Greek bailout divides French and German populations | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 29.04.2010
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Europe

Greek bailout divides French and German populations

Pressure is growing on France and Germany to intervene in Greece's financial crisis to calm markets and keep the panic from spreading. While they are coming together on a package, it took a while to see eye to eye.

A life ring surrounding a euro symbol

Germany's interest in saving Greece lies in protecting the euro

When it first became clear that Greece would be unable to handle its massive debt problem on its own back in March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was one of the first European leaders to support a eurozone bailout package.

"France and its partners will do what is necessary," Sarkozy said at the time. "I want to be very clear about this. The countries in the eurozone will fulfill their engagement. The euro is our money and it means we will act in solidarity."

In Germany, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel huddled with advisers and quickly decided that a bailout must be avoided at all costs. But as the crisis grew and began to affect countries outside Greece, Merkel came around and now supports a bailout in order to protect the stability of the euro.

A man stands above an open portion of the Berlin Wall

The fall of the Berlin Wall came with a price tag

A tough sell

Getting support for the measure has been difficult in Germany. Polls show most Germans are against a bailout, and some of that reluctance might be explained by what could be called bailout fatigue.

As Germany celebrates 20 years of reunification, the financial toll of incorporating former communist East Germany is still fresh in some Germans' minds.

"We paid twenty years," Harald Liesovsky, a businessman in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle. "More than 100 billion euros to East Germany. That's a lot."

Liesovsky says Berliners have had to make sacrifices and Germans are still paying a special tax to help build up the former East Germany.

The fact that the Greeks are protesting austerity plans attached to their bailout money has not gone down well in Germany. In Athens and other cities, civil servants, dock workers and even the country's air force pilots have gone on strike against cutbacks, raising taxes and the retirement age.

Politically, it is harder for Merkel to support the bailout than Sarkozy. Her party, the Christian Democrats, risks defeat in a regional election in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, to be held on May 9. And the parliamentary vote to release Germany's 11 billion dollar share of the bailout money will likely happen just before the election.

A Deutschmark coin and a euro coin

The Deutschmark represented stability to many Germans

A different past

A long history of financial stability in Germany may also make some Germans squeamish when it comes to the Greece bailout. The Deutschmark - Germany's currency before the euro - represented 40 years of sound fiscal policy. Markus Kerber, a finance professor at the Berlin Technical University, says, with the euro, Germans don't feel they're in control.

"We are more and more confronted by the situation whereby our monetary destiny is decided by people we have never elected and by people on whom we have no influence," Kerber said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "We have no influence on Greek policy but we have to pay for that."

Kerber says other eurozone nations who run trade surpluses, such as the Netherlands, Finland and Austria, also resent having to bail out debt-ridden members.

France, on the other hand, sees things a bit differently. Michel Godet is an economic advisor to the French government, and he says France has the same Mediterranean mindset as Greece. And, like Greece, France finances its growth through deficit spending. Godet says the big difference between the two countries is that the French government is not corrupt and is able to collect taxes. But he believes French taxpayers will pay dearly for the Greek bailout.

"What does it mean to help Greece? It means to increase our own national deficit," Godet told Deutsche Welle. "The rate of the French debt is five percent and the Greek one is around eight percent. This game will not continue forever, you know."

Save the euro?

An EU flag waves over the Acropolis in Athens

Some say the EU should stand up for Greece

Both Godet and Kerber feel that some countries should leave the eurozone, or be split off into a second eurozone.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Merkel said after a meeting with top international and European banking heads that the decision to admit Greece into the eurozone in 2000 may not have been considered thoroughly enough.

But for millions of Europeans, including some Germans, the euro has been a symbol of strength and unity and they want to defend it. Berliner Gilla Meyer says the Greeks must change, but they can't be left to fail.

"They have to pay their taxes just like the Germans do," Meyer told Deutsche Welle. "But Germany must give money for the Greeks. We are together. All the states who have the euro, they must stand together."

Author: Eleanor Beardsley, Berlin (mz)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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