French Minister for Foreign Trade Nicole Bricq.

France made a small improvement on its trade deficit in May, official data showed on Friday, but the deficit remains high and a deep concern to the government.

The deficit fell by 500 million euros in the month from the level in April to 5.325 billion euros ($6.58 billion), the customs service said.

The cumulative deficit over the 12 months to May was 67.559

billion euros. For the whole of 2011 the deficit was 70.799 billion euros.

“The figures today confirm the very poor state of our external trade which began 10 years ago,” Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said in a statement.

Noting a weakening of the trade balance with European Union members Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, she said that “the problems of our competitiveness are showing up also on our close markets”, even though the biggest deficit with a single country was with China.

One of the factors of growth in an economy is exports minus imports, and the new Socialist government, like its centre-right predecessor, is deeply concerned about the deficit, which analysts have warned for several years is structural and reflects falling competitiveness.

In France, internal consumption is now the critical variable factor of growth, but the government faces a huge task of finding ways to reduce its public deficit and has just announced tax increases on big business and the rich.

The other factors of growth in an economy are investment, and some degree of government spending.

France does not have enough small to medium-sized companies analysts say, and exporters offer products which are too mid-range to claim high-value niches.

The trade balance marks an essential difference with the performance of the German economy, the main comparison for France in the European Union, which has long focused on developing medium-sized companies, notably in engineering, which are highly successful in exporting high quality, niche products.

The French customs service said that exports were being helped by big contracts in the areas of shipbuilding, railway equipment and works of art.

It said that exports remained firm and that imports had scarcely risen in May because supplies of oil had fallen sharply, in terms of value and price. But this about matched an increase in imports of pharmaceutical products and aerospace equipment.

Exports totalled 37.40 billion euros and imports 42.765 billion euros.

The trade deficit for April was revised with a slight reduction to 5.768 billion euros.

The customs service said that exports continued to pick up, owing to a good performance by transportation industries, with the delivery of a cruise liner and of train equipment.

In addition, some works of art had been shipped to Switzerland.

But exports of cars, industrial machinery and metals fell.

Exports had risen moderately to other countries in the European Union, with rising sales to Britain, Italy and Spain compensating partly for a fall of exports to Germany and Belgium.

Exports to North America rose strongly with the sale of the cruise liner and of aircraft.

But exports to Asia fell because of a decline in sales of Airbus airliners. -Sapa-AFP