Oskar Lafontaine


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(b. Saarlouis, 16 Sept. 1943)

German; Minister-President of the Saar 1985–98 , chief mayor of Saarbrücken 1976–85, chairman of the SPD 1995–9, Minister of Finance 1998–9 It is remarkable that Lafontaine joined the SPD, given his Catholic, CDU-orientated background and the influence of a Nazi class teacher whom he greatly admired. Lafontaine's father was a baker who, as an NCO, was killed in the war. His mother, a secretary, made great sacrifices to send her twin sons to a Catholic classics-orientated boarding school. However, with a bursary from a Catholic charity, Lafontaine studied physics, chemistry, and maths in Bonn and Saarbrücken.

Lafontaine followed his twin brother when he joined the SPD in 1966. Three years later he was elected to the Saabrücken city council, serving as mayor, 1974–6, and chief mayor, 1976–85. From 1970 to 1975 he was a member of the Saar Landtag (regional parliament). Lafontaine made his way in the SPD as a left-winger strongly opposed to nuclear arms and nuclear energy. He was elected Chairman of the Saar SPD in 1977 and to the SPD's federal executive in 1979. From 1985 to 1998 he was Minister-President of the Saar and from 1987 to 1999 deputy chairman of the SPD. His caution over German reunification provoked angry debates in the SPD leadership.

Lafontaine led the SPD to a defeat in the first democratic elections in East Germany (March 1990), and the first democratic election (December 1990) throughout Germany since 1932. In the case of the March election the early indications were that the SPD was ahead in the polls. Intervening from West Germany, Lafontaine urged caution about German reunification and stressed the economic difficulties and the cost. The East Germans were disappointed and they deserted the new SPD for the ex-Communist satellite CDU which Kohl supported. Lafontaine, always on the left of his party, staged a comeback when he became chairman of the SPD in 1995. His direct style of opposition to Kohl increased the popularity of the SPD, and helped give the SPD victory in the 1998 election, with Gerhard Schröder becoming Chancellor. Lafontaine became Finance Minister, but his time in government was short-lived. He resigned six months later, in March 1999, from the government and as chairman of the SPD, primarily because of a lack of support for his left-wing policies. He resigned from the SPD in 2005 and helped form The Left party, a combination of disaffected SPD members and former Communists. The party quickly established a presence as the fourth party in German politics. Lafontaine became its joint leader.

Subjects: Politics.

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