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German public mood darkens on Greece

Five years into the crisis, opinion polls, newspaper headlines and politicians' barbs reflect a growing exasperation with the government of leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and its hardball negotiating tactics.

[BERLIN] As the Greek debt drama careers toward a dangerous climax, the mood in Germany has deteriorated to the point where a slight majority now believes Athens should leave the eurozone.

Five years into the crisis, opinion polls, newspaper headlines and politicians' barbs reflect a growing exasperation with the government of leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and its hardball negotiating tactics.

With the clock ticking and no deal in sight between Athens and its EU-IMF creditors, many voters in Europe's biggest economy and effective paymaster think it is time to cut Greece loose from the 19-member currency union.

"They never should have entered the eurozone," said Berlin pensioner Bernd Tuerck, 67, recalling that Greece's entry was based on flawed economic data.

Although he doesn't believe German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the European Union will allow a "Grexit" to happen now, he said: "I am scared for my children and grandchildren who will have to finance that country".

Cologne businesswoman Nicole Baumann, 55, said it annoyed her that Greece would not cut pensions while many elderly Germans scrape by on little money and added: "I think the Greeks should be kicked out of the euro and get no more aid." A poll last week showed that 51 per cent of respondents believe Greece should leave the euro, a near 20-per cent jump since Tsipras's hard-left party took power early this year in recession-weary Greece.

This compared to 46 per cent in a French poll who backed a 'Grexit', and 42 per cent who favoured a Greek EU exit in an Italian survey.

"The German people are losing patience with the Greek position," said Matthias Jung of the institute that conducted the poll for public broadcaster ZDF, noting "a steady trend since the start of the year".

Some 70 per cent now oppose any further concessions, which they see as caving in to Greek "blackmail", he said.

Nonetheless, Mr Jung said, the poll also shows Germans regard a eurozone breakup as "a scenario to be avoided at all cost".

Ms Merkel has stressed she wants Greece to stay in the euro, repeating mantra-like that "where there's a will, there's a way".

But lawmaker Gunther Krichbaum from Merkel's conservative party told foreign journalists Thursday that "many in the population - and this is not just a German phenomenon - are saying, it's enough, we have already shown great solidarity.

"There have been a lot of provocations from Athens, especially towards Germany. People see things very emotionally."

Ms Merkel has been Europe's leading voice preaching austerity and tough reforms in return for bailout cash - a position that has seen her caricatured in Nazi garb in Greece, but gone down well with German voters worried about public finances.

Daniela Schwarzer, of think-tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that in past years "taboos were broken about 'Nazi Germany' and 'lazy Greek pensioners', but still German public opinion didn't turn completely hostile toward Greece".

The mood had now taken a turn for the worse, she said, because many Germans "no longer believe that this country wants to, or can, play by the jointly agreed rules and objectives".

"There is also a huge degree of disillusionment and frustration with the public criticism of Germany coming out of Greece." Even the centre-left Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, so far sympathetic with debt-wracked Greece, has tapped into the shifting mood.

"All over Europe there is a growing sentiment: Enough!" he wrote in the mass-market Bild daily, accusing Athens of being "just about to gamble away the future of their country - and that of Europe as well".

The tabloid style Bild has itself campaigned against the Tsipras government, claiming it is squandering German taxpayers' money into a "bottomless pit".

In February it published full-page "Nein" posters objecting to more help for Greece, which it urged its readers to hold up before cameras.

News website Spiegel Online's columnist Jakob Augstein argued that Merkel has pandered to the sentiment that "greedy Greeks are trying to grab German money".

"That's the only way the euro crisis is now being talked about in this country," wrote Mr Augstein.

Ms Schwarzer said the crisis highlights a gulf between a German rules-based approach and the Greek position that creditors' austerity demands "are completely unfair because they feel they are carrying all the burden".

"The Greeks find it illegitimate that you get detailed plans imposed on your economic and budgetary policy, and the Germans find it illegitimate if a country doesn't govern by the rules," she told AFP.

"They are very different notions of what is good economic and fiscal policy, and of what is legitimate or not legitimate."