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On the cover of the latest Le Parisien magazine, Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg poses before the French flag in a sailor’s bateau, wearing a Michel Herbelin watch and holding a Moulinex blender—all made in France. Seeking to preserve and create work in France in the face of a 10 percent jobless rate, Montebourg suggests French consumers forgo cheaper imports and greater product choice if it means more of their countrymen keep their jobs. “My priority is ‘Made in France,’ ” he said in October. “There’s a choice that’s more important than any other, and that is to preserve France’s industrial base.”
The drive is part of President François Hollande’s struggle to prevent continued job losses as Europe’s second-largest economy slumps, shrinking demand and forcing consumers to tighten their purse strings. Montebourg’s pronouncements mark a long tradition of treating the French as citizens first and consumers later.
The reaction among the French to the Made in France drive has been mixed. Executives at Armor-Lux, the Brittany-based maker of the jersey Montebourg wore, are delighted. Export manager Marco Petrucci says Armor-Lux sold 400 more of the €49 ($67) jersey the weekend after the magazine ran than it normally does this time of year. The campaign “is a very, very good thing, as textiles have suffered a lot,” he says.
Pascal Denis, a Metro train driver in Paris who was buying baguettes and rillettes (a kind of meat spread) in a Monoprix supermarket on the Boulevard des Italiens, says he tries to buy French products as much as possible: “It’s a question of patriotism.” Yet his colleague Sébastien Lorin, also a Metro driver, says, “It’s hard to justify paying €6 for a pair of socks made in France when you can get a pair made in Indonesia for €1.50.” In the same Monoprix, bank worker Samia Khaldi was buying Coke and Nestea. She says of her purchases, “I don’t pay any attention to where they come from, I just look for the brands I like.”
Some consumer activists bristle at mention of the campaign. “We have a government today that wants immediate results on employment and so is quick to sacrifice the rights of consumers,” says Edouard Barreiro, a representative for consumer group UFC-Que Choisir in Paris. The government’s thinking is flawed, says Hervé Boulhol, head of the France desk in the Economics Department of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: “If all countries did the same, then we end up with everyone paying higher prices, having less choice, but without creating more jobs” over the long term. “If a French consumer wants to buy French products, that’s fine. But you cannot turn this into a trade-distorting policy.”
Goods manufactured in France are on average 15 percent to 25 percent more expensive than goods made in countries such as China, according to Vincent Gruau, head of Cedre, an association to promote local entrepreneurs. Sometimes the difference is even greater. Le Parisien pointed out that domestic pasta costs €1.55 a kilogram, more than double the average 71¢ for imports.
Still, the industry minister told Le Parisien he’ll contact supermarkets to create an aisle dedicated to goods made in France. He dismisses the argument that low costs are good. “The obsession with low cost means outsourcing and job cuts,” he said, citing the example of the discount airlines that have proliferated in Europe: “Discount airfares ultimately end in 5,000 people at Air France (AF) losing their jobs.”
The bottom line: It will be hard for the French to embrace a Made in France campaign when domestic products can cost double what imports cost.