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For Angela Merkel, the Böhmermann affair is just a sideshow

Would it be sexist to say that the current harrumphing over the Böhmermann affair carries some distinctly male overtones? Possibly. But it must be said. Because it’s true:

In this latest (and silliest) incarnation of the German Question, it is alleged that a) freedom of speech is being martyred on the altar of expedience, which is b) the fault of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who must c) leave.

Let’s start with the facts, shall we? Just the facts. In March, extra 3, a weekly political satire programme on the German public ARD television network, took aim at Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an inane little song with the catchy refrain “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” (Erdohow, Erdowhere, Erdogan). The Turkish foreign ministry promptly summoned the German envoy in Ankara for a reprimand (gritting its collective teeth, one fears, at the ambassador’s last name, Erdmann): How dare they, how dare he, and so on. The diplomat presumably endured his lecture with dignity.

Competition between the networks in Germany is fierce, second only to competition between comedians. Shortly thereafter, Jan Böhmermann, a moderately well-regarded jokesmith with his own show, Neo Magazin Royale, on the competitor public network ZDF, read a “poem” about the Turkish leader. It was coruscatingly foul, and made explicit, wide-ranging suggestions about its subject’s libidinous proclivities. It mentioned goats.

Mr Böhmermann is now a global name, lives under police protection, and has taken a “breather” from his show. It can only be a matter of time before news surfaces of a Kurdish “Böhmermann Brigade.”

Back in Ankara, the envoy from Berlin has become a familiar sight on the parklike premises of the foreign ministry. For Turkey’s leader, a man who does not take offences to his person lightly (as many of his citizens know only too well), is suing Mr Böhmermann under paragraph 103 of the German criminal code, which prohibits insulting a foreign head of state.

A legal education can be surprisingly useful. I recall my law professor sniffing that this section of the criminal code had not been updated since its promulgation in 1871, an era when slights to a man’s manliness might still be settled at dawn with pistols or rapiers. He added that it was obsolete and could safely be ignored. Like one’s appendix.

Mr Erdogan’s exquisitely honed sense of honour is second only to the rest of the world’s exquisitely developed feeling that Angela Merkel, German chancellor, is doomed. So when it transpired that her government would have to authorise the courts to investigate, heavy breathing ensued. “No” might mean the end of the EU-Turkey refugee deal; “yes” would be disavowing the comedian’s freedom of speech. Or, as a “senior civil servant” put it to a German newspaper: “Our only choice here is whether we want cheesecake or Black Forest torte on our faces.”

Following Ms Merkel’s decision to let the courts decide (and to have the legislature excise the appendix), her coalition partner, the unions, most of the German media, The New York Times and The Washington Post united in trumpeting their dismay at this “kowtowing” to “a despot”.

But when Ms Merkel handed the matter to the courts and the legislature, she did exactly what was required by the principle of the separation of powers. Also, there is work to do (the refugee crisis, Greece, Ukraine, the populist Alternative für Deutschland). And it’s not as though there was a serious replacement for her, is there?

She may soon have more things to worry about. The editors of Titanic, a satirical magazine, have announced a special edition that will “make Mr Erdogan feel less special.” They plan to insult every leader on the planet.

The piece was originally published in the Financial Times

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