Amongst much glamour and optimism, French president Francois Hollande arrived in Athens last week, bringing words of hope and following in the footsteps of Germany's Angela Merkel who herself dropped in on the Greek capital last October bearing a similar message of solidarity to the suffering nation. The local government proclaimed satisfaction with the visit and emphasized the fact that such importance given Greece by the two major European allies would help boost the country's shattered image on the international scene prior to the beginning of the all-important tourist season.
Mr. Hollande's sojourn, which lasted all of eight hours, outlined three key areas where France could be instrumental in helping its southern neighbor:
1) in offering French support for Greece, the president stressed that "no people in Europe have undergone such a test so we must be at their side;"
2) in encouraging private investment in Greece, Hollande declared, "I am here to mobilize French companies so they invest in Greece" and invited French participation in bids for the privatization of the Greek state's water and rail enterprises as well as others;
3) in promoting cooperation between the two countries, he focused on the energy sector stressing that
Greece aimed to become an "energy hub in the Aegean" and declaring that "should France be able to commonly exploit hydrocarbon reserves with Greece, it will do so."
Beyond the pomp and circumstance, however, the true picture is one of a startlingly different reality with the French beating a path to exit the country as quickly as possible. For, recently, the two banking giants with major Greek subsidiaries, Credit Agricole and Société Générale, as well as the dominant retailer with a large Greek joint venture, Carrefour, have hastily sold their holdings for a pittance or abandoned them altogether.
On the other hand, rumours continue to circulate about important French businesses eyeing Greece for expansion and investment, but can this really improve the lot of a country in the midst of its sixth consecutive year of economic downturn, with unemployment at a record 27 percent and with a population crippled by never-ending austerity measures that have slashed salaries and boosted taxes?
Meanwhile, the Greek government, reeling under the demands of its bankers, the so-called "Troika," the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, continues to alter an already incomprehensible taxation system, literally by the day, in the quest for new sources of revenue thereby confounding and alienating entrepreneurs, be they French or otherwise.
As well, the demoralized work force, suffering under widespread negative publicity as being "lazy and rebellious" even though official figures indicate the Greeks put in a longer work week than any of their European compatriots at 42.2 hours, is looked upon as another negative by any potential investor.
All this is leading the political leadership in Greece to fear the worst for, as Arnaud Leparmentier writes in Le Monde, things that must be done need time and Greece has to endure at least until autumn, when the federal elections are over in Germany. Until then, any accident can happen. This is the fear of the president of the Hellenic Republic, Carolos Papoulias, who confided as much in the French President, Francois Hollande.
Leparmentier goes on to specify that a so-called "accident" could come from any of a number of factors including the downfall of the current Greek coalition government, a violent social revolution brought about by Greece's youth whose unemployment rate stands at a bewildering 60 percent or even as a result of a meltdown of European financial markets should Silvio Berlusconi triumph in Italy and follow through with his threats to pull his country out of the Euro.
Yes, it is true, Francois Hollande went to Greece. Unfortunately, he had nothing of substance to offer the Greek people. In the future, it may be wise, before any other great "benefactors" such as Mr. Hollande and Mrs. Merkel stop by on an official visit spreading cheer and good will, that they come humbled knowing that they, themselves, are the ones responsible for having imposed this tragedy on the Greek people by continuing to insist on an untenable program of austerity.