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OPINION: France's desperate fuel price plan is a sign of tough budget choices ahead

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: France's desperate fuel price plan is a sign of tough budget choices ahead
France's finance minister Bruno Le Maire has a tricky balancing act on his hands. Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

A plan to allow retailers to sell petrol and diesel at a loss is an indication of the tough choices that finance minister Bruno Le Maire must make as he prepares France's 2024 budget, writes John Lichfield.


Bruno Le Maire is the longest continuously serving finance minister in the history of the Fifth Republic – 2,317 days and counting.

You don’t survive for so long in the least forgiving of ministries without learning a few book-keeping tricks.

Le Maire’s latest wheeze appears not so much a trick as an act of desperation.

The government is about to publish a difficult budget for 2024, keeping its deficit-cutting promises to the European Commission and the debt ratings agencies. President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to avoid tax increases for households or businesses.


Fuel prices are stubbornly rising. Le Maire can no longer afford the anti-inflation subsidies which have kept French fuel and food price rises below those in most neighbouring countries in the last two years.

How can the government stop pump prices from provoking the kind of provincial fury which started the Gilets Jaunes protests almost exactly five years ago?

The government’s solution – Le Maire’s solution, although announced by the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne -  is to allow oil companies and the big supermarkets to sell fuel at less than cost price for six months from December. To do so, they will have to suspend a 60-year-old law which bans price-gouging in France.

But who will pay in the end? The supermarkets will recover their losses by increasing other prices. Motorists will pay for their lower fuel in higher prices for other products; other consumers will subsidise the motorists.

The plan has infuriated the smaller petrol stations in France who cannot afford to sell at below cost price. They will lose market share to the supermarkets; Le Maire has promised to help them from public funds.

So the government is robbing Pierre to pay Pauline. And robbing Pauline to pay Pauline. And then giving some of the money back from Pauline to Paul.

It is also, arguably, betraying its climate-change commitments by allowing fossil fuels to be sold at below cost price.  

There is no certainty that the idea will work at all. The big supermarket chains and the Total oil company - already limiting pump prices to €1.99 - have told Le Maire that they had no intention of selling fuel at a loss. The government is counting on the supermarkets, at least, to change their mind if oil prices continue to spiral.  

But what choice did the government have? The tall, fuel-price totems outside supermarkets in France are a thermometer of the mood of rural and outer suburban France. Macron and his ministers fear the consequences if petrol and diesel prices rise above €2 a litre.

The vast sums spent by the government to keep down electricity, domestic gas and pump prices since 2021 - around €100 billion - have sheltered France from the peaks of post-Ukraine invasion inflation seen elsewhere.


Are French motorists and other consumers grateful? Of course not. They do not live “elsewhere”.

Part of the subsidy on electricity prices will be maintained until the end of next year. The rest have to go.

The government is about to enter a two-stage battle to bring the country’s budget deficit and debt under control. 

The government has called an extraordinary parliamentary session next week to agree a road-map for state finances up to 2027. An earlier version of the “Loi de programmation des finances publiques (LPFP)” was rejected by the National Assembly in December 2022.

As a result France, alone among the 27 EU nations, has failed to qualify for its €19 billion share of a €800 billion EU post-Covid “relaunch” programme. It has already lost several billion euros.

Details of a revised budget plan have yet to be published but will be close to the figures presented earlier this year to Brussels and the S&P ratings agency. The government will promise to reduce its accumulated debt from 112.5 percent of GDP to 108.1 percent by 2027. It will commit itself to cut its annual deficit from 4.9 percent of GDP to 2.7 percent by 2027, within the Eurozone ceiling of 3 percent.  


The minority government is ready to use its special powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution to impose the budget plan if necessary.

It will then plunge into what will be an even tougher battle to push through a cost-saving 2024 budget.

An austerity budget? Scarcely.

Le Maire has promised €16 billion in spending cuts but more than half will come from abolishing or reducing the anti-inflation subsidies on electricity and gas. President Macron has promised increases for defence, education and health and no tax increases.

The books will probably be balanced by increased “charges” for some medicines and doctors’ visits and new taxes on motorway operators and airports. Some tax breaks will be abolished or reduced, including concessions to farmers and building contractors' diesel taxes.

It will be a cautious, clever, tricky budget - in the image of Le Maire himself. But it will mark the end of an era.

The time of ‘whatever-it-takes” is over. So is the half century of insouciant failure to balance state budgets in France.

With €3 trillion in accumulated debt, with the ratings agencies hovering and with Eurozone deficit rules about to be revived, France faces a period of severe spending restraint, if not quite austerity.

All is not bleak. The French economy is out-performing Germany - for which Le Maire and Macron deserve some credit.

But the lessons of Trussonomics go beyond the borders of the UK. France cannot afford to defy arithmetic and the markets forever.

Bruno Le Maire’s creative idea - a privately-funded state subsidy for pump prices - is clever or desperate or dotty. But it is symbolic of changed times. The billions spent on softening inflation in the last two years are longer available.

Painful choices lie ahead.



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