Angela Merkel managed to avoid saying "foreign criminal" as she addressed supporters and a screaming mob of anti-conservative protesters outside Frankfurt's opera house last night – but the term has dominated this weekend's key German state election and it could decide her political future.
The German Chancellor was in the financial capital to attend a rally in support of Roland Koch, the right-wing conservative prime minister of Hesse state and her Christian Democrat (CDU) party's candidate in Sunday's regional poll.
But unusually for one of Germany's most popular leaders she faced chants of "Nazis out" from the 3,000-strong crowd and placards that described Mr Koch as a "racist who talks shit". At times she was barely able to make herself heard above the barracking. "I don't care how popular and nice Angela Merkel is – she's supporting an outright racist," said one protester.
The Hesse poll is Ms Merkel's first significant political test since she won office in 2005. Since then a string of foreign policy successes, rather than domestic reform, have helped her hold together an awkward grand coalition government comprising her own conservatives and their natural political enemies, the left-of-centre Social Democrats (SPD).
But in Hesse, Ms Merkel and her party have suddenly found themselves facing the sudden and wholly unexpected prospect of defeat. Opinion polls show that support for the state's ruling conservatives has slumped by more than 10 per cent, opening the way for a decisive victory by the Social Democrats.
Such a result would provoke bitter infighting within Ms Merkel's coalition, with each party trying to gain the upper hand before next year's full general election. Defeat for her party could be compounded should it lose again in Hamburg city state elections at the end of February.
The CDU's fall from grace in Hesse is almost entirely due to an abrasive anti-foreigner campaign launched by Mr Koch, who was elected in 1999 after vociferously opposing plans to give immigrants dual citizenship.
Mr Koch's attempts to repeat his victory with a similarly right-wing populist campaign appear to have backfired badly. Just before Christmas a white pensioner was severely beaten up on the Munich underground by Greek and Turkish youths after he asked them to stop smoking.
The attack was filmed on CCTV and subsequently broadcast nationwide. Almost immediately afterwards Mr Koch launched his campaign for "boot camps" declaring that Germany had "too many criminal young foreigners" and that a policy of "zero tolerance" was needed.
He threatened the 15 million immigrants with dire consequences if they failed to adapt to German ways and issued an extraordinary point by point critique of foreigners' shortcomings which included: failure to learn German, inability to sort their rubbish properly and the "strange" Muslim habit of slaughtering animals "in the kitchen".
But many of Mr Koch's supporters appear to have switched to the Social Democrats, after figures were released showing that Hesse is one of the worst states in Germany at dealing with young criminals because it has run out of places to detain them.
Mr Koch's campaign appears to have played into the hands of Andrea Yspilanti, his left-wing Social Democrat opponent, who has an immigrant background herself. "The voters in Hesse are cleverer than Koch thinks," she said.
Osmonde Brehme, a 64-year-old schoolteacher and former conservative stalwart, is one of the thousands who will be voting for the Social Democrats. "I just can't stand Koch any more, I find his campaign against foreigners disgusting," she said.
But most observers say that victory for Ms Yspilanti could be pyrrhic. It would force the CDU to abandon the hardline conservatism espoused by Mr Koch and oblige it to opt for the softer liberal approach for which Ms Merkel is already renowned.Reuse content