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French press review 2 February 2015

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The papers are starting to get over Greece. There are just two front pages with an Athens angle this morning.


The weekend edition of Le Monde tells us that Europe is looking for an answer to the Tsipras effect, as if the new Greek Prime Minister was a deadly virus or an environmental threat, while communist L'Humanité offers to cut through all the confusion and mis-information, and reveal the true cost of the Greek debt.

The Greek Finance Minister was here in Paris yesterday, the virus himself, Alexis Tsipras, will follow on Wednesday. The boys are warming up for their arm wrestle with Brussels over who should pay back what, and when.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

The facts are stark enough: the Greeks currently owe various disgruntled parties a total of 315 billion euros, and a couple of centimes. That's nearly twice what the unfortunate country could produce in a good year.

So the new men in charge are out and about, trying to convince the frosty International Monetary Fund, the unfriendly European Central Bank, and the pretty damn scared European Union, that austerity and an insistence on repayment is bad news for everybody. France and Germany have struggled to reach a common position on the Greek tragedy, while various anti-austerity movements, in Spain, Ireland and here in France, are trying to use this shock wave to their own purposes. French far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is going around like he'd won the Greek election himself.

L'Humanité's attempts to reveal the truth about Greece's financial woes is a bit two-edged: the communist daily accepts that there are structural problems... the authorities in Athens have never been good at getting people to pay their taxes, there's no reliable property map to indicate who owns what, politicians have been, traditionally, corrupt and keen to look after their mates. But the real problem of Greek debt stems from the 2008 financial crisis. According to the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, in the course of a few weeks in early 2009, Greece went from having one of the highest growth rates in Europe to practically zero.

The core of the problem was the decision by the Athens government to save its banking sector, basically by having the state buy-out hugely endebted private banks that would otherwise have gone down the tubes. Just that the Greek banks were the financial equivalent of a black hole, and then Europe started getting the jitters. Athens was told to put the nation on a starvation diet, salaries collapsed, the cradle of European civilisation slithered into the third world, and the debt burden just got heavier.

Dossier: The Strauss-Kahn affair rocks France, IMF

And that, folks, is the problem with austerity. The more people have to spend paying their debts, the less they have to spend getting their economies going again. The Germans are doing quite nicely, thank you, because the markets for top-of-the-range cars, cameras and washing machines are not overly affected by the squeeze. But the poorer nations are really struggling, economically and politically, as the rise of far-right, nationalist movements, practically everywhere has indicated.

L'Humanité wants to know when Europe's money is going to be used to create jobs and social services for Europeans, instead of going to pay financial institutions for debts that were originally incurred to keep those very institutions afloat. It's an interesting question.

What's happening in the Doubs, that western constituency where they're having a bye-election to replace Pierre Moscovici, he having gone off to Brussels to be in charge of national debts. In yesterday's first round, the mainline conservative UMP candidate got the stuffing knocked out of him, leaving the extremists of the Front National to contest the second round against the Socialists. Voter participation is estimated at a low 40 per cent, which might help to explain the strong showing by the far right, but is surprising given the fact that defeat in the Doubs will cost the Socialists their absolute majority in the French National Assembly. The UMP will wait until tomorrow before making any announcement to their voters about how to behave in next Sunday's second round.

Catholic La Croix talks to Nigerian refugees in Cameroon about fleeing the madness of Boko Haram, whileLibération notes the start of the trial of former International Monetary Fund chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He's accused of being a pimp. He says it's all part of a plot to keep him from being French president. Expect shocking revelations on all sides.