Hollande Visits Greece to Show Support for Recovery Efforts
By NIKI KITSANTONIS
Published: February 19, 2013
NEW YORK TIMESATHENS — During a quick visit to the Greek capital on Tuesday, President François Hollande of France expressed support for Greece’s efforts to revive its economy and called on French companies to invest in the debt-racked country. He also indicated France’s interest in working with Greece to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in the Aegean Sea, a likely point of contention with neighboring Turkey.
Bertrand Langlois/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“Our message is one of friendship, support, trust and growth” for Greece, Mr. Hollande said after talks with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. “No European people have undergone such a test, so we must stand by Greece’s side.”
Mr. Hollande, a socialist who came to power last spring on a pledge to increase growth to counteract deepening austerity in Europe, emphasized the importance of foreign investment to bolster Greece, which is in its sixth year of recession. Greek unemployment has risen to 27 percent, climbing above 60 percent for young people.
Mr. Hollande said he would push French companies to “actively support investments” and to participate in bids for the privatization of Greece’s state water and rail companies as well as other projects.
“I will speak to them this evening,” he said, before further talks with Mr. Samaras and his partners in Greece’s coalition government that were to conclude his roughly six-hour visit.
Mr. Samaras, for his part, heralded “a new chapter” in bilateral ties, describing the French leader’s visit as “a vote of confidence that proved Greece is no longer the weak link of Europe.”
He said talks on possible cooperation focused on sectors including the military, construction and, chiefly, energy, noting that Greece aimed to become an “energy hub in the Aegean.”
A plan to cooperate on energy projects is to be broached during Mr. Samaras’ visit next month to Turkey, which objects to Greece’s prospecting for oil and gas in the Aegean until the two countries resolve a longstanding dispute regarding the delineation of the countries’ territorial waters and the continental shelf.
Mr. Hollande indicated that energy was a potential area of mutual business opportunity. “If France is able to commonly exploit hydrocarbon reserves with Greece, it will do so,” he said.
The French president added that he was “not here to sell arms,” an apparent response to speculation about the possible lease or sale of frigates to Greece. He added that he and Mr. Samaras had signed a deal to bolster tourism, which accounts for a fifth of Greece’s dwindling gross domestic product.
Recession is a Europe-wide problem, not particular to Greece, Mr. Hollande added, noting that France would fall short of its target of 0.8 percent growth for 2013.
Although security was tight on Tuesday, with police helicopters circling over central Athens, the French leader’s visit did not involve the draconian measures that accompanied the arrival last October of Chancellor Angela Merkel: Germany is widely seen by Greeks as having imposed a series of austerity measures including wage and pension cuts. Still, tension in Greece is high ahead of the anticipated return to Athens next week by inspectors from the so-called troika — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
Thousands of Greek workers were poised to walk off the job Wednesday in the first general strike of the year, protesting salary cuts and plans for selling state-owned assets.
Mr. Samaras’s government has insisted on the need to attract foreign investments to raise revenue, which fell 7 percent short of the budget target last month. But unions and opposition parties oppose further foreign involvement. Greece has agreed to two bailouts worth a total of €240 billion in exchange for implementing austerity measures that have lopped 25 percent off its G.D.P. since the crisis erupted three years ago.