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PARIS — France is banking on the Made in France label to restore pride to its ailing national industry.
This story first appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Socialist government of President François Hollande has unveiled a 10-year plan aimed at reversing the industrial decline of the euro zone’s second-largest economy, which has lost 750,000 manufacturing jobs in the last decade.
“We are going to give birth to the inventions of tomorrow, the factories of tomorrow and the products of tomorrow. We are going to tell the world that France can and will surprise you,” Hollande said earlier this month in a speech outlining his vision for “the new industrial France.”
Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, who is spearheading the initiative, has launched a drive to boost homegrown products ranging from Moulinex food blenders to Armor Lux striped sailor shirts, which he has turned into a symbol of his campaign after wearing one on the cover of a magazine last year.
A frequent critic of the effects of globalization and free trade, Montebourg set out his manifesto for reconquering market share in a book — “The Battle for Made in France” — a Flammarion title that hit shelves on Sept. 18.
“The battle for Made in France is a daily battle, in our minds and in our deeds,” the minister said recently at the opening of the Cuir à Paris leather and fur trade show.
“If we do not have a production base that is strong enough, we cannot do this, and France will become poorer, risking little by little to disappear from international radar screens. That is why this is a battle for all French people, all patriots and all those who love this great country of ours,” he added.
Montebourg has been touring the country’s factories in a bid to energize its managers and workforce. Next month, the minister is expected to inaugurate the renovated Courrèges facility in Pau, in southern France, and he cites ballet shoe brand Repetto as a success story in his book.
Earlier this year, Montebourg charged advertising executive Philippe Lentschener with devising a “France brand” strategy aimed at promoting French products and know-how. A five-person task force that includes designer Agnès Troublé — better known as agnès b. — is due to publish its final report on the issue at the end of October, following several months of consultations with leading industry representatives, including officials from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Hermès International.
In an interview with WWD, Lentschener, chief executive officer of McCann Worldgroup France, said the onus for implementing the report’s conclusions would lie with the private sector — echoing similar comments made by Hollande.
In a preliminary report published in June, his task force recommended creating a Comité Eiffel, along the lines of the Comité Colbert for the luxury goods industry, that would group together companies wishing to promote and work with the France brand, including existing members of the Comité Colbert.
“Any brand that wants to support France, from a sausage maker to LVMH, has to join the committee, because either we make this a collective effort to take France in hand, in which case it will succeed, or people will think it only concerns a handful of luxury or high-end brands, and then it’s hopeless,” Lentschener said.
Among his recommendations are gathering members of the future Comité Eiffel into an Economic Interest Group in charge of managing the France brand. “It would fall under private law, which means you could fund initiatives with private funds, without having to obtain countless clearances from the ministry,” he explained.
Another is to register the Made in France logo as a trademark, in order to protect French products from counterfeiting.
Lentschener wants to build on existing initiatives, rather than start from scratch, in the hope of speeding up implementation of the final measures the government is expected to unveil by yearend. “If nothing is set in motion by Jan. 1, then I think we’re in trouble, because that would signal there is no drive behind this,” he noted.
For example, the task force recommends maintaining labels such as Origine France Garantie (French Origin Guaranteed, in English), a certification delivered by Bureau Veritas, but adding four variants: French Service Guaranteed, French Design Guaranteed, French Production Guaranteed and French Know-How Guaranteed. This would allow companies that are dependent on foreign suppliers for their raw materials, such as exotic leathers and cashmere, to nonetheless highlight the Frenchness of their products.
The task force is in talks with Pro France, the organization that launched the French Origin Guaranteed label in 2011, on how best to harmonize their activities.
“For the moment, we have reached a consensus on launching a French Service Guaranteed label, along the lines of French Origin Guaranteed. The rest is still under discussion,” Lentschener said.
Daniel Wertel, president of the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation, welcomed the government’s efforts to restore France’s battered textile industry.
“It is obvious that the level of French wages prevents anyone but luxury brands from regularly and massively producing Made in France products. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean others can’t do the same for small runs, limited editions or capsule collections destined for specific markets as a promotional tool,” he said.
“Small streams form big rivers — if every brand took responsibility and produced between 0.5 percent and 2 percent of their products in France, this country would see a massive reindustrialization,” Wertel added.
Petit Bateau is a case in point. Though the bulk of the company’s clothing is produced in its directly owned factories in Morocco and Tunisia, the 120-year-old firm knits and dyes its jersey fabrics at its headquarters in Troyes, where workers also produce limited-edition Made in France runs.
“There is a resurgence in foreign demand for Made in France products. Certain customers in Japan ask us to produce specific Made in France lines,” noted Petit Bateau ceo Patrick Pergament, citing the example of a capsule line of men’s polo shirts produced for Japanese department store Isetan.
But with an average product price of 20 euros, or $27, producing its regular lines in France is not an option for the iconic children’s brand, Pergament added.
“Even a lot of high-end brands today no longer produce in France,” he said. “Of course, the country of origin is important, but I think that what matters more is quality and creativity. The place of manufacturing is an added value, provided the first two factors are in place.”
Elisabeth Ponsolle des Portes, president and ceo of the Comité Colbert, said the luxury industry supports any measures to boost the visibility of Made in France, since its members’ output has largely contributed to the positive perception of French products overseas.
“We are favorable to this movement if the aim is to promote quality French products, but not if it hides a protectionist intent,” she said.
But the executive also noted there were inherent limits to sourcing and producing high-end goods domestically. “A 100 percent French product is a total illusion, because what kind of jewelry would there be? None. The stones don’t come from France. Neither do gold, silver, cashmere, cotton or even wine corks,” Ponsolle des Portes said.
“It’s no secret that a portion of textile and leather manufacturing is carried out in Italy. Nonetheless, the vast majority of French luxury goods are manufactured in France, making us the country’s leading export industry,” she added.
For companies such as Robert Clergerie, the challenge is to combine cost-effective sourcing with French manufacturing. The French luxury shoemaker, which was bought in 2011 by RC Holdings — a new entity held by Fung Brands Ltd. and fashion veteran Jean-Marc Loubier — makes more than 85 percent of its shoes in Romans, a traditional footwear hub, where it employs 140 people, including 90 in production.
“We reengineer the product so that it can still be mounted in France and not be that expensive,” said Eva Taub, ceo of Robert Clergerie. “It pushes you to be more innovative and more creative, and to find a point of difference, a real point of difference — not just a story line — in the shoes.”
Among the challenges of manufacturing in France, she cited the lack of creative emulation from domestic competitors (Stéphane Kélian and Charles Jourdan, who were also based in Romans, both shut down in recent years), a dearth of secondary suppliers and the 35-hour workweek.
London-based Roland Mouret, creative director of Robert Clergerie, said the legal limit on working hours meant France was less competitive than other countries.
“France is very poorly positioned in terms of speed,” Mouret said. “People need to realize that Made in France products are not aimed at the domestic market but at foreign consumers, who have different buying habits. If the French want to boost Made in France, they need to at least adapt to those consumption habits.”
However, Mouret was confident the initiative could ultimately be successful.
“I think a Made in France product can still be competitive, though not where the mass market is concerned,” he said. “But for a luxury product, it is perfectly possible and perfectly feasible. There is always demand for Made in France products.”