PARIS -- Amid a wave of criticism, Standard & Poor's defended its decision to downgrade nine European countries and insisted Saturday that the region's leaders aren't doing enough to solve their debt crises.
The prime minister of France, the biggest economy hit by the downgrade, vowed to press ahead with cost-cutting measures that opponents say will suffocate growth. The loss of its coveted AAA status wounded France's self-image and market credibility just as it is facing a new recession and presidential elections.
The downgrade Friday night may make it more expensive for struggling countries to borrow money, reduce debts and sustain growth. It also came just as crucial negotiations between the Greek government and its private creditors appeared close to collapse.
Voices rose up Saturday against the power that ratings agencies wield. Critics of S&P have questioned its credibility and relevance before because it failed to foresee the collapse in the U.S. subprime mortgage market, which helped trigger the financial meltdown of 2008.
The latest downgrade brought a downbeat end to a mildly encouraging week for Europe's most debt-laden nations. It also served as a reminder that the 17-country eurozone faces what German Chancellor Angela Merkel called a "long road" ahead to win back investors' confidence.
Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias called the downgrade "unacceptable."
"The latest downgrade is completely unfair and loaded with ulterior motives," he told reporters. "Just when the Cyprus economy is breathing easier and showing signs of emerging from the crisis, and when our financing needs for 2012 and perhaps beyond 2012, have been covered, a [credit ratings] agency comes along to downgrade."
Austria's chancellor criticized S&P's decision to strip his country of its AAA rating, and noted that his coalition government was working on an austerity package.
Werner Faymann wrote on his Facebook page that the decision showed "that Austria must become more independent from the financial markets."
In Germany, whose AAA rating remained untouched, a senior lawmaker with Merkel's conservative party, Michael Meister, suggested action to reduce the significance of ratings. Merkel signaled her support.
S&P spokesman Martin Winn dismissed suggestions that the agency's decisions were political and could further hurt indebted countries. "The track record of our sovereign ratings as indicators of default risk worldwide is very strong," he said.