French premier promises deficit-cutting austerity plan
France's newly re-appointed Prime Minister Francois Fillon vowed Wednesday to push on with deficit-cutting austerity measures to protect his country from the debt crisis stalking Europe.
Speaking as beleaguered fellow eurozone member Ireland unveiled dramatic cuts, and with Portugal and Spain nervously eyeing bond markets, Fillon said budget cuts would protect France from seeing its own debt costs spiral.
"We must free ourselves from deficit to keep our interest rates at the lowest possible rate," he said, presenting his strategy after President Nicolas Sarkozy asked him to remain in charge of a reshuffled cabinet.
"Because the world economy must be better regulated, because our economy should be more competitive, because we should protect jobs, reduce deficits and look after the elderly, I tell you: we will continue reform," he said.
A surprise victor of last week's long-awaited reshuffle, the conservative premier resumed work at the head of a streamlined and more right-wing cabinet team with a determined defence of his three-year-old track record.
"Why should we blush?" he demanded. "Because we reformed the universities and pensions? Because we re-balanced our institutions, imposed minimum service during strikes, halted the slide into criminality?"
Facing down angry taunts from the left-wing opposition, Fillon declared that under himself and Sarkozy the government had "successfully faced down the worst series of disasters that the capitalist system can produce."
Fillon forecast France's growth rate in 2010 would be "greater than 1.5 percent" and would accelerate next year as Sarkozy's programme of liberal economic reform generates more "oxygen" for a private sector recovery.
Since he was elected in 2007, Sarkozy's economic reforms -- in particular the recent vote to raise the retirement age -- have faced mounting resistance, culminating in recent months in a series of massive street protests.
With unemployment and deficits surging in the wake of the global financial crisis that erupted in 2008, the president's personal popularity rating has touched to historic lows, damaging his hopes of re-election in 2012.
Last week's reshuffle had been billed as an opportunity for him to renew and rebrand his government with a view to launching his presidential campaign, but the result was a limited affair that confirmed Fillon's role.
© 2010 AFP