Let’s go through these issues, their causes and their implications.
Cause no. 1: The supply problem
Supply conditions for goods and services continue to deteriorate in
Since 2001, French industry sales prices have been falling relative to unit wage costs. Such falls reflect the excessive level of unit wage costs compared to the sophistication of industrial production in
However, the rise in the unit wage cost – relative to selling prices – does not come as a result of the trend in productivity, but what has been happening to wages. This is because the level of costs is pushed up by the level of employers’ welfare contributions.
The subsequent fall in French industry’s profitability is substantial, reducing its capacity to invest and create jobs. This leads to the off-shoring of production capacity to countries where industrial profitability is higher, thereby weakening industry financially and threatening it with a serious crisis in the event of a recession and falling demand.
Cause no. 2: The demand problem
Between 2011 and 2012, French industry suffered from the weakness of both domestic and external demand. This resulted in a lower capacity utilisation rate than normal, which makes the problem of low profitability even more detrimental. And the decline in demand may deteriorate further if there is a fall in real wage incomes and government expenditure.
Cause no. 3: The euro-zone crisis
The eurozone crisis has two negative effects on French industry:
- it weakens demand and therefore imports in the eurozone countries that usually would have been
France’s customers. This is significant because the eurozone accounts for 46% of French exports – the United Kingdom, which is also mired in a recession, accounts for 6%;
- it reduces domestic demand and capacity utilisation rates in
Spainand Portugaland persuades industrial companies in these countries to turn to exports. As wage costs are lower in these countries, there is an increase in the competition that has a direct impact on French industry. France’s export market share tends to decline, whereas those of Portugal, Spainand Irelandhave recovered.
Remedies are very difficult to implement
Of the three issues mentioned, weakness of demand and the effects of the eurozone crisis cannot be controlled, particularly in a situation where there is private-sector deleveraging and a reduction in fiscal deficits. The question for French industry is therefore which remedies can be implemented on the supply side? We have put together the following list of possible measures:
- an improvement in the sophistication of industrial production and in the differentiation of products, which will require innovation, investments, and marketing;
- increased geographical diversification in companies' sales to increase the weight of emerging countries, which is currently quite low in
- a major reform of the financing of social welfare in
Franceto reduce the weight of welfare contributions paid by companies;
- a fall in the hourly labour cost, either through a fall in the per capita wage, or through an increase in the number of hours worked (which is obviously a source of conflict).
However, these measures are all very difficult to implement rapidly.
It is also important to understand the major fragility of companies that are not very profitable (i.e. they have a shortfall in supply) when they are faced with a significant and lasting decline in demand.
Unfortunately, it looks as though this French industry crisis is not going to go away any time soon.