"More and more people realise austerity is not viable. There is no other way but to radicalise further"

An interview with Alexis Tsipras of Syriza.

In the past few months, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing movement Syriza and widely tipped as the country's next prime minister, has been on an international tour, trying to build a broad coalition of support for his party's anti-austerity policies - and, perhaps, to convince the world's political elite that a Syriza government is not such a terrifying prospect. Last week was London's turn. The New Statesman caught up with him at the end of a busy schedule of meetings and talks, en route to see Tottenham Hotspur play Fulham.

NS: You’ve just given two lectures in London: one at the LSE, and one at Friends House, a well-known venue for left-wing events. How did you find the audiences?

Tsipras: Both at LSE, where I expected the audience to be a bit colder but it turned out that most were friendly, and at the [Friends House] one organised by Syriza London, the participation was amazing. At the second one I was surprised to see that almost 600 hundred people turned up. And not just Greeks either, many were British.

And I think this means that Syriza is not just a party with interesting positions, but a force that can bring change to the political landscape of Europe – not just for Greece, but for all the people who now need to reclaim their right to a decent society, justice and hope; against those who want to see them subjugated to this austerity that doesn’t just kill wages and pensions, but democracy itself.

Would you say you have political allies in Britain?

I had the opportunity to meet with two teams from the Labour Party: an official one headed by [Jon] Cruddas, the party's head of policy-making, and another one with four to five Labour MPs. I got the impression that the Labour party today is in soul-searching mode, and the debate around austerity is on, so Greece is for them an interesting case study. Bearing in mind that in previous years they followed neoliberal policies, today Labour are deeply troubled about everything that has happened in Greece and especially by the collapse of PASOK [Labour's social-democratic Greek sister party]. They're following the situation closely and I dare say they are one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.

So Syriza can find common ground with Labour?

It will depend upon how daring [Ed] Miliband intends to be and especially when it matters most: during the next elections when pressure from the mainstream media and oligarchs in Britain start speaking of the "red dragon" that has come to drive away the City and submerge us in inflation and poverty. Of course this will depend not only on Miliband's endurance but also on the circumstances under which this duel will take place. Because if elections are held in 2015, the two years in between will be apocalyptic as to the effects of neoliberalism in Europe. Britain is already in depression. Nothing is getting better. More and more people in Europe realise that austerity is not a viable prospect. I hope people realise that there is no other way but to radicalise even further.

Do you think there is potential for something similar to Syriza in Britain? A party emerging from outside the mainstream that will oppose austerity?

I can’t really know that. Every country has its own characteristics and in Britain there's a long tradition of a two-party system. If of course Labour wins the next elections and opts to continue along Cameron’s tracks, then it’s almost certain that they will lose every bond with the social classes that support them. The void left there will certainly be filled by something new. That’s the way it works in nature and that’s the way it works in politics.

At your lectures, you spoke of the need for a "European people" in order to find a way out of the crisis. Do you find the conditions are here for this to happen?

I think we are running a grave danger: to focus our thoughts on the Greek people, on the British people, on the Italians, like separate entities. The crisis threatens to drive us backwards, back to the idea of the nation-state, and to the antagonism between those states that will come about as an extension of neoliberalism, with false ideas of competitiveness and so on.

On the other hand, we need to see the actual solution: that in common problems, we need common answers. Europeans have nothing to fight over. This stand-off is not between the British and the French, the Greeks and the Germans. This is between the working class, the unemployed and part of the middle class against predatory capital.

This brings us to something current and highly relevant to what you were saying. What do you think about what’s happening in Cyprus?

I think it’s unbelievable and self-destructive.

I believe that in the next few days panic will spread to the rest of southern Europe. It is a very risky choice they [the troika] have made, and it proves they have no understanding of the objective dangers facing the eurozone. They've chosen to have a Eurozone operating under their rule, with the people subjugated, threatened with blackmail like this. I think the only chance Cyprus has, like other countries, is if the political system rejects this blackmail. If they accept it, then there is no way back. Cyprus's economy will be ruined, its banking system will bleed capital as depositors will fear a second haircut, and this will spread throughout Europe.

On the contrary, if Cyprus resists, and rejects this deal by protecting its banking system, it would send a strong message of trust and credibility to the rest of the southern European countries as well.

One of the first things your opponents in the government said when details of the Cyprus bank levy came up was to claim that one of your own MPs, Manolis Glezos, suggested something similar recently.

Their claims are ridiculous.

They're made, though.

They [the Greek government] can claim anything they want in their PR war. It’s the same team of people that has ruined the country and they can use what they want to attack us.

Of course Manolis [Glezos] never said anything like that. He spoke once about the possibility of a voluntary loan via bonds exchange. His idea has nothing to do with the proposed involuntary haircut imposed on Cypriot deposits.

Those who now govern us under the neoliberal dogma, under the dogma of subjugation, will go for anything, they’ll ask for no one's permission to take measures like that one. They will turn us into Argentina [circa 2001] while at the same time proclaiming that their target is to avoid exactly that. De la Rua [the former Argentine president] was their ideological cousin anyway, and it’s likely a helicopter will carry them away too, when the time comes for the Greek people to reclaim their rights and bring back balance to our society, economy and lives. There’s no other possible outcome.

But your opponents will claim you are no longer that radical, and that you now resemble a centre-left party.

Well, it’s ridiculous that the same people who claim that we aid terrorists, accuse us of becoming more timid at the same time. They just spin it any way they can and hope it catches on.

So are you still radicals or have you become a party of the centre-left?

Syriza is what it is: a radical, left-wing party that feels the pulse of the times, knows what’s at stake and is after a wide consensus and unity for political change in Greece. This is something that departs from the narrow limits of the radical left.

And what of the transformations Syriza is going through? Because there is certainly something changing.

We are going through a process, as democratic as ever, and with the people’s participation it can only get better. We already accomplished much. Last year no one would have thought that Syriza could achieve this. Instead of factions, we are now a solid democratic party, that operates with the same freedom of opinions as it used to. This will lead to the formation of a new shape for us that will come about after our next conference which is taking place soon.

Are you making moves in the European scene as well?

We are looking into the new conditions now forming. Our aim is for an international summit on the re-negotiation and the cancellation of the debt of peripheral European countries. For this, we are open to co-operation with forces outside the European left as well.

So you still claim you'll "tear up the memorandum" and not just repay Greece's lenders at any cost?

Our reasoning is that the memorandum has already failed. It’s a disaster. We’ll put an end to it and replace it when in parliament. We’ll proceed to renegotiate with our lenders with the prospect of a reasonable, viable agreement that won’t just concern Greece, because this is not just a Greek crisis. We’ve seen that the problem is systemic. This means that when negotiations take place it won’t be Greece against the world but rather, the European South against Ms Merkel.

Let's leave Europe for a moment; what about the rest of the world? What came out of your recent tour of South and North America, for instance?

This happened in the context of carrying a message to the outside world: That Greece is going through a humanitarian crisis and that it needs alliances with those powers that realise the danger austerity carries for the entire planet. It’s in their best interests to support Greece, not out of charity, but rather because they understand that this catastrophic tragedy needs to stop. Through these contacts we've had the chance to create such alliances, for today and for tomorrow.

Was something more specific discussed in terms of trade? Cheap oil from Venezuela, maybe?

Well, I don't think there is any point to get into so much detail. What matters is that a number of countries both in South and in North America understand the the Greek program is not working and a government of the left can provide a way out of it not just for Greece but also for Europe. It will give a prospect of balance for the world economy as well, because the real threat right now is the spreading of austerity and depression.

Is the rumour true, then, that the US is positive towards the possibility of Syriza coming to power?

That’s a comment I'd leave for you journalists to make. The point is that the US are following a policy line radically different from that which Angela Merkel follows and enforces throughout Europe. The US have printed money, they intend to tax the rich in order to avoid the fiscal cliff.

These are things that sees anyone who dares to propose them in Greece and Europe, labeled an extremist, when at the same time it's what Obama does. In that sense there are common elements, at least more than in the past, in the applied economic policy. Geopolitics are more complicated than that, I'm afraid.

One subject you seemed to leave out of your talks was immigration, an issue that the far right has exploited to frightening extent. What is Syriza's policy on this?

Immigration is one of the most important issues on our agenda. The European South is an entry point and we need to look into a wider solution. It's unfair for entrance countries to be forced into taking all the weight of the issue. Dublin II [the EU-wide agreement on asylum seekers] strips away the right of immigrants and refugees, to leave the country with proper documentation. They don't want to stay in a country where they can't get a job, but they are forced to.

So we need to examine what kind of Europe we want from now on: Do we want a Europe based on solidarity where hardships are equally distributed? Or do we want a Europe where the south is used as storage space for poor souls and the north lives on comfortably? We are approaching this both on an institutional level, trying to force a treaty change, but also through a humanitarian perspective. We can't treat those people who arrive to our country like second-class citizens.

And especially for those kids who are born in Greece, we say nothing different than what Britain does: they should be able to get Greek citizenship. They take part in Greek education, they speak Greek and they know no other home. We need to see the future in a multicultural Greece, much like the way Britain worked it out, successfully in my opinion.

So, for a last question: how important is your role as the face of Syriza?

Faces and personalities are important sometimes, but it's social conditions that create the context for them to act. I’ve been saying the same things for three to four years. The people accepted the message now, not because I changed it. I believe history will be written by those people, not leaders, despite the role leaders have to play in this.

Follow Yiannis Baboulias on Twitter @YiannisBab and Daniel Trilling @trillingual

Alexis Tsipras (centre), after a speech outside Athens University in June 2012. (Photo: Getty.)
Getty
Show Hide image

Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”