Archive for May, 2011

France rocked by new sex harassment scandal

Sunday, May 29th, 2011 | Finance News

PARIS (AFP) – A minister has resigned from the government to fight allegations of sexual harassment, two weeks after ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sensational New York arrest on sex crime charges.

Civil service minister Georges Tron, accused of sexually harassing two women who worked for him at the town hall where he is mayor, said in his letter of resignation to President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would prove his innocence.

He stepped down after prosecutors said Wednesday they had opened a preliminary investigation into accusations of sexual aggression and rape against him.

His lawyer has described his accusers as "inveterate liars."

The 53-year-old minister said in his resignation letter he would disprove the "vindictive" accusations by the former municipal employees, one of whom he said was sacked for fraud and the other for "undignified behaviour."

The two women, aged 34 and 36, claimed in the complaints they lodged with the public prosecutor that Tron had assaulted them when they worked in the town hall of the south Paris suburb Draveil, where Tron is mayor.

The alleged incidents took place between 2007 and 2010.

One of the women said she was encouraged to speak up after the arrest of another French political heavyweight, former socialist minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

"When I see that a chambermaid was capable of taking on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I tell myself I don?t have the right to stay silent," the woman, who was not identified by name, told Le Parisien newspaper.

"Other women may be suffering what I suffered. I have to help them. We must break this code of silence," she said.

Strauss-Kahn has stepped down from his post at the head of the International Monetary Fund to devote himself to fighting charges that he tried to rape a chambermaid in his New York hotel suite.

Tron's resignation was announced in a statement by Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who praised Tron for his "courage" in taking a decision which was in the "general interest".

Tron has linked the case to a feud with relatives of right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen living in Draveil, which prompted Le Pen to announce that she was suing him for defamation.

He has alleged that his political rivals were trying to gain momentum from the arrest of Strauss-Kahn.

"I am not naive. They are trying to echo what's happening on the other side of the Atlantic," he told AFP on Tuesday.

Le Pen, who has dismissed the allegation, said Thursday she would sue Tron for libel. She had been calling for his resignation since Friday.

After examining the evidence, prosecutors can decide to shelve the case against the ex-minister, refer it to an examining magistrate or send it straight for trial.

Tron is a member of the rightwing UMP party led by Sarkozy, who is widely expected to seek re-election in next year's presidential vote in France.

Strauss-Kahn had been seen as a leading presidential hopeful for the opposition Socialists, but his arrest in New York has likely scuppered his chances.

Strauss-Kahn was released on bail this week after spending nearly a week behind bars following his dramatic arrest just hours after the alleged assault, as he was about to take off on an Air France plane for Paris.

He is due back in court on June 6, when he is expected to enter a formal plea of not guilty. If so, the case would move to trial later this year.


EU, IMF to judge Greece as protests swell

Sunday, May 29th, 2011 | Finance News

ATHENS (Reuters) – European Union and IMF officials are expected to deliver their verdict this week on Greece's faltering drive to bring its budget deficit under control, but ordinary Greeks have warned that their patience is running thin.

Greece last year won a 110 billion euro ($157.5 billion) rescue package from the EU and International Monetary Fund, but since then has struggled to meet its deficit reduction targets, heightening the risk of a default on its 327 billion euro debt -- equivalent to 150 percent of economic output.

European Central Bank board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi issued a dire warning against default and told the Financial Times it was a "fairytale" to think that Greece's debts could be restructured in an orderly way.

"If you look at financial markets, every time there is mention of a word like 'restructuring' or 'soft restructuring' they go crazy - which proves that this could not happen in an orderly way, in this environment at least," he said.

He added: "If Greece defaulted, the Greek banking system would collapse. It would then need a huge recapitalization -- but where would the money come from?"

The Italian said Greece could instead reduce its debt by selling assets and changing its tax and expenditure systems. "If you look at the balance sheet of Greece, it is not insolvent."

But Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou has failed to win backing from the opposition to adopt fresh austerity steps, more economic reforms and faster sales of state assets, as demanded by the EU and IMF.


Tens of thousands of protesters packed a central Athens square on Sunday to denounce the nation's entire ruling class and vent their anger at the IMF and its demands for yet more belt-tightening.

Black-hooded youths have been battling police since the austerity drive began last year, but the demonstrators who took over Syntagma Square, in front of parliament, were families, from children to the elderly, who had no class wars to wage.

Mobilized by Facebook rather than opposition parties or unions, they booed, whistled and chanted "Thieves! Thieves!" as they pointed at the parliament building.

"The IMF should get out. There are other solutions without them," said Ifigenia Argyrou, a 57-year-old insurance consultant.

Police put Sunday's crowd at 30,000 although the protesters say the authorities consistently underestimate their numbers.

Papandreou had been due to rally his PASOK party on Monday behind yet deeper austerity to win new international aid. But PASOK canceled the executive council meeting on Sunday without a detailed explanation.

Under last year's bailout plan, Greece was supposed to resume borrowing on financial markets next year but that now seems increasingly unlikely, so the EU is preparing a new aid plan that would meet Greece's funding needs in 2012 and 2013.

In return, the EU wants Athens to impose yet more austerity and reform, including privatizations. The officials are checking Greece's fiscal progress before approving a 12 billion euro aid tranche -- the fifth under the current bailout -- and possibly new funding the country needs to avoid default.

German weekly magazine Der Spiegel fanned fears over the weekend Greece might not get the money, saying it might have missed all fiscal targets set by its lenders.

Both Greece and the IMF denied the report, while Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou was upbeat on the budget negotiations.

"We expect that they will conclude successfully in the next few days," he said in a statement.

Pressure continues to pile on the socialist government, with the EU Commission's top economics official, Olli Rehn, saying time is running out for Greece to secure political agreement on an economic adjustment programme.

With the team of EU and IMF officials in Athens expected to complete its review of Greek finances soon, Papandreou also needs to prevent fatigue from spreading to his own party as its popularity declines.

PASOK has a comfortable majority in parliament but one weekend opinion poll showed it had lost its lead for the first time since it won elections in 2009.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alex Richardson)


Greeks demonstrate against austerity measures

Sunday, May 29th, 2011 | Finance News

ATHENS, Greece – About 30,000 people protested in Athens' central Syntagma square on Sunday evening against the government's tough economic austerity policies.

The demonstration, larger than many others that have taken place during Greece's economic crisis, appeared to be the first that resulted from spontaneous calls over social media sites such as Facebook. Many others have been organized by unions or political factions.

Pointing at Parliament and its 300 legislators, many of Sunday's protesters chanted "Thieves! Thieves!" Others shouted slogans against Prime Minister George Papandreou and the International Monetary Fund.

No violence was reported and few police were on the scene.

Papandreou, buffeted by negative polls and protests such as these, has vowed to continue his fiscal reforms.

On Sunday, he warned against "sirens" calling for Greece to default on its debt. Speaking to an audience of local officials in western Greece, Papandreou said it is "foreign taxpayers' money" that has allowed his nation to continue paying public sector salaries and pensions.

Reforms are painful, but they are starting to pay off and the economy will return to growth in 2012, he said.

Two polls published earlier Sunday showed the governing Socialists neck and neck with opposition conservatives. In one poll, the conservatives led for the first time since they were trounced at elections 20 months ago.

Debt inspectors from the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank are in Athens to monitor progress on last year's euro110 billion ($155.8 billion) bailout loan deal for Greece, which remains shut out of the bond markets and is facing a potential financing gap in 2012. They will determine whether Athens has met criteria for a June loan installment, worth euro12 billion and vital to avoid a summer default.

But the austerity measures have significantly eroded the incomes of many Greeks, causing widespread anger and further depressing an already shrinking economy. Greece's economic output dropped 4.5 percent in 2010 and is expected to shrink a further 2.7 percent this year.

Popular anger at the measures has made calls for Greece to default popular, despite warnings by ministers that the country cannot afford such an option.