Ihe recurring expression of the Court of Auditors’ concern about the trajectory of public finances is an imposed figure with which the Republic has come to terms since the last balanced budget exercise, almost fifty years ago. Its repetitive nature does not detract from its relevance, it only emphasizes that it is not by ignoring the subjects that they end up resolving themselves. Quite the contrary: the situation tends to get worse, until it becomes uncontrollable.
The institution’s annual report, released on Friday March 10, marks a new stage in this well-oiled exercise. The government, the opposition and public opinion would however be wrong to take the alert as a simple warning on the drift of our deficits.
Between the end of “whatever it costs”, which takes on the appearance of a horizon line receding as we advance, new expenses which pile up according to the challenges that must be faced the country, tax cuts far from always being justified, a slowing economic situation and high inflation, the path to budgetary consolidation still does not seem to be on the cards.
When the Court of Auditors affirms that “France’s debt is becoming very problematic”, that’s an understatement. Even when exceptional expenses, linked to Covid-19 and to protecting households against the effects of inflation, are excluded from the calculations, the budgetary floodgates remain wide open, driving up the amount of our debt inexorably. This should reach 111% of GDP this year, while the deficit should stagnate at 5%, as in 2022.
The problem with these figures is that the French have come to get used to them. The country lives in a bubble where its needs would be more legitimate than those of its neighbors and would justify budget deviations that the latter dare not allow themselves. The argument of hiding behind the excuse of an unprecedented series of crises does not hold water. Under identical circumstances, France does less well than most of its eurozone partners. All of them are in working order to reduce their deficit below 3% of GDP in 2025. For France, it will be two years later. And again, given the increase in public spending planned for 2023, which is already deviating from the promised trajectory, the objective is at this stage of the incantation.
The “whatever the cost” has made inaudible the speech on the serious budget. Few are those who, from the government to the opposition, right and left, dare to take advantage of it. It is symptomatic that, for lack of a majority to vote for it, France still does not have a public finance programming law, a sort of roadmap to reach the 3% deficit in 2027.
It is not a question of taking part in a competition of budgetary virtue. But this lag by France considerably weakens its European leadership as well as its ability to influence the negotiations on the common budgetary rules which will apply in 2024, after having been suspended during the pandemic crisis.
Beyond this continental dimension, France must imperatively regain budgetary leeway, while the list of essential expenditure continues to grow, whether it is energy transition, education, health or defense. Far from being a “diktat” imposed from outside, controlled debt is an essential tool for ensuring our sovereignty.