The threat of the loss of France's much-vaunted triple A credit rating hung over president Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government for months, prompting a succession of severe budgetary measures to save it - but ultimately leading ministers to accept it as all but inevitable.

The question now will be to what extent its loss will damage Mr Sarkozy politically with less than 100 days to go until the first round of the presidential election on April 22 and how hard it will hit the country's finely balanced public finances and its banks.

Mr Sarkozy will take some comfort from the fact that Standard & Poor's move inflicted only a one-notch cut in France's rating to AA+, rather than the two-notch downgrade that it had feared.

But S&P assigned a negative outlook implying a possible further downgrade in the next year and there was no escaping the stigma of being knocked out of the elite ranking of top-rating nations.

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