Angela Merkel takes office as Germany's first female chancellor

&to=' target=_blank>Angela Merkel took office Tuesday as Germany's eighth post-World War II leader and its first female chancellor, heading an unwieldy alliance with the tough job of turning around Europe's biggest economy after years of stagnation and six months of political turmoil.

The 51-year-old former scientist succeeded &to=' target=_blank>Gerhard Schroeder, whose government of Social Democrats and Greens was ousted by voters Sept. 18. Lawmakers endorsed Merkel 397-202, though some 50 members of her broad coalition did not vote for her.

As she ceremonially took over the imposing chancellery, across from the Reichstag parliament building, she said Germans were eager for the government to get to work after months of uncertainty.

"Expectations are very high among people in this country that problems get solved, policies made and decisions taken," she said.

Turning to Schroeder, she said: "I would like to thank you for what you have done for our country," citing the former chancellor's efforts to trim the welfare state and boost the economy, and declaring that her government would build on the "milestones" he set.

Merkel must now coax action from an awkward coalition of her conservatives and Schroeder's center-left Social Democrats. The election results showed little support for action many economists say is needed to attack 11 percent unemployment and sluggish growth.

She also faces foreign policy challenges, such as nursing a recovering relationship with the United States.

Merkel, head of the Christian Democratic Union, will begin her term _ four years, if the coalition lasts _ with visits to France and Britain on Wednesday and Thursday, and one to Washington expected soon.

Merkel's more pro-American outlook contrasts with Schroeder's criticism of the war in Iraq. She also has suggested Berlin will place less emphasis on relations with Paris and Moscow, and says she views Europe as a partner, not a counterweight, to the United States.

In a potential sign of trouble ahead at home, at least 51 members of Merkel's 448-lawmaker coalition failed to vote for her Tuesday.

She said in an interview for ARD public television that the "no" votes did not bother her. "My thoughts go back, eight weeks back, and I can only say, it's an excellent outcome and a very solid foundation so that this government can successfully do its work."

Merkel, typically reserved in public, broke into a smile after the vote was announced. Schroeder, who had clung to his demand to remain chancellor for three weeks after his party finished a close second in the election, was the first to walk over and congratulate her.

Merkel was sworn in later Tuesday. The Protestant minister's daughter, who grew up in officially atheist East Germany, added the optional words, "So help me God," to her oath, a phrase Schroeder had left out.

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