Village women give a lead to Germany

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Two rows of tidy redbrick houses stretched out along a cobbled road in the Brandenburg countryside have become the talk of Germany. The village of Laaslich, so it is told, has been taken over by beer-swilling Amazons.

Television crews from far and wide flock to Laaslich to witness matriarchy in action, to the rulers' great disdain. "We are fed up with this media circus," says the mayoress, Angelika Weber. "The five of us have decided not to talk to the press any more."

Five doors remain firmly shut, confirming that the rumour is true. Although it is rare to find a place in Germany where a woman is on top, Laaslich has five of them lording over the menfolk.

The political power rests with Ms Weber, a 54-year-old school teacher. The local economy is controlled by Evelyn Busse, 38, who owns the only shop at the community centre which also doubles as an occasional hairdressing salon, doctor's surgery and travel agency.

The head of the carnival committee - the social hub in this hamlet of 234 - is Astrid Buls, 38. The brass band and culture committee are run by Lysann Jacob, an accomplished horn player. And Rita Zuther, 40, commands the all-female fire brigade.

That does not leave the men much. One office, to be precise, and perhaps not even that for much longer. The local football team is the last male bastion.

On a bright Saturday morning, Ms Busse's shop has already shut and the women of Laaslich are out of sight. A few old men hang around, evidently with nothing better to do than gossip among themselves.

Luckily, they are willing to talk, even if they are slightly hurt by the way they have been depicted in the press. "It's not true that we are completely useless," protests Erhard Diercks. "It was we, the pensioners' brigade, who did up the church. And without the help of the women."

Mr Diercks traces his ancestry to Dutch settlers who repopulated Laaslich after the Thirty Years War. Perhaps that is why this village is so unlike others in Germany. Here there is nothing unusual about women running things.

"We have always had a woman mayor," Mr Diercks points out. Well, for 40 years at least. The shop has also been run by a woman for as long as anyone can remember - by Ms Busse's mother-in-law, in fact. It is true that the carnival committee was headed by a man until 1994, but he could not add. Since Ms Buls has been in charge, the books balance.

"Women are just so much better at practical things than men," attests Joachim Busse, deputy mayor and the shopkeeper's father-in-law. "Men don't want responsibility. Women have ambition."

Mr Busse is talking about the kind of women he knows - East German women. For Laaslich is in the former GDR, where women have always held down jobs and sometimes were even allowed to rise to the top. "In the GDR the women had to work and run a family. So they got tough," he says.

And that is why the media will not leave Laaslich alone. Suddenly, this backwater finds itself at the crossroads of the country's political development.At their congress beginning tonight, Germany's main opposition party will elect its first woman leader in its history. Angela Merkel, the 45-year-old former token woman in Helmut Kohl's government, comes from the area. She is the product of a Communist society which, however oppressive, did not try to thwart women's progress. She is one election away from becoming Germany's first female chancellor.

The rest of the country is only slowly getting used to this idea, but the men of Laaslich are already sold. "Just look how Mrs Merkel turned around the Christian Democrat party after all their scandals," Mr Busse says. "People trust her because she is a woman. It's as simple as that."

Mr Busse rejects suggestions that the men in his village are under the thumb of women, "like in other countries we've heard of". But women rule here; that is the natural order of things. "I have big arguments with my wife sometimes," he adds. "But I have to admit, when it comes to the crunch, she's always right."