PARIS – The interest rate France pays to borrow money rose again Monday – and along with it fears that the country will lose its cherished AAA credit rating.

Theoretically at least, that rating – the highest a nation can have – allows France to borrow money from the markets cheaply.

But France pays more than nearly every country with a Triple A rating from all three major ratings agencies, except Australia, whose economy is less than half the size, and tiny Austria, which pays about the same rate.

On Monday, the yield on France’s 10-year bond – the usual yardstick for a country’s borrowing costs – rose 0.05 percentage points to 3.42 percent. That’s nearly twice Germany’s and significantly more than the roughly 2 percent paid on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes.

Some say with yields that high, France retains the AAA rating in name only, since the country has already lost the benefit of the rating, namely low borrowing costs.

No one is actually expecting France to default, but its higher yields reflect investor concern about the country’s fundamentals: its overall debt load and the annual budget deficits it runs. And, since the credit ratings of France and Germany underpin the eurozone stability fund set up to tackle Europe’s debt crisis, a change in the French rating could affect the entire European bailout plan.

Not to mention that a lower credit rating could mean that President Nicolas Sarkozy gets tossed out of office in next spring’s presidential election.

“Let’s not delude ourselves: In the markets, French debt is already not AAA,” Jacques Attali, an economist and adviser to Sarkozy, told La Tribune newspaper recently.

The government denounced that comment, and Christian Noyer, governor of the Banque de France, told Le Figaro newspaper it was preposterous to think that France wouldn’t repay its debts. That, in effect, is what a rating measures: It’s the agency’s assessment of how good a bet a country or a company is for investors.

Still, France hasn’t balanced a budget in 30 years, and its deficit ran 7.1 percent of its GDP last year – more than twice the legal limit of 3 percent in the 17-nation eurozone. It also is paying a significant amount to help bail out other troubled eurozone members such as Greece, Portugal and Ireland.