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^Germany, France, Italy say they have met criteria for European currency

^Eds: TOPS with 6new grafs with France reporting it has qualified. Picks up 4h graf pvs, In Rome ...

^By The Associated Press=

Germany, France and Italy have met the financial criteria to join Europe's common currency planned for next year, government officials announced today.

Germany's budget deficit last year was 2.7 percent of its gross national product, the Federal Statistics Office said. Countries hoping to join the euro currency are required to keep their deficits within 3 percent, among other criteria.

The numbers announced by Germany virtually assured that its mark, Europe's bedrock currency, will be merged into the euro which European leaders say will become a rival to the dollar.

France announced it had met the main economic requirements to participate in the new currency. The national statistics institute said that France had a deficit of 3.0 percent of gross national product.

But a spokeswoman for French President Chirac said the government must press ahead with efforts to cut the deficit.

"This effort must be pursued with determination," said presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna.

In Rome, Premier Romano Prodi said Italy had met the economic criteria required to join the European Monetary Union.

With the Italian deficit figure at 2.7 percent of GDP, well below the 3.0 percent required, Prodi said whether Italy would be selected for the union would now depend on political rather than economic factors.

The figures are to be forwarded to European Union officials for review.

A final decision about which countries join the euro is to be made at an EU summit in early May.

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