Rebel to Reliable: Germany, France Favor Tsipras Return

Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande And Alexis Tsipras
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Photographer: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images

Alexis Tsipras has gone from Europe’s most divisive leader to the best hope of keeping the region’s common currency area together.

Government officials in Paris and Berlin said the Syriza leader has built up trust with President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel over months of late-night sessions as they worked on a deal to secure Greece’s future in the euro.

Having brought Tsipras into the European mainstream, they see him as most able to deliver on the reform program necessary for Greece’s economic turnaround, according to the officials, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity of the matter. That makes Tsipras the best bet to secure stability after the Sept. 20 election, they said.

“We have a decent chance that this program will be implemented, regardless of how the election turns out,” Merkel said Thursday during a question and answer session with students in Bern. Tsipras, she said, has “repeatedly committed to carrying out this program.”

The political transformation of Tsipras, elected in January on a no-bailout platform opposed to Merkel’s austerity agenda, enabled Greece to win further outside aid of as much as 86 billion euros ($96 billion) that pulls it back from the edge of unprecedented uncertainty outside the 19-nation euro area.

Yet Syriza, which is short for the Coalition of the Radical Left, split at the prospect of enacting the measures required in return, including selling off state assets and an overhaul of one of Europe’s most generous -- and costly -- pensions systems. The subsequent party purge precipitated snap elections that polls suggest will have no clear outcome.

‘Strong Leader’

Merkel had asked Tsipras if he could pass the measures through a slimmed-down summer parliament in which it is easier to bypass rebellions, but he said he needed more time, according to an official familiar with her stance. Given Syriza’s evaporating poll lead, the German government is concerned that he might have miscalculated, the official said.

All the same, if he wins, Tsipras has the chance to be “a very strong leader for reforms,” Jens Spahn, a deputy to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, said in a Bloomberg Television interview this week.

Tacit support for Tsipras’s return is a turnaround from the tensions that dominated the first few months after he succeeded New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

Anti-Merkel Alliance

One of Tsipras’s first acts as Greek leader was to visit a memorial to victims of the German wartime occupation. He then set about trying to form an anti-austerity alliance against Merkel as he toured European capitals while avoiding Berlin. Schaeuble retaliated by suggesting the euro zone might be better off without Greece.

The French and German leaders are unlikely to publicly endorse Tsipras since Syriza is from a different political family to Hollande’s Socialists or Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

An aide to the French president said it’s up to the Greek people to choose their leaders, a position echoed by Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, when asked about the chancellor’s preferred outcome.

He pointed out that the European agreement reached with Greece on a third bailout program “is valid even in the event of an election leading to a new government” in Athens.

Tsipras benefits from having no links with Greece’s vested interests, and can build consensus that would allow him to deliver on the program, a French official said.

“Alexis Tsipras is courageous,” Hollande said in his traditional Bastille Day speech in July. “He was elected on a very left-wing platform and he’s ended up carrying reforms that are really difficult.”

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