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In Athens, Macron to urge renewal of EU democracy

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron will go to the Athens hill considered the birthplace of democracy to urge fellow Europeans to tackle the democratic crisis he believes the continent faces, his aides said on Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a meeting with prefects at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Etienne Laurent/Pool

Macron, who swept to power on a pro-EU platform last May, has made reforming the euro zone and EU institutions battered by a series of crises - from the economy, to immigration and Brexit - a priority of his mandate.

“It’s a symbol of a new chapter (for Europe),” a French presidency official said of the speech Macron plans to give on Thursday evening on the hill of Pnyx, where ancient Greeks gathered to host popular assemblies.

“We have gone through a financial crisis and a sort of confidence crisis, Greece knows that, it suffered from them. The president wants to show that Europe must be rebuilt democratically,” the official said.

Macron will promote his campaign proposal to launch “democratic conventions” - or public debates - in European countries to discuss the future of the EU.

The president, whose popularity ratings have slumped at home following a series of unpopular measures including proposals to cut public spending and welfare benefits, also wants to make institutions governing Europe’s single currency more democratic.

He wants a euro zone finance minister to manage a common budget that would be accountable to a euro zone parliament, but that proposal has met with robust resistance abroad, notably in Berlin.

During a two-day trip ending on Friday, Macron will be accompanied by around 40 French business leaders, including from blue-chip firms Total, L’Oreal, Sanofi, Engie and Vinci.

After a German-French consortium won a majority stake in Thessaloniki Port last June, France is keen to push its companies to invest in Greek infrastructure, energy and the agri-food business.

French officials also want to avoid more strategic sectors of the Greek economy from falling into non-European hands after China’s COSCO Shipping bought a 51 percent stake in Piraeus Port, Greece’s biggest, for 280.5 million euros.

“It poses a sovereignty problem, it’s kind of a European failure,” the French official said.

In June, Macron urged the European Commission to come up with a system for screening investments in strategic sectors from third countries, something some other western European nations have supported.

But smaller eastern and southern European economies that have benefited from Chinese investments have rejected any steps against Beijing.

Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; editing by John Stonestreet