by Derek Gatopoulos*
 

French President Francois Hollande called Thursday for talks relieving Greece's crushing debt load and spurring investment, measures that could help the country recover as it imposes harsh austerity measures demanded by international creditors.

"I am aware of all the efforts that the Greek people have had to undertake, and all the reforms that have been carried out for years — and voted on in recent months," Hollande said during a meeting with Greek President Procopis Pavlopoulos, at the start of a two-day visit to Athens.

"And more will be required to achieve success. But I have also said that negotiations on the debt must be the next step."

After an expected dip back into recession this year, Greece's debt is expected to rise above 190 percent of its annual GDP in 2016.

Negotiations with creditors on more lenient repayment terms are expected after international austerity inspectors conclude an ongoing overview of Greece's current program of cutbacks and reforms. France is seen in Athens as being more sympathetic than Germany, the lead bailout lender, on a potential debt deal.

Hollande encouraged French companies to invest in Greece: "What is needed is growth and job creation, it can't just be (fiscal) discipline — even though discipline is necessary."

Greece's radical left-led government has laid on heavy security measures for the visit, mobilizing 2,500 police and blocking off parts of the city center. Hollande, most of whose meetings were scheduled for Friday, was accompanied by Finance Minister Michel Sapin and a bevy of French business executives.

Left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has credited the Hollande administration with helping Athens reach a third international bailout agreement this summer that avoided a potentially chaotic exit from the euro currency, which Greece shares with 18 other countries.

Greece and France have annual trade of some 2.8 billion euros ($3.2 billion), with French exports worth more than three times more than the country imports from Greece. French company investments are widespread, include in energy, defense, and pharmaceuticals, providing some 12,000 jobs in Greece.

Hollande's visit coincides with another inspection being carried out by bailout negotiators in Athens, before they agree to back new loan payouts and a big capital injection into the country's banks, which have been crippled by strict money controls since late-June.

The two sides are at odds over how to tackle Greece's growing pile of bad loans, worth more than a third of the total.

But European Union Finance Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said, overall, progress in negotiations was "very good."

"They are doing a certain number of reforms. In exchange for these reforms we will give them money — first 2 billion euros and then 1 billion euros," he told France's Europe 1 radio.

"Then we will examine their program and in November or December, more likely November, we will deal with the recapitalization of the Greek banks ... and the Greek debt."

*source: "Associated press"