By Pierre-André Buigues and Denis Lacoste

French car-makers exported fewer and fewer cars over the course of the first decade of the 2000s. At the start of the 2000s, PSA was exporting 54% of its French production and Renault 47%.

Ten years later, that percentage had dropped by over 20 points for PSA; Renault’s case is even more critical since the company has even started importing vehicles to France. Today, Renault now produces fewer vehicles in France than it registers! And France now has a significant trade deficit in the car sector; the last surplus was in 2004!

Does this mean that French manufacturers have become less international in their reach?

Absolutely not. Indeed, during this same period, French manufacturers invested heavily in building assembly plants abroad. In the early 2000s, the number of cars manufactured by Renault and PSA abroad represented about 70% of domestic production. In 2010, the ratio of foreign production to domestic production was close to 170% for PSA and almost 300% for Renault.
One might think that these developments are related to macroeconomic and monetary conditions in the Eurozone. However, when you look at the development of German car-manufacturers’ strategies over the same period, it is clear this is not the case. Between 2000 and 2010, we can see that Volkswagen’s exports remained stable while Mercedes and BMW’s exports rose.

Why did delocalized production replace export?

Specialists in business strategy generally agree that the choices made for an international development strategy are determined by two key factors: the company’s competitive advantages and the economic conditions affecting production in the home country.

The competitive advantages of French manufacturers. . Basically, industrial companies can choose between strategies based on low production costs or differentiation strategies based on technological innovation. A low-cost strategy drives companies to delocalize a significant part of production to low cost countries. On the other hand, a differentiation strategy generally goes hand in hand with increased exportation, because the competitive advantage is based on R & D and hence on the high-level expertise that is only available in developed countries. Companies that opt for a low-cost strategy will look abroad for cheap labor whereas those who base their strategy on differentiation will be less affected by the higher production costs linked to domestic production and can draw on the positive effects of the interaction between production and R & D.

In the case of the car industry, there are considerable differences between the innovation strategies of French companies – which seek to set up production abroad – and German companies, which maintain a high level of exports. At the start of the 2000s, Volkswagen was already investing more than twice as much as Renault and PSA in research, and in 2010, Volkswagen’s research budget was three times greater. If we specifically look at the R&D content of each vehicle sold, there is naturally a quite significant technology input with high-end manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW (more than €2,000 per vehicle), but this is the case even with mid-range manufacturers; the R&D content in a Volkswagen car is 20% higher than that of Renault and 45% greater than that of PSA. Again, the gap widened during the first decade of the 2000s; the increase in R&D expenditure per vehicle is significantly higher in German-made cars compared to French-made cars.

The economic conditions in France The more or less favorable domestic business environment, particularly in terms of cost, also has an impact on their choices in terms of international development. What about the French car industry? What are the differences between the French and German environments? If we look at things on a very general level, we see that the hourly labor costs for manufacturing in general increased by 38% in France, compared with only 17% in Germany, during the first decade of the 2000s. If we look closer at the car sector, we can note that productivity per employee was lower in Germany than in France in 2000, but that productivity increased sharply over the decade in question, while it decreased in France. In 2008, employee productivity was 25% higher in the German car industry compared to France. This can be explained by the fact that French car manufacturers have made little investment in France, their priority being their overseas factories.

Even though we may bemoan the extremely negative consequences in terms of employment and the creation of wealth in France, French car manufacturers made strategic choices that are coherent in terms of international development in view of their low R&D expenditure, their medium- and low-end positioning and the unfavorable domestic production conditions in terms of cost. However, it is not surprising that French manufacturers’ profit margins are lower than those of their German counterparts. For example, over the period 2000-2010, the operating profit per car was €635 for VW and around €250 for Renault and PSA.

Is this specific to the car industry in France?

Unfortunately for French international trade and the employment market in France, the car sector is not an isolated case. France has far fewer companies that export than Germany, and the share of exports in French GDP is almost two times lower. On the other hand, France has more large multinationals than Germany (14 companies in the world’s top 100 compared with 10 for Germany) and these French multinationals have a larger proportion of their workforce abroad than their German counterparts.

Consequently, for France to become an “export country” once again, it would take a radical change in the strategic positioning of companies located in France as well as more favorable production conditions in the country.

Written by P.A. Buigues and D. Lacoste. The information in this text is taken from the following articles: “Les déterminants des stratégies internationales des constructeurs automobiles européens : exportation ou investissements directs à l’étranger” (Determining factors in the international strategies of European car manufacturers: exportation or direct investment abroad? ”), published in 2015 in the magazine “Gérer et Comprendre”, written by the authors in collaboration with M. Saias M, and “Les Stratégies d’internationalisation des entreprises françaises et allemandes : deux modèles d’entrée opposés” (International business development strategies of French and German companies: two opposite input models), written by the authors and published in “Gérer et Comprendre” in 2016, as well as their book “Stratégies d’Internationalisation des entreprise” (International Business Development Strategies), published in in 2011 by De Boeck.
Methodology
The database was essentially built using information published by the manufacturers in their annual reports, as well as data provided by the French Automobile Manufacturers’ Committee (CCFA), the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers (OICA) and by Eurostat. The data relating to international business development, strategies and economic conditions were analyzed over the entire 2000-2010 period.
Practical applications
This study shows that any assessment of a company’s choice in terms of international development cannot be cannot be conducted without analyzing other aspects of its strategy (particularly in terms of positioning) and the economic conditions in the company’s home country. The study also suggests that foreign investments are not necessarily the best way forward in terms of international development. The case of the car industry shows that it is possible for a company to keep a significant part of its production in its home country while remaining efficient, even in a global industry.

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