Newly sworn-in Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou at the Presidential Palace, in Athens, Greece, March 13 2020. Pictrure: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
Newly sworn-in Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou at the Presidential Palace, in Athens, Greece, March 13 2020. Pictrure: REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS

Athens — Greece’s first female president began her term on Friday with a pledge to protect the country’s borders and defend human rights, while warning Greeks to follow health rules as the country grapples with more than 100 coronavirus cases.

Katerina Sakellaropoulou, a former senior judge, said she would “walk together” with Greeks to create a “prosperous” and “cosmopolitan” future “that includes all of us”.

She begins her five-year term in a terse standoff with neighbouring Turkey, which has allowed tens of thousands of refugees to mass at the border. Sakellaropoulou said Greeks had to “repulse the aggression of those who make designs on our national sovereignty by making use of human pain”.

The new president also insisted that Greece had a “humanitarian duty” to defend “defenceless and desperate people”.

Heed virus warnings

Greece has so far announced 133 cases of the coronavirus, according to the John Hopkins University coronavirus resource centre, one of whom died on Thursday after 10 days in hospital. Three people are in intensive care and the government has shut down schools and universities, courts, cinemas, gyms and other indoor public gathering areas for two weeks in an effort to curb the outbreak.

Sakellaropoulou urged the public to follow health warnings “to avoid spreading panic” that could tear apart the health system and harm the economy.

She took a religious oath in parliament before Archbishop Ieronymos, head of the Orthodox Church of Greece. She placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — Greece’s foremost military monument — before heading to the presidential mansion for a handover ceremony with outgoing president Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

No handshakes 

Known as low-key and living in a working-class district of Athens, Sakellaropoulou has made it known she prefers to be called Katerina, instead of the more formal Ekaterini.

The ceremony in parliament was drastically scaled back as a result of the virus outbreak, with about 150 guests present instead of a planned 1,000 — and no handshakes.

Nominated by prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Sakellaropoulou was elected by parliament in January by 261 out of 300 lawmakers, one of the broadest cross-party majorities in Greek history.

The former judge has set out her priorities as tackling the economic crisis, climate change and mass migration.

The new president was previously the head of Greece’s top administrative court, the council of state, and the first woman to lead it. The daughter of a supreme court judge, Sakellaropoulou completed postgraduate studies at the Sorbonne university in Paris. 

Sakellaropoulou said she hoped her election to the five-year post “would improve the status of all [Greek] women in family and society. “It is time for the women of this country to realise that they can fulfil their dreams based on their merit, without facing obstacles just because they were born female.” 

Though the president is nominally the head of the Greek state and commander-in-chief, the post is largely ceremonial. Greek presidents confirm governments and laws and technically have the power to declare war — but only in conjunction with the government.