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February 19, 2013 7:30 pm
François Hollande, the French president, took his anti-austerity message to Greece on Tuesday, calling for “more growth and jobs” to reduce deficits across Europe.
“We have won the first battle – the eurozone is no longer in crisis,” he told a group of Greek business people during a six-hour visit to Athens. “The next phase is one of growth and creating jobs, not making more sacrifices.”
The president’s visit was modelled on a similar stopover in October by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. The mood this time was noticeably brighter, reflecting Greek progress with putting economic reform back on track as well as traditionally good relations with Paris, according to Greek officials.
However, his visit had little local media coverage as most Greek journalists had joined a 48-hour anti-austerity strike.
Karolos Papoulias, the Greek president, warned of “a social explosion” if further austerity measures were imposed by international lenders. “The Greek people have had as much as they can take,” he told Mr Hollande and Antonis Samaras, the Greek prime minister.
Mr Hollande’s praise for Greek reform efforts gives the fragile coalition government a boost as it grapples with unpopular structural measures, including cutting the civil service payroll and overhauling an ineffectual tax administration, under the terms of its latest €172bn bailout by the EU and International Monetary Fund.
France has also shown support for Greece by taking a leading role in the EU’s task force set up to provide technical assistance to Athens, running programmes to modernise the bureaucracy, complete a nationwide land registry and update procedures in the state health system.
Mr Hollande pledged to encourage French investment, including participation in Greece’s ambitious privatisation programme. French companies have so far steered clear of bidding for energy and gaming companies being offered for sale this year.
Crédit Agricole, Société Générale and the Carrefour supermarket chain pulled out of Greece last year as fears of a “Grexit” from the eurozone mounted; they transferred their operations to local players after making heavy losses.
Mr Hollande admitted during the visit that France would miss this year’s growth target of 0.8 per cent, and said a new target would be set next month based on figures the European Commission will release this week.
“We are in the least poor position compared with other countries, even if we are far from meeting our objectives,” he said.
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