International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde is retreating from remarks that she has more sympathy for poor African children than Greeks suffering under the country's economic problems and austerity measures.
Thousands of angry messages were posted on her Facebook page after the Guardian newspaper published an interview Saturday in which Lagarde chastises Greeks for not paying their taxes. In response to the firestorm, Lagarde issued a statement late Saturday stating she was "very sympathetic to the Greek people and the challenges they are facing."
"That's why the IMF is supporting Greece in its endeavour to overcome the current crisis," she said.
In the article, Lagarde made it clear that the IMF has no plans to relent on its austerity requirements for the country and 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.
"I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education," she told The Guardian in an interview published Saturday. "I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens."
Greek Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Largarde of "insulting the Greek people," while left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras reiterated: "Greek workers pay their taxes, which are unbearable."
Culture of tax evasion
Lagarde pointed to Greece's culture of tax evasion as a major factor behind the country's financial difficulties, saying: "So, you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time."
Greeks "should also help themselves collectively" by paying their taxes, she said.
Greece's economy is being kept afloat on international loans provided by the European Union and the IMF, along with a harsh austerity package of cuts and higher taxes that is deeply unpopular with the country's electorate. The government that agreed to the loan and austerity package was voted out of office in May.
The new parties, who mainly campaigned on anti-austerity platforms,have not been able to form a government and new elections are scheduled for June 17. One of the most popular parties in Greece, the left-wing Syriza party, wants to abolish Greece's international bailout agreements, raising fears that Greece will leave the eurozone and destabilize world markets.