By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Wrapping up a visit to Greece, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, departed from the official program Friday to stroll down a crowded central Athens shopping street, delighting selfie-thirsty pedestrians but inconveniencing those unfortunate enough to get stuck in the ensuing traffic jams.
Accompanied by plainclothes security guards, the couple posed for pictures, shook hands and chatted to passers-by for more than half an hour on the Ermou pedestrian street, near central Syntagma Square and the Greek parliament. The president then met and spoke to a group of Greek Orthodox priests outside Athens Cathedral.
Greek police, apparently caught by surprise by the unscheduled walk, blocked major streets leading to the city center, leaving motorists and passengers in public transport stranded for about 45 minutes.
Macron’s visit to Greece, four months after his election victory, has focused on the Greek recovery as well as wider issues related to Europe’s future.
Addressing a round-table of Greek and French business leaders earlier on his second and final day in Greece, Macron urged European firms to step up their investments in Greece, to help reduce the cash-strapped country’s growing reliance on non-European countries, notably China.
He said Greece was “forced” to choose non-European investors “because the Europeans were not there.”
French enterprises, Macron said with certainty, would ramp up their investments in Greece, a country that’s spent much of the past decade hurtling from one crisis to the next and seen its economy shrink by a quarter and unemployment and poverty levels swell alarmingly.
“We want Korean, Chinese and American investments, these are very important,” he said. “But if there are no European investors, then we are forced to select non-European investors.”
A failure to respond, he said, would show that Europeans have “no faith in Europe.”
Greece has relied on international bailouts to stay afloat, after losing bond market access in 2010. Following years of belt-tightening that’s seen improvements in the country’s annual budget, Greece’s bailout era is due to end in the summer of 2018.
In return for the money that’s prevented the country’s bankruptcy, Greece has been compelled to institute a wide array of economic reforms, including the sale of a raft of state-owned assets, such as airports, ports, railways and real estate. Many of those have ended up in the hands of non-European investors.
In two of the biggest privatization projects, China’s Cosco expanded its stake in Greece’s main port of Piraeus to 67 percent, while Chinese and Gulf investors are involved in an 8 billion-euro ($9.6 billion) development scheme at the site of the old Athens airport, which had also been used for the 2004 Olympic Games.
Macron’s comments come a day after he met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and presented his vision for Europe in a speech at the site of the ancient Athenian assembly, seen as an enduring icon of democracy worldwide.
Speaking with the ancient Acropolis as a backdrop, he urged the European Union to carry out six-month national reviews on EU reforms before imposing them. That’s been interpreted as a signal that the new French president is distancing himself somewhat from the German-backed approach that’s been based on fiscal discipline within the 19-country eurozone.
“It would be a mistake to abandon the European ideal,” Macron said Thursday. “We must rediscover the enthusiasm that the union was founded upon and change, not with technocrats and not with bureaucracy.”
Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this story.