Athens - Political leaders in Athens and thousands of internet users have rounded on International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde for branding Greeks tax dodgers, as parties went on the campaign trail for next month's elections.
Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Lagarde on Sunday of trying to "humiliate" the debt-stricken country, which is facing its second election in six weeks, a vote 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".
Greek web users waged Facebook war against Lagarde, with the IMF's French managing director receiving more than 10 000 messages, many of them obscene, on her page on the online social network.
By late Sunday afternoon a separate Facebook page had sprung up titled "Greeks are against Lagarde".
Their anger was sparked by comments Lagarde made in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Friday that Greeks must "help themselves collectively" by all paying taxes, saying she was more concerned about Africans in poverty than Greeks in the economic crisis.
Among the online messages posted by angry Greeks, Iakovos Magdakis wrote: "Who are you to tell me to pay? My wife has been unemployed for four years, I have been unemployed for five months and we have a four-month-old baby."
Lagarde responded to the flood of angry online messages by responding on Facebook that 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," she said on the social networking site.
The comments by the French IMF head came as parties squared off for the election that could determine whether Greece continues to receive European Union-IMF funds as part of a multi-billion euro bailout package and stays in the eurozone.
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-orientated strategy in the crisis, government spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem described Lagarde's comments as "rather simplistic and stereotypical".
Venizelos welcomed Lagarde's Facebook message, after saying an election rally: "Nobody can humiliate the Greek people during the crisis."
Greece made a deal in 2010 to receive hundreds of billions of euros 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 Sunday indicated New Democracy had taken the lead.
New Democracy and Pasok each defend the bailout agreement they signed as partners in a coalition government, but have proposed to amend it.
Venizelos 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 Sunday.
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 Sunday.
Campaigning on Saturday, New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras said a victory for Syriza would cause "catastrophe" and send Greece out of the euro.