- France said Greece should be given more time to meet bailout terms
- Clearest call yet by a leading eurozone country for easing conditions
- Head of the IMF said such a move should be "considered as an option"
- Greece is working to meet austerity terms on a €174bn rescue package
France has said Greece should be given more time to meet the terms of its international bailout, in the clearest call yet by a leading eurozone country for an easing of the stringent conditions attached to the €174bn rescue package.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, taking a clear swipe at those in Germany insisting on a hard line against Athens, warned that a Greek exit from the eurozone would be "unmanageable" and could be "the beginning of the end of the European project".
Speaking in an interview with the French news website Mediapart, Mr Ayrault said: "We can already offer [Greece] more time . . . on the condition that Greece is sincere in its commitment to reform, especially tax reform."
It was the most explicit call yet by Paris for relief for Athens, which has informally suggested it be given an extra two years to meet its reform commitments. Last week, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said such a move should be "considered as an option" but it has faced stiff opposition from Germany and other northern eurozone countries such as Finland.
President François Hollande has been careful not to cross Angela Merkel on the issue, but Mr Ayrault made clear the frustrations in the new socialist government over the handling of Greece by eurozone leaders, including the German chancellor, criticising them for a "political weakness" and "a lack of vision".
"When you think that the Greek crisis has lasted 2½ years, and that Greece represents only 2 per cent of the gross domestic product of the eurozone . . . European leaders have not been able to meet their responsibilities in time," he said.
He added: "I think however that the principal German leaders have understood that losing a sense of reality about Greece would launch us into a completely unmanageable situation."
France's chief fear is that a compounding of the eurozone crisis would turn the spotlight of the financial markets on itself and the country's public debt, which is set to exceed 90 per cent of GDP.
Pierre Moscovici, France's finance minister, reiterated on Sunday that next year's budget, due on Friday, would stick to the target of reducing the budget deficit to 3 per cent of GDP.
"If we don't hold to 3 per cent, the markets will say: 'They are not serious, they are not credible', and, boom, our rates of interest would rise like Spain's," he said.
Mr Ayrault's call for leniency followed a confrontation in Athens last week over international lenders' demands for an extra €1.5bn of cuts in pensions and public sector salaries to meet the €11.5bn target.
A senior government official said on Sunday that Greece was now unlikely to receive a critical €31.5bn loan instalment tranche before mid-November.