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Paris Motor Show: France's Big Three back from the brink

DS Divine car Image copyright Reuters
Image caption PSA Peugeot-Citroen is turning its DS marque into an independent luxury brand

During the worst years of the motor industry's global downturn, the collapse of one of France's big carmakers would have been a major blow - but not entirely unexpected.

Peugeot, Citroen and Renault were haemorrhaging sales, and profitability evaporated. The future of the national corporate icons was at stake.

Fast-forward to the start of the Paris Motor Show this week, and things look different.

No-one is suggesting that the Big Three are out of trouble, but restructuring and new investment appear to have set them on a recovery course.

However, getting a grip on costs and overcapacity is only half the story. No turnaround is complete without an end-product to woo customers. And Peugeot, Citroen and Renault have plenty of products on display at Paris.

"It's important for them to show that they are back in the race," says Paris-based automotive analyst Guillaume Crunelle, a partner at Deloitte. "But Paris is always the biggest time for the Big Three because they are playing at home."

The improvements at Renault and the PSA Peugeot-Citroen group come off a low base, however.

Urgent restructuring

To survive, the carmakers each cut several thousand jobs and reduced manufacturing capacity.

Renault sold its stake in the Swedish truckmaker Volvo to raise money, cut its model range, and pushed through a pay freeze, longer working hours and labour flexibility agreements.

At the PSA Peugeot-Citroen group the crisis was worse and the need for restructuring more urgent.

Image copyright Renault
Image caption The Renault Eolab was developed as part of a government-backed research project to reduce fuel consumption

The company had to be bailed out by the French government and China's Dongfeng Motor, with each investing £660m for a 14% stake.

Under the deal, the Peugeot family relinquished control after 200 years. For the first time, a chairman was appointed who did not carry the Peugeot name.

The new management is swinging the axe, including cutting the number of models by half, from almost 50.

A remarkable chapter in the restructuring story is that it was done with only limited opposition from France's powerful trade union movement.

"Everyone saw how battered the market was. It was a case of telling the unions, if you don't do this, we are going out of business," says Ian Fletcher, automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight.

He says that the majority of the restructuring at Renault, which has a cross-shareholding alliance with Japan's Nissan, is done.

"I think [Renault-Nissan chief executive] Carlos Ghosn feels that Renault is OK now. They have got joint ventures in place and he feels that things are on track."

'Repair fundamentals'

But PSA has further to go, says Mr Fletcher. Former Renault executive Carlos Tavares took over as PSA chief executive earlier this year, and his "Back in the Race" turnaround plan unveiled in April has barely begun.

Europe's second largest carmaker by volume ran up more than 7bn euros (£5.4bn; $9.4bn) of net losses in 2012 and 2013, and Mr Tavares has indicated that further cost-cutting is needed to balance the books.

"We need to restore the fundamentals, repair fundamentals to generate profits," the chief executive told journalists recently.

Image copyright Peugeot
Image caption Peugeot describes the Quartz as the carmaker's vision of the high-end automotive market

Nor did he dismiss speculation that PSA could one day merge with Italy's Fiat. "If there are other opportunities, we will look at them once the company is restored," he said.

Importantly for sales, the product portfolios at Renault, Peugeot and Citroen seem to be generating a lot of chatter among consumers and the motoring press.

Citroen's upgraded C1 city car looks like being a hit with customers (an off-road version is showing at Paris), and the new-generation C4 Picasso had good reviews.

Meanwhile, Citroen's DS marque is being turned into an independent premium brand, producing cars that Mr Tavares says will trade off France's renown for fashion and trendiness.

There is expected to be a lot of interest at the Paris show in the brand new C4 Cactus, which has "Airbumps" along the sides to avoid those nasty knocks from other car doors in the car park.

Mr Fletcher says: "Citroen is going through a renaissance. It's known for quirky, funky cars. The C4 Cactus has all that. It's quite utilitarian. Citroen has had a look at what customers want."

Buzz

Meanwhile, Peugeot is still basking in the glory of winning Car of the Year for its new-generation 308 model, a powerful but economical small vehicle producing about 18% less carbon dioxide than the version it replaced.

There's also a buzz of anticipation about Peugeot's Quartz concept car. This hybrid petrol-electric is pitched at the "crossover" market for vehicles that combine the practicalities of a family car with the rugged design and high-seat driving position of a sports utility vehicle.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The C4 Cactus is "a complete manifesto of Citroen's new positioning", the carmaker says

The PSA group and Renault will also be showcasing concept cars developed in response to a challenge set by the French government for carmakers to build an affordable vehicle that massively cuts fuel consumption.

Renault claims that its Eolab averages 282mpg but emits just 22g/km of CO2. Improved aerodynamics and weight-saving measures have been crucial to the design, and Renault says that the car's development has meant about 100 technological innovations.

Mr Fletcher says the Eolab looks to be a "very sophisticated and advanced" product, but that it would be several years before something was ready for the showroom. Nevertheless, showcasing concepts sends out strong messages, he says.

"It's a statement of intent and confidence in the future. The fact that they can spare resources to look into the future suggests that they have confidence in the long term."

Sales

The three companies' renewal of their vehicle portfolios probably explains how they have managed to increase market share in France, says Deloitte's Guillaume Crunelle.

The Big Three now account for 57% of sales in France. Last year it was 55%. "A 2% rise means something," Mr Crunelle says.

But the market remains tough. Total car registrations in France so far this year are up only about 1.8% on the same period in 2013, putting the country on course to sell more than 1.83 million vehicles in 2014. But that is about 10% below the average annual sales achieved just before the financial crisis.

And, as Mr Crunelle points out: "Everything happens in a global context." Some key international markets remain depressed, including Europe, which has become a "fierce battleground".

With EU unemployment still high, some generous car scrappage schemes still underpinning markets, and the spectre of deflation hanging over the eurozone, there are many question marks hanging over the automotive sector.

Sales in the EU so far this year are up 5% year-on-year to about 12.5 million units, but that is still 19% down on the pre-crisis average.

In many ways the French automotive market epitomises the problems facing the wider industry: the worst is definitely over, but the carmakers are still some way off returning to some semblance of normality.

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