The real reasons why Tsipras cannot 'cave in to austerity'
Published 22/06/2015 | 02:30
Whatever the fate of Greece today, history may recall that the French have an old tradition of blaming a woman for some of the problems. "Cherchez la femme," said Voltaire: some female will make trouble.
For French President Francois Hollande seems to blame Betty Batziana - 'Red Betty' - the life partner of Alexis Tsipras for the financial intransigence of Athens. Hollande said last week that the Greek Prime Minister and founder of Syriza was "henpecked" by his partner: the Greek politician had confided to Hollande that he "could not cave in" to EU austerity demands because if he did "Betty will leave me".
Batziana - she has retained her own family name and she and Tsipras have never married, on a point of secularist principle - is known to be more left wing than her partner, and, originally, was more political than he was. As a young man, and until he developed knee problems, Tsipras was more interested in sport than politics. It was she who was the political firebrand, and, according to reports, it was she who introduced Alexis to the Greek Communist Party, the KKE, which, back in the day, was especially supine to Moscow. It's perhaps surprising that it was Tsipras, rather than Batziana, who became the politician in the family. She took a PhD in electrical and computing engineering, and pursued an academic career, while her partner entered parliament in 2009, and found himself Prime Minister in January this year. (They have two sons - one, Orpheus Ernesto, was named after Che Guevara.)
But not all women - even left-wing firebrands - actually want to be in the front line of politics, and some prefer to express their political commitment through indirect methods. Sometimes, such indirect methods include influencing their spouses or partners, which Batziana seems to have done in full measure. According to Hollande, Tsipras might be more amenable to EU pressure if he weren't threatened by the insecurity of losing his partner.
A similar ploy has been invoked before: in 411 BC, in the Greek comedy 'Lysisistra', the women of Athens withdrew sexual favours until their men made peace.
But if Batziana's influence is that strong, it's perhaps a tribute to just how close their relationship must be. Not every man pays attention to his wife's political advice, and perhaps not every woman heeds her husband's.
Or, when a politician obeys the nostrums of his spouse, it is usually because that is what he wants to hear.
That was probably the case with Parnell. Parnell might have remained leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party if he had agreed to Gladstone's (and Archbishop Croke's) suggestion that he "take a back seat" for a while after that controversial divorce. A conciliatory partner might have urged Parnell to do just that: but Katharine O'Shea bolstered his pride and told him to "Show who is master!". But perhaps Parnell would not have chosen a woman who thought otherwise. In modern times, the Clintons and the Blairs are often seen as exemplars of power couples where the wife has a strong influence on the husband's career - and character. When Tony Blair became a Catholic, it was said that this must have been through the influence of Cherie, Liverpool-born and convent-educated. On the minus side, Tony Blair's remarkable acquisition of wealth and property portfolios are also sometimes ascribed to Cherie's deep-seated need for financial security.
Historians will surely deduce that Bill Clinton would never have become President of the United States without Hillary's influence: he had the charm and the abilities, but his own background was so flakey he needed the stabilising influence (and driving ambition) that Hillary provided. He is now repaying the debt by being her support.
It's an interesting point that political wives are sometimes seen as being more left wing than their politician husbands. It's as if the politician himself, having to appeal to a wider consensus, daren't seem too extreme on his own account, whereas the wife in the background is freer to express a stronger sense of ideology. (By contrast, General de Gaulle's wife, Yvonne, was more conservative than he, and nudged him towards more moral and social controls)
Betty Batziana, who is 41, may be fired by the best possible motives and a sense of compassion for the people of Greece. She has continued in her job in the computer industry, and has lived as ordinary a life as possible - disdaining the formal position of 'First Lady' - so she may well be more in touch with everyday life than most of the panjandrums of the EU. If her fierce feelings against austerity are motivated by such experience, well, all credit to her.
Yet, at the end of the day, her partner also has to deal with the realities of power, responsibility, and financial arithmetic. However devoted he may be to his 'Red Betty', Alexis Tsipras may have to abide by the practiced saying that 'Politics is the art of the possible'. The possible is not always achieved by ideology.