Public Debt in France and Europe

All European countries find themselves confronted with debt problems that impact sustainable public finances. The crisis has not spared France, the world's fifth largest economic power, something that makes private banks quite happy.
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How Private Banks are getting Rich off the Backs of the Citizens.

This post originally appeared on Opera Mundi.

All European countries find themselves confronted with debt problems that impact sustainable public finances. The crisis has not spared France, the world's fifth largest economic power, something that makes private banks quite happy.

No European nation has been spared the problem of public debt, even if the severity of the crisis varies from one capital to another. On the one hand, there are the "good students," such as Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and the Baltic and Scandinavian states, all of which enjoy a debt lower than 60 percent of their GDP. On the other hand, there are the four "dunces" whose public debt surpasses 100 percent of their GDP: Ireland (108 percent), Portugal (108 percent), Italy (120 percent), and Greece (180 percent). Between the two extremes are found the rest of the European Union countries, such as France (86 percent), whose debt oscillates between 60 percent and 100 percent of GDP.

Conservative European governments, exemplified by Angela Merkel's Germany, believe in the importance of lowering public debt through the application of austerity measures. Similarly, Pierre Moscovici, despite being Finance Minister in François Hollande's new socialist government, has set "deficit reduction" as a priority and is attempting to reduce the deficit to 3 percent of GNP by, among other means, cutting public spending.

Still, it is common knowledge that the austerity policies promoted by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that are currently being applied across the Old World, are economically inefficient. In fact, they result in the opposite of what was intended. Rather than restarting growth, reducing expenditures; depressing salaries and retirement benefits; dismantling public services, including education and health care; destroying the work code and social benefits -- in addition to the catastrophic social and human consequences that this causes -- inevitably lead to a reduction in consumption. Inevitably, companies cut production and wages and lay off workers. As a logical consequence, the resources that flow from the state are cut back, while the entities dependent upon the state explode, creating a vicious cycle, for which Greece is the poster boy. Because of this, several European countries now find themselves in recession.

How the public debt in France came about

In 1973, France did not have a debt problem and the national budget was balanced. Indeed, the state could borrow directly from the Bank of France to finance the building of schools, road infrastructure, ports, airlines, hospitals and cultural centers, something that it was possible to do without being required to pay an exorbitant interest rate. Thus, the government rarely found itself in debt. Nonetheless, on January 3, 1973, the government of President George Pompidou -- Pompidou was himself a former general director of the Rothschild Bank -- influenced by the financial sector, adopted Law no.73/7 focusing on the Bank of France. It was nicknamed the "Rothschild law" because of the intense lobbying by the banking sector which favored its adoption. Formulated by Olivier Wormser, Governor of the Bank of France, and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, then Minister of the Economy and Finance, it stipulates in Article 25, that "the State can no longer demand discounted loans from the Bank of France."

As a result, the French state is now prohibited from financing the public treasury through zero interest loans from the Bank of France. Instead, it must seek loans on the open financial markets. Therefore, the state is forced to borrow from and pay interest to private financial institutions, when until 1973, it could create the money it used to balance its budget through the Central Bank. With this quasi-monopoly, commercial banks now have been granted the power to create money through credit, whereas previously this had been the exclusive prerogative of the Central Bank, that is to say of the state itself. As a result, commercial banks are getting rich off the backs of taxpayers.

Furthermore, thanks to the fractional reserve banking system, private banks can lend up to six times more than the amount they actually have in reserve. Thus, for every euro they possess, they can loan six euros through the system of money creation through credit. As though this were not enough, they can also borrow as much money as needed from the Central Bank at a rate of 0 percent to 18 percent, as we see in the case of Greece. Today, money creation through credit accounts for 90 percent of all money in circulation in the euro zone.

This situation has been denounced by the French economist and Nobel laureate, Maurice Allais, who wished to see money creation reserved to the state and the Central Bank.

"All money creation must be the prerogative of the state and the state alone: Any money creation other than that of the basic state-created currency should be prohibited in a way that eliminates the so-called 'rights' that have arisen around private bank creation of money. In essence, the ex nihilo money creation practiced by the private banks is similar -- I do not hesitate to say this because it is important that people understand what is at stake here -- to the manufacture of currency by counterfeiters, who are justly punished by law. In practice both lead to the same result. The only difference is that those who benefit are not the same."

Today, French debt has grown to over 1,700 billion euros. Between 1980 and 2010, the French taxpayer paid more than 1400 billion euros to private banks in interest on the debt alone. Without the 1973 law, the Maastricht Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty, the French debt would be hardly 300 billion euros.

France pays 50 billion euros in interest annually, making this the largest item in the national budget, coming even before education. With that kind of money, the government would be able to build 500,000 public housing units or create 1.5 million jobs in the public sector (education, health, culture, leisure), each with a net monthly salary of 1,500 euros. In this way, French taxpayers are robbed of over 1 billion euros weekly, money that accrues to the benefit of the private banks. Clearly, the state has given the richest group of people in the country the fantastic privilege of enriching themselves at taxpayers' expense. And it has asked for nothing in return, and has not made the slightest effort to do so.

Moreover, this system allows the financial world to subject the political class to its interests and dictate economic policy through the rating agencies, which are in turn financed by private banks. Indeed, if a government adopts a policy contrary to the interests of the financial market, these agencies lower the rating scores awarded to states, something that has the immediate effect of increasing interest rates.

Meanwhile, when the state and the European Central Bank bail out ailing private banks, they do so with interest rates lower than those same financial institutions charge the state. In reality they are conducting de facto nationalizations without receiving the slightest benefit, for example, being granted decision-making authority within the banks administrative councils.

The credit system established in France in 1973, and since ratified by the treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon, has but a single goal: to enrich private banks off the backs of taxpayers. It is unfortunate that a debate on the origins of public debt is not occurring in the media or in Parliament itself, even though resolving the debt problem would require nothing more than restoring the exclusive right of money creation to the Central Bank.

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg

Docteur ès Etudes Ibériques et Latino-américaines from the University of Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV, Salim Lamrani is adjunct faculty at the University of Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV, and the University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée. He is also a journalist specializing in Cuban-American relations.

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