Where France goes….

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici Image copyright AFP
Image caption French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici downplayed the importance of Moody's decision

Some French officials are blaming The Economist for Moody's decision to take away the French government's top AAA credit rating.

For them, it's all part of the Anglo-American conspiracy against French exceptionalism that has been going on since at least the 1960s.

The way the French see it, Britain and America can't stand the fact that France has taken a different approach to the global market economy - one with more egalite and fraternite, and less worship of the free market gods. They let out their frustration by suggesting that France is the "ticking time bomb at the heart of Europe".

It's no accident, Parisians might add, conspiratorially, that Fitch is the only one of the three major ratings agencies that has yet to strip France of its triple A; it's the only one that is not American-owned. (As it happens, it's French.)

Perhaps. But I don't think Moody's - or Standard and Poor's - downgraded French debt because France looks different from other countries. In many ways, I think France has been downgraded because it is decidedly average.

On almost every economic measure you could mention, France is the "median" country of the eurozone - the nation in the middle. After more than four years of financial crisis, the "average" eurozone country is no longer triple A.

Economists at Credit Suisse make the point in a recent report. They look at the average levels of government debt, the budget deficit, economic growth, inflation and the current account since the start of the century, for every eurozone economy as a share of GDP.

They then consider how far they are, in absolute terms - in either direction - from the eurozone average. On nearly all of these measures, France has been the country closest to the mean.

I'm attaching one of the charts here to show what I mean. When it comes to the current account balance - the gap between what the country buys from the rest of the world and what it sells - you can see that both Greece and Portugal have been outliers for a long time, borrowing a lot more from the rest of the world than the average eurozone economy.

The Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Germany, have been exceptional in the other direction. They have consistently sold a great deal more to the rest of the world than they bought. In this and many other respects, France has been almost exactly average.

Image copyright Credit Suisse

These are historical averages since 2000. Since 2007 France has been unusual in one respect: it is one of the very few eurozone countries whose current account balance has got significantly worse.

It now has a current account deficit of more than 2% of GDP, having gone into the crisis roughly in balance. That is one of many factors driving a big debate, inside and outside of France, about French competitiveness - a debate that The Economist poured petrol on in its latest issue.

I was less rude about France in my last blog. But I did suggest that France was likely to be the "pivot state" of the eurozone.

The Moody's decision may not matter very much to the French government's cost of borrowing on world markets - at least in the short run. In the grand scheme of things, it may not matter very much at all, given how many other countries have also now lost their triple A.

But it does underscore that basic reality, both economic and political: Where France goes, the rest of the monetary union is likely to follow.