to showing national pride. “Germans are always apologising for their own identity, especially politicians, but the country has to find its balance again. For many leftists, the answer has been to dissolve ourselves into Europe, which I think is not good.” It has led to an unquestioning acceptance of Islam in every form, from moderate to radical, she argues.
“We have Qur’an schools in Germany teaching young children that the ultimate goal is to get rid of Judaism and Christianity. So when we say Islam doesn’t belong to Germany, we don’t mean those who have fully integrated here over decades, who are completely fine living in Germany as Germans. It’s a reaction to those politicians who stated: ‘Islam belongs to Germany’ without allowing any discussion on the topic.”
Petry was born in Dresden in the days of the communist east. The experience taught her a lot about free speech and freedom of the individual. “I couldn’t speak freely in school,” she says. “You could not even say the word Germany but had to say German Democratic Republic [for the east] or Federal Republic of Germany [for the west] or else risk the teacher’s wrath. They even tried to find out from kids whether their parents were secretly watching West German television, by asking what the clock on the evening news looked like, because it was different in east and west.”
Petry left for the west at 14 – just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall – after her father, who had spent a decade trying to plot the family’s escape, managed to obtain an official tourist visa for himself, and then got permission for his wife and two daughters to follow. “I never expected the paradise in West Germany that some easterners dreamed of,” Petry recalls. “I had family in the west, and the cold war situation was a constant topic of conversation at the kitchen table. Of course, there were disappointments when we got there [they moved to North Rhine-Westphalia], such as in school, where the level of education in maths and science was not as high as in the east.” What disturbed her most, she says, was how westerners looked down on the girl from the east, “which is why I decided at the age of 14 or 15 to abolish all signs of an accent or dialect, speaking only high German, so that I wouldn’t stick out”.
It was that experience that gave her the thick skin that lets her appear to laugh off the criticism she regularly receives in Germany, she says. She is rarely out of the headlines. Recently she , saying that it had refused to withdraw its comparison between the AfD’s manifesto and the policies of the Third Reich. Aiman Mazyek, the council’s president, countered by saying that talks broke down because Petry “wants to go further along the path of populism, defamation and above all prejudice”.
Petry also appeared to praise Donald Trump in an interview, calling him a “refreshingly alternative apparition”, who represented a new style of politics. “That wasn’t even authorised,” she says, referring to the common practice among German print journalists to allow leading figures to authorise interviews before publication. “Sometimes I don’t find what he has to say very attractive, particularly about women. But he is refreshing in a way that shows how [similar] the others are.”
She was lampooned for the original remarks by German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who drew a of Trump with one hand on the shoulder of his wife, Melania, and the other on Petry’s. “Mrs Petry,” he says, “you see my beautiful wife, and you’ll surely understand that I can’t be at all interested in you as a woman, but politically, your ideas are very pleasing to me.” Shrugging it off, she says: “I just have to accept this as a side effect of deciding to be a public person and heading this party.”
It’s for such treatment, though, that she often refers to the media as “Pinocchio press”, and sees herself as a victim of its attempt to “put us into the brown [Nazi] camp right from the start”. That includes a cover story in the news magazine Spiegel which, she says, “gave me the dubious honour of , with a Leni Riefenstahl look”.
More distressing than the media attacks, she says, were criticisms from two of her former teachers, in particular the man who taught her chemistry – a subject in which she excelled – who said that while she was intelligent he could certainly not call her wise. Heinrich Peuckmann wrote on his Facebook page: “Wisdom is linked to morality, and I can’t recognise that in her any more.”
“It was very hurtful,” she says. “They think it’s unacceptable to be so provocative. But that just shows me that the idea of controversy as a normal element of free society has got lost, and the fight between the political left and right is always being defined as a fight between the morally good and morally bad. I find that appalling.”
Her own party has done its utmost to cash in on her image as a youthful breath of fresh air in contrast to Merkel’s stodgier persona. The party’s unofficial organ, Compact, is full of articles praising her, and describes in almost erotic terms the allure of her smile, how the “corners of her mouth reach her ears, puckering at the ends, her eyes twinkle mischievously, her chin lifts with restrained arrogance”. “Who,” editor-in-chief Jürgen Elsässer goes on to ask, “is not reminded of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
In the same piece, Elsässer argues that Petry would be “the better chancellor” and is far more deserving of the epithet “Mutti” (Mummy), the popular nickname for Merkel. “In contrast to ‘Mutti’, she really does have children, no less than four of them – without having lost her fresh youthfulness,” he writes.
What she has in common with Merkel, apart from her East German heritage, is her science background. Petry did a chemistry degree at Reading University, spending three years in the city – “not a pretty place”, but a happy time “where I found good friends”. It’s also where she learned her impeccable English, which she speaks fast and almost without an accent.
Like Merkel, she gave up her scientific career to pursue politics, relinquishing control of the Leipzig company she set up nine years ago to manufacture environmentally friendly polyurethanes, for which she holds a joint patent with her mother.
The time she spent in Britain also taught her a lot about the fundamental differences between British and German attitudes to Europe. “When Britons talk about Europe, it never seems to include Britain,” she laughs, whereas talking about Europe in Germany can only mean inclusion of Germany.”
While AfD is critical of Europe and supportive of lots of the Brexit arguments (Petry says she agrees with many of the ideas put forward by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and chair of the Vote Leave campaign), it does not share Ukip’s desire to leave the union. Her partner Pretzell’s invitation to Nigel Farage to discuss his views with the party caused an internal bust-up.
“What we need,” she says, “is to start with a white piece of paper to decide what Europe should be for all of us. If we don’t do it, I think that Europe will break apart anyway.” She worries that if Britain leaves, not only would Germany have to shoulder more of the costs of the EU, “but we’d also lose the motivation for reform which Britain provides”.
It is in her effort to steer away from the “Adolfina” depictions, as she puts it, and with an eye on entering the Bundestag following the 2017 election, and government the one after that (in around 2021), that she’s now on an offensive to project a different image of herself in the media, embracing the very forces she has frequently condemned for what she perceives as their false portrayals of her.
“It’s not a strategy as such, but I think it’s necessary for people to get to know our human side,” she says.
The apogee of this was a three-page article in the gossip magazine Bunte in which Petry and Pretzell (pronounced, by the way with the stress on the last syllable, so as not to mistake him for the knotted bread roll of the same name) posed, apparently at home, in jeans and open‑necked shirts. They were asked questions such as “who wears the trousers?” as well as those addressing her “shooting at refugees” remarks. She was described as “girlish and tender”, he as a “provocateur”. They gave details of the holiday they had taken with the eight children they have between them. When asked to describe his new love, Pretzell called her “devilishly beautiful”.
“[But] if I was just a nice face,” says Petry, “there would be much more conflict between the base of the party and myself than there is. I’m one of the few who can bring us the stability we need.”
The waitress of the Leipzig restaurant in which the interview takes place orders Petry a taxi, but when she pops to the toilet, the waitress returns with a request from the owner to please not mention its name in the newspaper. “He does not want bad publicity,” she says.
As Petry returns and switches her phone on again, it buzzes with an SMS. “Oh it’s Markus – his divorce has just come through. We plan to get married as soon as possible,” she smiles, quickly adding: “For ourselves, not for the party.”