France urges action on euro, wins little support

BRUSSELS Mon Feb 11, 2013 3:33pm EST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France called on Monday for coordinated action by the world's major economies to counter the strength of the euro and avoid damaging an economic recovery, but Europe's finance ministers said it was up to markets to decide the currency's value.

French President Francois Hollande last week raised the possibility of political interference in exchange rate policy when he called for a medium-term target for the euro's value, a move to counter its recent appreciation.

France's Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici reiterated Hollande's message to his euro zone peers in Brussels and urged "strong action", but appeared to win little support. Euro zone ministers said the issue should be discussed by finance ministers and central bankers from the world's 20 biggest economies in Moscow on Friday and Saturday.

"We really have to take strong action at the international level for stability and then all instruments can be used but in a coordinated manner," Moscovici told a news conference.

Asked precisely what shape any intervention might take, he said: "This is not about, to be clear, calling for pressure on the European Central Bank ... or pushing for a currency war."

The strengthening euro is a source of tension between France and Germany, the two countries at the heart of European integration, because Berlin refuses to countenance governments' involvement in managing exchange rates.

The euro has risen about 13 percent against the dollar since touching $1.21 in July last year, although it has come off recent highs since European Central Bank President Mario Draghi indulged in some gentle verbal intervention last Thursday.

Germany has already rejected Hollande's initiative, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in Brussels "that exchange rates should not be manipulated, that too high flexibility is of course dangerous."

The newly appointed chairman of euro zone finance ministers, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was also reluctant to discuss the euro's value, saying the G20 was the place to do it.

GROWTH RISK

After three years of a debt crisis during which many investors and economists fretted about the very existence of the European single currency, Moscovici acknowledged he preferred "a strong euro to a dead euro."

But he warned that in France's case, if the euro continued to appreciate at the current rate, it would lop 0.3 percentage points off the country's economic growth - a significant impact given that the French economy is likely to barely grow this year.

A stronger euro hurts exports because it makes them more expensive abroad. It comes at a time when the 17-nation bloc is relying on demand from Asia and the Americas to pull it out of its second recession since 2009.

U.S. investment bank JP Morgan said in a study on Monday that a 10 percent increase in the value of the exchange rate could reduce total exports of goods and services by around 2.5 percent, although it said gauging the impact was difficult.

The call for a discussion of the euro's strength comes as bond-buying policies of Japanese and U.S. central banks have helped depress the value of the yen and the dollar and put upward pressure on the euro.

Despite France's push for strong action on exchange rates, there is little appetite elsewhere for anything other than market-set currency rates.

To that end, the Group of Seven nations is considering issuing a statement this week reaffirming its commitment to "market-determined" exchange rates, two officials from the Group of 20 biggest economies said on Monday.

The officials, from different countries, told Reuters that, if agreed, the statement could be released around the time of the meeting in Moscow. France is part of both the G7 and G20.

(Additional reporting by Claire Davenport John O'Donnell and Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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