French President Francois Hollande’s visit to Athens has taken on a particularly symbolic dimension for the government of Alexis Tsipras. From a certain point of view this is justifiable. The practical results of the visit – particularly with regard to the possibility of an increased French presence in the Greek economy – will be observed later on.
France played a pivotal role in Greek affairs in the period that followed the fall of the 1967-74 military dictatorship. Greece’s European Economic Community membership would have been unthinkable without the hands-on support of French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who persuaded German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to get past his reservations about Greece being unprepared for entry and allow the country to become a member of the exclusive European club. Needless to say, the support for the Greek request was the result of the close personal ties between Giscard d’Estaing and Constantine Karamanlis.
Nevertheless, the willingness to work together was not exhausted at the level of conservative political leaders. During the seven-year junta, a large number of Greeks intellectuals fled to Paris, where an osmosis of Greek and French leftists took place.
A certain number of these personalities – led by Melina Mercouri – became the liaison between Andreas Papandreou and French Socialist leader Francois Mitterrand.
PASOK’s pre-election slogans such as “Change” and “Here and now” were but mere translations of those developed by the French Socialist Party. The indirect support and silent encouragement by Mitterrand’s Socialists of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, as a means of allowing for the further fragmentation of the French right, had its Greek equivalent during PASOK’s tenure through the rise of Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS).
Political cooperation – in all its varied expression – reinforced bilateral economic ties, led by France’s entry into the Greek market as a supplier of defense equipment. This culminated in the purchase of Dassault Mirage 2000 jet fighters, following a political decision by then PM Andreas Papandreou, despite a different proposal made by the Hellenic Air Force. Following the rise to power of Constantine Mitsotakis, and, especially during the tenure of Costas Simitis, due to France’s increasing weakness, Germany became more and more influential.
The clash between the Tsipras government and Germany, as well as US pressure on Berlin to avoid a Grexit, led to France’s resuscitation in European affairs. Hollande’s visit to Athens is a step toward consolidating whatever “special weight” France carries on the international stage at this point in time. What happens next will no doubt be interesting.