Oskar Lafontaine

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Oskar Lafontaine
Oskar Lafontaine, 2011-03-21.jpg
Mayor of Saarbrücken
In office
1976 – 9 April 1985
Preceded by Fritz Schuster
Succeeded by Hans-Jürgen Koebnick
8th Minister-President of Saarland
In office
9 April 1985 – 10 November 1998
Preceded by Werner Zeyer
Succeeded by Reinhard Klimmt
Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
In office
16 November 1995 – 12 March 1999
Preceded by Rudolf Scharping
Succeeded by Gerhard Schröder
Federal Minister of Finance
In office
27 October 1998 – 18 March 1999
Preceded by Theodor Waigel
Succeeded by Hans Eichel
Co-Chairman of The Left
In office
16 June 2007 – 15 May 2010
Serving with Lothar Bisky
Preceded by New title
Succeeded by Klaus Ernst & Gesine Lötzsch
Personal details
Born (1943-09-16) 16 September 1943 (age 71)
Saarlouis-Roden, Germany
Nationality German
Political party Social Democratic Party (until 2005)
The Left
Spouse(s) Ingrid Bachert (1967–1982)
Margret Müller (1982–1988) (1 son)
Christa Müller (1993–) (separated) (1 son)
Domestic partner Sahra Wagenknecht (2011–)
Religion Roman Catholic

Oskar Lafontaine (German pronunciation: [ˈlafɔntɛn]; born 16 September 1943) is a German politician who served in the government of Germany as Minister of Finance from 1998 to 1999. Previously he was Minister-President of the state of Saarland from 1985 to 1998, and he was also Chairman of the Social Democratic Party from 1995 to 1999.

Beginning in 2007, Lafontaine was co-chairman of The Left. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, he announced his resignation from federal political functions in January 2010, citing health reasons.[1]

Family and education[edit]

Lafontaine was born in Saarlouis into a family of craftsmen. His father, Hans Lafontaine, was a professional baker and was killed serving in World War II. He spent his childhood living with his mother, Catherine (born Katharina Ferner) and twin brother, Hans, in Dillingen.

Lafontaine attended a Catholic episcopal boarding institution in Prüm and there was educated at the Regino-Gymnasium, a public school. He left school in 1962 and received a scholarship from Cusanuswerk, the scholarship body of the Catholic Church in Germany, to study physics at the universities of Bonn and Saarland. Lafontaine graduated in 1969; his thesis concerned the production of barium titanate crystals. He worked for Versorgungs- und Verkehrsgesellschaft Saarbrücken until 1974, serving on its board from 1971.

Lafontaine has been married three times and has two sons by his second and third wives. He is currently married to Christa Müller, who leads a campaign against genital mutilation in Africa. The couple is now separated. In November 2011, Lafontaine officially presented fellow politician Sahra Wagenknecht as his new girlfriend, who is 26 years his junior.[2] Lafontaine is a non-practising Roman Catholic.[3]

Political rise[edit]

Lafontaine rose to prominence locally as mayor of Saarbrücken and became more widely known as a critic of chancellor Helmut Schmidt's support for the NATO plan to deploy Pershing II missiles in Germany. From 1985 to 1998 he served as Minister-President of the Saarland. In this position he struggled to preserve the industrial base of the state, which was based on steel production and coal mining with subsidies, and served as President of the Bundesrat in 1992/93.

Chancellor candidacy and assassination attempt[edit]

Lafontaine election poster, 1990

Lafontaine was the SPD's candidate for Chancellor in the German federal election of 1990. He faced nearly impossible odds. The election had been called two months after the reunification of Germany, and the incumbent government of Helmut Kohl was in a nearly unassailable position. Although he lost, he was able to lead the SPD to a net 46-seat gain.

During the campaign he was attacked with a knife by a mentally deranged woman after a speech in Cologne. His carotid artery was slashed and he remained in a critical condition for several days.

Political comeback[edit]

At the "Mannheim convention" in 1995, he was elected chairman of the SPD in a surprise move, replacing Rudolf Scharping. He was mainly responsible for bringing the whole political weight of the SPD to bear against Kohl and his CDU party, rejecting bipartisan cooperation that had characterized German politics for many years. Lafontaine argued that any help given to Kohl would only lengthen his unavoidable demise.

After this strategy gave the SPD an unexpectedly clear victory at the polls in September 1998, he was appointed Federal Minister of Finance in the first government of Gerhard Schröder.

Minister of Finance[edit]

During his short tenure as Minister of Finance, Lafontaine was a main bogeyman of UK Eurosceptics. This was because, among other things, he had called for the prompt tax harmonisation of the European Union, which would have resulted in an increase in UK taxes. In 1998, English tabloid "The Sun" called Lafontaine "Europe's most dangerous man". However, he has recently called for the Euro to be scrapped.[4] On 11 March 1999, he resigned from all his official and party offices, claiming that "lack of cooperation" in the cabinet had become unbearable. Until the formation of the Left Party he was known for his attacks against the Schroeder government in the tabloid Bild-Zeitung, which is generally considered conservative.

Leaving the SPD/Formation of The Left party[edit]

On 24 May 2005 Lafontaine left the SPD. After two weeks of speculation it was announced on 10 June that he would run as the lead candidate for The Left party (Die Linke), a coalition of the Labor and Social Justice Party (WASG), which is based in western Germany, and the Left Party.PDS, which was the successor to the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED).[5] Lafontaine joined the WASG on 18 June 2005 and was selected to head their list for the 2005 Federal Election in North Rhine-Westphalia on the same day. Moreover he also unsuccessfully contested the Saarbrücken constituency, which he had previously represented from 1990 to 2002. Nevertheless, the result of the Left party in the Saarland was by far the best in any of the federal states in the West of Germany.

In 2007, when the Left Party was formed in a merger between 'Left Party.PDS' and WASG, he became chairman alongside Lothar Bisky.

In May 2009, he declared that "Financial capitalism has failed. We need to democratize the economy. The workforce needs to have a far greater say in their companies than has been the case so far."[6]

Criticism[edit]

An article by Lafontaine on Erich Honecker, state and party leader of the German Democratic Republic and a fellow Saarlander, in the magazine Der Spiegel was criticised as laudatory by many observers. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he tarnished his left-wing credentials with a plea for pro-business policies and a call for the reduction of the influx of Germans from Eastern Europe and asylum-seekers.

Lafontaine lives in a manor-like house, commonly known as the "palace of social justice" (Palast der sozialen Gerechtigkeit).[7] When asked about whether this could be in conflict with his socialist ideas, Lafontaine said politicians of the Left don't have to be poor, but they have to fight against poverty.[8]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Fritz Schuster
Mayor of Saarbrücken
1976–1985
Succeeded by
Hans-Jürgen Koebnick (SPD)
Preceded by
Werner Zeyer (CDU)
Minister-President of Saarland
1985–1998
Succeeded by
Reinhard Klimmt (SPD)
Preceded by
Theodor Waigel (CSU)
German Minister of Finance
1998–1999
Succeeded by
Hans Eichel (SPD)
Party political offices
Preceded by
Rudolf Scharping
Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
1995–1999
Succeeded by
Gerhard Schröder
Preceded by
New title
Co-Chairman of the Left Party
2007–2010
With Lothar Bisky
Succeeded by
Klaus Ernst & Gesine Lötzsch