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German Chancellor Denies That He Dyes

Europe: Schroeder insists his dark-brown locks are natural, but critics have used the controversy to assail his credibility.


BERLIN — Does he or doesn't he?

Whether German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dyes his dark-brown hair may be something only his hairdresser knows for sure, but it's now a question the whole country is talking about.

His lawyer appeared in court Friday to seek an injunction against a news agency to prevent it from repeating a political image-maker's observation that the 58-year-old Schroeder "would be more credible if he didn't dye his hair."

Armed with an affidavit from Schroeder's barber that the chancellor's chestnut locks are natural, lawyer Michael Nesselhauf told journalists outside the Hamburg state court that the false charge amounts to defamation.

But even if Schroeder's legal challenge prevails when the court rules May 17, it might be a Pyrrhic victory.

Political commentators have cast the controversy as a sign of insecurity on the chancellor's part, and Schroeder's conservative opposition has already seized on the follicle affair with gusto.

"How the Chancellor colors things," charges a campaign mailing from the youth arm of the Christian Democratic Union, which supports Schroeder's challenger, the white-haired Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber, in September elections.

The folded card, delivered to 700 press office mailboxes in Berlin, depicts the dark-coiffed Schroeder and a bottle of "Chancellor Tone" hair dye labeled "rosy red"--alluding to his left-of-center leanings. The card also contained a packet of black-cherry coloring from the Wella company.

Schroeder's crowning glory came into question in January, when the DDP news agency distributed an article containing the quote about the chancellor's credibility issue from image consultant Sabine Schwind von Egelstein. The agency issued a correction after the chancellery complained, but subscribing news media are under no obligation to publish the retraction or refrain from repeating the consultant's claim.

Last week, Christian Democratic lawmaker Karl-Josef Laumann alluded to the issue in his comment before parliament that "a chancellor who colors up his hair will also color up the statistics." He was referring to a recent debate about inflated figures for government retraining programs for unemployed Germans, who now number more than 4 million and present Schroeder with his biggest election-year headache.

Schroeder's hairstylist, Udo Walz, who also counts models Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell among his clientele, told journalists that he considered the tempest over Schroeder's hair color to be a sign that Germans have few real problems.

"If you had the opportunity to get as close to his head as I do, you would see that he does have gray hairs," Walz said outside the packed the Hamburg courtroom where he appeared for what proved to be a 10-minute proceeding.

Political analysts criticized Schroeder for making an issue of the image-maker's allegation.

"I would have expected a bit more self-confidence from him. Schroeder himself is the one who has the most to lose in all this," Peter Hahne of ZDF television observed during a live broadcast on Hit Radio FFH during which the program's host had his own hair dyed.

DDP's lawyer, Klaus Sedelmeier, argued that it was not the responsibility of the media to prove or disprove the veracity of comments made by its interview subjects and that agency journalists fulfilled their responsibility by distributing the chancellery's claim that the dye contention is untrue.

If the court rules against the agency, it is prepared to take the matter to a higher court, Sedelmeier insisted, suggesting that the hair affair could become a recurring theme on the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, the conservatives are taking maximum advantage of the color issue, not just regarding Schroeder's hair but also the signature colors associated with each political party in Germany. Schroeder's Social Democrats are identified with red, while the Christian Democrats invoke black as their symbol.

"Vote black," the youth arm's mailing says. "That way your hair won't be standing on end."

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