The problem about demonstrating against Gerhard Schröder as he flits around eastern Germany is that he refuses to stand still. Eggs could be hurled at Helmut Kohl because he moved with such slow brontosaurian deliberation. The present Chancellor buzzes around like a horsefly.

Even so, some young, half-bearded protesters managed to follow their leader yesterday and promptly held up a placard announcing: "Faulpelz Schröder." 

Faulpelz translates as "Lazybones," and was rather more than kindergarten abuse. The demonstrators were highlighting the failure of an essentially passive employment policy that has relied too heavily on sustained economic recovery in the West and expensive job creation in the East. 

Roland Koch, the Prime Minister of Hesse and a man priming himself for Germany’s leadership contest, has now exposed the intellectual paucity of the Schröder team by urging a radical rethink of employment philosophy. He intends to introduce to Hesse the workfare methods practised in the American state of Wisconsin. 

If they are successfully transplanted to Germany, workfare will become one of the central planks of his planned 2006 bid for the chancellery. Welfare to Work is an American program sponsored by state goverments that aims to give new skills to welfare recipients and steer them into work. Britain operates a similar scheme. If they cannot find a job, welfare is cut and, as Herr Koch says, people "will have to adjust to a more modest lifestyle." 

Workfare is common in the United States, but most rigorously applied in Wisconsin. Herr Koch held long talks with Tommy Thompson, the state's former governor, who is now President Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. The encounter is the first sign of the impact that Bush conservatism is making on continental-European conservatism. It is slowly dawning on the Social Democrats that the Bush presidency could have a subversive influence. 

German employers have rushed to support Herr Koch. As far as they are concerned, Germany needs more flexible labour markets with cheaper workers who are easier to dismiss. The Wisconsin model will help, they believe. Yet the Chancellor is steering in the opposite direction, reinforcing worker councils and finding traditional, consensual solutions to curing unemployment. As he does so, his campaign promise — to cut unemployment to 3.5 million — seems to be slipping away. 

Now there are 3.8 million out of work and it looks as if by the 2002 election the unemployment figure could reach 4.1 million — precisely the number inherited from Helmut Kohl in 1998. 

Herr Koch’s initiative hits the question of work incentives. This is not a new debate for the British, nor is Herr Schröder unaware of the problem — he sparked angry comment last spring when he said that there was no constitutional "right to laziness." Germans, once regarded as dedicated, ant-like workers, have become more relaxed, but they still resent charges that they have become a nation of slackers. There is simply a structural bias against seeking low-paid work. A family with two children is entitled to welfare of DM2,840 ($1,322) a month if neither parent has a job. 

The benefits are equivalent to the net salaries of bus drivers, hairdressers and shoe salesmen — but the welfare recipient has other bonuses: rent rebates, a free washing machine and radio. There is, in short, no incentive to stop by to the job center. 

The likelihood is that Germany will not turn into a Teutonic Wisconsin. There is a deep suspicion about coercing people into work. It was not so long ago that East German communists branded their few jobless citizens — usually fired for political reasons — as social parasites. 

Herr Koch, however, has successfully forced Germans to think about a taboo, making them consider the true price of the safety features built into Germany’s social market economy. That makes Herr Koch a man to watch, although he is unlikely to make a bid for power at the 2002 general election; he intends to wait a further four years until Herr Schröder is politically exhausted. 

Unemployment, more than immigration, has become the big issue again. Companies are laying off workers more quickly than ever before. Bored men in their early 50s, discarded by the powerhouses of the German economy, wait for their wives to finish underpaid jobs as supermarket cashiers and come home to cook dinner. Will these men find jobs again? Are they even looking? Will they vote for Herr Schröder next year? No, no, no.