* Former Luxembourg prime minister tours Europe to rally
* Juncker top candidate of Europe's main centre-right group
* Victory in May 22-25 elections could propel him to top EU
By Jan Strupczewski
PORTO, Portugal, May 23 Standing on stage before
a 1,000-strong crowd of cheering supporters last weekend, a look
of unease flashed across the face of Jean-Claude Juncker, the
former prime minister of Luxembourg now running for the top job
Accustomed to sober grey suits and backroom dealing, the
grey-haired 59-year-old, seemed unsure quite how to respond to
the throng of chanting Portuguese. Then, as an accomplished
politician, he found his groove.
"Por-tu-gal! Por-tu-gal!" he joined the chant, thrusting his
arms above his head with clenched fists.
The moment captured, he was ushered off stage and back to a
waiting private jet, which flew him on to Lisbon, next stop on a
two-month tour of 18 EU countries ahead of elections to the
European Parliament, which end on Sunday.
As the top candidate for the European People's Party,
Europe's main centre-right political movement, Juncker is well
placed to become the next president of the European Commission
if the EPP beats the centre-left.
It's not an open-and-shut-case: he would still have to be
nominated by EU leaders and confirmed by the parliament. But for
the first time, Europe is personalizing the race for the
Commission presidency, and Juncker is leading the pack.
For a man who has spent most of his life in the opaque world
of Luxembourg politics, including 19 years as prime minister,
being thrust into a pan-European election campaign that is
somewhat styled on U.S. politics is unfamiliar.
Having sat in endless closed-door meetings during the euro
zone debt crisis - he once said people in his position sometimes
have to lie and prefers "secret, dark debates" - being on the
campaign trail in Portugal and Greece is not Juncker's natural
During his whistle-stop tour, he visited a farm outside
Lisbon, dropping in on deputy prime minister Paulo Portas, who
was dressed in a brown jacket and farmer's hat, in sharp
contrast to Juncker's suit and open-necked shirt.
That said, Juncker made a point of meeting everyone from
waiters to policemen, shaking hands and chatting briefly.
A smoker of heavy Ducal cigarettes, Juncker does not attempt
to hide his habits, including enjoying a glass of wine over
lunch and a gin-and-tonic at the end of the day.
After four decades in politics, he is unfazed and almost
dismissive of media attention, with a tendency to make fun of
formality, at one point stroking the fluffy covering of a TV
microphone as if it were a pet.
DOG CALLED PLATO
The question is whether Juncker, who chaired meetings of
euro zone finance ministers during the crisis and was involved
in the painful bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, can
rally support among disillusioned voters across Europe.
And even if he can, whether EU leaders, many of whom shared
the room with him during crisis summits until he stepped down
late last year, believe he is the right person to lead the work
of the Commission for the next five years and beyond.
While Portuguese voters might be expected to be wary after
years of grinding recession, there were positive noises from
some as Juncker toured the Milaneza pasta factory in Porto.
"He is known as a friend of Portugal, sensitive to social
issues," said Rui Azevedo, 47, a quality control manager at the
A fifth of Luxembourg's population of 530,000 originally
comes from Portugal, and Juncker was happy to drop in that he
has Portuguese friends and neighbours.
He struck a similar chord in Greece, another stop on his
tour, letting it be known that he had adopted a dog from the
island of Samos and named it Plato. Chatting with Greek Prime
Minister Antonis Samaras, a political ally, Juncker jokingly
complained that the dog didn't understand French.
Keen to rebuild bridges with the southern 'periphery' after
years of turmoil, during which it seemed possible that Greece
could leave the euro zone and the region collapse, Juncker said
he had no time for black-and-white divisions across Europe.
"It is simply not true that the virtuous are in the north
and the sinners and losers are in the south," he said, adding
that he did not like the terms 'old' and 'new' Europe.
"I know some old countries that behave as if they were new
and some new ones that behave like founding members," he said.
A fluent speaker of German, French and English as well as
his native Luxembourgish, Juncker is in many respects a
consummate European politician of the old school, wheeling and
dealing in conference rooms to clinch compromises.
In that regard, he hardly seems like someone to inspire the
younger generation and change how business in Brussels is done.
Yet few people understand as well as Juncker how the EU
machinery works and what is required to get a deal.
"Since my youth, I had a certain idea about Europe, inspired
by experiences of my father's generation and by important things
that I experienced myself," he told Reuters during the tour.
His father, a steelworker, was one of some 10,000
Luxembourgers drafted into the German army during World War Two.
Juncker, like his country, is in some ways a link between France
and Germany, the two nations that drive European policy and out
of whose enmities the European Union was crafted.
Having been at the table for every major decision taken in
Europe over the past two decades, Juncker is in effect betting
that his institutional knowledge will make him indispensable
when leaders decide who to nominate as Commission president.
Wearing a hard hat as he toured a construction site in
Athens, his armed bodyguard never far away in a country where
European officials have been targeted with violence, Juncker
expressed confidence in his prospects.
"Which other candidate has the support of both Germany and
Greece?" he asked with a knowing smile. "I am the man."
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski. Editing by Luke Baker)