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BERLIN, Oct 10 (AFP) - Angela Merkel was in line Monday to become not only Germany's first female chancellor but the first woman to lead a major European country in more than a decade.
As a woman and the head of one of Europe's major conservative parties, she has inevitably been compared to an illustrious trailblazer, Britain's Margaret Thatcher, although observers say the differences run deep.
More than three weeks after an inconclusive general election, Merkel batted down the reluctance of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to leave office to emerge from intense negotiations with a deal to lead a coalition government.
Her rise to the top has not only broken the traditional male dominance of German politics but will tilt the gender balance among Europe's leaders after a long dry spell for women politicians.
The last woman to lead a major European country was Prime Minister Edith Cresson of France, but her stint as head of government was short -- she held the job for just 10 months from May 1991 to April 1992 -- and memorable mostly for a series of gaffes which showed a lack of diplomacy.
Thatcher, the legendary "Iron Lady" who was Britain's first female prime minister and the politician who held that post longest in the 20th century -- 11 years and 209 days, from May 1979 to November 1990.
But the constraints of German politics -- not to mention what is likely to be a fractious coalition in which Social Democrats hold key posts -- look set to make it hard for her to be as radical in her embrace of the free market as Thatcher.
"The idea that Merkel is going to be the Margaret Thatcher of Germany is ridiculous. They are both women from a scientific background and they are both leaders of conservative parties, but that is as far as it goes," said Gisela Stuart, a German-born lawmaker in Britain's ruling Labour Party.
Nonetheless, like Thatcher, Merkel should break the monotony of grey suits at European Union summits.
The 25-member bloc is a gentlemen's club at the moment, with only three woman presidents -- Ireland's Mary McAleese, Finland's Tarja Halonen and Latvia's Vaira Vike-Freiberga -- and none as prime minister.
Looking beyond the EU, it is predominantly the countries of the far north that can boast women at the head of government.
Iceland was the first country in the world to elect a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980, while Finland was the first to give women the vote way back in 1906 and had a female prime minister, Anneli Jaatteenmaki, for just three months in 2003.
The leader of Norway's Labour Party, Gro Harlem Brundtland, became prime minister in 1981 and held the post for three terms, surrounding herself with a cabinet in which half the posts were filled by women.
Half of the current Swedish cabinet are women and almost half of its parliament, with 163 seats out of 349 occupied by women.
In the once male-dominated southern Europe, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has started something of a revolution.
After taking power on April 2004 he named eight women ministers in a cabinet of 16, including the Catholic state's first ever female deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa de la Vega.
It is also Spain that holds the distinction of being the first west European nation to name a woman minister. The anarchist Federica Montseny held a cabinet post in 1936, shortly before fascists seized control of the country.
Neighbouring Portugal had a female prime minister, Maria de Lurdes Pintasilgo, from 1979 to 1980. But in Italy and Greece, men fill the corridors of power.
Turkey, whose bid to join the European Union Merkel opposes, had a female prime minister, Tansu Ciller, in the mid-1990s but currently a mere 4.4 percent of members of parliament are women.
In Russia there are no women in the government.
In Ukraine, Yulia Tymoschenko, awarded the post of prime minister for her leading role in the peaceful "orange revolution" of late last year, was sacked in August along with the rest of the government after just months at the top.
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