For months, as the Western political establishment shook around her, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained a stolid and increasingly lonely champion of liberal values. But on Tuesday, she joined those chipping at the idea of "live and let live" liberalism, embracing a populist call for a partial ban on the head-to-toe burka.
The proposed ban comes less than three weeks after Ms. Merkel announced she would seek a fourth term as Chancellor in parliamentary elections expected next September. It also comes days after Italian voters forced the resignation of their prime minister, and in the wake of both Donald Trump's shocking run to the White House, and Britain's unexpected vote to leave the European Union.
Speaking Tuesday to a conference of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union – which faces a threat on its right flank from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (also known by its German acronym, AfD) – Ms. Merkel took aim at "parallel societies" that she said were forming in Germany. Borrowing from the rhetoric of the AfD and other populist parties on the rise around the continent, she said the full-face veil "should be banned wherever it is legally possible."
"We do not want any parallel societies, and where they exist we have to tackle them," she said to loud applause from party delegates gathered in the city of Essen. She specifically named sharia, an Islamic legal code based on a strict interpretation of the Koran. "Our laws have priority over honour codes, tribal and family rules, and over sharia. That has to be expressed very clearly."
Ms. Merkel – who was re-elected as the CDU leader on Tuesday with just under 90-per-cent support – said the full-face veil inhibited "inter-human communication" and "was not appropriate" in Germany.
The remarks were a move away from the role many had hoped to see Ms. Merkel assume following Mr. Trump's election win.
On a recent trip to Berlin, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the German Chancellor as his "closest international partner," leading to talk Ms. Merkel would – by default – become the voice and de facto leader of Western liberals.
The burka-ban proposal is a reminder that Ms. Merkel has always been a pragmatist first.
In reality, only a small minority of the estimated five million Muslims living in Germany wear the full burka. (A 2008 government-funded study found 28 per cent of German Muslims wore some kind of head covering; that figure includes those who wear the hijab, the much more common headscarf that covers the hair but not the face).
The proposed ban would likely only apply to schools, courts and other government buildings, as any wider restriction would seem to violate the country's constitution.
The true aim of Ms. Merkel's move against the burka is to soothe public anger over her decision last year to welcome into Germany hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other countries. The country has struggled – both culturally and bureaucratically – to process the new arrivals.
While Ms. Merkel – who has been in office since 2005 – remains the country's most popular politician, her approval ratings have sagged in the 15 months since she effectively threw open the country's borders to refugees. The 62-year-old leader told party delegates on Tuesday that "a situation like the one seen in the summer of 2015 should and may not be repeated."
The refugee crisis has generated a growing anti-Muslim backlash around Europe, a mood exacerbated by a series of bloody attacks around the continent for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Several European countries, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, have already introduced bans on wearing burkas inside public facilities.
Ahead of the election campaign, the CDU leads every opinion poll with between 30-per-cent and 35-per-cent support, putting it about 10 points up on the centre-left Social Democratic Party. The wild card in the race is the far-right AfD, which places third in almost every poll, with about 15-per-cent support.
Stephan Mayer, an MP and spokesman on domestic policy for Ms. Merkel's coalition government, said the CDU is worried about the growing number of right-wing voters lured to the AfD.
Mr. Mayer said he supports the burka ban, but admitted that conservative Islamic dress – while disconcerting for some traditionalist voters – isn't the real reason for the rising voter discontent.
"The burka ban is one of many aspects, but in my mind, it's not the primary issue," he said in a telephone interview. "The core issue is that we still have to cope with the migration crisis."
In her conference speech, Ms. Merkel said Germans should remain "sceptical about easy answers." It was an apparent reference the AfD – though some might apply the same logic to her proposed burka ban.
"The world is not black and white," Ms. Merkel said. "Rarely is it the easy answers that bring progress to our country."