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French president on symbolic support visit to Greece

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

French President Francois Hollande begins on Tuesday a one-day visit to Greece to express support for the recession-hit country's recovery efforts.

"The purpose of my visit is to bring France's support for Greece to succeed, and for Europe to advance with (Greece)," Hollande told leading Greek daily Ta Nea on Monday.

Hollande's trip is a "message of confidence and backing," his office has said, adding that since he took power nine months ago the Socialist leader has championed the idea that Athens remain within the euro common currency zone.

Hollande will be meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, President Carolos Papoulias and the head of the Greek socialist party, Evangelos Venizelos.

The Socialists are part of an uneasy three-party coalition headed by Samaras' conservatives.

Another meeting has been arranged with the heads of around 40 leading Greek companies.

A French diplomat said Hollande's visit would be of a completely different nature than the October trip of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when 30,000 protestors gathered in downtown Athens with banners such as "Out with the Fourth Reich."

While Germany has contributed the most money to the Greek bailout, many Greeks hold Merkel responsible for demanding that Greece make swingeing cuts in exchange for the financing it has received.

No protests have been geared towards Hollande's Tuesday visit, but a general strike will be held on Wednesday against ongoing austerity.

In connection to the general strike, Greek media are staging a 24-hour news blackout on Tuesday.

Hollande is seen to be more favourable toward Greece for emphasising that austerity must be accompanied by measures that fuel sustained growth.

"I reject a Europe that would condemn countries to endless austerity," he told Ta Nea.

European Union leaders agreed in December to give Greece 49.1 billion euros ($66 billion) in return for additional austerity measures, breaking a six-month stalemate.

Senior auditors from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund 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.

The French presidency has said Greece "remained an important outlet for French companies," stressing that the majority of firms with units there had not closed operations since the crisis unfolded.

The exception are French banks Credit Agricole and Societe Generale which pulled out of Greek units last year.

Hollande's visit aims at "concrete ideas to spur job creation, display our confidence and seek economic partnerships," the presidency said.

A number of French countries have a significant presence in Greece, including Bic, which had 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.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/french-president-symbolic-support-visit-greece