German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not one for rabble-rousing. In 11 years as the leader of Germany, her speeches are usually sobering analyses of thorny political and economic dilemmas, using only her signature diamond-shaped hand gesture to punctuate her points.
But on Tuesday night, “Mutti” or “Mom,” as she is affectionately called, made an impassioned plea to her party: “I have also asked you for a lot,” she told the more than 1,000 members of her Christian Democratic Union gathered, “because the times have asked us for a lot. I know that very well. And I cannot promise that the demands in the future will be any less because we have to do what the times demand from us.”
Merkel is facing tremendous pressure from voters — as well as from her own party — for allowing more than 890,000 asylum seekers into the country last year.
Initially, Germans opened their doors. Crowds came to train stations to applaud arriving asylum seekers, greeting them with flowers and chocolate. There is even a special word for it: “willkommenskultur.”
But the numbers began to strain social services. Local councils complained there wasn’t enough space to house everyone. Last year, one mayor took CNN for a tour of facilities, where refugees were forced to sleep on mattresses in the hallways of the official’s office.
Then came New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Police said that mobs of “North African and Middle Eastern men” sexually assaulted hundreds of women in the fireworks chaos.
Earlier this week, on the eve of the CDU party conference, police announced that a 17-year old Afghan refugee was suspected of raping and killing a 19-year-old university student.
National statistics show some crimes, such as burglaries and petty offenses, have gone up since the start of the year as Germany’s population has grown, but that less than 1% of sex crimes and even fewer homicides are tied to immigrants or refugees.
Nonetheless, much of the public no longer welcomes refugees but views them with suspicion. Riots between local residents and refugees have broken out in eastern Germany. Arson attacks on refugee shelters have skyrocketed. Support for far-right parties has surged.
Merkel’s party was defeated in her own constituency of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party. The latter campaigned on a promise to stop immigration and won 20% of the vote.
Within the CDU, party members have grumbled that Merkel was out of touch with the public mood.
This, perhaps, is why she has made a major political concession — one that’s been criticized by refugee rights groups: backing a ban by party members on full-face veils.
Merkel is staring down the barrel of arguably the most important vote of her life. The German federal election, taking place next year, will attract attention from the entire world, as many are depending on the Chancellor to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable march of populism. This task is daunting enough without pressure coming from your own party members.
Merkel told her party: “We do not want any parallel societies and where they exist we have to tackle them.”
She said, “Our laws have priority over honor codes, tribal and family rules, and over the Sharia. That has to be expressed very clearly. That also means that with interpersonal communication, which plays a fundamental role here, we show our face. This is why the full facial veil is inappropriate, and should be banded wherever it is legally possible. It does not belong in our country.”
Less than 300 Muslim women in Germany are thought to wear the niqab or full-face veil. None are known to wear a burqa. But it is an easy way for Merkel to gain political capital within her own party and act tough on integration to the German public.
At the end of her speech, Merkel received a standing ovation and sustained rounds of applause that lasted for 11 minutes. She was elected to lead the party with 89% of the vote, slightly less than she had hoped to gain.
Merkel has shown she can lead her party. Now she needs to show she can win back public confidence before next year’s elections.
Atika Shubert is a CNN senior international correspondent based in Berlin.