BERLIN Germany's new anti-euro party, emboldened by opinion poll gains ahead of a weekend election, staged a mock burning of euro banknotes on Monday to protest against what it sees as the crippling costs of saving the common currency.
The Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), which calls for an "orderly dismantling" of the euro zone, is polling just one point short of the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament and could upset Chancellor Angela Merkel's hopes of returning to power with her current coalition partner.
In the stunt, played out in front of Berlin's most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, an actress representing Merkel handed over wads of fake 500 euro bills to two men masquerading as European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, puffing on cigars and wearing three-piece suits and dark glasses.
As the men shovelled the notes into a rusty metal container, AfD leader Bernd Lucke drove to the rescue on top of a fire engine as loudspeakers boomed out Hollywood superhero music.
"We have symbolically burnt money here because in Germany and the European Union, we are experiencing the biggest monetary destruction since hyperinflation in 1923," said Lucke, invoking an historic trauma seared into Germans' folk memory.
"An alternative is needed and at the vote on Sunday, that means us," said Lucke, to loud applause from AfD supporters.
Opinion polls show most Germans still back the euro, but AfD hopes to tap into concerns about the mounting costs of bailouts for heavily indebted countries such as Greece and Portugal.
"Draghi gambles, you pay!" and "Referendum on the euro bailouts" read some of the banners at the AfD rally.
If the AfD, which has quickly gathered steam since it was set up in February, won seats in parliament, Merkel would struggle to build a centre-right majority with the liberal FDP, making a 'grand coalition' with the rival centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) a more likely scenario.
"I am protesting because things can't go on like this. In Europe we are trying to pay old debt with new debt," said AfD member Ruediger Luettge, brandishing a placard with a cartoon image of Merkel and Greece in a sinking rowing boat.
Yet Germany remains a country with a pro-European political consensus and a distaste for populism rooted in its dark 20th century history.
"The image of something burning in front of the Brandenburg Gate makes me think of other things, like books in front of synagogues," said passerby Bernd Ludwig, 64, referring to the Nazis' burning of literature by Jewish and other writers deemed subversive and "un-German".
Wrinkling his nose at the smoke, he added: "I fear they (the AfD) will make it."
(Editing by Gareth Jones)