Greek President Karolos Papoulias (R) speaks with visiting French President Francois Hollande during their meeting at the presidential palace in Athens, Greece, Feb. 19, 2013. (Xinhua/Pool/Maxime Gyselinck)
ATHENS, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday gave a vote of confidence in Greece's prospects of economic recovery, calling on French businesses to invest more in the debt-ridden country.
"I am here as leader of a country who supported Greece's stay in the euro zone," Hollande said during a visit to Athens amid a fresh wave of anti-austerity protests.
"I came to Athens to call on French businesses to further invest in Greece," he said after a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
"We are here to show solidarity and confidence to Greece... We need to give Greece every chance to meet the goals set," he said, referring to the painful stability and growth program launched three years ago to address the severe Greek debt crisis.
In his first visit to Athens as the French President, Hollande led a delegation of dozens French businessmen who seek investment opportunities in Greece in various sectors such as energy, construction, infrastructure, transport and tourism.
According to local media reports, Hollande is targeting the lease for the exploration of gas reserves in the Aegean Sea.
Hollande's six-hour visit in the Greek capital rounds up on Tuesday afternoon with a business forum during which an agreement for the establishment of a Greece-France Business Council will be sealed.
Currently, France is among Greece's largest lenders through the EU/International Monetary Fund support mechanism and among the largest foreign investors in the country.
It is estimated that more than 100 French-interest firms employ some 20,000 workers in Greece.
"Today France gives a battle by our side for more solidarity and growth in Europe," Samaras said on Greece's part.
He added that Hollande strongly supported efforts to safeguard social cohesion in a country hit hard by deep recession over the past six years and unemployment rates which reach 60 percent among the youth.
Nevertheless, the harsh austerity and reform program introduced to slash deficits and avert a chaotic default and exit from the euro has added to the hardships of the average Greek household over the past three years, fueling protests.
On Tuesday, Greek journalists held a new 24-hour strike which left Hollande's visit with limited coverage in Greek media.
State television carried live images of meetings, while most newspapers and private television and radio channels were hit by a news blackout, as striking journalists protested cuts on wages and pensions and tax increases during a rally in central Athens.
The main umbrella unions of Greece's public and private sector employees have called for a nationwide general strike on Wednesday, the first big anti-austerity mobilization this year.
The latest round of protests comes as Greek officials and international lenders who have kept Greece afloat with multi-billion-euro bailout aid in exchange of tough measures over the past three years, acknowledged that austerity needs to be backed up now with growth-boosting policies to exit the crisis.