President Francois Hollande called for investment in Greece, seeking to promote growth in the first visit of a French leader to Athens since the euro debt crisis began there more than three years ago.
Hollande, a Socialist who won last May’s election emphasizing growth over austerity, repeated his commitment to keeping Greece in the 17-nation euro area and pressed Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to forge ahead with the revamp of his nation’s economy.
The visit contrasted with that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October for the absence of protests against austerity imposed in return for European bailouts. As the region’s two largest economies, Germany and France are the biggest contributors to the two rescues for Greece since April 2010.
“We’re here to show our solidarity, our support and above all our confidence,” Hollande said. “Confidence is what Greece needs.”
Merkel met Samaras Oct. 9 in Athens as protesters massed outside the Parliament building in a capital that was in virtual lockdown. The first general strike of the year in Greece is set for tomorrow. Hollande, 58, is scheduled to leave tonight.
Since then, euro governments have agreed to release 49 billion euros ($65 billion) through March, unblocking emergency aid that was frozen since June.
Greece’s economy, which has lost a fifth of its output since 2008, is in the sixth year of a recession after pensions and wages were cut and taxes raised to avert financial collapse. A turnaround could appear toward the end of this year, according to Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras.
“The most important driver is the reduction of the fear that Greece will leave the euro,” Stournaras told Bloomberg Television in an interview in Athens on Feb 6. “This is the catalyst. Now most people believe that Greece will stay in the euro so people are bringing back their money from mattresses, from abroad to their bank accounts.”
The International Monetary Fund predicts growth of 0.6 percent in 2014 after a 4.2 percent contraction this year.
In November, Stournaras secured two extra years until 2016 to meet European Union and IMF budget-reduction targets. That came after Samaras’s three-party coalition secured parliamentary approval for 13.5 billion euros of budget cuts demanded by international lenders in return for funds that would keep the country solvent and in the euro area.
“I want to mobilize investment in Greece,” Hollande said. “It’s in the interest of Greece and it’s in the interest of France.”
France will assist Greece in finding natural gas deposits if it can, he added. “This is an opportunity for France and for Europe,” Hollande said.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit in June 2008 was the last time a French president was in Athens.