French president offers Greece starkest warning yet: accept austerity measures or risk ejection from eurozone
Sunday’s election in Greece is an election like no other. For starters, it is being watched outside the country as closely as it is within its borders. Leaders who might otherwise have registered the result as a footnote are as anxious about what might happen next in Athens as the people on its streets.
Political paralysis in the wake of last month’s indecisive poll has spurred politicians who previously would have thought twice about publicising their views to speak out at length about how the Greeks should vote.
None, however, have had the impact of François Hollande, the French president, who has also weighed in.
Three days before the ballot, an exclusive interview with the Greek Mega TV channel – Hollande’s first with a foreign news outlet since assuming power – has been as important for its message as the fact that it took place at all (foreign intervention of this kind has been unprecedented since the return of democracy following the collapse of military rule in 1974).
Calling himself a “friend of Greece”, the French leader used the occasion to issue a pledge and a warning. He would do what he could to promote development funds for the crisis-hit country but, he said, if Greeks failed to uphold bailout commitments they had made to their international creditors expulsion from the eurozone could beckon “I respect the Greek people. They will decide what they want on the occasion of the election,” he told Mega’s flagship news programme in an interview at the Élysée palace. “But I must warn them, because it is my duty, because I am a friend of Greece, that if the impression is given that the Greeks want to move away from the commitments that were taken and abandon all prospects of revival, then there will be countries in the eurozone that will want to end the presence of Greece in the eurozone.”
It was the starkest warning, yet, that Athens’ fate hangs in the balance: if Greeks insisted on casting their votes in favour of “anti-austerity” parties at the ballot box they would, he seemed to be saying, not only be playing with fire but making his own job of supporting them practically impossible.
“I want Greece to remain in the eurozone,” said Hollande, who is due to meet the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, in Rome on Thursday to push for a new growth strategy before an emergency EU summit this month.
In another first since 1974, this is an election about issues and not political ideologies or faces. Greeks know they are confronted with an excruciating choice. Either they swallow the pill of bitter belt-tightening and further austerity in the form of yet more recession-inducing income cuts and tax increases, or risk ejection from Europe’s shared currency with the dramatic decline in living standards that a return to the drachma would inevitably entail.
This morning the far-left Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, reiterated that if his party comes out on top, as some polls have predicted, “the memorandum [bailout accord] will be repudiated by the people’s vote, not us”.
There is a growing school of thought in Athens that perhaps a win by Syriza would indeed be the way forward. Confronted by the terrifying state of Greece’s public finances, analysts argue, the firebrand Tsipras would be forced to move to the centre, his populism and fiery anti-bailout rhetoric disarmed by the force of power.
There is a certain logic to this but it is enormously high risk. Patience with Greece, the country that triggered the debt crisis in the first place, is clearly running out in Europe. Hollande has highlighted this as never before.