Weary Kohl welcomed as he comes home

"IT'S GOOD to be home," the Chancellor sighed, wiping the sweat off his forehead as he gazed at the faces of the 5,000 people who had come to welcome him on this balmy night. "Helmut, Helmut," the crowd thundered. "Our Helmut".

Home is Europaplatz, just a square wedged between a flyover and a nondescript town hall. Home is Ludwigshafen, a concrete sprawl of tower blocks, chemical plants and spaghetti junctions. It is not much to look at, but it is from here the Chancellor hails; where he grew up; got his first job, and met his wife Hannelore. It is to Ludwigshafen that he will return at the end of his distinguished career, possibly in two weeks' time.

But now he had come back to plead for one more chance, and to rest a little on his gruelling general election campaign trail. Everywhere he has been in the past few weeks, he was met with boos, demonstrators bearing hostile ghetto-blasters, and people marching with red flags.

He had just flown in by helicopter from Trier, former capital of Gaul and birthplace of Karl Marx. These days, Trier is a conservative bastion, but for symbolic reasons, Marxists feel duty-bound to make a stand, especially at Kohl's Christian Democrat party rally.

"Only in Cuba will you find the red flag flying these days," he declares in the middle of a diatribe against Communism, aimed obliquely at his Social Democrat opponent, Gerhard Schroder. Right on cue, two banners bearing the hammer and sickle shoot up. "I apologise, there are also two in Trier," Mr Kohl says, to great merriment from his supporters.

For 50 years, German politicians have been getting elected on the promise of "no experiments", and Mr Kohl has no intention of departing from the proven script. He alone can be relied on for leaving things as they are, he tells the people of Trier. "Beware of imitations," warn the Christian Democrat posters, in a dig at Mr Schroder's perceived chameleon-like qualities.

Then, on home. Mr Kohl's visit to Ludwigshafen could not have come at a better time.

The town council, run by a Red-Green coalition, is in turmoil. So he likens the goings-on to the "politics of a lunatic asylum''.

His homespun homily is full of local anecdotes, and infused with the values that his town-folk can recognise. "Anyone who says you can earn more by working less is deceiving you," he says. The Chancellor laments the high unemployment rate, but says the Government alone cannot create jobs. He defends the pension reform - by the outgoing parliament - which will cut pensions early in the next century as Germans on average are getting older, and "the coffers are running empty". Mr Schroder, he points out, has promised to reverse the tax reform, but has failed to explain how his government would cope with the demographic crisis.

"It was a good speech, brilliant in rhetoric," pronounces Uwe Beyer, as he applauds the Chancellor's evening performance. "But, whether he has the right policies, we'll have to see." Mr Beyer, 20 and voting in a general election for the first time, remains undecided. "I think I'm more likely to vote Red-Green," he says.

Gerd Brinzig, a middle-aged man, has no doubts: "It was a good, professional speech; polemical but positive."

Mr Kohl's local constituency is a marginal, though, thanks to the German electoral system, but there is no danger of Mr Kohl being bounced out of the Bundestag.

However, nationwide, his Christian Democrats still lag between 3 and 6 per cent behind the Social Democrats, with only two weeks of campaigning left.

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