French government under fire over plans to cut family benefits

PARIS - France's government came under a hail of criticism from both the left and right on Friday over plans to tie family benefits to households' income, breaking a political taboo.

A basic government handout based on the number of children in a household has been the cornerstone of French family policy since the end of World War Two and economists say it has encouraged higher birth rates than in many other European countries.

Social Affairs Minister Marisol Touraine said on Thursday that family benefits would be cut in half for households with income over 6,000 euros (S$9700) per month and by three quarters for earnings over 8,000 euros.

The government, which is under pressure from the European Commission and Berlin to rein in its public finances, expects to save 400 million euros from the measure in 2015 and 800 million euros annually after that.

The Socialist government has refused to carry out swingeing cuts on the scale that Greece and Spain have carried out.

But increasingly it faces little choice but to make tough fiscal choices as it prepares to squeeze an unprecedented 21 billion euros in savings from the budget next year.

"They're attacking family policy but only family policy,"conservative lawmaker Eric Woerth said on RTL radio, raising the possibility of challenging the measure in constitutional court.

"It's one of the rare policies that works well in France, we've got a high birth rate," the former budget minister said.

The measure marks a change of stance from President Francois Hollande, who had promised to leave family benefits alone before his election in 2012, a position that was renewed as recently as several weeks ago.

The head of the left-wing CGT union, Thierry Lepaon, accused the reform of pitting the poor against the rich while Socialist lawmaker Benoit Hamon, a former minister who left government in August, said it would hit families' strained purchasing power.

Far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen said should would have preferred that the government had cut foreigners'access to benefits rather than French citizens. "It's one of the reason people come to France, you can get a lot of money with three, four or five children."