As if Brussels didn't have its hands full already with Italy and the UK, the European Union will soon be forced to rationalize why one of its favorite core members is allowed to pursue populist measures to blow out its budget deficit to ease domestic unrest while another is threatened with fines potentially amounting to billions of euros.
When blaming Russia failed to quell the widespread anger elicited by his policies, French President Emmanuel Macron tried to appease the increasingly violent "yellow vests" protesters who have sacked his capital city by offering massive tax cuts that could blow the French budget out beyond the 3% budget threshold outlined in the bloc's fiscal rules.
Given the concessions recently offered by Italy's populists, Macron's couldn't have picked a worse time to challenge the bloc's fiscal conventions. As Bloomberg pointed out, these rules will almost certainly set the Continent's second largest economy on a collision course with Brussels. To be clear, Macron's offered cuts come with a price tag of about €11 billion according to Les Echos, and will leave the country with a budget gap of 3.5% of GDP in 2019, with one government official said the deficit may be higher than 3.6%.
By comparison, Italy's initial projections put its deficit target at 2.4%, a number which Europe has repeatedly refused to consider.
Macron's promises of fiscal stimulus - which come on top of his government's decision to delay the planned gas-tax hikes that helped inspire the protests - were part of a broader 'mea culpa' offered by Macron in a speech Monday night, where he also planned to hike France's minimum wage.
Of course, when Brussels inevitably objects, perhaps Macron could just show them this video of French police tossing a wheelchair-bound protester to the ground.
Already, the Italians are complaining. Speaking on Tuesday, Italian cabinet undersecretary Giancarlo Giorgetti said Italy hasn't breached the EU deficit limit. "I repeat that from the Italian government there is a reasonable approach, if there is one also from the EU a solution will be found."
"France has several times breached the 3% deficit. Italy hasn’t done it. They are different situations. There are many indicators to assess."
Still, as one Guardian columnist pointed out in an op-ed published Tuesday morning, the fact that the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) organizers managed to pressure Macron to cave and grant concessions after just 4 weeks of protests will only embolden them to push for even more radical demands: The collapse of the government of the supremely unpopular Macron.
Then again, with Brussels now facing certain accusations of hypocrisy, the fact that Macron was pressured into the exact same populist measures for which Italy has been slammed, the French fiasco raises the odds that Rome can pass any deficit measure it wants with the EU now forced to quietly look away even as it jawbones all the way from the bank (i.e., the German taxpayers).
"Macron’s spending will encourage Salvini and Di Maio," said Giovanni Orsina, head of the School of Government at Rome’s Luiss-Guido Carli University. "Macron was supposed to be the spearhead of pro-European forces, if he himself is forced to challenge EU rules, Salvini and Di Maio will jump on that to push their contention that those rules are wrong."
While we look forward to how Brussels will square this circle, markets are less excited.
Exhausted from lurching from one extreme to another following conflicting headlines, traders are already asking if "France is the new Italy." The reason: the French OAT curve has bear steepened this morning with 10Y yields rising as much as ~6bp, with the Bund/OAT spread reaching the widest since May 2017 and the French presidential election. Though well below the peaks of last year, further widening would push the gap into levels reserved for heightened political risk.
As Bloomberg macro analyst Michael Read notes this morning, it's hard to see a specific near-term trigger blowing out the Bund/OAT spread but the trend looks likely to slowly drift higher.
While Macron has to fight on both domestic and European fronts, he'll need to keep peace at home to stay on top. Remember that we saw the 10Y spread widen to ~80bps around the May '17 elections as concerns of a move toward the political fringe played out in the markets, and the French President's popularity ratings already look far from rosy.
And just like that France may have solved the Italian crisis.