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European hard-left looks to Varoufakis amid Greek turmoil

© Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP | Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in Greece’s Parliament on July 15, 2015

Text by Joseph BAMAT , Romain BRUNET

Latest update : 2015-08-21

As the anti-austerity dream spun by Greece’s Syriza party is squashed by a new massive international bailout and more belt-tightening measures, former minister Yanis Varoufakis may be emerging as the new standard-bearer for Europe’s radical left.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Thursday admitted that he and Syriza had failed to deliver on their campaign promise to reject austerity, saying the mandate he won in January had come to an end and that the debt-crippled country needed early parliamentary elections.

His resignation and call for a new poll was seen as a bid to consolidate power by pushing out the more radical MPs within Syriza’s own ranks who voted against the bailout package. Indeed, at least 25 hard-left Syriza members split with Tsipras on Friday, announcing they would form a separate party.

Amid the political upheaval that will likely lead Greece to a September ballot, attention is turning to one of Syriza’s most recognizable figures: the boisterous, motorcycle-riding former finance minister Varoufakis.

Varoufakis stepped down from his post in early July, just hours after Greek voters rejected austerity measures in a nationwide referendum. As Tsipras followed suit – although for different reasons – on Thursday, the outspoken Varoufakis was uncharacteristically silent.

Two of a kind

Varoufakis’s rebellious swag and open defiance of European finance ministers has earned him fans far beyond Greek shores.

He is the guest of honour at a prominent left-wing gathering in France on Sunday. Known as the Rose Festival (Fête de la rose in French), the event was first organised in the central town of Frangy-en-Bresse in 1973, but remained a local and quiet event for many years. It has nevertheless grown in importance under the stewardship of former Socialist MP Arnaud Montebourg, effectively kicking off each year’s political calendar for French Socialists.

Montebourg and Varoufakis share the distinction of having quit their ministry jobs in protest of their government’s policies. Montebourg, considered to be on the far-left of the Socialist Party, was named France’s economy minister in 2012. But after publicly criticizing the economic policies of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls he was booted out of the government in 2014.

The Rose Festival will not be Montebourg and Varoufakis’s first meeting. The two renegade ministers met in the Greek island of Aegina in late July while on vacation, even posing for a picture together.

Another photo-op will almost certainly be on Sunday’s schedule as Montebourg seeks to cash-in on Varoufakis’s popularity among left-wing sympathisers in France. Those who see in Varoufakis a man of conviction who, unlike Tsipras, chose to abandon his position of power rather than abandon his principles, will also be eager to know where he stands in the political storm brewing back in his home country.

A house divided

Speaking to French weekly L’Obs before Tsipras’s resignation, Varoufakis clearly distanced himself from his former boss, saying the party had “betrayed a majority of Greeks”.

“When we took office, Alexis Tsipras and I promised each other two things. First, that our government would try to surprise people by actually doing what we set out to do. Second, that if we could not keep our word, we would resign rather than betray our campaign promises,” Tsipras claimed. “I thought that was our pact.”

However, he did not go as far as saying he would part ways with Syriza. In fact, he appeared to defend the unity of the left-wing party.

“If the party fails to remain united despite members’ different opinions about the [international bailout] deal, it has no future. If it succeeds it will play the most important role in Greece for many years to come,” Varoufakis added.

Collective humbling

Some experts said Varoufakis is at a critical crossroad, and that the path he decides to take will matter beyond the next Greek election.

“We are witnessing a very important change,” said Marc Lazar, a political scientist at France’s Sciences Po university and an expert of radical-left movements in Europe. “Will Varoufakis join those who already quit Syriza, will he start a new party with less radical positions, or will he remain alongside Tsipras? His decision will be very important for Greece, but also for Europe’s radical left."

Lazar said that Varoufakis had already supplanted Tsipras as the symbol of Greece’s rebellion against German-led austerity. From Podemos in Spain to the Left Front in France, radical left movements are now looking to Varoufakis for inspiration and guidance.

“Syriza’s failure to implement its original programme is painfully obvious, and an embarrassment for all of Europe’s radical left,” Lazar told FRANCE 24. “What happened in Greece shows Germany’s overall supremacy, France’s weakness, and above all that it is impossible to change the status quo in the eurozone. Hopes were dashed.”

Varoufakis acknowledged Greek voters had stood as an example for austerity-weary citizens across Europe, but had ultimately been let down by politicians, including himself. For now Tsipras has succeeded in keeping bankruptcy at bay, and keeping Greece in the eurozone. He is even likely to win a new mandate for Syriza next month, presiding over creditor-mandated spending cuts and taxes, just like his predecessors.

Syriza’s humbling was felt like personal injury by far-left activists and politicians in Europe. Some still hope that something other than endless austerity and debt await Greece and the rest of the continent. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Varoufakis, whether he likes it or not.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2015-08-21


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