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French press review 31 January 2015

Merkel and Hollande discuss developments in Greece over dinner. There’s debate over whether Syriza’s challenge to austerity will inspire the French left. And Western powers consider arming Ukraine.


Greece hogs the headlines in France this morning, following the refusal of new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis to co-operate with the “Troika”, the tripartite committee - led by the European Commission with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund - that organised loans to the Greek government and audits its performance. If you like, it's the tough cop which polices the austerity programme and spending cuts demanded of Athens in return for helping Greece to service and reduce its massive debts.

Le Figaro reports that French President François Hollande and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel met for three hours last night at an informal dinner in Strasbourg at the invitation of President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. The meeting should

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

have been held on 11 January. But the tête-à-tête was cancelled after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris a few days earlier. Events have moved on since then - they always do - not least, the radical left, anti-austerity party Syriza won the general election in Greece

Neither Hollande nor Merkel issued a statement after tucking into contemporary French cuisine at a chic restaurant near the European parliament.

But that doesn't stop Le Figaro telling its readers that Greece was on the menu and that "Germany and France have chosen two different approaches."

"Hollande and Merkel seek a common position," says the headline.

That said, in Greece Merkel is seen as the bad cop in chief - and much much worse - inflexible and uncaring with regard to the country's economic woes. France, on the other hand, is beginning to look like the good cop Athens hopes will be more sympathetic.

Le Figaro reminds us that Merkel waited a day to send a telegram of congratulations to the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. Hollande did not delay. He invited Tsipras to Paris immediately. And the new Greek leader is due here on Wednesday. The new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, will be received on Monday by his French counterpart, Michel Sapin.

Paris, the paper says, clearly wants to serve as a link between Athens and its European creditors.

There is no suggestion that France favours cancellation of Greek debt. But, says Le Figaro, there are those in the French Socialist Party to whom Syriza's triumph at the polls could be one more argument against continuing austerity in Europe, which many believe is a cause rather than a solution to Europe's economic malaise.

Predictably, right-wing Le Figaro is not a huge fan of profligate public expenditure. "Think before spending," cautions its front page editorial.

Left-leaning Libération picks at another of Europe's running sores - the conflict in eastern Ukraine - to which it devotes eight pages. The paper tells us that, faced with pro-Russian separatists and mounting civilian casualties and despite fears of an escalation, the idea of giving military support to the government in Kiev is being debated by Western powers.

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Libé reports that the rebels, who are supported by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, are increasingly targeting civilians. Western sanctions on Moscow seem not to worry him. And the rebels appear unstoppable. The paper quotes Socialist politician Hubert Védrine, who was diplomatic adviser to one French president and served for five years as the country's foreign minister, as saying "to help the legal government is a way to restore the balance of power in order to force Russia to compromise without humiliating her".

"War is raging at the doors of Europe and the world lets it happen," says Libé's editorial. Faced with what it calls "the jihadist menace", the West seems to have forgotten that day after day civilians are being killed in Ukraine, a country which Europe helped to build democratic institutions.

Sanctions on Russia, which supports and arms the separatists, have had the opposite effect from that intended; enabling Putin to pose as a victim of Western aggression. What's more, Libé says, he is surrounded by "Rasputins" - a reference to the Russian mystic who was a malevolent influence in the court of Imperial Russia just before the revolution - people said to be encouraging Putin into military adventures.

Libération concludes that, at very least, Europe and the United States must enable Ukrainian forces to defend themselves and to halt the Russian offensive.

Agree or disagree. Clearly, there's no simple solution.

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