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French budget squeeze has only just begun

France’s mid-February emergency budget cuts to keep its deficit-reduction plans on track are unlikely to be the last, leaving the government struggling to strike a balance between financial imperatives and political realities.

The timing for any more cuts could hardly be worse, with annual European Union budget-vetting, credit rating agency updates and EU parliamentary elections that the French far right is likely to do well in all due in the next three months.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire delivered bad news on Wednesday, saying last year’s public sector budget deficit would likely be worse than expected when the accounts are finalised.

That follows his announcement in mid-February – not even two months into the fiscal year – of 10 billion euros ($10.9 billion) of budget cuts needed to keep the government’s deficit-cutting plans on course in the face of weaker than expected growth.

“For a long time, public spending has been the solution to all of our problems. Now it risks becoming a problem for all of us,” Le Maire told the lower house of parliament’s finance committee on Wednesday.

“We need to take decisions to improve our public finances.”

The ministry now expects the euro zone’s second-biggest economy to grow only 1% this year instead of the 1.4% on which it had based its budget planning, targeting a budget deficit of 4.4% of economic output this year.

Le Maire told Le Monde newspaper on Wednesday that the 2023 public deficit would be “significantly above” the 4.9% target due to lower tax revenues, making this year’s target a stretch without a bigger budget squeeze.

“There are two possibilities: either revising the deficit-reduction plans or coming up with additional budget savings. Bruno Le Maire is dropping hints that it will be new savings,” said economist Charles-Henri Colombier with the Rexecode think tank.

Le Maire told lawmakers the overriding objective remained to cut the deficit to less than an EU limit of 3% of output by 2027, at the end of President Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term, and even target a balanced budget by 2032.

The timing of the next steps is key as France must send annual deficit-reduction plans to its EU partners next month and ratings agencies are due to update their ratings in April and May.

The government will also be loathe to announce new cuts just before EU parliamentary elections in June, with the far right polling comfortably ahead of Macron’s party.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen criticised the government last week in Les Echos business daily for lacking deeper structural efforts to rein in spending, calling for expenditures on immigration and welfare fraud to be targeted.

But the government will also want to avoid a ratings downgrade, especially from S&P which has France on a negative outlook and next updates its rating on May 31, days ahead of the vote.

“The recent announcements make a downgrade more and more likely,” Colombier said.

The first wave of budget cuts are wide-ranging, hitting subsidies for energy-efficient home renovations, development aid, public research and job training to name a few targets.

However, the 10 billion euros in cuts risk being partially offset by unbudgeted spending to benefit protesting farmers and extra support for Ukraine, said former public auditor Francois Ecalle, who also runs a public finance website.

That might make it necessary to pass new 2024 budget legislation as early as mid-year, just as the government is trying to find new savings for its 2025 budget.

Leigh Thomas, "French budget squeeze has only just begun," Business recorder. 2024-03-08.
Keywords: Economics , Political realities , Financial imperatives , Budget deficit , Bruno Le Maire , Charles-Henri Colombier , Ukraine , 2025

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