BRUSSELS — Just days before it is to propose sweeping new regulations for the credit rating agencies, the European Commission on Friday joined calls for an investigation of Standard & Poor’s after the company erroneously sent out an e-mail suggesting that it had lowered the rating on France’s sovereign debt.
Michel Barnier, the commissioner responsible for financial regulation, described the incident as “serious” and said that it strengthened his belief in the need for “strict and rigorous rules” to govern the rating agencies and other financial actors.
The incident on Thursday briefly upset markets as it raised questions on the safety of France’s sovereign debt.
In a statement, Mr. Barnier said he did not want to discuss the incident in detail but added that it showed “that in the current tense and volatile market situation, market players must exercise discipline and demonstrate a special sense of responsibility.”
“This is all the more important since we are not talking about just any market player but one of the biggest rating agencies, which, as such, has a particular responsibility,” he said.
According to a draft of the plan due to be introduced next week, European supervisory authorities would be able to temporarily prevent the issuance of ratings on countries in “a crisis situation,” like “where negotiations of an international financial assistance program to stabilize the economy of a country are ongoing.”
Investors would also gain a framework to take legal action against agencies “if they infringe intentionally or with gross negligence” on their obligations. A rating agency would also have to disclose information on their rating methodologies.
To prevent conflicts of interest, the new regulations would impose limits on owners of more than 5 percent of one credit rating agency who want to invest in others.
On several occasions, European leaders have blamed the agencies for worsening the debt crisis, most notably in July when the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, criticized the decision to downgrade debt in his native Portugal to junk status.
As the European debt crisis starts to engulf Italy, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has been striving to ensure that it does not spread to his country. A priority of his coming re-election campaign is ensuring that France’s triple-A rating stays intact, a challenge that has intensified as France’s share of the bill for helping to contain the crisis grows.
The loss of the top rating would also deal a serious blow to the euro zone’s rescue fund, which is seeking to increase its firepower.
After S.&P. reported the mistake Thursday, the French finance minister, François Baroin, quickly demanded an investigation into “the causes and eventual consequences of the error.” Within a half-hour, the French stock market regulator said it would open an inquiry. It also notified the European financial market authority, which oversees “the professional obligations of the ratings agencies.”
In a statement, S.&P. attributed the message to “a technical error” and affirmed that the rating was unchanged. But the yield for France’s 10-year benchmark bond jumped more than a quarter point, to 3.48 percent, and the spread between French and German bonds of that duration reached 1.7 percentage points, a euro-era record, Bloomberg News reported.
The erroneous S.&P. message went out shortly before 4 p.m. Paris time, and the correction was issued almost two hours later, after most European markets had closed.