DUMPING ON VOTERS is rarely a winning strategy for politicians. But Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who leads the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s largest party, says her compatriots are becoming “the most uptight people in the world”. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer had been criticised for a joke, made during west Germany’s riotous carnival season, about “third-gender bathrooms” for “men who can’t decide if they want to sit or stand when they pee”. But she was not in the mood to apologise. How absurd to police jokes at a carnival, she thundered last week, going on to defend the rights of carnivores, fireworks fans and children who like to dress up as cowboys and Indians.

The semiotics of carnivals in Germany are difficult for outsiders to parse. But what initially seemed a silly-season story now looks like a clever move. Last December Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer narrowly beat a conservative rival in an election to replace Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and her mentor, as CDU leader. That put her in the top position to take over as chancellor when Mrs Merkel steps down, as she has promised to do. Many on the party’s right who had grown tired of Mrs Merkel’s big-tent centrism feared they were in line for years more of the same. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer wants to change their minds.

She has started by sharpening the CDU’s conservative profile. Liberated by her lack of ministerial responsibility, she has accentuated differences with the Social Democrats (SPD), the CDU’s junior coalition partner, on everything from welfare reform to arms exports. Her jabs at politically correct pieties delight the party’s base, and the SPD, having been suffocated in coalition with Mrs Merkel, is happy to play along. Indeed, there is a growing sense that German party politics is emerging from a long Merkel-induced slumber.

In policy, too, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer is signalling a rightward shift. During a recent CDU workshop she backed a policy of closing Germany’s borders as a last resort during a migration crisis. That unsettled moderates who supported Mrs Merkel’s open-border approach in 2015, but for now most accept the need for internal bridge-building. The mood in the CDU is “very upbeat”, says one MP.

Whether this approach will appeal to ordinary Germans is another matter. Manfred Güllner at Forsa, a pollster, notes that voters who have defected from the CDU have slightly stronger centrist tendencies than those who remain. That suggests a permanent rightward tilt would leave Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer fishing for votes in the wrong pool. Yet as premier of the Saarland, the tiny German state she ran for seven years, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer pursued a moderate, pragmatic path. Those instincts probably provide the best guide to how she might operate as chancellor.

That question is acquiring fresh urgency. Last weekend Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer issued, in six languages, a set of proposals for reform of the EU, in response to an article published by France’s President Emmanuel Macron (in 22 languages) a few days earlier. Her list—which will have been sanctioned by Mrs Merkel—included provocative calls to close the European Parliament’s second seat in Strasbourg, a French city, and for France to hand its UN Security Council seat to the EU. French ministers were not amused.

Attempts to parse the many differences between the French and German proposals were beside the point; unlike Mr Macron, who loftily directed his appeal to the “citizens of Europe”, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer was speaking to a domestic audience. Still, with the CDU leader increasingly adopting the air of chancellor-in-waiting, little wonder that Berlin’s favourite parlour game is to guess when Ms Merkel will hand over the reins of government. Should that happen before the chancellor’s term expires in 2021, the SPD says it would quit the government, probably triggering elections.