Listen to this article
If you want to get a good impression of German prosperity take a Saturday afternoon stroll down Düsseldorf’s Königsallee.
It is not overwhelmingly smart or glamorous; it is just thoroughly well-to-do. Serious shoppers and mere strollers jostle for space along the pavements down the east side of the old town moat. The western side is lined with the banks and finance houses on whose profits the city’s wealth was built.
This weekend, the heart of this Rhineland city was humming. Along the banks of the river and through the cobbled streets of the Altstadt they were celebrating 725 years since the founding of Düsseldorf.
It was the sort of occasion Germany does so well: the market squares thronged with stalls selling hats and traditional craftwork, rye bread and cinnamon cakes, dark Düsseldorf beer and sausages of every shape and size. Medieval bagpipers, baroque musicians, jugglers and acrobats fought for space between the bicycles, buggies and pushchairs. Children chased their errant balloons. And no one seemed to care about the rain.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, was in town, at a rally in the ice-hockey stadium, seeking to galvanise her Christian Democratic Union supporters for a last big push to win her party the general election.
But something else mattered even more to the Rhinelanders. Local hotels were packed with 175,000 visitors for that most traditional of modern German activities: a trade fair – in this case promoting mobile homes and caravans. Medieval music and party politics were mere sideshows in comparison.
Not that the September 22 election is invisible. The streets are festooned with the posters and placards of assorted parliamentary candidates, from the hopeful to the hopeless.
The big parties – Ms Merkel’s CDU and the rival Social Democratic party – are pretty dull. The chancellor’s wry smile is ubiquitous and reassuring. Her challenger, Peer Steinbrück, looks belligerent, while trying to look caring. The smaller parties have the best jokes: “Sharing is fun,” says the hard-left Linke party. “Tax the millionaires.”
The prosperity of cities such as Düsseldorf is the basis on which Ms Merkel hopes to win a third term. But there is another Germany: a few miles down the Rhine lies Duisburg, where an altogether scruffier, less confident society is on display. The once-prosperous inland port has an unemployment rate of almost 13 per cent – double the national average.
Duisburg’s Königstrasse has a very different feel to the Königsallee. Cheaper shops; more synthetic clothes. Pedestrians are fatter and less fit. But there are colourful market stalls set out on a Saturday, selling seasonal fruit and vegetables. In between, all the political parties are advertising their wares to largely disinterested spectators.
Sahra Wagenknecht, regional lead candidate for the Linke, was in town to mock the “job miracle” that the chancellor champions as her government’s best achievement. The darling of the far left, Ms Wagenknecht called on the crowd to vote the little Free Democratic party – the liberal coalition partner for Ms Merkel’s CDU – out of parliament: “Then they’ll know what it’s like to be out of work.” It got a good laugh.
Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister and former leader of the FDP, was supposed to be speaking at the other end of the street from a platform in front of the state theatre, currently staging Verdi’s tragic opera La Traviata.
Even when times are tough, Germany has its cultural priorities. It reminds me of the town mayor in the eastern city of Chemnitz – or Karl Marx Stadt as it was called under communist rule – defending spending millions of marks on refurbishing the opera just after German unification, when unemployment had topped 25 per cent. “In Germany,” he said, “a town without an opera is a town without a soul.”
But Mr Westerwelle never showed. He was locked in negotiations on Syria with fellow EU ministers. His party, meanwhile, is struggling to get the votes needed to win any seats in the Bundestag in Berlin. “Strong liberals, for a strong country,” reads its election poster.
Yet the FDP has fought a feeble campaign and may only make it if Ms Merkel’s supporters vote tactically – at the expense of the CDU.
It all feels a bit like La Traviata – a tragedy looming in spite of the best intentions. If Ms Wagenknecht has her way, the fate of the FDP may well decide the fate of Ms Merkel’s current coalition.