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Even in cabinet, Spahn likely to be thorn in Merkel's side

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s biggest critic within her own conservative party, 37-year old Jens Spahn, will not drop his demands for a rightward shift in the party once he becomes health minister, associates said on Monday.

Jens Spahn addresses a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party congress in Berlin, Germany, February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Spahn, who once told a high school teacher he aspired to be chancellor, often grabs headlines with his conservative views, including a recent claim that too many “hipsters” were speaking English in Berlin instead of German.

The former junior finance minister, who grew up Catholic, joined his party’s youth wing at age 15 because everyone else around him in his home state of North-Rhine Westphalia was “so left-wing.” In 2002, just seven years later, he won a seat in the lower house of Germany’s parliament.

Spahn’s open disclosure of his homosexuality still makes some party oldtimers uncomfortable. However, younger member say Spahn’s sexual orientation is not a issue, and they value his leadership on promoting conservative values and his frank challenging of Merkel.

Once named by former finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as a possible Merkel successor, Spahn has been sharply critical of the three-term German leader since her 2015 decision to open the door to over a million mostly Muslim migrants.

He wants Germany to return to its core “Christian” beliefs and has vowed to win back voters lost to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in recent elections.

“We want to make (the AfD) superfluous by winning back their trust,” Spahn told a conservative rally this month.

He supports a ban on full and partial face veils, or burqas, worn by some Muslim women, and has called for implementation of an “Islam law” to regulate Muslim religious institutions in Germany and make their messages more transparent.

Spahn also wants to use public funds to train teachers and imams to increase transparency and reduce the influence over Muslim communities of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which now fund a majority of religious institutions.

If the center-left Social Democrats back another four-year tie-up with Merkel, Spahn would succeed Hermann Groehe as health minister, the same man he muscled out of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) presidium in 2014.

German media say Merkel wants to silence Spahn by bringing him into the cabinet, but fellow conservative lawmaker Wolfgang Bosbach said Spahn would stick to his guns once he moved into the new job.

“Jens Spahn ... will certainly not change course because of his post,” Bosbach told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. “That would raise the suspicion - and not without reason - that this (cabinet) position has changed his political views.”

Spahn, who has ties to Austria’s conservative chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, 32, and top officials in the U.S. White House, initially hoped to lead the health ministry in 2013, but wound up serving as parliamentary healthcare spokesman for the conservatives until moving to the finance ministry in 2015.

Karl Lauterbach, the SPD’s healthcare expert, lauded Spahn’s expertise on the issue. “It might do Spahn good to back off on the migrant issue for a while. This populism hasn’t done him good in my view,” he told conservative daily Die Welt.

Additional reporting by Gernot Heller; Editing by Toby Chopra