- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

BERLIN — Angela Merkel, the contender to become Germany’s first female chancellor, has a problem that is off-limits to even the bluntest spin doctor: her husband.

The fear is that Joachim Sauer, a dour chemistry professor (his name means “sour” or “angry” in German) who hates publicity and wants nothing to do with Mrs. Merkel’s job, might lack voter appeal.

During most of their seven-year marriage, Mr. Sauer, 56, who teaches at Berlin’s Humboldt University, has had his wish for privacy granted. In May, however, Mrs. Merkel won the nomination of the opposition Christian Democrats to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the general elections next month.

Since then, German reporters have taken an increased interest in the man who will be at her side. Their quest for information has not been simple, not least because Mr. Sauer reportedly threatened students at Humboldt with expulsion if they talked about him to the press.

The few details that have emerged, however, offer an unflattering picture of a reluctant socializer whose lack of political gloss is unlikely to boost his wife’s career. After the couple’s most recent public appearance, at the Bayreuth music festival last month, Mr. Sauer was nicknamed the “Phantom of the Opera” as attempts by guests to engage in small talk elicited only monosyllabic responses.

Germany’s influential Stern magazine, which ran a detailed profile of him last week, suggested that his preoccupation with privacy threatens Mrs. Merkel’s election chances.

“Joachim Sauer has no intention of becoming a nice Mr. Merkel,” the magazine said. “He will on no account recognize that husbands and wives nowadays play a central role in every campaign strategy.”

The focus on Mr. Sauer could hardly develop at a worse time for Mrs. Merkel, an east German whose formidable manner already has earned her the nickname, the “Iron Lady.”

An opinion poll last week showed support for the Christian Democrats running at 42 percent, down three points in a week and seven points in two months. It suggested that Germany might end up with a hung parliament and leave Mrs. Merkel trying to form a government with Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats as junior partners.

In one of the more revealing anecdotes in Stern, neighbors of the couple in Berlin recalled that a local theatrical group staged an open-air play in 2001, offering residents free tickets to compensate for any noise inconvenience. Shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of the play, the magazine said, Mr. Sauer registered the decibel level, decided the production was too loud and promptly reported the group to the Berlin authorities.

Last week, Mr. Sauer, who insists that he is “not of public interest,” was proving as reticent as ever. He was unavailable for comment at his university office, and a Christian Democrat spokesman said the party had no response to the Stern profile.

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Merkel, however, hinted that beneath Mr. Sauer’s gruff exterior was a very different man — similar, perhaps, to the late Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“He has a nice, sarcastic, English sense of humor,” said the spokeswoman, Eva Christiansen.

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