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Germans Giving Greens' Fischer a Closer Listen

Campaign: Foreign minister's message on the environment has a renewed relevance in the wake of devastating floods.


NORDERSTEDT, Germany — His message is one that hardly wins over the average hedonist: Drive less. Eat lean. Pay more for food, gas and government for the common good.

But as a man who has embraced virtue after decades of self-indulgence, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer strikes a chord with every German who would like to be a better person, if just a little bit later.

Hands down the most popular public figure in the country with a 78% approval rating, the 54-year-old Fischer has emerged in this flood-ravaged election season not only as a paragon of social consciousness but as the canary in the coal mine whose warnings on the environment went unheeded.

"This flood catastrophe is just a reminder that we aren't living only for the here and now," the Greens party foreign minister told a cheering campaign rally in this city on the edge of Hamburg. "We have to live with regard for tomorrow and the fate of future generations."

It is a message that has surprisingly strong resonance now, even among the conservative farmers and fast-driving fanatics who people the northern German reaches where Fischer has brought his election bandwagon.

And coming from a former street fighter and onetime overweight bohemian--he was sworn into his first government post in 1985 in open collar and battered tennis shoes--the appeals seem to give his listeners something to aspire to.

In the wake of a devastating flood that the Greens and many scientists blame on global warming, Fischer and his party are enjoying a renaissance of credibility that has transformed them from an albatross around the neck of their partners in the government of Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to the coalition's last best hope for reelection Sept. 22.

Not all of the Greens' ideas are making a comeback. "Tempo 30," their aim of limiting drivers to 30 kilometers per hour, or about 20 mph, in cities and a proposal that Germans give up foreign vacations three years out of four to cut jet-fuel emissions remain, in the view of most people, decidedly harebrained.

But even in this conservative heartland, Germans are paying renewed attention to the connections between their behavior and the crises that have befallen them, from cataclysmic weather to the culinary scourge of "mad cow" disease.

"Before the flood catastrophe, journalists were always asking me why our party is relevant. Now they don't ask," Fischer observed in an interview aboard the Joschka Express, an environmentally friendly bus carrying his campaign message and clean-living mantra to the masses. "We've recovered ourselves quite well."


Party Rises in Polls

Polls now give the Greens a good chance of winning 8% of the vote in the election, whereas only a few weeks ago they were at risk of political extinction. After 19 straight state and federal election setbacks, the party was polling less than the 5% needed to take seats in Parliament.

With Germans frustrated by 10% unemployment and gasoline prices topping $4 a gallon, even those who traditionally back the left were turned off by the steady erosion of core Greens values as the party was forced to compromise in its unfamiliar role as a partner in power.

Fischer's own existential crisis occurred in the early 1990s, before the 1998 election that brought the left-of-center Social Democrats and Greens into office. As he watched Serbian nationalists slaughter civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina while Europeans stayed on the sidelines, he concluded that pacifism at times could be worse than war.

His backing of German participation in Balkans peacekeeping and offensive action in the 1999 NATO assault on Yugoslavia deepened the ideological rift that has long run through his party.

When Schroeder asked German lawmakers to endorse troop deployments to Afghanistan in November, a fundamentalist minority of Greens threatened to scuttle the action, prompting the chancellor to issue a put-up-or-shut-up edict that could have forced the government's resignation.

"We had to show that it was more than lip service we were paying to the issue, and it was one of the hardest political battles I've ever had to fight," Fischer said of the standoff, during which he managed to persuade enough Greens to approve the deployment.


Different Iraq Views

Schroeder's team has been taking transatlantic heat in recent weeks for warning Washington against expanding the war on terrorism to an assault on Iraq. Seen by the Bush administration as a campaign tactic by a trailing incumbent, Germany's reluctance actually bespeaks a genuine fear of overextension, Fischer said.

"We are deeply skeptical in regard to this Iraq discussion.... We believe the priorities need to be set differently," said the foreign minister, noting that the rationale for acting against Iraq has strayed. Initially, he said, the goal was to force the resumption of U.N. weapons inspections; now it is the elimination of a recognized, if repugnant, foreign leader.

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