How France can improve its trade balance*


By Eric Heyer

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has made a commitment to restoring France’s balance of trade, excluding energy, by the end of his five-year term. Without addressing the curious anomaly of leaving the energy deficit out of the analysis of the country’s trade position, as if it did not count in France’s dependence on the rest of the world, we will examine the various solutions that the government could use to achieve this goal.

The first solution is to do nothing and to wait until the austerity policy that has been implemented in France through public spending cuts and higher taxes reduces consumer spending. In the face of higher unemployment and the resulting increase in household precautionary savings, the French will cut back on consumption. However, since some of this comes from outside France, this will limit imports into France from abroad and, everything else being equal, improve the country’s trade balance.

This solution, it is clear, not only is not virtuous, as it relies on a reduction in employee purchasing power and rising unemployment, but it also has little chance of success, because it assumes that French exports will not follow the same path as imports and will continue to grow. However, since our partner countries are following this same strategy of a rapid return to balanced public finances, their austerity policies will result in the same dynamics as described above for France, thereby reducing their own domestic demand and hence their imports, some of which are our exports.

As a result, and since the austerity programmes of our partners are more drastic than ours, it is very likely that our exports will decline faster than our imports, thus exacerbating our trade deficit.

The second solution is to increase our exports. In a context where our European partners, who represent 60% of our trade, are experiencing low or even negative growth, this can be achieved only through gains in market share. Lowering the cost of labour seems to be the fastest way to do this. But in the midst of an effort to re-establish a fiscal balance, the only way to lower the charges on labour is to transfer these to another tax: this was the logic of the “social VAT” set up by the previous government, but repealed by the new one, which seems to lean more towards transferring these to the CSG tax, which has the advantage of having a larger tax base, affecting all income, including capital income.

But in addition to the fact that this strategy is not “cooperative”, since it resembles a competitive devaluation and thus is essentially aimed at gaining market share from our euro zone partners, there is no indication that it would be sufficient. Indeed, there is nothing to prevent our partners from adopting the same approach, particularly since their economic situation is worse than ours, and this would cancel all or part of any potential gains in our competitiveness.

The last solution consists of making the country more competitive by raising the productivity of our employees and by specialising in high value-added sectors that are not subject to competition from the emerging countries with their low costs.

This is a medium-term strategy and requires the establishment of policies to promote innovation, research and development, and training. It also means expanding the range of our traditional products such as automobiles, but also specializing in the industries of the future.

The need for a transition to an ecological mode of production that is more energy-efficient could represent this industry of the future, and therefore be the solution to our trade deficit.


* This text is taken from a series of reports by Eric Heyer for the programme “Les carnets de l’économie” on France Culture radio. It is possible to listen to the series on France Culture.