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Populist Leader Aims 'To Change Political Situation' In Germany — And Europe

Frauke Petry, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party, speaks at a conference of European right-wing parties on January 21 in Koblenz, Germany.
Thomas Lohnes
Getty Images
Frauke Petry, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party, speaks at a conference of European right-wing parties on January 21 in Koblenz, Germany.

Frauke Petry is a paradox. The petite 41-year-old German chemist with a pixie cut is well known for being tough as nails, chewing out journalists and wresting control of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party a couple of years after it was founded.

But Petry looked a little lost as the AfD hosted last weekend's summit of Europe's populist stars next to the Rhine River in Koblenz. She shifted awkwardly onstage next to charismatic National Front leader Marine Le Pen, her far-right ally from France, who posed with Dutch isolationist phenomenon Geert Wilders as he snapped selfies on his smartphone.

Petry's party and its counterparts across Europe are seeing an unprecedented surge in support. Wilders' Freedom Party is now polling ahead of its rivals in the Netherlands, where elections are scheduled in March. Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency a month later.

AfD has managed to win seats in more than half of German state legislatures over the past couple of years and is expected to do the same in parliamentary elections this fall. That's the most support any nationalist faction in Germany has received since World War II.

Compared to the fiery oratory of Le Pen, who riled up the largely German audience at the summit with predictions of a populist toppling of the EU, Petry drew more polite applause with her speech that sounded rather like a history lecture on the declining state of Europe.

She's more relaxed and conversational when I meet her in Leipzig, arriving in jeans with her youngest child, Tobias, in tow. The elementary school-age boy is recovering from a cold and clings to her legs as she coaxes him to unpack his toys at a colleague's desk and play.

Petry tells me she married her live-in boyfriend, Marcus Pretzell, right before Christmas. He's a member of the European Parliament and head of the North-Rhine Westphalia AfD branch. The party recently announced that she's pregnant with their first child, which is her fifth.

Call it practicing what you preach: Petry believes Germans having more children is the way to solve the worker shortage and other problems resulting from her country's aging population, rather than relying on immigration as the government does currently.

European political party leaders greet supporters at a conference of European right-wing parties on January 21 in Koblenz, Germany.
Soraya Nelson / NPR
European political party leaders greet supporters at a conference of European right-wing parties on January 21 in Koblenz, Germany.

"It will be hard because you cannot force people to have children, obviously, and we do not want that anyway," she says. But she'd like to see the government provide financial incentives to encourage German couples "to have more children, to start having children earlier" — in their 20s, rather than in their 30s or later.

As to why she thinks Muslim asylum seekers are a danger to Germany, Petry suggests reading Machiavelli.

"The principles of migration have always been the same," she explains. "It's a question of period of time, process and numbers, and if migration population in the long run [outnumbers] the ethnic population of this country, the country will disappear, it will change dramatically. And that's what we see when we talk about illegal migration today in Germany and Europe."

Petry claims to have no problem with Muslim immigrants who have assimilated into German society. But she completely rejects Chancellor Angela Merkel's claim that Islam belongs to Germany.

"If you talk about the religious differences, we do have serious problems with Islam and it's much easier to integrate someone from France, or from Poland, from Spain, from Britain or from wherever in Europe, into a European culture like the German culture than someone from a Middle East country," she says. "I think that's obvious."

The fear of German extinction is something Petry and her AfD party have successfully used to rally support in local elections over the past couple of years.

Martin Kroh of the German Economic Research Institute in Berlin says that is not how the controversial party started out.

AfD was founded in 2013 by economists, business leaders and academics who opposed German bailouts of the Eurozone. Their criticism of Merkel and the EU resonated with many Germans who were fed up with their country footing the bill for the euro debt crisis. Even so, AfD failed to get enough votes to meet the 5 percent threshold required to enter the German parliament in 2014.

The following year, Petry and her allies took over. "The party changed from this moderate, economic Euroskepticism to more right-wing, populist statements and also anti-immigrant positions, and also being more conservative on family policies," Kroh says.

A Jan. 20- Jan. 23 poll by the German research firm INSAfor the German newspaper Bild shows 14.5 percent of German voters plan to cast ballots for Alternative for Germany in national elections this September.

Many of the votes are shifting from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union-led bloc. According to the poll, the bloc's approval rating dropped to 32.5 percent and if it keeps declining, Merkel will have a tough time forming a new coalition government.

Her political allies are worried enough to have taken stances against migrants and the European Union that sound a lot like AfD's positions.

Petry smiles when I ask her about that.

"These ideas have already been there for quite a while, but they were called racist or xenophobic or something else," she says. "Politicians of all the other parties realize that all the so-called solutions up to now haven't worked."

Still, Petry is pushing her party to tone it down, especially when it comes to anti-Semitism. The AfD is considering kicking out its Thuringia branch head, Bjoern Hoecke, for recently condemning the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. He told supporters in Dresden on Jan. 17: "We Germans are the only people in the world who would plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital."

Le Pen, Wilders and other European populist leaders say Petry should be the next German chancellor. But she isn't prepared to address a run in our interview.

"Our party has to enter the German parliament, first of all," she says. "And I'm willing, and my party is willing, to change the political situation in Germany and in Europe. Anything else apart from that is way too early to discuss."

She'll likely need a parliamentary majority to become chancellor because — like Wilders' Dutch opponents — no mainstream German party is willing to partner with Petry or her AfD.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.