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Why French are easier on Greece than Germans

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Anti-austerity protesters in Paris wears masks of the three main players in the Greece crisis. Photo: AFP
13:46 CEST+02:00
Attitudes among French people towards Greece have softened – unlike those of their German counterparts, a majority of whom are ready to boot Athens out of the euro. The head of pollsters IFOP tells The Local why.

While up until now President François Hollande has fallen in line with German chancellor Angela Merkel over how to deal with Greece, public opinion in the two countries is markedly different.

In November 2011 at the beginning of the Greek crisis, some 73 per cent of French people were favourable to a Greek exit from the eurozone if they couldn’t pay back their debt or reduce their deficit.

But nearly four years later and a week after Greece defaulted on the €1.6 billion payment it owed the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a poll has revealed only 45 per cent of the French people are now in favour of a Grexit.

On the other side of the Rhine however, opinions differ – with the latest IFOP poll showing 60 per cent of Germans are in favour of Grexit, as the chances of one happening appear to increase by the day.

"The French are much less intransigent and less harsh towards Greece than they were in the past and are less severe than the Germans on this issue” Jérôme Fourquet, director of public opinion at IFOP told The Local.

Fourquet says there are essentially three reasons to explain the change of stance among the French public, even if it’s important to note that many in the country, particularly on the right, are still favourable to Greece being ushered out of the euro.

“The French see the efforts that the Greeks have made in recent years in terms of cuts, for example on pensions, yet they see that the economy hasn’t really taken off.

"They now think that perhaps it’s counter-productive to inflict more austerity. They think 'we’ve asked them to make all these efforts, but look at the state of Greece today'.

"'The Greek economy is not going anywhere, so we need to change the method. They’ve paid for their mistakes.'"

The pollster also points to Wednesday’s survey, which reveals the vast majority of French people (85 per cent) accept that France will never be repaid the the €65 billion owed by Athens, whether it stays in the euro or not.

“In Germany however they still think Tsipras is a bluffer and they believe he has the means to get their money back,” says Fourquet.

Another reason for the difference in stance in Germany and France centres around the strength – or weakness in the case of France – of the two countries' own economies.

Many in France fear the knock-on effects of the Greek crisis on their own country, which is struggling under record-high unemployment, minuscule growth and a public deficit it is struggling to reduce, which prompted a slap on the wrist from Brussels.

“The French fear the domino effect caused by the fall of Greece, which would see their own economy become more fragile,” says Fourquet.

The French don't see the need to plunge the eurozone into crisis by forcing the Greeks out.

In Germany however – the eurozone’s biggest economy where growth forecasts for 2015 have been raised and record low unemployment fuels a consumer spending boost – fears of the eurozone collapsing like a house of cards are lower.

One thing the French and Germans do have in common when it comes to the Greek crisis is their trust in Angela Merkel over Hollande.

Whereas only 24 per cent of French people have faith in the way François Hollande is handling the ongoing crisis, 44 per cent are confident that Merkel will lead the way out of the storm.

In Germany that figure rises to 51 per cent.

“It’s plain to see that in the eyes of the French and German public opinion, it’s not François Hollande that embodies European leadership, but Angela Merkel,” said Fourquet.

However, he accepted that Hollande was in a difficult position, caught between northern Europe, where countries are more resistant to idea the EU should bend over backwards to help Greece and southern European countries like Spain and Italy, where there is a more conciliatory stance.

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“Both geographically and culturally France is a link between northern Europe and southern Europe and that’s not such a bad thing for Hollande; he has a useful card to play,” says Fourquet.

“But he must advance carefully. He does not want to be seen as a man who does not respect commitments, in the eyes of other European leaders. If he appears to be too willing to accommodate Greece, he will be seen as the 'spokesperson for bad students'.

“Hollande is trying to gain credibility by relaunching France’s own economy. He could lose all that if he is seen as being too soft on Greece.”

But while the opinion of the French towards Greece appears more sympathetic than that of the German public, all that could change in the days to come, says Fourquet.

“It all depends on how the next few days play out. If no deal is found and Greece leaves the euro they may blame Merkel for keeping Athens as a prisoner, or Tsipras, who maybe pushed their patience too far.

“Only time will tell.”

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