Business Confidence Rises in France

NEW YORK ( BBH FX Strategy) -- France reported better-than-expected business confidence figures Friday. The March reading of 96 compares with February's 93 and is the first time in over a year that business confidence has improved two consecutive months.

Thursday's disappointing flash PMI report (manufacturing 47.6 vs 50.0 in February and service unchanged at 50.0 vs. expectations for a small increase) overshadowed news that the French government revised its forecast for 2012 growth to 0.7% from 0.5%. Some dismissed this as politically motivated as President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to trail in the polls, with the first round of voting a month away.

The latest poll (BVA) shows Francois Hollande beating Sarkozy in the first round 29.5% to 28% and, more tellingly, in the second round 54% to 46%. Sarkozy has moved right -- with promises of reform of the voting system and referendums on divisive issues and a tougher line on immigration.

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Hollande for his part appears tacking to the left where the further leftist candidate is drawing 10% to 11% in the first round. Still, Hollande's tax-and-spend proposals stand out against the mainstream of the European political and economic elite.

The government's more optimistic economic forecasts cuts two ways. On one hand, avoiding a recession is a good thing. On the other hand, unlike, say, the Netherlands, as a core country that is expected to contract this year and is struggling to make its deficit target, France would seem to have less of an excuse.

The structural budget deficit is bigger now than at the beginning of Sarkozy's term. The use of "structural" here is key. This is an assessment of what the deficit would be if France was growing at trend. While the government anticipates the structural deficit fall by 1.25% this year, if achieved it would still leave a 3.25% structural deficit next year. Under the terms of the new fiscal compact, this has to be reduced to 0.5%.

The premium France pays over Germany (10-year benchmark) has narrowed 20 basis points here in the first quarter to 111 basis points. While this is down from peak of 190 basis points last November, it remains elevated compared with any other time under the conditions of monetary union. The spread now shows resistance to move back below 100 basis points.

While the Long Term Refinancing Operations were a dominate driver in the first quarter, the focus in the quarter ahead will be French politics and whether the economy can avoid a new contraction, which would likely require more savings to reach the deficit target.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.