French automotive foreign trade 2021: the decline continues


The figures of the French automobile foreign trade show once again how much it is necessary to relocate rather than registering a movement in this direction. The figures have been scrutinised and reprocessed, but for the moment they do not show that the laudable intentions expressed by the Elysée or Bercy that electrification is an opportunity for the reindustrialisation of France are beginning to manifest themselves. The opposite is true and the figures even seem to indicate that electrification is dragging down the French automobile foreign trade on both the equipment manufacturer and the manufacturer's side.

The rather catastrophic results of French foreign trade are partly linked to the automobile. On the vehicle side, the very large deficit has widened even further. On the equipment industry side, the improvement of the year 2020 is already behind us since producing in France now implies imports of such importance that the supply of factories outside France by French equipment manufacturers is no longer sufficient to compensate.
We propose here three commented tables constructed by us on the basis of customs statistics freely available on the Ministry's website which we have reprocessed.

Table 1: Foreign trade in automotive equipment in 2020 and 2021

 le commerce extérieur des équipements pour automobile en 2020 et 2021

The amounts are expressed in billions of euros. In the last three columns we calculate the bilateral balances and their variation: the figure expresses (when negative) how much the deficit has increased and, when positive, how much it has improved. The 6 countries selected here are those from which we import the most equipment.

As far as equipment is concerned, it is quite clear that this new deepening of the deficit that appeared in 2017 brings us back to a level very close to that of 2018. It is basically a kind of return to normal: exports are picking up because production is picking up in partner countries such as Germany. Nevertheless, large client countries such as Spain are increasingly doing without our equipment manufacturers. As this is also the case for many French productions that resort to non-French supplies, exports only grew by 730 million while imports jumped by 2,670 million and the deficit widened.

In bilateral terms, it is rather with the major historical partners of the EU that the French equipment industry was struggling in 2021. From this point of view, it is noteworthy that the surplus that still exists with Spain is shrinking very rapidly because exports are struggling to maintain the (very low) level of 2020 while imports are growing strongly.

A similar situation is observed with Germany: the surplus of 2020 becomes a deficit in 2021. In the same way, the deficits with Italy, Belgium and Poland are increasing. Further analysis is needed to identify the product lines for which these unfavourable developments are most marked. It is probable that the de-de-identification, which has been confirmed again this year, is an explanation: France was very specialised in the MPG sector and the fact that vehicles assembled in Europe see their engine and gearbox content drop in value can only have a negative impact on our foreign trade.

However, it is on the vehicle side that the situation is the most problematic. Indeed, if the deterioration of the balance is in absolute value (450 million against 1940) and - especially - in relative value much less, the amount of the deficit is very important and the situation continues to deteriorate since the appearance of the first deficit in this field in 2008. For the time being, we can see that electric or electrified vehicles, far from improving the situation, are actually worsening it.

Table 2: Foreign trade in motor vehicles in 2020 and 2021

 le commerce extérieur des véhicules automobiles en 2020 et 2021

The amounts are expressed in billions of euros. In the last three columns, we calculate the bilateral balances and their variation: the figure in the penultimate column expresses (when it is positive) how much the deficit has increased and, when it is negative, how much it has improved. The 15 countries selected here are those with which France has the largest deficits. As a significant part of exports or imports is not linked to this "Top 15" we complete the information.

What is evident in this table of foreign trade in vehicles is that the largest deficits are linked to French manufacturers and their relocation strategies to Spain, Turkey, the new member states (NMS) and Morocco. No real deterioration of the situation has been observed from this point of view in 2021, as the very slight improvement in the situation with regard to Spain and Slovakia almost manages to compensate for the Clio 5 effect. It should be noted, however, that the combination of the success of the Sandero and the increase in the power of the Stellantis factory in Kénitra leads to a very sharp increase in the bilateral deficit with Morocco.

For the rest, it should be noted that the deficit with Germany is still widening and is added to the rapidly growing deficits with the United States, China and Korea. Apart from the impressive progression of the Hyundai and Kia brands in France, these three cases raise the question of French foreign trade in electric and electrified vehicles. The data we have for 2021 are very alarming from this point of view.

Table 3: French foreign trade in electric vehicles in 2020 and 2021

 le commerce extérieur français de véhicules électriques en 2020 et 2021

For each year, Tables 3 and 3bis show the number of vehicles exported and imported and the average unit values of the vehicles concerned. The balances are provided in terms of number of vehicles and value.


Table 3bis: French foreign trade in plug-in hybrids in 2020 and 2021

 le commerce extérieur français de véhicules hybrides rechargeables en 2020 et 2021

For each year, Tables 3 and 3bis show the number of vehicles exported and imported and the average unit values of the vehicles concerned. The balances are provided in number of vehicles and in value.

In fact, the same statistics show that the 'electric' deficit in 2021 exceeds 4 billion euros and has increased by 3.6 billion since 2019 and 2.5 billion since 2020. In Europe, for the battery electric vehicle (BEV), the 2019 surplus of 385 million euros has become an almost equal deficit. For the hybrid recharging vehicle (HRV), the deficit of 370 million in 2019 has increased to 1.6 billion in 2021.

In addition, there are unusual deficits vis-à-vis the "rest of the world". In terms of BEVs, Tesla generates a deficit vis-à-vis America which, between 2020 and 2021, rises from 260 million euros to 870 million and would alone 'explain' the deterioration of the French trade balance. Between MG, the Dacia Spring and Hyundai-Kia BEV sales, there is also a trade deficit with Asia, which doubles from 315 million euros to 644 million euros. For PHEVs, the idea that PHEVs would support the upmarket development of French industry in Europe is undermined by the statistics: between 2020 and 2021, the 'European' PHEV deficit increases from 23,000 to 40,000 cars, and the 'European' deficit from PHEVs increases from 1,000 to 1,000. 850 million to 1,654 million euros: the growth in market share of the PHEV in 2021 will certainly allow sales of the 3008, DS7 or C5 concerned to increase in France and Europe, but French imports of PHEVs will increase by 22,000 vehicles and the balance sheet will be 'negative overall'.

Thus, the figures for foreign trade in cars do not show for the moment that BEV and PHEV production in France is a tool for 'reconquest'. In 2021, BEVs made in France (Zoé, Kangoo, Mokka, DS3) will be ultra-dominated by BEVs imported from other countries of old Europe first of all, but also from the United States (Tesla) or Asia (Hyundai-Kia, Dacia Spring, MG).

On the PHEV side, the said domination is even more obvious and pleads for a rapid extinction of any form of sales aid for these vehicles whose ecological virtues are doubtful and which are certain to drag down French growth. This means that the slope to be climbed in order to make electrification an opportunity for relocation and/or reindustrialisation is so steep that it makes it impossible to find in the statistics for 2021 any illustration of its validity.

This certainly does not mean that one should throw in the towel or decide that it is absolutely necessary to engage in a thermal defence battle. It only indicates how much determination and perseverance will be needed to reverse trends whose power and resilience the 2021 statistics still show us.

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on



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