No one wants to discuss politics with Germany's Free Democrats - sexism is the topic of the hour. And that's the last thing the ailing party needs just months ahead of national elections.
The man is keeping quiet, and that's not about to change any time soon.
"Rainer Brüderle has said he has decided not to comment publicly on the incident," said Patrick Döring, Secretary-General of Brüderle's pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), said Monday (28.01.2013) following a top-level party meeting in Berlin. He added that the party, which is the junior member of Chancellor Merkel's coalition government, supports his decision, and will show its support by following his example.
The journalist Laura Himmelreich wrote last week in Germany's weekly Stern magazine that the 67-year-old FDP politician, chosen as his party's lead candidate in federal elections scheduled for September, made sexist comments to her in a hotel bar about a year ago. The article sent shock waves across the nation.
Debate is focused not only on how thin the line is between a gracious compliment and a suggestive remark: under the twitter hashtag #Aufschrei (or "outcry"), tens of thousands of women have vented their anger over daily occurrences of sexism on the job.
FDP leadership stands united
Rainer Brüderle, meanwhile, remains silent. That is unusual for a politician who rarely passes a microphone without saying a few words. At a party New Year reception in Düsseldorf on Sunday, he did not appear particularly contrite. "They can beat us, they can insult us, they can throw dirt at us - but they can't take away our convictions and self-respect," Brüderle told fellow party members, and many people heard in his words more than a commitment to liberal policies.
Brüderle refuses to say anything more or apologize to the reporter - a decision the party leadership seems to support.
"When a Free Democrat moves to the top of his party, there is no stopping political opponents in some editorial offices and in the political arena," said foreign minister and former party leader Guido Westerwelle.
Attack is the best form of defense - that is the line FDP political leaders appear to have agreed on. Brüderle is an "honorable and respected man" who has served the country for many decades, Döring declared on Monday. The reports are unfair, he said, and was being exploited for party politics purposes. But he also emphasized, "none of us was present on that particular night."
No one disputes that harassment exists in Germany, Döring said, but "perceptions differ." he suggested there might have been a misunderstanding: "Some remarks Rainer Brüderle or I feel are charming or humorous might be perceived differently by the other person."
Claudia Roth, leader of the Green party, angrily dismisses Döring's remark. Her party would not "allow this reality to become normal or that it should be regarded as a trivial offense, a mere nothing, by men who have never experienced discrimination," she said.
Roth said the Greens party would continue the debate on sexism "because it is important and necessary." She added it is not about "individuals like Mr Brüderle," but about dealing with everyday sexism, "which is truly a widespread problem."
Will the debate change the relationship between politicians and journalists? It is a relationship that thrives on proximity, and only becomes interesting after the press conference is over. Wolfgang Kubicki, the FDP parliamentary leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, has made it clear he will avoid meetings at hotel bars if female reporters are present. "Of course, a casual, less well-phrased remark can easily just slip out," he said. "From now on, I'll have to be aware that it might be used against me."
Patrick Döring warned that, should it not be possible to address journalists off the record without that trust being betrayed, "such formats will cease to exist. And," he continued, "it's this trust that makes it possible for journalists to accompany politicians on trips or in their cars." Women reporters may well be hearing that remark as a threat.
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