The obsession with competitiveness has returned to centre stage with the election campaign. This reflects the reality that French companies are indeed suffering a loss of competitiveness, which is behind the deterioration in foreign trade for almost a decade. This loss is clear vis-à-vis the emerging markets and explains the trend towards relocating abroad. It is also clear vis-à-vis firms from other developed countries, mainly in the euro zone and in particular German companies. This latter situation is especially serious, as it challenges the coherence of European construction (cf. OFCE, note 19: Competitiveness and industrial development: a European challenge in French).
The gap in competitiveness that has emerged with Germany is clearly based on non-price competition. One of the reasons for this is Germany’s superior business model, which is characterized by the maintenance of a network of local businesses of all sizes that focus on their core business and on the international fragmentation of production. This model is especially suitable for business development that is targeted at global markets, and it largely protects the countries hosting these companies from the risk of deindustrialization.
It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to ignore that this development is also the product of an adverse change in price competitiveness. This reflects labour market reforms in Germany, which lowered the relative cost of labour, as well as strategies that are based on the segmentation of production and the outsourcing of intermediate segments, which have also contributed to lowering production costs.
Germany has thus managed to virtually stabilize its market share of global exports by increasing their level in the European Union (+1.7% in the 2000s) and even more so in the euro zone (+2.3%), while France has lost market share in these same areas (3.1% and 3.4%, respectively).
Two developments have particularly hurt France’s industry. Its network of industrial SMEs has fallen apart. They were hit less by barriers to entry than by barriers to growth. All too often SME managers have been inclined or encouraged to sell the enterprises to large corporations rather than to ensure their growth. This is due both to the lack of genuine partnerships with these corporations and to the difficulties experienced in obtaining permanent financing from the banks and markets. For their part, the large industrial firms, both those operating on a multitude of local markets and those in the international markets, have chosen to focus on acquisitions and on the geographical decentralization of both their operations and their equipment and services suppliers. This strategy has been designed to meet geographical shifts in demand and to deal with the demand for immediate profitability set by volatile shareholders, but this has come in part at the expense of the development of local production networks. This process involved a vast movement of mergers and acquisitions that primarily drew on financial skills. The financial institutions were, in turn, converted to the universal banking model, abandoning some of their traditional role of being lending banks and investment banks. These concomitant developments have proved disastrous for overall competitiveness, particularly as hourly labour costs in industry were rising simultaneously.
There are two requirements for restoring the competitiveness of French companies and thereby encouraging the country’s re-industrialization. The first is to allow immediate control of labour costs and the restoration of profit margins; this could be helped in particular by tax measures that would adjust the financing of a portion of social protection. The second requirement is to promote the reorganization of industry through the creation of a network of stable relationships between all those involved in the industrial process, especially by the use of aid that is conditioned on cooperation between large and small firms in “competitiveness clusters”.
This medium-term effort will nevertheless largely remain ineffective if cooperative policies are not implemented across Europe. These policies need both to stimulate supply through the implementation of technology development programmes and to boost internal demand wherever it is clearly insufficient to satisfy production capacity.