France shrugs off credit downgrade, saying economic reforms need time
France's Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici delivers a speech during a press conference in Paris on Sept. 28, 2012. (AP / Christophe Ena)
Published Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:20AM EST
PARIS -- France's government has shrugged off the latest downgrade of its credit rating, saying Tuesday that it just needs time for reforms to the sluggish economy to take root.
In a setback for President Francois Hollande's Socialist government, Moody's Investors Service stripped Europe's No. 2 economy of it of its prized AAA credit rating late Monday on concerns that its rigid labour market and exposure to Europe's financial crisis were threatening its prospects for economic growth.
This is the second ratings downgrade to have hit France this year: Standard & Poor's agency lowered its score in January. The third leading agency, Fitch, still ranks France at AAA-rating but has had it on review for a downgrade since late last year.
But Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici insisted that France's credibility remains strong and that the government's plan to reduce unemployment and restore growth would bear fruit.
France has come under scrutiny as its $2.5 trillion economy has stagnated, with many leading French companies laying off workers. Meanwhile Hollande has struggled to reassure economists that his attempts to revive the French economy will be successful.
Hollande's government has laid out a series of deficit-reduction targets, vowing to bring it in line with European rules next year. It has also unveiled a plan to improve the competitiveness of its economy, by giving companies $25 billion in tax rebates, reducing red tape for businesses, and providing small companies with extra support to compete abroad.
However, many economists say that the greatest threat to France's economy is its stringent labour rules, which make firing difficult and expensive and thus deter hiring. The country has been losing global business for years to more dynamic economies like China's, while fighting unemployment of 10.8 per cent and concerns about the future of the eurozone.
The French government is currently leading negotiations between businesses and unions in the hopes of reforming labour rules by the end of the year.
Moscovici pleaded for time Tuesday, saying the government was convinced it was on the right path but that its reforms just need to take effect.
"It takes time to reverse the flow of things. It takes courageous decisions, and that's what we're promising to do," he told reporters.
To the ratings agencies, critics and investors, he said: "Judge us on our results."
Trouble for France would mean wider trouble for Europe. France and Germany, which underpin the group of 17 European Union countries that use the euro, have taken the lead in finding solutions to Europe's debt crisis. Any slip in France's clout could endanger its ability to lead negotiations.
He also insisted that relations with Germany remained strong. There have been reports recently that Germany is concerned about the health of the French economy.
But German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble seemed unconcerned about the downgrade.
"We have received the news that, overnight, our most important partner got a little admonition from a rating agency," Schaeuble said in the German Parliament. "The rating for France is still very stable, so that we avoid any dramatization."
Moody's itself said that the rating remains so high -- now Aa1, just a notch below triple-A --because of the size of the French economy and the government's commitment to make structural reforms. It kept the rating's outlook at negative, meaning it could face future downgrades.
The downgrade, like S&P's before it, appeared to be having a limited effect on France's borrowing costs. The yield, or interest rate, on the benchmark 10-year bond was up 0.04 percentage points to 2 per cent on Tuesday afternoon. Germany's was up the same rate to 1.39 per cent.
Moscovici said he expected the country to continue to be able to borrow at those historically low rates because of the seriousness of its reform package.