“It is time for a Greek payback,” proclaimed Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF last week in her interview with the Guardian.
This diplomatic gaff caused a chain-reaction in Europe. Making clear that the IMF has no plans to relent on its austerity requirements for the country, Lagarde said she was aware that many Greeks were struggling to access services like health care because of the country's economic crisis, but believed people in other countries deserved more sympathy. With such statements, Lagarde has put a lot of negative publicity to her name, and more importantly, to the IMF itself, causing a wave of fury around the globe.
The first reactions came from Greece. Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Lagarde of "insulting the Greek people" and left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras once again repeated his stance that the Greek’s pay taxes which are “unbearable,” writes the BBC. The series of reactions continued with thousands of angry messages on Lagarde’s Facebook page. In response, Lagarde wrote, again on Facebook, that she is “very sympathetic to the Greek people and the challenges they are facing.”
Greek ex-deputy Prime Minister EvangelosVenizelos welcomed Lagarde’s Facebook post. However, he underlined that “nobody can humiliate the Greek people during the crisis.” More official reactions came from France, Lagarde’s home country. French finance minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem regarded Lagarde’s comments in the interview for Canal+ as “stereotypical and rather simplistic,” and added that she believes that it is not the time to “teach someone a lesson.” Moreover, the leader of the Communist Party in France, Jean Luc-Melenchon, who ran for president and won 11% of the vote, said that Lagarde should resign after comments like that and wondered in an interview for with France 3, “What gives her (Lagarde) the right to speak in this manner to the Greeks?”
In her interview for the Guardian, Lagarde continues with the insults. She compared the situation in Greece with the one in Africa, even though the two are indisputably not comparable. She said that she thinks more of the kids from a school in a little village in Niger, and has them in her head all the time, because “they need more help than the people in Athens.” It is unacceptable to be a managing director of an international organization and speak in that manner. The end of Lagarde’s stream of thought is also concerning: "As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax."
By putting the whole nation in the same category, she has equated the ones that are trying their best to survive in Greece, the ones in a constant search for a job, all the hardworking people, with the ones who are indeed trying to evade their taxes. A Facebook message as an apology is not enough.
The story took an interesting turn, when the Guardian itself challenged Lagarde’s views in a follow-up editorial. The editorial is suggesting that she is, as a French finance minister at the end of the boom years, is partially responsible for the current economic collapse in Europe, and therefore Greece, as well.
“Not only should Christine Lagarde know better, she does know better,” the Guardian editorial continues, criticizing her for placing the blame on spendthrift southern European nations. The article concludes with the statement that the “imprudent borrowers require foolhardy lenders, and in Greece and elsewhere that role has often been played by northern European banks.”
As a candidate for the chief of the IMF, Lagarde was praised for her "lightning-quick wit, genuine warmth and ability to bridge divides."
It is not exactly a dictionary example of wit to tell a country in economic chaos that it is time for payback. When you do that, you genuine warmth disappears and the bridge that surpasses divides is bound to collapse. This reaction from Lagarde was not predictable and it inevitably brings problems to the IMF, puts in question its role and responsibilities, and undoubtedly deepens the pandemonium of the Greek financial crisis.