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French deficit below 3 percent of GDP for first time in decade

Bertrand Guay, AFP | French Junior Minister for Budget Christian Eckert (R) listens to Finance Minister Michel Sapin speaking during a press conference to present the latest figures on France's public deficit on March 24, 2017.

France's public deficit shrank to a better-than-expected 2.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2017, the first time it has fallen below the European Union's three percent limit in a decade, the national statistics office said on Monday.

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The result, better than the government’s 2.9 percent target, will be good news for President Emmanuel Macron, who made respecting EU budget rules after years of delays a cornerstone of his aim to restore French fiscal credibility among EU peers.

Shortly after he was elected last May, Macron took belt-tightening measures, including cuts to a popular housing allowance, to make sure the budget deficit would not overshoot the three percent limit, costing him precious points in his popularity rating.

However, figures from the INSEE statistics office showed the better-than-expected improvement in France’s public finances was also in a large part due to stronger tax receipts, boosted by brisker economic growth.

The French tax burden rose to a record of 45.4 percent of GDP product in 2017 from 44.6 percent the year before.

Government spending rose by 2.5 percent and government revenue by 4 percent, INSEE said.

France was also one of only two euro zone countries still under the European Commission’s excessive-deficit procedure, with only Spain expected to have done worse in 2017, according to European Commission forecasts.

The improvement should give welcome support to Macron’s quest to convince Germany, the EU’s paymaster, to reform the euro zone and help overcome mistrust between northern European countries and what they perceive as profligate southern members.

But on the domestic front, the better-than-expected deficit figures could represent a headache for the president.

Calls are growing within his party for some of the windfall, as it has come to be called, to be spent, not entirely used to pay down debt, as his government has promised.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has dismissed such calls, saying France’s debt, which reached 97 percent of GDP last year, was unsustainable.

(REUTERS)

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