French President Francois Hollande promised on Tuesday to promote French investment in recession-hit Greece as he argued that a recovery in European growth was the best way to meet fiscal targets.
“I am here to mobilise French companies to invest in Greece,» Hollande told reporters at the start of his one-day visit after meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
“We need more growth in Europe, this is how we will be able to achieve our deficit-reduction targets,» he said.
France under Hollande has repeatedly stressed that austerity must be accompanied by measures that fuel sustained growth.
In this, his line has contrasted with the emphasis by European powerhouse Germany which insists on balanced budgets above all.
Hollande admitted on Tuesday that France would miss its growth forecast for 2013.
But he insisted that France «is among countries which are in the least poor position, even if we are far from meeting our objectives.”
Hollande was greeted with military honours at Athens airport by Samaras.
He arrived during a 24-hour strike by Greek media, but state broadcaster NET showed footage of his arrival without journalistic commentary.
And in contrast to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose arrival had sparked an angry demonstration by some 30,000 people last year, the streets of Athens were quiet ahead of a general strike on Wednesday.
“Today we inaugurate a new chapter in our relations,» Samaras said.
“France is always the political centre of Europe. It gave decisive backing not only for us to enter Europe but to stay in Europe in past months, and it supports us today so we can exit the crisis,» the Greek PM said.
On the sidelines of the visit, a Greek government source told AFP that France would loan two navy frigates to Greece.
This deal is expected to be signed later this month when French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is scheduled to visit.
The loan of four navy support aircraft is also under consideration, the source said.
Owing to the crisis, Greece has curtailed previously extensive arms purchases from the United States, Germany and France.
“I did not come here to sell (arms),» Hollande stressed in his comments.
The FREMM-type frigates will be included in the Greek navy and could assist a search for hydrocarbons which Greece hopes to start in coming months, the government source said.
Hollande later met President Carolos Papoulias and addressed a meeting with the heads of around 40 leading Greek companies.
He was also to meet the head of the Greek socialist party, Evangelos Venizelos.
The Socialists are part of an uneasy three-party coalition headed by Samaras’ conservatives.
Under the terms of bailout help from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, Greece must sell or lease a number of state assets including gas and water companies, ports and its national railroad operator Trainose.
Hollande said that French companies had «quality services» to offer in water utilities, electricity, railways and other sectors.
“From the moment the tenders begin, French companies must be present,» he said.
A number of French countries have a significant presence in Greece, including Bic, which has one of its main shaver factories in the country as well as its main research and development centre.
Cement maker Lafarge and transport infrastructure and power company Alstom also have a significant presence.
In contrast, prominent French banks Credit Agricole and Societe Generale extricated themselves from Greek subsidiaries last year, at the height of fears that Greece would be forced to leave the euro.
European Union leaders agreed in December to provide Greece with 49.1 billion euros ($66 billion) in return for additional austerity measures, breaking a six-month stalemate.
Senior auditors from the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank are returning to Greece later this month to gauge the progress of reforms.
Their report will determine whether Athens will have access to a scheduled slice of 2.8 billion euros from its international creditors due in February.