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Germany — a country ruled by sexists? A ridiculous thought, it would seem, for Europe's most powerful nation: after all, we have a female chancellor. A quota for women in the boardroom may soon be enshrined in law. 

What is astonishing, however, is how backward the treatment of sexism, in particular closet sexism, still is in Germany. We are not talking about open sexual harassment; the real test is the "harmless" comments that are meant to be "just a bit of fun". What these can lead to is shown by the Brüderle affair. It all began with a brief encounter at a party conference last year between 68-year-old Rainer Brüderle, the parliamentary leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (junior partner in Angela Merkel's coalition government), and Laura Himmelreich, a 29-year-old journalist on the weekly magazine Stern.

In an article entitled "The Dirty Joke", which unleashed a media storm last month, Laura Himmelreich recalled what happened when journalists mingled with politicians at the bar one evening. Himmelreich was deep in conversation with Brüderle when she realised he was gazing rather too intently at her breasts. "You could certainly fill a dirndl," he said suggestively, before taking her hand, kissing it and propositioning her. Himmelreich gave him a tactful brush-off, reminding him that she was a journalist and he a politician. Yet Brüderle persisted with his advances: "In the end we are all only human."

At one level, this sounds like a peculiarly German take on House of Cards or The Thick of It. Obviously Brüderle's chat-up lines make him look a fool: first, to suppose that he could seduce a sophisticated female journalist less than half his age by referencing traditional Bavarian dress and, secondly, that he could excuse his behaviour as "only human". Do politicians like him really think they can get away with insinuating that attractive young women are "provocative" or "asking for it"?

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