If the best is sometimes the enemy of the good, in terms of France's trade balance we can say that it is better, but not yet good. According to customs figures published this Wednesday, the trade balance deficit (on trade in goods) reached nearly 99.6 billion in 2023. This deficit is also the second highest in history after the record of 162.7 billion recorded in 2022, against a backdrop of explosion in imported energy prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Over the past year, the cumulative trade balance was reduced by almost 63 billion euros. After a catastrophic year on this point in 2022, the drop in the value of energy imports in 2023 made it possible to “mechanically” reduce the deficit compared to the previous year. After the surge in the barrel of oil (more than 100 dollars on average during the spring and summer of 2022), the price of Brent fell to 0, just over 80 dollars on average in 2023. As a result, the deficit on hydrocarbons ( bringing together liquefied natural gas, gaseous natural gas and crude oil) melted by 25.5 billion. That on refined oil improved by 8.6 billion last year. The return to excess electricity production has also been a real breath of fresh air (balance at 11.3 billion). In all, the balance of energy goods improved by 46.6 billion, or 70% of the increase in the overall balance for 2023. Overall, “the balance excluding energy has remained stable since 2021, highlighting the role energy prices in the deterioration of the French trade balance in 2022,” notes Stéphane Colliac, Senior Economist at BNP Paribas.
Excluding energy, the deficit is also down on manufactured products by almost 22.8 billion euros. As with energy, however, this improvement is more due to economic conditions returning to normal than to an improvement in the performance of the French economy. This increase comes mainly from “other industrial products” whose improved balance explains three-quarters of the reduction in the manufacturing deficit. The majority of the improvement in these products concerns perfume and cosmetic chemicals (7.7 billion), textiles (5.4 billion). Note, however, that these improvements compared to 2022 must be put into perspective. In a context of shortages caused by the recovery after Covid, the “other industrial products” item had in fact seen certain prices soar following the explosion in demand. France, which is traditionally in deficit on these items, had seen the deficit widen drastically. In 2023, this situation has in fact normalized rather than structurally improved.
So the outlook for the current year is rather gloomy. “After a year 2023 where the trade deficit was significantly reduced, benefiting from numerous returns to normal (oil prices, electricity, intermediate goods), these favorable effects should not be felt as much in 2024, which will limit the additional room for improvement expected this year in the trade deficit,” warns the BNP expert.
Equally pessimistic, Sylvain Bersinger, chief economist of the Asterès firm, considers that the persistent negative trade balance has deep causes which relate to the French economic fabric as a whole. For him, “the weakness of French industry” is this structuring element. “It is in the decline in French manufacturing production that we find the source of the trade deficit, which is not a problem as such (the balance of payments is only slightly in deficit), but the incarnation of difficulties of the industry,” he explains, drawing on the example of European partners who are recording a chronic trade surplus (Germany, but also Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy).
For his part, Laurent Saint-Martin, general manager of Business France, prefers to approach this problem as a challenge. This is indeed its mission. “I am not hiding behind the difficulties, we must carry out a cultural revolution in order to show that the trade deficit is not inevitable in our country.” To achieve this, Business France intends to rely on its activity of supporting export companies (more than 13,000 beneficiaries, in 2023), particularly SMEs, and on the development of the French industrial fabric. “We cannot export what we do not produce in France”, recalls the general director who pleads for “a long-term approach”. “France will not have a surplus next year either, but we will do everything we can to ensure that it is in the medium term,” he says.