For a woman who is seen around the world as a disciplinarian, given to lecturing her European partners on the dangers of drowning in debt, the most surprising thing about Angela Merkel is her irrepressible sense of humour. It is hardly something you would expect from the chancellor of Germany when she greets you at the door of her office with a businesslike handshake and marches you smartly to a plain working table, boasting no more than a pot of coffee to serve to her guests.
The former scientist – daughter of a Protestant clergyman, brought up under communist rule in East Germany, who now dominates not only the domestic politics of her reunited homeland but also the interminable crisis-management of the EU – is cool and controlled. She thinks carefully before answering questions, and weighs all her words.
In countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain in southern Europe, where drastic austerity measures are blamed on the German chancellor, she has been lampooned by furious demonstrators as a jackbooted Nazi. Yet in northern Europe she is respected in many countries – including neighbouring France – above their own domestic politicians, according to a recent survey.