* Tsipras seeks investments during French visit
* Macron echoes Tsipras’ comments, says: “We are here”
* Total CEO calls for EU response to Chinese buying spree (Adds Tsipras comments, Total CEO)
By Michel Rose and Angeliki Koutantou
ATHENS, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras urged French businesses on Friday to invest in Greece, as it emerges from its debt crisis, and assured them that they would not regret it.
Tsipras said attracting investment was a priority for his leftist-led government, which aims to reduce the jobless rate, the euro zone’s highest, and make Greece financially independent in 2018, when the country’s third international bailout expires.
“Greece is an opportunity... a real opportunity,” Tsipras told French business leaders accompanying French President Emmanual Macron on a two-day trip to Athens.
“You won’t regret your choice,” he said.
After seven years of crisis and painful reforms, Greece’s economy could grow by more than 2 percent this year, he added. But Greece still ranks very low in terms of direct investment.
The 43-year old leader was catapulted to power in 2015 on pledges to tear up the country’s bailouts, end austerity and freeze privatisations, scaring away investors. After tense talks, he signed up to a new bailout, Greece’s third since 2010.
On Friday, Tsipras promised to reduce red tape, a common hurdle for investors in the country, and cut the corporate tax rate by 3 percentage points to 26 percent in 2020, if Greece outperforms on its bailout-prescribed fiscal targets.
He said he would personally lead a task-force that would oversee projects and consult with investors.
“We are ready to proceed with reforms,” he said. “We are ready to discuss them with you. We want to hear your concerns,” he said after greeting the French executives one by one.
“WE ARE HERE”
Macron echoed the call, urging Europeans to invest in Greece, returning to his theme from Thursday that Europe needs to protect its strategic investments to protect itself.
Greece has boosted investment ties with China in recent years after China’s COSCO Shipping bought a controlling stake in Piraeus Port, Greece’s biggest, for 280.5 million euros. China’s State Grid, the world’s biggest utility, acquired a minority stake in Greece’s power grid operator ADMIE in June.
“Greece was sometimes forced to choose non-European investments because European investors weren’t there any more. I’m not happy with this situation,” Macron said during his visit with about 40 French executives including from blue-chips Total and Vinci.
“I want Europeans, as much as the whole world, to come and invest in Greece,” he said. “We were here, we are here, we will be here.”
Total’s chief executive Patrick Pouyanne backed Macron’s call to be more vigilant about state-backed Chinese firms taking control of strategic sectors within the region.
Total is interested in investing in renewable energy in Greece and in oil drilling off its waters, he said. But he added that European investors were often more reluctant, leaving room for Chinese firms to step in. “Investing in Greece is not as simple as that. Labour costs are a bit higher than in eastern Europe, and it’s less connected to the German market, large European markets,” he said. “The Chinese have done it in Africa, they are doing it in the Mediterranean, taking advantage of this weakness.”
France has a strong investment presence in Greece. It supported Athens in 2015 during its talks with European Union and International Monetary Fund lenders that almost forced the country out of the euro zone.
The two countries agreed to boost cooperation in tourism, infrastructure, new technologies and defence, Tsipras said.
Greece’s power distribution operator HEDNO, a unit of the its electricity utility Public Power Corp., and France’s power distributor Enedis agreed to team up in smart power meters that Greece needs to curb rampant power theft. (Writing by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Alison Williams)