French president visits Athens amid media blackout

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By ELENA BECATOROS and NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — French President Francois Hollande pledged investments in Greece's ailing economy during a brief visit on Tuesday, seen as a show of support for the country's uphill struggle to recover from its debt crisis.

But a media strike left the event with minimal domestic coverage, to the fury of the Greek government that had sought to play up the visit to an austerity-weary public. State TV reporters were eventually forced back to work by court order.

Hollande said French firms were expected to participate in Greece's huge privatization program, a key condition of the country's bailout program. The government is focusing on energy, water, transport and railway deals.

"I am here in Athens to mobilize French companies so that they invest in Greece," Hollande said. "That is in the interests of Greece and France alike."

France has long been a major arms supplier to Greece, which was until recently one of Europe's top defense spenders due to an arms race with regional rival Turkey. But Hollande said he was not in Athens to sell military hardware.

"We must provide the Greeks with solidarity, aid and above all show confidence — which will help restore growth," he said

The journalists' 24-hour walkout pulled all news broadcasts off the air and left news websites without updates. Newspapers will not publish Wednesday editions.

The government hastened to accuse the main opposition Syriza party of deliberately instigating the strike to "cause a news blackout of the visit of French President Francois Hollande."

State television carried live images — without commentary — of Hollande arriving at the airport and being greeted by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Cabinet members, as well as of the leaders' joint press conference. For hours, it broadcast repeated raw footage of Hollande in Athens, replete with background noise like birdsong.

Towards the end of the visit, however, state TV workers resumed full coverage after a court ruled their action illegal, forcing the main POESY journalists' union to call it off.

But POESY called a new 24-hour strike for state TV on Wednesday, according to union head Giorgos Savvidis.

Media unions have been protesting firings and pension and benefit cuts among other issues. Hundreds of journalists in the private sector frequently go unpaid for months at a time.

The walkout comes a day ahead of a 24-hour nationwide anti-austerity general strike which will see all services disrupted across the country.

Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou showed clear annoyance at the timing of the media walkout.

"The journalists' union leadership succumbed to the usual party aims and Syriza's plan to cause a media blackout during the visit of French President Francois Hollande," he said in a statement, adding that the opposition party "does not hesitate to damage the country's international image."

Greece has been gripped by a severe financial crisis that has left it since early 2010 dependent on billions of euros in rescue loans from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries that use the euro. In return, it has enforced a series of deep spending cuts and repeated tax hikes in an effort to rein in runaway budget deficits and reform its moribund economy.

France has been generally far more lenient in its attitude towards Greece and the southern European country's financial crisis than the other major eurozone power, Germany, which has advocated strict austerity measures. Germany is the single largest contributor to Greece's bailout packages.

After nearly three years of austerity, Greece finds itself stuck in a deep recession, with thousands of businesses shutting down and unemployment spiraling to 27 percent. Among young people, the jobless rate has reached nearly 62 percent.

During his visit, Hollande also met with Greek and French businessmen, while the two governments signed an agreement to cooperate on tourism, a vital earner for Greece.

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