December 11, 2015 / 11:45 AM / 2 years ago

Merkel-led austerity helps National Front, German SPD leader says

BERLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) accused Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday of fuelling support for France’s far-right National Front by insisting on tighter budgets during the euro zone crisis.

German Economy Minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel acknowledges applause after his keynote speech during the SPD party congress in Berlin, Germany, December 11, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Sigmar Gabriel, struggling to impose his leadership credentials before the next federal election in 2017, scored just 74 percent in a party delegates’ vote, the lowest for an SPD leader in 20 years.

The SPD shares power in a ‘grand coalition’ with Merkel’s conservatives but has failed to gain from infighting in the larger partner, notably over Europe’s migrant crisis. Trying to distinguish his party, Gabriel attacked Merkel’s handling of the euro zone debt crisis.

“I always warned Angela Merkel against trying to impose this austerity path on France,” he said, adding that it was clear as long as two years ago that the National Front would gain.

“If they (the conservatives) had listened better to us, Ms Le Pen would perhaps not have come so far as she has,” Gabriel added in a keynote speech at an SPD congress in Berlin.

He rapped Merkel’s party for not pressing its French conservative ally Nicolas Sarkozy to team up with the Socialists to keep the National Front out of power in regional councils in France, where run-off votes will be held on Sunday.

“It is a shame for European conservatives - and for Germany’s CDU - that they allow this,” said Gabriel, who is economy minister and vice chancellor.

He urged his party to push back against the rise of the far-right in Europe.

“These movements run counter to everything we stand for and everything we represent,” he added. “Let’s decisively oppose these enemies of Europe and these ideas against freedom; that’s the most important job of all European Social Democrats.”

POLL DROP

Gabriel called the SPD “the stability factor” in the coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union (CSU). But a new survey showed SDP support hitting its lowest in nine months.

The poll from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen published on Friday showed SDP support on 24 percent, 15 points behind Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance.

As deputy chancellor in Merkel’s grand coalition, Gabriel has to show he is fit to lead the nation while also working out policies his party can agree with the conservatives.

“Without us, the German government would already be paralyzed due to the argument within the CDU and CSU (over migrants) and our country would be in major difficulties,” he said, referring to divisions in the conservative camp over Merkel’s open-door policy on migrants.

About a million people are expected to have moved to Germany this year alone, fleeing conflicts and deprivation in the Middle East and beyond.

The CSU fears the government will lose popular support if it does not set a ceiling. But Gabriel’s SPD has so far failed to benefit from the conservatives’ infighting.

Writing by Paul Carrel; Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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