Greece needs growth to get out of crisis, France's Hollande says

ATHENS Tue Feb 19, 2013 8:40am EST

France's President Francois Hollande leaves after delivering a speech to celebrate Chinese New Year at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 18, 2013. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

France's President Francois Hollande leaves after delivering a speech to celebrate Chinese New Year at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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ATHENS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande used a visit to hard-hit Greece on Tuesday to press his pro-growth agenda, saying fiscal reform could not be achieved by austerity alone.

He offered to help the twice bailed-out country - in a deep economic depression - with privatizations, tourism and a public sector overhaul.

"We must make sure that growth and jobs come back in Greece," Hollande said. "We need more growth in Europe. That's how we'll reach our public deficit reduction goals."

Athens, whose euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund unlocked bailout aid in December after a six-month stalemate, hopes Hollande's one-day visit will spur badly-needed investments to ease record-high unemployment.

"I didn't come to sell weapons ... we have to show the Greeks solidarity, support and also confidence that will allow growth to come back," Hollande said in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras after talks.

Samaras praised Paris for having helped Greece stay in the euro zone, despite its debt crisis.

"France has given us vital support over the past few months to stay in Europe and is supporting us today to exit the crisis," he said.

Greece's economy has shrunk by about 20 percent since the recession began in 2008, with its downturn exacerbated by fiscal austerity demanded by its international lenders to shore up public finances and attain a primary budget surplus in 2013.

Unemployment hit a euro-area record 27 percent in November.

"Greece should make efforts, it should meet its commitments, but its efforts have been considerable," said Hollande. "No people in Europe have undergone such a test, so we must be at the side of Greece", he added.

Greece's deteriorating economy and fears of a euro zone exit prompted French banks Credit Agricole (CAGR.PA) and Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) to sell their Greek units to local peers.

But Hollande said on Tuesday he expected French companies to return to Greece and bid for state firms being sold as part of the country's multi-billion euro privatization plan.

The two leaders also signed an agreement to boost the flow of French tourists to Greece. Tourism is the country's biggest money spinner but French visitors were less than 7 percent of total arrivals last year, half as many as from Germany.

French civil servants are advising Athens on how to reform its inefficient state machine and how to draw up a national land registry - a task Athens has failed to complete for decades despite dozens of millions of euros of aid from the EU.

With Greek journalists on a 24-hour, anti-austerity strike, Hollande's visit was not getting extensive local coverage.

(Writing by Harry Papachristou. Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

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