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France fights to avoid euro zone bank contagion

Tags: France
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Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy - France?

With a gaping public deficit and record level of debt, the euro zone's second largest economy wants to be sure it is not sucked into the bloc's game of debt-crisis dominoes, hence Paris's forceful lobbying for ways to shore up Europe's banks.

France is one of the strongest advocates of a Europe-wide banking union and, with an eye on its own banks' exposure to vulnerable debt in struggling countries, for immediate recapitalisation of banks from euro zone rescue funds.

"I think the French are pushing this for a simple reason: They bloody well know they're next in line. They're after Italy," said Nicholas Spiro, head of consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy.

The debt crisis has already spread through Greece, Ireland and Portugal, all of which have international bailouts. Spain has asked for help for its banks. Cyprus may seek a broader bailout imminently. Italy has recently seen borrowing costs rise to dangerously high levels.

Eager to stop the snowball, France's new President Francois Hollande quickly championed ideas to fight contagion, some of which have brought him into direct opposition with Germany.

Investors are currently giving France the benefit of the doubt, driving French yields to historic lows as they seek the relative safety of debt issued by a core European country that nonetheless offers richer yields than Germany.

However, France's finances are nothing like as good as Germany's, and its banks have heavy exposure to Greece and Italy -- a concern that has conditioned its response to the crisis.

"It's clear that pressure from the debt crisis will come on France and other AAA countries if there is not significant progress in mutualising risks," said Michel Martinez, Societe Generale's chief economist for France.

Spain and Italy's borrowing costs have eased somewhat on expectations that an EU leaders' summit this week will produce bold new approaches to contain the crisis. Short of that, they run the risk of becoming too costly to manage, prompting the need for sovereign bailouts.

Hollande's Socialist government has thrown its support behind the idea of setting up a banking union in Europe, with a central supervisory authority, joint deposit guarantees and a fund to wind down dud banks.

But France is also pushing for more immediate solutions that could shelter banks from the risks associated with the sovereign debt of southern Europe, fully aware that the crisis could deteriorate with lightning speed.

Paris has been a vocal supporter of using the euro zone bailout funds to recapitalise banks directly, although Germany's opposition to the idea remains a major obstacle.

DANGEROUS EXPOSURE?

Ratings agencies have said repeatedly that the prospect of Paris being forced to prop up its banks is a factor weighing against France's rating, which Standard and Poor's have already downgraded in January by one notch from AAA.

Egan-Jones, a smaller ratings agency that has made a name for itself by downgrading more aggressively than bigger rivals, cut France to BBB-plus earlier this month, partly on concerns that the state may need to support French banks.

Moreover, Moody's has downgraded French banks BNP Paribas , Societe Generale and Credit Agricole , along with other major international banks, saying it had become unclear to what degree the government was prepared to support its banks.

Apart from France's own financial stress -- its gross debt is about 90 percent of gross domestic product and rising -- its banks have major exposure to the euro zone's most fragile economies.

Once among the top lenders to Greece, France's banks have quietly retreated from the country. But while they no longer hold large amounts of Greek government bonds, Credit Lyonnais and Societe Generale remain present in Greece through subsidiaries.

BNP Paribas, BPCE, Credit Agricole, Societe Generale and Dexia, meanwhile, have a combined exposure of 32.5 billion euros to Italian sovereign debt. Moody's noted that BNP was exposed to Italy through its local subsidiary BNL, which has a 71-billion-euro loan book, and 11 billion euros of Italian government debt.

French bank shares and the cost of insuring bank debt have closely tracked swings in Italian government debt spreads, hinting that investors see the banks' fate tied to Italy's struggle to avoid being dragged into the eye of the debt crisis.

Dexia is the most exposed to Italian government debt, with 11.7 billion euros on its books, but even if the debt crisis does not engulf Italy, the deeply troubled municipal lender could be a big drain on French public finances.

The Franco-Belgian group, which has already required two bailouts in three years, is currently being kept afloat with 55 billion euros in guarantees from France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

However, the lender has asked for that amount to be raised to 90 billion euros - close to the 100 billion euros that Spain is seeking from euro zone partners for its entire banking sector.

"France is not out of the woods by a long shot," said Spiro, the consultant.

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