French leader’s visit lifts mood, boosts prospects

French President Francois Hollande is due in Athens on Tuesday for a lightning visit during which he is expected to back the government’s efforts to get the economy back on an even keel and seek investment opportunities for French firms.

Hollande is to meet Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at noon before the latter’s coalition partners – Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Democratic Left chief Fotis Kouvelis – join them for a “working lunch” at 1.20 p.m. According to sources the four-way meeting, which goes against usual protocol, was proposed by Samaras following claims by some MPs in the smaller parties that the premier is taking decisions unilaterally.

The French leader, who is also scheduled to meet with President Karolos Papoulias during his brief six-hour visit, is expected to probe the prospects for French businesses in Greece as well as suggesting that the Greek government lease two FREMM frigates to be used in the exploration of gas and oil reserves in the Aegean.

The progress of Greece’s slow-moving privatization efforts are also expected to be discussed. Athens is reportedly keen for French company EDF to express interest in the sale of natural gas companies DEPA and DESFA, with Russian firms currently leading the way in the tender for the two firms, which is due to close in April. Le Figaro reported on Monday that Hollande is expected to send a message to foreign investors that the adjustment process in Greece along with structural reforms are starting to pay off. In an interview with Ta Nea newspaper, Hollande called for French involvement in Greece’s recovery. “I invite French investors to grab all opportunities on offer in Greece,” he said. “That is what our common interest dictates,” he added.

Speaking at an event organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in Athens on Monday, Samaras stressed the need for Greece to start creating jobs, particularly for young people, with just over 60 percent of those aged under 25 being out of work. “For there to be growth, we have to give opportunities, especially to young people, to work,” he said.

Unemployment was one of the key issues on the agenda of talks between Samaras and his coalition leaders last night, Venizelos and Kouvelis said on emerging from the meeting. The PASOK chief heralded a government program to facilitate the employment of 700,000 people using European funding. Kouvelis said the government would seek an agreement with banks to boost liquidity in the market.

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