Neukölln Mayor Franziska Giffey sees it all: Syrian refugees, established Turkish families, gentrifying hipsters, Middle Eastern crime syndicates and even the odd far-right politician inviting “war” over parliamentary procedure. This is the bonfire the 39-year-old with a twinkle in her eye has been tending since being elected in April 2015 to run one of Berlin’s 12 boroughs — a poster child for nearly all of Germany’s problems, starting with the refugee crisis.
It’s enough to wither a political career, but this week, Giffey’s career got a surprising lift. Her Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is choosing ministerial positions for a renewed “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, appears likely, according to the German wire service DPA, to include her among its choices on Friday. German historian Götz Aly wrote in the Berliner Zeitung two weeks ago that Giffey represented Berlin’s chance to elevate a city politician to the federal government for the first time in 44 years.
Giffey’s message to fellow Social Democrats is simple: “We cannot say we are not allowed to talk about the problems with refugees, with integration, with parallel societies.”
Her district, where nearly a fifth of the 330,000 inhabitants are Muslim, is what some U.S. populists might call a European “no-go zone” for its 20 mosques, ubiquitous headscarves and multitude of kebab shops, internet cafes and convenience stores with signs in Arabic and Turkish. Even some Germans fret over its reputation for violence and “Arab crime clans” — with a far-right politician tweeting that its Arabian Nights–themed playground, with an onion-domed slide topped with a crescent moon, is an example of “the progress of Islamization.”
When reports of her possible ascent surfaced last month, Giffey insisted that there’s “still much to do” in her current job — which involves using sticks as much as the carrots preferred by her fellow Social Democrats. She’s a fan of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” strategy for imposing order, believing it’s necessary to go after low-level lawbreaking in order to undercut more serious crime.
But she admits that her strategy “sometimes doesn’t fit in a party program.” Like fining parents hundreds of euros for their absent students at a rate far higher than any of the city’s other boroughs — certainly not the warm and fuzzy socialism the SPD is known for.
That said, party orthodoxy hasn’t won many votes lately. In September, SPD took its worst nosedive since the 1930s, attracting just 20 percent of the electorate. Now it’s rejoining Merkel’s coalition to remain part of the unloved establishment. Both governing parties are suffering in the wake of the refugee crisis, Brexit and a European Union that’s fraying from nationalist politics, including Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland, now the biggest parliamentary opposition party.
So why not change? Surely the Bundesrepublik’s mainstream left-of-center party could use a makeover, à la Bill Clinton’s “Blue Dog Democrats” who came to power in Washington in the early 1990s after 12 years of Republican domination. SPD is the party of midcentury Cold Warrior Chancellor Willy Brandt, the Berlin mayor who watched the wall go up, and of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who deployed German soldiers to Kosovo and Afghanistan in their first major postwar combat missions.
Giffey’s message to fellow Social Democrats is simple: “We cannot say we are not allowed to talk about the problems with refugees, with integration, with parallel societies.” And after discussing “the things people are frightened of,” the party must take action against their negative impacts, like insular communities where crime syndicates hold sway.
“She recognizes the issues that move people,” says Raed Saleh, a city SPD leader who believes Giffey has a promising future at a time when some 15 percent of Berliners vote AfD and need to be won back. She resists the tendency, he says, to “point the finger at others, to label them as ‘the right,’ just because they have fears and articulate those fears.”
Giffey knows those voters, hailing from a part of East Germany where more than a fifth of the electorate chose AfD in September. Her father repaired cars and her mother kept books — an aptitude that must have rubbed off, as Giffey was later entrusted with managing local SPD finances. While an undergraduate at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, she worked for the lord mayor of Lewisham — a London borough she compares to Neukölln for its ethnic diversity — and learned ways to secure funding from the European Union. Back in Berlin, she landed a job as European affairs officer for Neukölln, earned a political science doctorate, got involved in the party and, eight years later, filled a city council vacancy in 2010 before district legislators elected her mayor.
Targeting truants and vagrants as well as organized crime, clearing parks so families can reclaim them and integrating the work of school staff, police and social workers has earned Giffey the unfuzzy “Guardian of Law and Order” label from the local press. In response, she tells journalists she can’t fathom why enforcing society’s rules qualifies her as a “hard-liner.”
But the SPD needs Giffey’s kind of grit now that it is polling below the AfD’s 16 percent, says Lorenz Maroldt, Der Tagesspiegel’s editor-in-chief. “She’s very tough, she’s very open-minded and she has some advantages in the party,” like being a woman, an easterner and “completely new.” And where other Social Democrats dither for fear of offending, “when she decides to act, she does.”
And she’s taking on the enemy: In January, one of the district legislature’s AfD members was ejected after accusing Giffey’s council of supporting “terrorist organizations.” That triggered a series of events that led to AfD members demanding Giffey’s ouster and an ex-AfD legislator tweeting that “whoever wants a war, can have a war.”
Whatever ministerial choices are announced Friday, Giffey appears determined to attend to the will and fears of the majority with as much fervor as Social Democrats traditionally devote to minority causes — a direction much of Germany is heading. And now the party seems ready to follow her.
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