GERHARD Schröder, the German chancellor, has embarked on a high-risk legal fight with Fleet Street newspapers in an attempt to prevent reports about his private life.
Lawyers for Mr Schrder will go to a state court in Berlin tomorrow to enforce a ban on German media organisations repeating rumours about the state of his marriage. But, in an unprecedented move , the chancellor is also attempting to extend the ruling to newspapers in any country within the EU, including Britain.
Mr Schrder, 58, who has been married four times, went to a regional court in Hamburg last Thursday to obtain an injunction against the publishers of the Mail on Sunday.
Using German privacy law, judges ruled that if the British newspaper repeated claims in an earlier article about his alleged affair with a television presenter, it could incur a penalty of 164,000.
The court agreed that the injunction could be granted even though the newspaper is based in London, because Europe is regarded as a single jurisdiction under EU law.
Mr Schrder’s lawyers also wrote to a number of British newspapers last week warning them against publishing articles about the state of his marriage.
The Mail on Sunday openly defied the injunction yesterday, repeating its reference to an alleged relationship with Sandra Maischberger, 36, a political journalist who has frequently interviewed the chancellor on television.
Under a headline: "Sorry, Herr Schrder, but you don’t rule Britain ... at least, not yet", the newspaper said: "Following a hearing in a German court which we were not even informed about until it was over, we are threatened with heavy penalties if we repeat the story in Germany, though we never published it in Germany in the first place.
"But, for now at least, we can ignore this blustering and these threats. Because of our different tradition and our robust democracy, we can publish this sort of material and believe we have every right to do so."
It added: "As far as the best legal brains can say, this German court has no right to tell us what we can and cannot publish in these islands."
Any attempt by Mr Schrder to impose German privacy law on to British newspapers is likely to receive a similarly robust response from other Fleet Street tabloids of a Euro-sceptic persuasion.
Mr Schrder, nicknamed the "Audi chancellor" because his marital track record has left him with four rings like the symbol of the German car manufacturer, was ridiculed by British newspapers last year after he sued a news agency for claiming he dyed his hair.
Rumours about the troubled state of the chancellor’s five-year marriage first surfaced in two German regional newspapers at the end of last year. It was suggested he was spending nights apart from his fourth wife, Doris Schrder-Koepf, who is also a former journalist.
Although the articles were little more than gossip items, they have provoked a stern response from the chancellor. It is widely believed in Germany that voters would not forgive their flamboyant leader if he is divorced for a fourth time.
It was on 5 January that the Mail on Sunday published its own investigation, alleging the chancellor was cheating on his wife with Miss Maischberger.
Mr Schrder has issued a writ to every German newspaper which repeated the claims, and in a televised interview last Friday, he accused journalists of telling lies .
"Anyone who is in the public eye, including the chancellor, has to accept the fact there is an interest in his private matters. Up to a point that is OK," Mr Schrder said. "But there is definitely no right, not even for journalists, to spread lies. That is unfortunately what happened, and a chancellor has the right, like every citizen, to use legal means to defend himself."
His wife has also gone on the offensive, telling one magazine interviewer: "He stays the nights with me and we’re quite happy. We can document every second of our lives. We don’t have a crisis because we’re happily married. We have a good marriage that works well."
The fact that stories about Mr Schrder’s private life have appeared in the normally quiescent German newspapers at all represents a significant shift in the nation’s post-war political culture.
For many years the German media have been shackled as much by thei own unwritten rule not to report on their politicians’ marital problems and affairs, as by the country’s stringent privacy laws.
Peter Wright, the Mail on Sunday’s editor, said: "We do not accept Chancellor Schrder can use a German court to tell us what we can and cannot report."