French belt-tightening helps, but more is in prospect

Socialist austerity is beginning to produce results. Following last June's temporary wage and price controls and a sharp cut in public spending, President Francois Mitterrand's government is pleased by a series of promising economic statistics: Inflation is down below 10 percent and the trade deficit is not as high as expected, while, almost unbelievably, unemployment has been stabilized.

But the consensus of bankers and economists here remains that France is facing a difficult 1983. Inflation and the trade gap remain far too much for comfort, and as the country borrows and borrows to defend the ailing franc, its external debt is growing exponentially.

The result, the analysts say, is that the Socialists will almost certainly have to devalue the franc sometime after March's local elections, the third cut in the currency's value in a little over a year and a half. To make this devaluation stick, the analysts say it will have to be accompanied by a set of new, stiffer austerity measures.

''It's rather impressive what the Socialists have done in recent months,'' a leading economist said. ''But they are still suffering from the disastrous choices they made during their first year.''

During that first year, the Mitterrand government reflated in an effort to spend France out of recession. Consumer demand increased, pulling in imports.

As a result, the country's trade deficit soared, and while inflation was shriveling elsewhere in the West, here it refused to come down from its lofty double-digit heights.

To reverse these problems, the Socialists switched gears in June, devaluing and imposing austerity measures. By the close of the year, inflation had been brought down to an annual 9.7 percent rate and the trade deficit, once expected to exceed 100 billion francs, ended up at 92.7 billion francs (about $13 billion).

At the same time, the government announced that it had succeeded, primarily through an elaborate plan tying early retirement to hiring the young jobless, in stabilizing unemployment at a little more than 2 million, or just over 8 percent. While the number of Frenchmen looking for jobs jumped by 25 percent in 1981, it increased only a little more than 7 percent last year, an achievement that leaves France well under the Western industrial median for unemployment.

But despite these positive figures, the French economy remains in the doldrums. Unemployment is expected to pick up in the spring when the effects of the retirement measures recede, economists say. They add that at 92.7 billion francs, the trade deficit remains much too high, putting constant pressure on the franc.

To cover the trade gap and defend its currency, the Socialists have been forced to borrow on a large scale. In October they took out a $4 billion loan from international banks. In December, the Saudis agreed to extend them a $4 billion credit line. And last weekend, despite strong Finance Ministry denials, Le Monde reported that negotiations had been opened with American banks for a further $3 billion loan.

All in all, bankers said France borrowed about $20 billion last year, making it the biggest borrower in world markets. The loans nearly doubled the country's external debt, the bankers added, pushing it to between $40 billion and $50 billion.

The conservative opposition has jumped on this frantic borrowing. Just as the Germans are wary of inflation, the French electorate is acutely sensitive to heavy indebtedness, feeling that it mortgages France's economic and political independence.

Bankers are not so pessimistic, pointing to the country's continued good credit ratings. But they say the borrowing cannot continue indefinitely.

''France is not Mexico,'' one banker said. ''But (France has) been borrowing a lot and it is beginning to worry the market.''

Inflation is the other key problem. The government sees last year's 9.7 percent rate as a great achievement, and hopes to bring it down this year to 8 percent. But without the crutch of wage and price controls, bankers are skeptical. They figure prices will rise again by about 10 percent.

This would make French inflation twice the West German rate of 5 percent, a disastrous differential, as Germany is France's largest trading partner.

To correct it and the trade imbalance, all the while easing borrowing, analysts expect the Socialists to devalue. But they are almost sure this will not come until after the important local elections on March 6. The Socialists view a devaluation before the polling as political suicide.

Exactly when the devaluation will come depends on the outcome not only of the French elections, but also on the results of the West German elections, scheduled for the same day, the analysts explained.

Conservative victories here and in Bonn would strengthen the mark and weaken the franc. Socialist victories would have the opposite results. And continued instability in Germany could cause a run on the mark, putting the devaluation off for a while.

Even in this case, the analysts believe the Socialists would have to impose another dose of austerity. Further belt-tightening is needed to bring down the trade deficit to a more manageable 50 billion francs or so this year, to keep inflation falling, and to keep the budget deficit at 3 percent of gross national product, as promised last June.

Behind the scenes, officials are reportedly working on a second austerity package, raising taxes and cutting spending. Finance Minister Jacques Delors indirectly confirmed this by saying last month that should prices rebound, he ''would not hesitate to recommend a new twist of the monetary and budgetary screw.''

But it is not necessarily certain whether more austerity is politically palatable or possible for President Mitterrand. Already, he is being badgered by a substantial minority in the Socialist Party pleading that the government is being pulled back into the deflationary policies of the former government. Led by Industry Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, they argue for a more expansionary policy, even at the risk of increased foreign borrowing or curbs on imports.

The other key question is whether the unions would accept further cuts in their standard of living. Labor unrest has picked up here recently, most noticeably in a bitter dispute at the state-owned automaker, Renault.

Still, the analysts are betting that Mr. Mitterrand will opt for more austerity, even at the risk of dividing his party and forcing the Communists out of the government. The Chevenement route of increased public spending combined with protectionism would make France the economic and political pariah of the Western world, they say.

''It would cause too many problems, exposing the franc to full-out speculation, and turning France into a closed society,'' said Paul Horne, European economist for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., a brokerage firm. ''That is incompatible with how Mr. Mitterrand views France's role in the world.''

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