Hollande, Merkel mark 150 years of German centre-left
Germany's Social Democrats marked their 150th birthday Thursday, with French President Francois Hollande as guest speaker and Chancellor Angela Merkel paying a rare compliment to her election-year rivals as an "unyielding voice of democracy".
Cheered on arrival, the French Socialist president was to give the keynote address at the anniversary of his centre-left allies, who are battling poor poll ratings as they try to unseat Merkel in September 22 elections.
Germany's oldest political party has invited nearly 50 current and former heads of state and government as it celebrates its turbulent history, which saw it advance workers rights, resist the Nazis and win the vote for women.
The party will also look to the future as it seeks to relaunch itself at the event in Leipzig, the eastern city where the party's precursor, the General German Workers Association, was founded in 1863.
"The SPD must become more of a social movement again," said Social Democratic Party (SPD) chief Sigmar Gabriel, who earlier described the celebration as "the largest international political event in Germany this year".
The SPD, which is campaigning in alliance with the Greens, has presented its most leftist policy programme in years, pushing for less austerity in Europe, a minimum wage at home and higher taxes for the rich.
The event kicked off in a large hall packed with 1,600 guests and lit in the party's signature red, to the tunes of "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder.
Former chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt sat in the front row as a giant screen showed tributes from former leaders including Britain's Tony Blair and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev.
Merkel, who attended the event, praised the historical role of the SPD as "a valiant and unyielding voice of democracy in Germany", writing in the local daily the Leipziger Volkszeitung.
"For these services, which cannot be valued highly enough, the SPD deserves my respect and appreciation," wrote Merkel, the head of the Christian Democratic Union.
A worldwide group of about 70 left-of-centre parties -- including Britain's Labour Party, the African National Congress and the US Democrats -- had, on the eve of the event, founded a "Progressive Alliance" in Leipzig.
Intended as an alternative to the Socialist International coalition, founded in Paris in 1889, its stated goal is a 21st century "of democratic, social and environmental progress".
Elysee Palace officials say Hollande is at the "non-partisan celebration" with the blessing of Merkel, and that he does not intend to use it to rally support for Merkel's election rival Peer Steinbrueck.
Tensions have simmered in recent months between the Hollande and Merkel governments, despite protests that their friendly relationship is Europe's "best-kept secret".
While members of Merkel's coalition have painted recession-hit France as slow to reform, French Socialists have accused Merkel of selfishly driving fiscal belt-tightening that heaps pain on the continent's people.
On Wednesday, however, Hollande said France and Germany were working on a joint economic initiative to put to their EU partners at a June summit, scheduled to focus on ways of boosting growth and jobs.
Latest German polls give Merkel's conservatives a lead of 41 percent against 24 percent for the Social Democrats, whose top candidate Steinbrueck has suffered through a series of campaign missteps.
Merkel -- often voted Germany's most popular politician and regarded as Europe's most powerful leader amid the financial crisis -- will not speak at the anniversary, considered a historical event which she attends as national leader.
Germany's President Joachim Gauck, in an opening speech, said "this is a day of celebration, not only for Germany's oldest party, but also for the European struggle for freedom and democracy".
© 2013 AFP