Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Lagarde of trying to “humiliate” the debt-stricken country, which is facing its second election in six weeks seen as crucial to the future of the eurozone.
Radical left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza party is one of the two top contenders for the June 17 vote, insisted “Greek workers pay their taxes, which are unbearable”.
The comments by the French IMF head came as parties squared off for the election that could determine whether Greece continues to receive EU-IMF funds as part of a multi-billion euro bailout package and stays in the eurozone.
Lagarde told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in an interview published Friday that Greeks must “help themselves collectively” by all paying taxes, saying she was more concerned about sub-Saharan Africans in poverty than Greeks hit by the economic crisis.
The International Monetary Fund managing director responded to thousands of angry messages on her Facebook page, saying 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.”
Tsipras seized on her comments to assert his stance as a defender against economic cuts, which drove many Greeks to vote for him in an inconclusive election on May 6, putting him second ahead of Venizelos’s Pasok party.
“The last thing we seek in Greece is her sympathy. Greek workers pay their taxes, which are unbearable,” Tsipras said in a statement, taking a swipe at Pasok and the conservative New Democracy party which came first in May.
“For tax-evaders, she should turn to Pasok and New Democracy to explain to her why they haven’t touched the big money and have been chasing the simple worker for two years.”
In France, whose Socialist President Francois Hollande has defended Greece’s place in the eurozone and pushed for a more growth-oriented strategy in the crisis, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem described Lagarde’s comments as “rather simplistic and stereotypical”.
Venizelos welcomed Lagarde’s Facebook message, after telling an election rally: “Nobody can humiliate the Greek people during the crisis.”
“I say this today addressing specifically Ms Lagarde… who with her stance insulted the Greek people,” he said.
Greece made a deal in 2010 to receive hundreds of billions of euros (dollars) from the IMF and the EFSF, a European Union bailout fund, to rescue it from financial collapse. Lagarde took the reins of the global lender in May 2011.
The country will head to the polls for a second time in six weeks on June 17 since political parties failed to form a coalition after the May 6 election.
Syriza, which has threatened to renege on the bailout accords, has led at times in the opinion polls, but a series of polls published yesterday indicated New Democracy had taken the lead.
The surveys by five separate polling groups forecast a New Democracy victory ranging between 23.3% and 25.8%, a result that would still require the party to join up with allies to form a viable government.
New Democracy and Pasok each defend the bailout agreement but have proposed to amend it. enizelos said he wants to extend the loan repayments.
“The country needs a government that will unite the people and revise the loan agreement, but assure we stay in the euro,” he said.
Former prime minister Lucas Papademos has warned that Greece may run out of money by the end of June if international bailout funds are cut off following the election, To Vima newspaper reported yesterday.
That could lead Greece to default on its debt and leave the eurozone.
Campaigning on Saturday, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said a victory for Syriza would cause “catastrophe” and send Greece out of the euro.