French president on symbolic support visit to Greece

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

Hollande was received with military honours at Athens airport by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

He arrived during a 24-hour strike by Greek media, but state broadcaster NET showed footage of his arrival without journalistic commentary.

Hollande will be meeting with 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 the conservatives who back Samaras.

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

"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 had championed the idea that Athens remain within the euro common currency zone.

A Greek government source told AFP: "Hollande gave significant assistance to Greece's difficult fight to stay in the European fold and to create a programme conducive to growth."

The official said: "We want the quality of (Greek-French) political relations to also be reflected in business affairs. We would like investments and a French participation in Greek privatisations."

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.

A French diplomat said that 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.

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 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.

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 exceptions 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.