Angela Merkel, Europe's guiding light and lightning rod
The political life of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's most influential leader and the oft-proclaimed world's most powerful woman, is a tale of paradoxes, driven by her own enigmatic nature.
While angry protesters marching the streets of Athens, Lisbon and Madrid brandish caricatures of Merkel in Nazi garb, the 58-year-old enjoys a level of domestic popularity unseen by any post-war leader before her.
The eurozone's crisis-ravaged nations blame her for imposing budgetary discipline they say is choking off desperately needed growth, yet few deny that any long-term solution is possible without her.
And in Germany, Europe's biggest economy, Merkel rose through the ranks of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) despite being a "misfit" in a party of mainly Roman Catholic family men from the wealthy southwest.
Merkel, a twice-married childless Protestant raised in communist East Germany, has become the unchallenged conservative leader of her generation and looks set to handily win a third term at next year's election.
The party Tuesday re-elected her as chairwoman with a resounding 98 percent -- a score which would have pleased even the Stalinist leaders of her home country.
Political scientist and Merkel biographer Gerd Langguth said her outsized work ethic and no-frills style are a comfort to Germans uneasy about the euro drama.
"She has said she's sailing the ship through fog," Langguth said, referring to the current debt turmoil. "She's no ideologue, she's a pragmatic problem-solver and that is what people want."
-- The world's most powerful woman --
The girl born Angela Kasner left Hamburg, West Germany a few weeks after her birth in 1954 when her Protestant preacher father decided to tend to the flock in the East.
Locals remember her fierce intellect and discretion as a Christian in a totalitarian state.
She earned a physics doctorate, married and divorced fellow student Ulrich Merkel, and stayed out of politics until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
In 1990 she joined the CDU and won her first parliamentary seat.
Merkel had to endure the fond but patronising nickname "the girl" bestowed by then chancellor Helmut Kohl, who made her minister for women's issues and later environmental affairs.
But in 2000, the frumpy newcomer rose to the head of the CDU when she alone had the courage to tell Kohl to quit as party chairman over a slush fund scandal.
In 2005 she unseated Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor Gerhard Schroeder after seven years in power, becoming Germany's first female chancellor.
During her first term, Merkel by her own admission reaped the rewards of Schroeder's "Agenda 2010" economic reforms that were so contested in his party.
The loveless "grand coalition" between the conservatives and their traditional rivals, the SPD, lasted four years.
Her decisive victory in the 2009 vote allowed her to dump the SPD in favour of the smaller, pro-business Free Democrats, in theory giving her more scope to set her own course.
However their alliance has been fractious, undermining its popularity even as Merkel has consolidated her own standing.
Forbes magazine has named her the world's most powerful woman for six out of the last seven years and she insists despite the friction that hers is the "most successful government since reunification" in 1990.
A lover of German opera, French red wine and walking holidays in the Italian mountains, Merkel has repeatedly pointed to the iconic Swabian housewife -- a paragon of thrift and self-control -- as her model.
Merkel-watchers often link her focus on belt-tightening to her austere Lutheran upbringing.
Indeed she shuns the trappings of power, wearing boxy trouser suits, spending precious free weekends in her spartan dacha north of Berlin, and doing her own shopping at a discount supermarket.
Meanwhile her husband since 1998, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, is so publicity-shy he opted not to attend Merkel's inauguration in 2005.
Critics say her own science background leads her to scrutinise the minutiae and at times dither, which in the crisis has left ailing European partners to twist in the wind. Rivals also find her chameleon-like qualities exasperating.
Merkel was a staunch defender of nuclear power until Japan's Fukushima disaster last year, prompting a dizzying about-face that has seen her pledge to phase out all of Germany's nuclear reactors within the next decade.
Her policy on aiding debt-wracked countries has also seen her erase several previously fixed lines in the sand.
Aides say that while she finds some of the most virulent criticism of her unfair, she dismisses it as the price of power.
© 2012 AFP