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French press review 4 January 2012

The French nuclear industry is making front-page news again. So is Hungary's moves away from democracy. Should employers pay for social benefits or should consumers? And why bare heads were deemed necessary in North Korea last week.

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Yesterday saw the publication of the report from the nuclear security authority, which was told in the wake of the Fukushima disaster to run the 58 French reactor sites through a fine sieve. The results are mixed.

The good news is that no French nuclear reactor can currently be considered a hazard. The bad news is that to make the whole operation really safe would cost so much, anything between 10 and 15 billion euros, the price of electricity will have to be doubled.

Each reactor is to be equipped with its own power generator, super-secure control bunker, and its own permanent water supply.

As Le Monde points out, the news comes as a major political embarrassment in this election year, when all talk of further price increases is political suicide.

Right-wing Le Figaro is playing down the price and the short-term implications, saying a mere 10 billion euros would ensure "maximum security".

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

Business daily Les Echos points out that the news will have a range of political implications, since the demands of the ecology parties to completely abandon nuclear power now seem a lot less far-fetched. Is it worth investing more millions to make a fundamentally unsafe industry slightly less unsafe, or should we accept the fact that cheap electicity is a thing of the past and begin winding down the reactors?

Such a winding down, according to right-wing and pro-nuclear Le Figaro, would cost 500 billion euros and hundreds of thousands of jobs, to say nothing about the impact on the national debt and on individual energy bills. Le Figaro says France must invest in the continuing development of a so-far safe nuclear sector, while at the same time expanding the part played by renewable energy.

It's a complicated and costly debate which no presidential candidate will want to have to wrestle with over the next few months. It will also provide some heartache for deputies who have reactors in their constituencies.

The morning's other front-page stories look to Hungary, with Libération criticising the European Union for its silent inaction in the face of Budapest's drift away from democracy. Libé's editorial wonders at the fact that Europe reacts rapidly to any signs of fiscal incorrectness but allows the gradual erosion of democratic principles to pass unquestioned.

Speaking of fiscal matters, communist L'Humanité wonders if the European Central Bank wouldn't do well to stop pretending to respect the economic autonomy of eurozone states and just get on with financing them directly. The topic has been taboo up to recently and remains strictly forbidden by the Central Bank charter.

But the European Central Bank could legally lend to state credit agencies and the European Investment Bank. The advantage would be a huge saving on interest rates and would allow struggling states to escape from the grip of the speculators.

Catholic La Croix looks at the vexed question of the so-called "social sales tax". Is it better to make employers chiefly responsible for financing the social welfare system or should social security be paid for by a tax on consumers?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy currently thinks the consumer should pay, on the basis that putting too much pressure on employers might make them less inclined to take on new staff, or more inclined to move to Taiwan or Tashkent where staff costs are considerable lower.

The problem is to guess what impact an increase in VAT will have on spending, since not only economic growth by also social welfare will henceforth depend on a lively retail market.

To put it all in perspective, the bosses and the right-wing majority are largely in favour of the move; the left and the trades unions are broadly against.

Libération also reports that the North Korean authorities ordered those wishing to pay their final respects to the late Kim Jong-Il on 28 December last to salute the funeral procession "with bare heads and hands".

The public were warned that there would be government inspectors looking out for revolutionary bonnets and dissident gloves in every group. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up and stood in the freezing snow for as long as three hours. Korean television did reveal a few sensible souls, well wrapped up against the blizzard conditions. So well wrapped, in fact, that they can't be indentified for the purposes of reeducation. Sneaky!

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