Irish exporters confident of French market


FRANCE is the Republic's third largest export market and, as the fourth biggest economy in the world, is likely to remain an important destination for Irish goods. For over a decade, the Republic's trade surplus with France has widened.

In 1985, exports exceeded imports by £365 million. By 1995 the gap had grown to £1.8 billion.

Despite the doldrums in which the French economy currently languishes, most analysts say that surplus will continue to grow. Several Irish companies have invested in the French market and remain optimistic.

Thermo King, for example, which manufactures refrigeration units, had a bad 1996 in France, with a drop in sales of about £10 million on 1995. But the company says this was caused as much by intense competition from its French rivals and the BSE scare, as the state of the economy.

Executives expect to see improvements in 1997 in the French market. Other Irish firms, like Howmedica, which makes orthopedic implants for hip and knee replacements, have insulated themselves to an extent from the economic ups and downs.

The company has its own manufacturing company in France, with a dedicated marketing department selling within the French market. The business is not booming, sales executives say, but it is doing fairly well.

Mr Tony Smurfit, who runs the Smurfit group's operations in France, is also calm about the future for Irish business there.

"I wouldn't say the French market is in a slump, it's just that its stagnant right now," he says. "But if you look at the history of France, they have always had periods like this, periods of high taxation, et cetera. But they've always come through it."

The optimism is borne out by the latest batch of figures from An Bord Trachtala. By the end of last October, Irish exports to France were up 13 per cent on the same time in 1995. Excluding the food sector, damaged by the BSE scare, exports had jumped 23 per cent.

The full figures for 1996 may show an even greater percentage rise - almost all of the 1 per cent economic growth in France last year was recorded in the last quarter.

Some of the improvement was due to Irish made components being imported to France, then exported as part of a product. Because Irish wages are lower, several large French exporters have awarded contracts for such components to Irish suppliers.