Greek demonstrators protest Merkel's visit of Athens
Demonstrators gather as German Chancellor, vilified for Greece's tough spending cuts, meets Greek PM to discuss country's ongoing austerity
Athens ground to a halt yesterday for German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel's first visit since the financial crisis began, as police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who tried to storm a barricade near Parliament. Two Nazi flags were draped on the steel fence near Parliament and set on fire.
Vilified for Greece's punishing spending cuts, Merkel, the leader of Europe's paymaster, met Greek Prime Minister Antonio Samaras as demonstrators gathered just a few blocks away, some brandishing banners reading "You are not welcome, Imperialisten Raus [Imperialists out]" or "No to the Fourth Reich".
Merkel, who stopped in Athens for five hours, said that a "tough path" of austerity was the best way for Greece to overcome its economic crisis.
"Much of the ground has been covered ... There is daily progress," Merkel said after talks with Samaras. "This is an effort that should be seen through because otherwise it would make the circumstances even more dramatic later on."
She also praised the course of Greek reforms and repeated her desire to keep Greece in the euro zone, a badly needed message of support to the country's embattled government.
Thousands of police were out on the streets and key parts of central Athens were closed off to create a large security zone for Merkel's meetings with Samaras and President Carolos Papoulias.
Merkel has become a hate figure in Greece over the tough spending cuts imposed on the country in return for multi-billion dollar aid packages.
She has even been depicted as Adolf Hitler in Greek tabloid caricatures.
The visit comes at a crucial time for Athens which is locked in negotiations with its international creditors over a €13.5-billion (HK$1.34 trillion) package of further cuts in order to win further bailout funds.
Merkel's first visit since July 2007, reciprocates a visit by Samaras to Berlin in August and underscored her desire to silence the calls from her own coalition to kick Greece out of the currency union.
Merkel's office and the Greek authorities are selling her visit as a gesture of solidarity and encouragement for the country's reform efforts, but many in Greece said the trip only served to fan anger. Vana Koronaiou, a shopowner selling German-made handbags near Syntagma Square, said: "This visit pours oil on the fire. If she wanted to help, she should have done it sooner," she said.
Some pelted police with rocks, bottles and sticks, and tried to bust through a barricade set up to protect Merkel and her delegation. Police detained dozens of protesters in what they said was one of the biggest demonstrations in months.
Christina Vassilopoulou, a teacher, said she had turned up to protest "the decisions taken at European meetings where Merkel manipulates the participants".
"I have a doctorate and I make €900 a month, 400 less than before. We have children that go hungry and most of the parents are unemployed," she said.
Shortly before her arrival, Greece's international creditors - the International Monetary Fund IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank - piled further pressure on Athens to live up to its austerity pledges made in exchange for crucial loans.
However, Athens and Berlin both shied away from tough talk ahead of the visit.
Meanwhile in Paris, the French National Assembly approved an EU fiscal pact which critics argue is austerity forced by Brussels.
President Francois Hollande's cabinet has already backed it. Signed in March, the pact must be approved by 12 of 17 euro-zone members to take effect. Nine euro-zone states have ratified the pact so far.
Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse