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Page last updated at 12:48 GMT, Friday, 7 May 2010 13:48 UK

Merkel urged to put struggling Germans first

As the cash-strapped state of North Rhine-Westphalia goes to the polls on Sunday, it is clear many Germans want to put national not European Union interests first, the BBC's Oana Lungescu reports.

Election posters in Wuppertal
Could the poll outcome in Wuppertal be a sign of things to come nationally?

A closely-fought election could change the face of national politics - but that is not just in Britain.

North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany's biggest state, is going to the polls on Sunday and the outcome could deal a serious blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition.

Mrs Merkel has reasons to fear voters' anger. A deeply unpopular rescue package for Greece, which critics say she tried to delay until after the vote, is being rushed through parliament this week.

Meanwhile, cities like Wuppertal in NRW are on the brink of bankruptcy.

Around a cafe table, chain-smoking men are sipping small cups of coffee. All eyes are on the violent protests in Athens, shown again and again on Greek TV.

This district of Wuppertal, in Germany's industrial heartland, is home to one of the country's biggest Greek migrant communities.

I'd rather see my mother-in-law than Angela Merkel
Greek migrant worker

For 50 years, they have worked in factories and restaurants, even set up their own school. But not many seem happy that the German chancellor is helping Greece in its hour of need.

"Why should I thank Frau Merkel?" one man asks angrily. "She is just as responsible for this mess as the Greek government."

Another one mutters: "I'd rather see my mother-in-law than Angela Merkel."

Theatre protests

Someone who can see both sides of the argument is Jannis Stergiopoulos, deputy leader of the Greek community and a former city councillor for the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD).

He is happy that Germany "is doing its duty as Europe's largest economy".

Wuppertal treasurer Johannes Slawig
If people feel that German politicians are doing things at the European level but leave them empty-handed, they won't find that credible
Johannes Slawig
Wuppertal City Hall

But, he insists: "We must not forget that there are tremendous difficulties in Germany itself. There is poverty here that one did not see 20 years ago."

Wuppertal too is crying for help.

Local theatres are staging an arts festival dedicated to Greece, including a newly commissioned opera about a mythical descent into hell.

But ironically, one of them could soon close because of the city's soaring debts.

The plan has prompted protests from theatres across Germany.

"This crisis in Wuppertal is only one of many crises to come nationwide," the theatre's artistic director Christian von Treskow explains.

"The quality of life goes down. That's what people feel bad about, when they say why are our cities going down and at the same time there are billions of euros going to Greece or to the banks."

Wuppertal's unique suspended monorail train - a feat of German engineering built more than a century ago - still runs on time, its carriages hovering in mid-air above the city.

Naked civil servant

But in the city hall, treasurer Johannes Slawig finds it hard to balance the books.

Swimming pools are closing, kindergarten fees going up, and Wuppertal could soon be bankrupt, along with 19 other cities across NRW.

About half of the state's 18 million people live there, almost as many as Greece's 11 million.

Monorail in Wuppertal
Wuppertal's unique monorail is still running

In his office, Mr Slawig has a framed cartoon showing a naked civil servant facing a robber with only his briefcase for cover.

He belongs to Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). Like many here, he believes that Germany should start thinking less about Europe and more about its own.

"We can't take on any more financial burdens. We too need support from the government," he said.

"If people feel that German politicians are doing things at the European level, but leave them empty-handed, they won't find that credible or indeed acceptable."

At the local WDR radio station, journalist Wolfgang Teiner thinks the hole in the local budget combined with the Greek crisis could swing opinion in NRW.

Until the last regional election five years ago, it was a Social Democratic stronghold. Now the centre-left and the centre-right are running neck-and-neck.

"When you talk to people in the pub, they ask: 'Why doesn't Mrs Merkel govern?' The Greek crisis has strengthened the impression that Chancellor Merkel is not the Iron Lady, but just waiting," he said.

Critics say the crisis got worse because Mrs Merkel tried to put off a rescue package until after the regional poll.

Bellwether

On Wuppertal's main shopping street, Petra Howarde, the owner of a fashion boutique, is angry that Germany is spending billions for Greece, while her city is sinking further into debt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Mrs Merkel faces a tricky balancing act between domestic and EU interests

But she sounds more charitable towards Chancellor Merkel. "She is doing her best. I don't know if any other people would do better," she said.

On that same street, at a rally launching the last stage of the campaign, Mrs Merkel promised the people of Wuppertal help for the impoverished cities.

She pledged that everything she had done was in order to stabilise the euro.

But behind some 2,000 party faithful waving the slogan "NRW must stay stable", she could hear a constant barrage of boos, horns and whistles.

One man shouted: "Give the Greeks their drachma back." Another held up a hand-written sign: "The euro is dead."

Those voices remain isolated in today's Germany. And whatever happens in NRW Angela Merkel will keep her job in Berlin.

But this state is seen as a political bellwether for national politics.

If the centre-right coalition loses the majority in the upper house, it would come under further strain as it tries to get opposition support for already slow reforms.

Others in Europe are also paying heed. As the chancellor and her supporters stand up to sing the national anthem, you can almost hear a historical chapter closing.

Twenty years after reunification, Germany feels it has paid its dues to the EU. It is putting its national interests first, like any normal European country.



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