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Critics not impressed with Merkel's first town hall meeting

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Critics not impressed with Merkel's first town hall meeting
Photo: DPA
11:25 CEST+02:00
Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on television for her first American-style “Town Hall Meeting” on Sunday night. While she made a good impression, critics have dismissed the show as scripted and safe.

Merkel appeared before a pre-selected audience of some 100 for the 75-minute show broadcast by television station RTL in partnership with news magazine Der Spiegel just before 10 pm.

The event would appear to be part of Merkel's campaign strategy to come across as closer to average Germans ahead of national elections in September after often facing criticism for being wooden and aloof.

But in a country where interviews with the chancellor have to be approved before publication, informal town hall meetings, which have become increasingly popular in American presidential politics, may not be suited for the country's political system, German media reported on Monday.

“The clear conclusion: It was minutes of purely affected journalism. A simulation of politics, a summit of harmlessness,” daily Süddeutsche Zeitung opined.

With 15 pre-selected questions, the show, entitled “Viewers asks – Chancellor Merkel answers,” was anything but spontaneous, conducted by “non-insistent” moderators RTL news Editor in Chief Peter Kloeppel and Spiegel TV's Maria Gresz, the paper said.

Merkel, in a “friendly pink blazer,” appeared “poised” and “relaxed” as she answered questions about the financial crisis, gun control and how the government would handle ailing German carmaker Opel's bailout request, Der Spiegel reported on Monday.

“But content-wise, it's not a surprise that there was nothing new, and not just on the topic of Opel,” the magazine reported.

Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel pointed to just how orchestrated the entire event was – even the order of the questions was predetermined ahead of time.

“It's a television format that allowed Merkel to come over well,” the paper wrote. “No one questioned her promise of cutting taxes for the middle class, either when it will happen or how it will be financed.”

Instead, the chancellor was able to appear confident and ready with good advice.

One 21-year-old audience member, recently laid off from his part-time, €8 per hour job, asked Merkel how the government would ensure that young people find employment. As she did several times throughout the show with the audience, Merkel asked him for more information.

“Did you study anything?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“I think now would probably be the time to learn [a trade],” Merkel said, suggesting nursing, education, or a technical profession. Merkel, who was a physicist before becoming a politician, was not impressed by the man's interest in learning landscaping, telling him that he wouldn't be able to rely solely on a well-paid woman.

Later in the show Merkel suggested one woman file a lawsuit to get back money lost by her bank in the financial crisis.

Though Merkel was amply sympathetic to audience woes, German media outlets said the only high-point of the show was the final segment, where Merkel answered personal questions.

The chancellor told the audience she tried to lead a normal private life, revealing that she personally does her grocery shopping and cooks a “very good” potato soup, in addition to roulade and red cabbage.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the centre-left Social Democratic Party's challenger against conservative Christian Democrat Merkel, has also reportedly been invited to appear on an RTL town hall meeting.

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