Lafontaine makes scathing attack on Schroder

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"RED OSKAR" is back. As abruptly as he vanished six months ago, Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democratic politician formerly known as the "Most Dangerous Man in Europe", returned to Germany's arena yesterday with a devastating attack on the "careerism" of government colleagues.

In a scathing interview that promises to be only the first hammer blow in his demolition job, the former finance minister pours scorn on Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, blaming him personally for the Social Democrats' recent election debacles. "The election defeats could have been prevented, of course, if the political commitment of the first months had continued," Mr Lafontaine says.

In those early months of the Schroder government, Mr Lafontaine was Finance Minister and party chairman. His most memorable legacy is the doomed attempt to dictate monetary policy to the rest of Europe, and an expansive budget at home that failed to check rising unemployment.

The tensions between him and the right wing of his party erupted into open conflict in March, with the Chancellor's allies letting the media know that they felt the Finance Minister was incompetent. Mr Lafontaine quit politics and retired to write his memoirs.

Apart from the cryptic remark that "the heart is not yet traded on the stock exchange; it beats on the left", Mr Lafontaine remained silent on his relationship with the Chancellor. He said he did not want to burden the party as it was facing a number of electoral tests. But now he could hold his peace no longer.

"I resigned, because I fundamentally disagreed with Gerhard Schroder both in political style and political substance," he said in yesterday's interview with Welt am Sonntag, the newspaper that begins serialising his new book next Sunday.

He feels fully vindicated. "The politics which some journalists praise as modernising have now been pursued for six months," he says. "The reaction of the voters is clear and unmistakable." The government had taken decisions "that I considered flawed and did not want to be involved with".

One of the most hurtful criticisms levelled at the Schroder government by the media is that it lacks conviction, and does not know where it is going. Mr Lafontaine does not disagree: "I cannot imagine politics without a plan, without a concept. And you must believe in your ideas. Otherwise, everything becomes haphazard: sheer careerism."

Led by the certainties of someone who was brought up by Jesuits, Mr Lafontaine does allow a tiny shaft of self-doubt to peek through. Did he have regrets about resigning? "I keep asking myself if the decision was correct," he confesses. Henceforth, he promises to be more involved with his country's political debate. His book, The Heart Beats On The Left, will discuss his time in government in detail, and maybe spread a little muck around.

The socialist ideologue auctioned his recollections to the publishing house prepared to match his asking price of DM800,000 (pounds 270,000). That is just the advance. With serialisation and other tie-ins, Mr Lafontaine will soon be a deutschemark millionaire.

He is therefore one of the most obvious beneficiaries of his own demise. His successors, ditching Mr Lafontaine's "hurt-the-rich" policies, are cutting the top rate of tax.

But Mr Lafontaine's new status is unlikely to endear him to his old constituency. Once the party darling, his book is certain to be condemned by Social Democrats, trying to pull together during their deepest crisis in postwar history.

"It's his final chapter," said Mr Schroder's spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye.