Merkel Met With Taunts and Grateful Refugees in Eastern Germany

(Bloomberg) -- Angela Merkel got a taste of what 2017 has in store. At an intimate town-hall setting, the German chancellor was met simultaneously with asylum seekers who wanted to shake her hand and jeering critics, including a member of her party who insisted she resign.

The charged atmosphere at the meeting in the city of Jena offers a glimpse of the obstacles standing in the way of Europe’s longest-serving leader winning a fourth term. Merkel this week embarked on a series of regional conferences for her Christian Democratic Union to defend her open-door refugee policy.

“If the European continent with 500 million people can give perhaps a million refugees from Syria and Iraq a temporary home, then it shouldn’t be too much to ask to take on such a responsibility,” Merkel told a gathering on a Friday evening in once communist-ruled East Germany.

While some lauded her expansive views on immigration, others pilloried the German leader for creating chaos by allowing more than 1 million refugees into the country since the beginning of 2015. One party member accused Merkel of breaking the law, another threatened to quit the party and a third wondered why she considers Islam to be part of Germany.

On the other side of the room, three asylum seekers, two who said they were from Eritrea, thanked the chancellor and -- repeating a ritual started at a town-hall meeting in Heidelberg on Monday -- asked to shake her hand. Merkel consented.

Leave Our Party!

"This is a PR exercise and you can’t do that," shouted the next speaker, a party member identified as Axel Goehring from Jena. "We’re not in the SED; we’re in the CDU," Goehring said, referring to the East German communist party.

Merkel interrupted him and was met with applause: “If these people come here, then they have just the same rights as you have to say something critical.”

Undeterred, Goehring rattled off a list of grievances and blamed the chancellor for "cultivating" the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.

“Leave our party!” he shouted.

Up at Night

Merkel offered a spirited defense, citing the accord between the European Union and Turkey to halt the influx of migrants over the Aegean Sea into Europe. She told the crowd she had trouble sleeping at night thinking about the bombing of Aleppo, the latest chapter in the agonizing conflict in Syria.

Merkel maintainss that Germany has a moral and legal obligation to protect those fleeing from war and oppression. She stuck to that stance in the lead-up to next week’s congress in Essen, where Merkel will run to lead the party she’s dominated since 2000.

While she’s been consistent, Merkel has done little to put voters, or even some in her own party, at ease.

Outside the venue in Jena, some 50 members of the AfD’s youth organization gathered to protest. Some donned paper Merkel masks and prison outfits, carrying a banner that read "Merkel for Prison 2017."

Across the street, hundreds of activists hurled insults back: "Nazis out."