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Athens Macedonian News Agency: News in English, 13-02-20
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From: The Athens News Agency at <http://www.ana.gr/>
 Hollande expresses support, solidarity during Athens visitAMNA -- French President Francois Hollande paid a high-profile half-day visit to Athens on Tuesday for talks with Greek leadership and to re-emphasise his leitmotif of greater growth in Europe to overcome recession and punishing austerity, especially in crisis-plagued Greece.
"I arrived in Greece after an invitation by the prime minister Mr. Samaras in order to express to the Greek people France's support and the trust we want to demonstrate for the action of their government over the last few months," Hollande told reporters after initial statements by the Greek premier.
Hollande, at the head of a high-level French delegation that included several business leaders, was warmly greeted by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at the latter's Maximos Mansion government office, where more than an hour of talks were followed by the joint press conference and a working lunch. Hollande also briefly met with PASOK party leader Evangelos Venizelos at the French embassy in Athens and was received by Greek President Karolos Papoulias. Venizelos and Fotis Kouvelis, who heads the small Democratic Left (DI.MAR) party, both of whom join Samaras' New Democracy in the current three-party Greek coalition government, attended the luncheon in honour of Hollande.
Later in the afternoon, Hollande was accompanied by Samaras and several Greek ministers to a Greece-France business conference held at a downtown Athens hotel before departing for Paris in the evening.
Both men repeatedly cited the traditionally strong relations enjoyed by Greece and France and their respective peoples, dating to the Greek war of independence, while Samaras, in fact, touched on France's vigorous support of Athens' EU accession course before its membership in 1981. www.amna.gr
"Today, I also briefed our friend, the French president, over the significant progress Greece has recorded in curbing its (budget) deficit and in promoting structural changes. However, I also underlined the heavy price that the Greek people are paying with their sacrifices in terms of recession and unemployment ... Youth unemployment in Greece, as it is in Spain as well, has nearly touched on the nightmarish 60-percent mark," Samaras said.
Both Samaras and Hollande said practical support for Greek efforts to exit the crisis focus, amongst others, on transferring French know-how to better coordinate the cavernous public sector in Greece, particularly in expanding the much-delayed land registry in the east Mediterranean country and upgrading the all-important public healthcare sector.
Talks on possible capital investments in the cash-strapped Greece mostly revolved around the energy, construction, transport and defence sectors, whereas the Greek side presented its plans for a series of privatisations of state companies and assets -- a prominent commitment undertaken by Athens in successive memorandums with EC-ECB-IMF creditors.
In terms of foreign policy, Samaras praised the recent French operation to dislodge Islamist insurgents from northern Mali, and twice cited the problem of illegal immigration for Greece, which stands in Europe's southeast corner.
"France, with its moves in Mali, has already made clear the opportunities for greater stability in the (Mediterranean basin) region, and for the peaceful resolution, wherever possible, of regional crises, such as the one in Syria and the Cyprus problem; and of course, as I said before, to deal with the huge waves of immigration that threaten all of Europe, which I might add, burden countries like Greece disproportionately. It is this reasoning with which we back France's policy in Mali, a policy that shows decisiveness and responsibility on its part and for all of Europe," Samaras said.
"I would like to again thank M. Hollande for his presence here, which underlines that Europe is again turning to Greece with trust and solidarity," he concluded.
In opening his statement, Hollande touched directly on the symbolism attached to his lightning visit:
"... I am here today as the leader of a country that wanted Greece to remain in the Eurozone, and from the day I was elected I have tried to persuade all the other leaders that Greece must remain within the Eurozone, which, of course, the Greek people could and should decide, but also that we need stability in the Eurozone and a European Union which can react vis-a-vis the markets. Greece, therefore, must attempt and has made significant efforts," Hollande said at the press briefing, reminding that Greece has experienced a sixth year of negative growth and increasingly high unemployment, exceeding 20 percent. "Reforms should have been taken place, at the same time, however, we must give Greece every opportunity to achieve its goals".
The French leader again emphasised that his visit aims to mobilise French companies' interest in investments in the east Mediterranean country, promising that a French presence in tenders for Greek state companies. He also noted that Athens was amongst the first governments that supported Paris in the Mali operation, before noting that French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian will visit Greece in the near future.
Hollande's reference to defence cooperation came amid recent press speculation claiming a prospective sale or leasing of French frigates to the Hellenic Navy, something he addressed directly without fielding a question.
"I did not come here to Greece, however, to sell weapons systems. I heard that one, too. I came to Greece to show solidarity and to assist in re-establishing credibitility for Greece. What we need is credibility for a return to growth. The efforts of the Greeks were useful for all of Europe, and today this climate of trust must return to the citizens of Europe, to Greek citizens, to consumers ... This is the message that I wanted to give, a message of friendship, a message of support, a message of trust and growth."
In response to press questions, Samaras dismissed any nothing that ever-closer Greek-French relations will be used as leverage vis-a-vis Greek-German ties, adding that Europe means unity and synthesis, "it doesn't mean choosing (one ally over another)."
Hollande, meanwhile, reiterated that a key to jumpstarting the Greek economy is liquidity, namely, giving businesses in the country much easier access to financing.
Both men were also asked about hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean, given the recent discoveries of natural gas deposits by Israel and Cyprus in the sea region, while Samaras was specifically asked whether his government will proceed with a delimitation of an Exclusive Economic Zone.
In response, the Greek premier reminded that Athens wants friendship and cooperation with all its neighbours, adding that he will visit Turkey in early March at the head of a high-ranking government delegation.
"We have signed, as you know, the International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as have most countries in the world... Greece's energy deposits are found in Greece's maritime region; they are the mineral wealth for all of Europe, in general. Greece has the right to delimitate its EEZ, as it emanates from UNCLOS, whenever it wants to. We will proceed with the correct moves that are necessary. We want to solve the problem in a friendly and peaceful manner because this is also in the interests of Europe."
On his part, Hollande referred to the possible existence of natgas deposits in Greek waters as an opportunity for Greece and Europe, if such are found and subsequently exploited. "... I believe that International Law and the Law of the Sea will prevail. If France can, of course, jointly exploit those deposits with Greece, it will do so."
Hollande, who was accompanied by French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, was later received by Greek President Karolos Papoulias at the presidential mansion, separated only by a side-street from the premier's office.
During the brief meeting, Papoulias told the French president that the Greek people's tolerance for more cutbacks and sacrifices has been exhausted, warning of a possible "social explosion" if more pressure is exerted on the people. In his reply, Hollande said he did not arrive to demand more sacrifices from the Greek people. He also stressed the importance of Greece remaining in the Eurozone, and that a return to the drachma "would have been a catastrophe ... the Eurozone crisis is over, the economic crisis continues..." amna
-- H. Tzanis
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