Par Pierre André Buigues

France’s has had a foreign trade deficit since 2003 and the country’s share of the world export market is continuing to drop. France’s share of the export market went from 6.1% in 1995 to 5.1% in 2000. It then fell to 4.2% in 2006 and stood at just 3.5% in 2013. The automotive sector provides a good example of this French industrial decline. In 2003, France’s automotive sector had a trade surplus of €12.6 billion but this had turned into a €6.9 billion deficit by 2014!

Economists put the decline of French foreign trade down to a lack of competitiveness, due to both price and other reasons. In France, costs have tended to increase faster than productivity and the products are not perceived as giving sufficiently high ‘value for money’, particularly compared with products “Made in Germany”.

The French aeronautical sector is an exception to this trend; indeed, the sector has prevented the balance of trade deficit from plunging further. The aviation sector – both civil and military – and the space industry have posted a foreign trade surplus in excess of €23 billion over the last few years, representing the largest surpluses in the overall French balance of trade. France is the world’s second largest exporter in the aeronautical field, with 22% of the worldwide market, after the United States (35 %). Germany is the third largest exporter with 14% of the worldwide market. France has seen its market share increase by 8% in ten years, unlike the agri-food and automotive sectors.

Airbus’ exports represent the lion’s share of French exports. Airbus accounts for roughly 50% of French exports in the aeronautical sector. Table 1 below shows direct sales of new French-built aircraft to foreign airline companies and the shipments of turnkey A380 aircraft from France to Germany for subsequent deliveries from the Hamburg site, as well as the value in euros (€M) of these exports.

Table 1 – Airbus exports in terms of value (€) and numbers of aircraft
Value in M€  Numbers of aircraft
2004 11 356 184
2005 13 216 212
2006 15 189 256
2007 14 594 278
2008 15 647 289
2009 16 232 273
2010 18 935 285
2011 19 020 271
2012 22 548 296
2013 24 997 317
2014 25 005 321

How has the French aeronautical sector remained successful amid the overall decline of French industry?

The aeronautical sector is an oligopoly characterised by heavy capital investment and products with advanced technology . As such, the cost of entering the market is extremely high. In France, the aeronautical sector represents around 4,000 companies and employs 320,000 people directly. The success of the French aeronautical sector is the result of an industrial strategy built on strong technological assets, strategic European alliances and strong political support:

  • R&D and technological expertise which is among the best in the world thanks to the quality of engineering training in France (mastery of systems design and production, design offices, tests, assembly lines).
  • Integration within a European consortium with international partnerships and added value resulting from the blending of industrial cultures.
  • An efficient, well-structured national sector built around a limited number of aircraft manufacturers (Airbus, Dassault, Eurocopter), engine makers (Snecma and Turbomeca, belonging to the Safran Group), equipment manufacturers that supply complete sub-assemblies (Safran, Zodiac Aerospace, Thales, etc.) and major Tier-1 sub-contractors (Latécoère, etc.): Cf.:Strategic Committee for the Aeronautical Sector, July 2014.

However, a certain number of challenges lie ahead for the French aeronautical industry.

1- Asia accounts for an increasingly large part of the global air-transport market and a new manufacturer could enter the market to compete with the two powerhouses, namely Airbus and Boeing. Airbus forecasts that passenger traffic in China will exceed that of the United States within 20 years and China aims to take a share of the aeronautical sector. To develop its sales in China, Airbus decided to increase its purchases of Chinese components and to set up an A320 assembly plant in the country.

2- France plays a pivotal assembly role in Europe. The country imports parts and aeronautical equipment, essentially from Europe (foreign trade deficit) and exports complete aircraft (large foreign trade surplus). Complete aircraft account for over two thirds of French aeronautical exports. Delocalising the assembly of Airbus aircraft therefore has a negative impact on France’s balance of trade. At the same time, Germany is taking an increasingly important position in the European aeronautical sector, with a growing number of A320s being assembled on the site in Hamburg. This is Airbus’s best-selling aircraft, already assembled on several sites, in Toulouse, Hamburg, Tianjin (China) and, since 2015, in Mobile (USA).

3- Aeronautical R&D accounts for over €3 billion of investment in France every year. However, within Airbus itself, the question is being asked as to whether R&D leadership has shifted from France to Germany. At the beginning of the 2000s, the R&D expenditure of Airbus France was one and a half times greater than that of Airbus Germany. Ten years on, the R&D expenditure in Germany was 10% more than in France. To be more precise, Airbus Germany is responsible for a significant section of the fuselage of Airbus planes and for the cabins. In addition, Germany is the leader in terms of materials R&D, although France is still the R&D leader for certain key components, such as the cockpit, flight controls, navigation and traffic management.

4- The aeronautical and space industry is also one of the rare industrial sectors in which jobs are being created, and in which skilled jobs are predominant. Engineers and managers account for approximately 41% of all the jobs in the sector. However, the French education system is not able to supply the aeronautical sector with all the technicians, welders, and metal workers that it requires. For instance, small-and-medium-sized aeronautical sub-contractors have much greater problems recruiting the staff they need than Airbus.

5- Finally, the industry also carries significant risks, considering the investment required to launch a new aircraft. Indeed, there was a fear the A380 would not be a commercial success. Each new aircraft brought onto the market can also run into serious problems, as in the case of the A400M. Consequently, there is no guarantee of success.

By Pierre André Buigues, based on research by Elie COHEN and Pierre-André BUIGUES (2014) “Le décrochage industriel”, Fayard, pp 439, [978-2-213-68188-7]; Pierre-André BUIGUES and Denis LACOSTE (2011) “Stratégies d’Internationalisation des Entreprises Menaces et Opportunités”, De Boeck, pp 376. [978-2804162917]