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French press review 12 February 2014

Mr Hollande goes to Washington. Official auditors want more cuts. Has the government got its sums right? And have the auditors got their right? Is the French right getting set for a bit of book-burning?

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Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé says you can't blame French President François Hollande for taking a few day off in the United States.

With a personal popularity rating of 19 per cent, needing to cut 50 billion euros in state spending, and with local and European election disasters on the near horizon, who wouldn't choose to put the Atlantic Ocean between himself and the disgruntled public. But, says the satirical duck, if the 21 guns on the White House lawn yesterday were firing blanks, the local Accounts Court, the French financial watchdog, is using real ammunition.

The independent public accounting body, which basically supervises government spending, yesterday warned that France was in "a dangerous zone", with the national debt exceding 93 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and with interest rates sure to rise in the near future, making that debt even more difficult to support.

Just one single per cent of an increase in interest rates would immediately add two billion euros to the cost of servicing French borrowings, says the report.

Over 10 years that's the equivalent of the amount currently spent by the justice, foreign affairs and culture ministries combined. In personal terms, a public debt of 2,000 billion euros, the level the accounts court says will be reached in the course of 2014, is the equivalent of 30,000 euros for each and every man, woman and child in the French population.

The same report warns that there's not much room for manoeuvre, and that the government is going to have to attack social spending, the biggest single item of state spending but not an easy task for a Socialist government.

Other savings will have to be made in the amounts paid by central to local government.

And the bad news does not end there. According to business daily, Les Echos, the government's predictions for income and savings, on which this year's budget was based, are already over-optimistic to the tune of about six billion euros.

Part of the problem, says Les Echos, is that tax increases don't automatically translate into additional revenue. In a time of weak growth and little inflation, tax take always declines, because of an effect called "fiscal elasticity" by economists. If salaries remain stable, individuals spend less, paying less value added tax; as companies make smaller profits, they pay less into the national coffers. The only thing that will get the tax pump working in the right direction again is economic growth but there ain't too much of that around right now.

The finance ministry expects the French economy to grow by 0.9 of a per cent this year. Less optimistic, the accounts court expects the finance ministry to be wrong again, to the tune of between two and four billion extra euros added to the debt mountain.

Communist L'Humanité thinks the accounts court report is a tissue of lies.

The paper says a suggestion that five billion euros could be saved every year in the hospital sector of the social service budget is complete fiction, unless the state is prepared to sack the 100,000 assistants currently working in operating theatres.

As for the report's claim that free rail tickets are being given not just to railway employees and their kids but to their parents, grandparents and even great grandparents, at a cost to the state of 100 million euros every year, L'Humanité is harsh in its criticism of a penny-pinching mentality, asserting that the children and wives of rail employees get 16 free trips each year and the parents of employees four. Grandparents and great grandparents have no rights whatsoever to free transport.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

Libération gives pride of place to a civil war over a book for children. The book is called Everybody Naked and it has been in the news recently because it's on a list of books suggested to teachers by an association which tries to promote equality between the sexes, notably by encouraging teachers to discuss sexual stereotypes with school children. Another book on the same list is the wonderfully titled Daddy Wears a Dress, now sadly out of print.

Enter conservative leader Jean-François Copé, copy of Everybody Naked in his sweaty little claw. He leafs through the offending text, finding a naked baby, a naked granny, a naked dog, a naked teacher! Up with this John-Frank will not put. The authority of the teaching profession ridiculed, the nation's children on the road to perdition. John-Frank's blood chilled and will stay that way until he sees how many far-right voters his latest outburst will bring in.

Libération says it's all part of a conservative attempt to harness the energy of recent right-wing reactions against marriage for everyone and changes in family law and turn that energy into right-wing votes.

It's a shame, says the left-leaning daily, to attempt to reduce school to the place where we learn to read, write and make mistakes in maths. It's also where we learn to live together and find out who we really are. Everybody naked! Now!

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