On Tuesday, in a distinct nod to voter angst over an enormous influx of mainly Muslim migrants, the 62-year-old leader for the first time endorsed legal restrictions on face-covering veils in public.
"Here, we show our faces, so full veiling is not appropriate," the chancellor declared in a policy speech to a party congress that was greeted with sustained applause.
Merkel said bans on coverings such as the burqa and niqab should be enacted "wherever it is legally possible" — measures that would probably include venues such as courtrooms, public schools and universities, together with occasions such as traffic stops and police checks.
It's not a complete about-face for the German leader, who has suggested that full facial coverings, worn by some observant Muslim women, are not compatible with German cultural norms.
But her stated willingness to support legal bans was a highly symbolic moment, representing perhaps her most explicit acknowledgement to date that allowing entry of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers over the last two years had opened deep fault lines within German society.
Merkel's comments brought her more in line with growing sentiment elsewhere in Europe where mainstream leaders have been facing a populist challenge that is often colored by anti-migrant sentiment.
Garments associated with observant Islam have been a cultural flashpoint in places like France, where a "burkini" controversy erupted during the summer when a string of municipalities moved to prohibit full-body swimwear, with some defying a court ruling against the bans.
In France, debate about national identity and cultural assimilation was galvanized by a series of large-scale terrorist attacks. Germany has been largely unscathed by such jihadist strikes, but Merkel's once-unassailable popularity fell significantly amid the migration crisis, providing a political opening for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which is considered likely to gain a parliamentary foothold next year.
As recently as late summer, Merkel was still voicing the watchwords first associated with the enormous migrant flood of 2015: "We will manage." She has since dropped that catchphrase from her political lexicon and promised — as she did again Tuesday when speaking to the gathering of her Christian Democratic Union — that there would be no repeat of such a large-scale influx.
Merkel’s decision last month to seek another term — coming after
She demurs in taking that role but presents herself as a source of stability amid an increasingly volatile political landscape — a world, she said in her speech, that many now see as being "in disarray."
Merkel also made an unusually frank reference to Trump, on whom she had refrained from commenting while he was in the midst of the presidential campaign — acknowledging that change probably lay ahead for a long-standing global order. Trump has questioned the main founding principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, suggesting during the campaign that some member states might not be militarily defended.
"We are faced with a world, especially after the U.S. election, that needs to reorder itself, with regard to NATO and the relationship with Russia," she said.
If Germany moves ahead with restrictions on public wearing of veils, it will join France, which for years has had the most comprehensive ban in Europe, and Belgium, with the Netherlands weighing similar measures.
The prohibitions are commonly described as burqa bans, although that garment covers the entire body as well as the face — a mesh covering the eyes with the rest of the face concealed. Face coverings known as niqab have a slit for eyes.
Restrictions on full-face veils, though worn by few Muslim women in the West, are often defended on security grounds, because a wearer's identity cannot be easily ascertained. Such legal prohibitions sometimes include other types of concealing headgear, such as ski masks and motorcycle helmets.
Merkel, though, did not shy away from placing face coverings in a religious context and characterizing them as an impediment to assimilation.
"Our law takes precedence over honor codes, tribal or family rules and over sharia law," she said. "That has to be spelled out clearly."
Merkel's gesture comes as centrist parties like hers in neighboring countries are gearing up for tough election fights. Like Germany, France and the Netherlands will hold elections next year, and far-right parties in all three countries have seen an increase in popularity.
The weekend defeat in Austria of a presidential contender from a far-right party whose founders had Nazi roots brought a sigh of relief in many quarters, but commentators pointed out that Norbert Hofer's loss was relatively narrow, with the final tally likely to separate him from victor Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the center-left Green Party, by about 5 or 6 percentage points, perhaps less.
As expected, Christian Democratic delegates overwhelmingly voted to reelect Merkel as their party leader, but by a smaller margin than the last leadership vote, which was nearly unanimous. If her party prevails in next fall's parliamentary voting and she serves out a fourth four-year term, she would become only the third postwar German chancellor to do so.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.