Merkel Greeted By Thousands Of Protesters In Greece

German Chancellor Angela Merkel got a hostile reception in a visit to Greece on Tuesday, her first since the debt crisis developed three years ago. Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets to protest the deep austerity measures the German-led eurozone has imposed in exchange for multi-billion dollar bailouts.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Greece today. It was her first visit since the eurozone debt crisis began. For Merkel, the six-hour trip was a goodwill gesture toward a country that she has long criticized. There to greet her were thousands of Greeks protesting a woman they associate with pain and disrespect.

Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The protesters showed up even before the chancellor touched down at the Athens Airport. Thousands gathered outside Syntagma, the square outside parliament that's become an iconic space in the anti-austerity movement. Some waved Greek flags and sang old songs about rebellion. Stella Mouroutsou joined the chorus. She's 25, college-educated, but can only find part-time work as a waitress.

STELLA MOUROUTSOU: (Through translator) I'm here to tell her that austerity is not going to help anything. How can I help when I'm making 300 euros a month? Europe should help me, too, because I'm a European citizen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

KAKISSIS: Others were far less charitable. A group of army reservists in fatigues marched in step and declared: Let's kick out the Nazis. Some Greek newspapers have depicted Merkel as an SS officer in jackboots. A retired reservist, Nikos Dimopoulos, says that's not too harsh.

NIKOS DIMOPOULOS: What she represents here in Greece is Nazi occupation. We lived under Nazi occupation. And we know what slavery is.

KAKISSIS: The demonstrations went ahead despite the deployment of more than 7,000 police officers to lock down central Athens. It was the biggest security operation in a decade. Christos Katsioulis, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German think tank in Athens, says Merkel and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras can learn from the demonstrations.

CHRISTOS KATSIOULIS: The demonstrations can show to Merkel that the situation in Greece is really, really bad for the small people and they're going to go on the street to protest. And it can be an argument for Samaras saying, look at my people. They can't endure anymore, so please let us lighten the burden a little bit.

KAKISSIS: Germany is the biggest eurozone contributor to the bailout loan saving Greece from bankruptcy. But it also says Greece must stick to austerity to keep getting aid. Merkel says she will do whatever she can to help the country weather austerity. Here she speaks through a translator.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through translator) I've come here today in the full and firm awareness of the fact that the period Greece is going through is especially difficult for the people of Greece.

KAKISSIS: She says she knows Greeks are suffering because so much is being demanded of them. Samaras called her a friend, and said he wants Greece and Germany to work together.

PRIME MINISTER ANTONIS SAMARAS: (Through translator) The Greek people are not asking for more money or favors. The only thing they're asking is the opportunity to get on their feet as quickly as possible, to get past the recession and start moving forward.

KAKISSIS: But new austerity measures are expected to drag the recession into a sixth year. Angela Merkel promises that these sacrifices will lead to a better place. The problem is many Greeks no longer believe her.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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