ATHENS -- With thousands of police reinforcements on duty to shield her from rowdy protesters who see her as the archvillain of the euro crisis and their national pain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was greeted by the Greek prime minister as "a friend of Greece" and tried to reassure the Greek people that she was here not "as a teacher, to give grades" but rather as "a real partner."
Unpersuaded, furious Greeks held rallies and protests that included a job walkout by civil servants, including teachers and doctors. Some banners at the rallies read "Don't Cry for Us Mrs. Merkel," and "Merkel You Are Not Welcome Here." A small group of protesters burned a flag bearing the symbol of the Nazi swastika while four protesters dressed in Nazi-style uniforms drew cheers of approval as they rode a small jeep past a police cordon.
Ms. Merkel's visit stands as the high point thus far of her recent efforts to show a renewed dedication to European solidarity after years of harsh words and increasingly strained relations within the European Union. But it coincides with a report from the International Monetary Fund that underscores the challenges that lie ahea.
Greece would miss its five-year target for debt reduction, the report said, with total indebtedness falling only to 152.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2017, against the goal of 137.3 percent, according to The Associated Press. Moreover, Greece is not expected to begin generating surpluses to begin paring the debt until 2016, two years later than hoped.
At a joint news conference with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Ms. Merkel said Greece must make good on its commitments to creditors but acknowledged the suffering that the Greek people had endured as the government forced through deep spending cuts in the midst of a recession that has lasted for years. But she said the country was headed in the right direction. "I am convinced that the path, which is a difficult path, will lead to success," Ms. Merkel said.
She called for patience and endurance to see through Greece's negotiations with its so-called troika of foreign lenders, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, on the latest round of austerity measures. This package of cuts, worth $17.4 billion, would secure a $40.8 billion loan from the troika. Without those funds, the country faces default in late November.
"It is in our common interest that we in Europe once again win back our credibility in the world and show that in the euro zone we can solve our problems together," Ms. Merkel said.
Mr. Samaras also stressed the importance of reviving the moribund economy. "The recession is the enemy," he said.
"Greek people are bleeding right now, but we are determined to remain in Europe and to win this gamble," he said, noting that Ms. Merkel's visit had "broken our international isolation" and "turned a new page in the relations of Greece and Germany."
"Greece has increased its credibility," he said.
Anticipating an outpouring of public rage, Greek authorities had banned protests in much of downtown Athens and mounted the biggest security operation since 1999 when President Bill Clinton visited Athens amid furious protests at NATO airstrikes against the former Yugoslavia.
Some 7,000 police officers, many brought to the capital from the provinces for the day, are on standby along with rooftop snipers.
Security was particularly heavy outside the Parliament and the German Embassy, where the police were prepared to resort to the use of water cannons if needed. A mostly peaceful demonstration near Parliament of about 40,000 -- modest by Greek standards -- was marred by small outbursts of violence in the early afternoon when hooded protesters broke away and started throwing stones at police officers who responded with tear gas. A police spokeswoman said 217 people had been detained throughout the day, with 24 arrested and charged in a range of offenses. Greek media said that five demonstrators sustained minor injuries with a sixth suffering a heart attack.
Alexis Tsipras, the head of the leftist opposition party Syriza, which came second in the June elections after campaigning on a strong anti-austerity package, attended the rally with Bernd Ritzinger, the head of Germany's far-left party Die Linke. In comments to state television channel Net, Mr. Tsipras declared that "Merkel is here to support the Merkelists of Greece, Samaras, Venizelos and Kouvelis," a reference to the prime minister and his coalition leaders.
Ms. Merkel's government has said her visit is intended as a clear signal of solidarity with the Greeks and will not interfere with a forthcoming report by the troika of lenders.
Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that no decisions would be taken on Greece until the report is produced, but he warned that "regarding reforms, more needs to be done" in Greece, Reuters reported.
While German policy makers have complaints about their struggling partners, the realization appears to have dawned on Ms. Merkel and officials in her chancellery that with Mario Monti in Italy, Mariano Rajoy in Spain and Mr. Samaras in Greece, Ms. Merkel has the most cooperative partners she is ever going to have to work with.
The implosion of Greece's Socialist Party and the rise of parties on the extreme right and left there served to underline that point. "It's the outcome of the June 17 elections, the perception that this is the best government you can get under the current circumstances," said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, a senior analyst at the European Policy Center.
In recent months Ms. Merkel has come to recognize "the geostrategic importance, what would happen if the situation would deteriorate," Mr. Emmanouilidis said, including a host of "potential domino effects" beyond just the financial realm but extending to European security, the common market and the entire project of European integration.
"Going there is the right thing to do, even if you have negative pictures from Athens," Mr. Emmanouilidis. "You need to face it head on and not pretend it's not as bad as it is."
Ms. Merkel's visit comes only days after her main rivals, the Social Democratic Party, announced that Peer Steinbrück would run against her in next year's general election.
Mr. Steinbrück served as Ms. Merkel's finance minister in her government from 2005 to 2009, and his party has been more lenient in its discussion of Greece's future prospects in the euro zone, arguing the time lost by the government between elections earlier this year must be taken into account when considering aid to the country.
The Social Democrats criticized Ms. Merkel's visit to Athens as coming too late. The chancellor was last in Athens in 2007. Carsten Schneider, a finance expert with the Social Democrats criticized the chancellor in comments Tuesday to ARD public broadcaster as "only giving advice from behind a desk in Berlin" since the outbreak of the crisis in 2009.
Even within Ms. Merkel's own Christian Democratic party there are differences of opinion on how to handle Greece. While the chancellor has in recent months shifted her rhetoric from stressing the importance of austerity and come out more strongly in favor of keeping Greece in the euro zone, her current finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble has upheld a tougher line on Athens.
"We want to help Greece to build up an efficient bureaucracy and an efficient economy, but at some point, Greece needs to stand on its own two feet," Mr. Schäuble told RBB public broadcaster on Monday . "It is pointless to help a bottomless pit."
Headlines in center-right Greek newspapers read, "A message of support," "A decisive visit by Merkel" and "We are staying in the euro." Others, more skeptical, declared "Merkel is bringing no gifts" and "A day of anger."
This anger was echoed by a nurse heading into the center to join fellow protesters. "This is pure provocation, we have to answer back," said the nurse, Christina Amanti, 37. "It's like she's visiting her protectorate. What's she going to do, pat us on the back and tell us to keep getting poorer, that it's good for us?"
Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin. Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Strasbourg, France.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.