* Former Luxembourg prime minister tours Europe to rally support
* Juncker top candidate of Europe’s main centre-right group
* Victory in May 22-25 elections could propel him to top EU job
By Jan Strupczewski
PORTO, Portugal, May 23 (Reuters) - 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 in Europe.
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 territory.
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.
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 factory.
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)