German delight in their MPs' love lives

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Helmut Kohl does it, the leader of the opposition does it, even the head of Germany's secret service cannot keep it a secret. The marital infidelities of Bonn's most distinguished residents have been whispered about for years, but only now is the taboo against exposing politicians' private lives breaking down.

The latest victim of the tabloids' new inquisitiveness is Gerhard Schroder, deputy leader of the opposition Social Democrats, who announced earlier this week that he was separating from his third wife. Until recently, that might have merited a paragraph or two in the popular press. Not any longer. "Schroder marriage kaputt," screamed yesterday's front page of Bild Zeitung, Germany's best-selling daily.

Below the headline, the paper carried a picture of the "lover", a 32- year-old journalist from Focus magazine, and clandestine photographs of the couple exchanging whispers on a helicopter flight. Inside, a whole page was devoted to the affair, with another large picture of the blonde, her CV -- she once worked for Bild - and a potted history of the 51-year- old politician's marriages.

Mr Schroder, a man of burning ambition, handsome looks and a way of life straight out of Hello! magazine, seems ideal tabloid fodder. In their home town of Hanover, where he reigns as prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony, the first couple were the magnet of social life. His glamourous wife "Hillu", nicknamed "Hillary" by the celebrity press, furnished the glitz that her husband appeared to crave. Only two weeks ago, stories were circulating of the Schroders flying to Vienna for a night at the opera on board a jet belonging to Volkswagen, the region's largest employer.

Like Britain's gutter press, whose excesses the German tabloids can only hope to emulate, the papers justify the blanket coverage of the marital breakdown by pointing to the couple's past obsession with self-publicity. They argue - lamely, because serious papers have not taken the trouble to examine the political fallout of the affair - that politicians' private lives come under public scrutiny. Mr Schroder "exploited the attractiveness of his wife in order to increase his popularity," wrote the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a middle-market daily. "He would love to become the SPD's candidate for Chancellor, but even more he would love to become Chancellor."

The implication is that Mr Schroder is not fit to succeed Mr Kohl, whose secretary is politely referred to in the press as a "close confidante". Even Bild would not dare to publish her picture.