By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - A female journalist's allegations that a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition made sexist comments about her cleavage in a bar one year ago have stirred a debate about the relationship between reporters and politicians in Germany.
Rainer Bruederle, the 67-year-old parliamentary leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), junior partners in the coalition, was reported by Stern magazine this week to have told one of its reporters she could "really fill a dirndl" - the low-cut Bavarian traditional dress.
Bruederle has not made any public comment about the report and his office declined to react to it on Friday.
But FDP leaders have questioned the magazine's motives for reporting the year-old events days after Bruederle was put in charge of its campaign for a national election in September.
Stern's story about the events in a bar in Stuttgart during an FDP congress last January have made the silver-haired former economy minister the butt of ridicule in some German media while other publications, and some politicians, have defended him.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a former FDP leader, said it was "deeply unfair" to carry the story a year after the alleged events.
The timing of the claims has also led others in the FDP to call it a "set-up" designed to undermine the party in an election year. The story has been making waves since Wednesday, when a preview of the article was released to media.
Germany takes pride in its culture of transparency and politicians frequently mingle with journalists at party congresses and other events.
Conservative daily Die Welt wrote in a light-hearted front-page column that Bruederle, who was made campaign chief by party leader Philipp Roesler on Monday, "should learn how to keep his mouth shut if he wants to be the face of the FDP".
Top-selling Bild, the racy daily which always features at least one topless woman, complained indignantly in a column that "Men can't even look at women's cleavages anymore."
MERKEL URGES RESPECT
But it was no joking matter for the German government.
Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said only that the chancellor always sought "professional and respectful" dealings between politicians and representatives of the media.
"The government works well together with the FDP's parliamentary floor leader," he said, referring to Bruederle.
The Ministry of Family and Women's Affairs, asked about Bruederle's behavior at the same news conference, cited a 2004 survey of more than 10,000 German women: nearly six in 10 said they had experienced sexual harassment, mostly in the workplace.
"These numbers show it is an important issue, not just a minor problem, and merits proper discussion independent of the latest events," ministry spokeswoman Katja Angeli said.
But she said the ministry did not have enough information to comment on the Stern report itself.
The FDP can ill afford more bad publicity. The party has tumbled to as low as 2 percent in recent opinion polls after scoring a record 14.9 percent in the federal election in 2009, when it entered a coalition government with Merkel.
Silvana Koch-Mehrin, an FDP member of the European Parliament and one of the party's best known women, told Reuters her party lagged far behind on the issue of equality and praised Stern journalist Laura Himmelreich for "having the courage to talk so openly about lewd behavior".
(Additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt; Writing by Stephen Brown, Editing by Angus MacSwan)