French President Francois Hollande, arriving in Athens on a two-day official visit, touched down in Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos international airport on a stormy Thursday afternoon.
He was met informally at the airport by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who joined him in the motorcade that made its way to Syntagma Square, where he was met by Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos for a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument of the Unknown Soldier in front of Parliament.
The French President then headed to the presidential mansion, where Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos received the former for an official reception ceremony, followed by talks between the two men.
In a ceremony immediately afterwards, Hollande was presented with the Greece’s highest decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of the Redeemer medal, followed by an official dinner hosted by Pavlopoulos.
The French president is accompanied by French Finance Minister Michel Sapin, French National Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem and French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin, as well as Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir, the 1st Secretary of the Socialist Party, and members of the French Parliament.
The French delegation accompanying Hollande also includes a large number of business people that intend to explore potential opportunities for investment in Greece.
Hollande will address the Greek Parliament on Friday at noon. He will refer to the road map that the country will have to follow, the banks recapitalisation, and he will reiterate his own proposals for democratisation in the EU and the eurozone.
In his first statements to the press, Hollande said his visit shows his country’s support and friendship towards Greece.
“My visit is a visit of support and friendship,” after he had laid a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in central Athens. “Greece and France have a common history going back many years and France fought to get Greece into the European Union and is fighting today to keep it in,” he added.
Hollande also commented on the refugee crisis, saying the EU must support Greece because its borders are Europe’s borders. Asked by journalists whether the country’s debt will be discussed, he responded: “Of course France intends to bring the issue on the negotiating table and relieve Greece from this burden and Greece must move on with the necessary reforms.”
Interview in “Kathimerini” newspaper
Speaking to Kathimerini ahead of his visit, the French president stressed his determination to support the government’s reform drive for extricating Greece from six years of crisis.
During your last official visit in February 2013, you insisted on the need for Greece to implement the reforms it had agreed to with its international lenders. Have you noticed any changes since then? Do you believe the present government will implement the memorandum?
Greece and its partners signed a very important agreement on July 13 which marks a determination to keep Greece permanently anchored in the eurozone, according to the wishes of the Greek people. This agreement is based on responsibility and solidarity: responsibility on the part of the Greek government – and I salute the courage and lucidity of [Prime Minister] Alexis Tsipras – and solidarity from Europe toward Greece. The Greek Parliament has shown its determination in adopting these reforms by a large majority. The aim is to modernize the state and revive the Greek economy. The steps in that direction are well known: ratifying the measures, passing the first review, recapitalizing the banks and starting a discussion on debt servicing. The program is very loaded and the deadlines are short but it is time for Greece to exit the crisis once and for all. And I will be there to help it, as I have always done from the table of the European Council.
You are one of the few leaders who have steadfastly supported Greece since the start of the crisis. Now can we lay the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone to rest?
Yes. That discussion belongs to the past and we need to look to the future with trust. The reforms that must be implemented are decisive and difficult. And the Greek people have already made a huge effort and agreed to many sacrifices. But after the implementation of reforms, there will be growth and employment. A Greek turnaround is imperative for Europe. It will bring stability and confidence. I am coming to Greece to express France’s support, but also to send a message, particularly to French companies: Come and invest in Greece.
Do you believe that Europe is changing and that the dogma of austerity could be replaced by a different policy?
Europe has rules and they need to be respected. They are harmonized with the cohesion and stability of the euro. But streamlining public finances should not be an end in itself. Europe needs to move in the direction of investments. This is the point of the [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker plan and this is the point of structural funds. Greece needs to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to it. A plan worth 35 billion euros has already been agreed. The European Investment Bank can also act. Likewise, the Greek youth needs to benefit, mainly from the European Union’s educational programs.
Could French companies help Greece by investing in the country? And if so, how, and in which sectors?
French businesses in Greece already employ 12,000 people. They are present in many sectors. I will be meeting with their representatives on the occasion of my visit and I will ask them to further increase their involvement in Greece. A very promising meeting has already been held in Paris between the Federation of Greek Enterprises (SEV) and its French counterpart MEDEF. Our embassy’s services are also mobilized. During my visit, Alexis Tsipras and I will take the initiative to identify the areas in which France could invest and, more importantly, mobilize the interest of French businesses.
Greece, like the rest of Europe, is facing an unprecedented influx of refugees fleeing war. What measures would you propose to deal with this crisis?
Faced with this dramatic situation, our guiding principles should again be responsibility and solidarity. Responsibility because Greece, like Italy, needs to create the infrastructure for receiving and identifying people reaching Europe, the so-called hotspots. Solidarity because Europe cannot leave Greece alone in this. It has a duty to provide all the necessary means for helping the refugees, who need to be relocated to all member-states, and escorting irregular migrants. This is the role of European organizations like Frontex and [the European Asylum Support Office] EASO, and France will be providing dozens of experts in this framework. Europe also has a responsibility to help the countries that are already accepting refugees at the gates of Europe – I am thinking mainly of Lebanon and Jordan – and organizing the necessary cooperation with Turkey on the basis of mutual and specific commitments.
ekathimerini.com / amna.gr