FRANCE AIMS TO PUSH HIGH-TECH IMAGE

FRANCE AIMS TO PUSH HIGH-TECH IMAGE

The country that has flooded the world with food, fashion and perfume is sporting a new face.

Executives from some of France's top industrial concerns are making it their business to impress upon the French and Americans that France also makes a decent plane, train and computer.Our master goal is to explain to the public at large - not to sectors, but the man in the street - that France has realized significant achievements in technology, said Serge Bellanger, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce.

Behind such moves is the remote objective, as Mr. Bellanger puts it, to improve the amount of business the United States does with France.

France does not have a level of activity in the United States in line with its global position, Mr. Bellanger admitted. The countries exchanged roughly $17 billion worth of goods last year and are expected to trade about $20 billion this year.

With an economy one-sixth that of the United States, France belongs to the Group of Seven industrialized countries that set, in large part, the pace of the world's economic growth.

Also in the group are the United States, Britain, Japan, West Germany, Canada and Italy.

As president of the Association for French Science, Industry and Technology in New York, Mr. Bellanger is standard-bearer for the France-is- high- tech campaign.

You have to be a missionary. We believe in what we do, he said from the plush Manhattan offices of CIC-Union Europeenne International et Cie., the Paris-based bank for which he serves as executive vice president and general manager.

This month, Afsit, as the association is called, celebrates the first anniversary of its campaign in the United States.

The group was formed a little over a year ago by 12 companies, including Air France, Bull, Moet-Hennessy, St. Gobain, Generale Occidentale, Thomson-CSF and L'Air Liquide.

Mandate for US

The group's mandate for the United States: assail the public with the facts about France-U.S. relations. French people are very subjective. But in the United States, people like facts, Mr. Bellanger said.

The facts do raise eyebrows.

Food, fashions and perfume did not even make the top-10 chart of French products sold here in 1987.

That privilege went to computer parts, aircraft engines, electronic measuring equipment, synthetic and organic chemicals, airplanes and helicopters, electronic components, precious metals, carbon, pulp for paper, and refined petroleum products, French statistics show.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1985 wine accounted for only 8 percent of total French exports to the United States, agro-alimentary products 11 percent, and sophisticated manufactured products 56.5 percent, up

from 45 percent in 1976.

Manufactured goods made up 60 percent of the total products that France

sent to the United States last year.

In addition, since 1980, the number of U.S. subsidiaries of French industrial, agribusiness and service companies has more than doubled, reaching 1,300 in 1987.

Stronger Franc Helps

Spurring this movement in the last three years, says Henri Triebel, director of the French Industrial Development Agency in New York, is the strength of the French franc against the U.S. dollar.

Since August 1985 - one month before the Plaza agreement to stabilize exchange rates of the world's major currencies - the franc has risen 34 percent against the dollar, giving French companies that much more financial punch in the United States.

With its members now numbering 26, Afsit functions in France to establish good contacts with French professional organizations, private companies and government agencies, and to raise funds for its project.

Companies and organizations in France are not exactly flocking to the group, Mr. Bellanger said.

The French think France is paradise, he said. They believe it is enough to say, for example, that France has the fastest high-speed train. It took a lot of work on 1987 to persuade companies to join as a team.

He predicts it will take at least five years to eliminate the myth in the relationship between France and the United States.

It's not very easy to modify behavior, he said.

Last year Afsit spent $600,000 in the United States. Most of that was used to set up a New York information bureau on French science, industry and technology, and for the services of the Madison Avenue public relations firm Manning, Selvage & Lee Inc.

The group expects to spend $1 million on promotion in the United States this year and $2 million next year.

We have in France fundamental research, but we're not very good in going

from the lab to commercial application, from the factory to the market, Mr. Bellanger said, sounding much like a Third World manufacturer trying to promote his products in the United States.

Empire Market Is Gone

Indeed, with France's loss since the late 1950s of guaranteed markets in more than 25 African and Asian territories, the Third World figures strongly in the reasoning behind the country's concentration on the U.S. market.

France was an empire-insulated market, Mr. Bellanger said. Our trade is still directed toward traditional markets and weak sectors. We bear the brunt of history: too many French firms rely solely on the former French colonial empire and indebted developing or Eastern countries.

For example, in West Africa, home to 14 members of the French Community of former colonies, external trade plummeted by 37.2 percent in 1986 alone, compared with 4.4 percent for developing countries as a group, the World Bank said in its 1987 annual report.

As long as Africa's financial health still dances to the sad song of low commodity prices, France will have a limited market there for its trains, planes and computers.

(The United States fares no better in the Third World. Between 1981 and 1983, tumbling Third World sales accounted for more than 70 percent of the $23 billion decline in U.S. exports for the period.)

With all its emphasis on high technology, France still is one of Western Europe's leading agricultural nations, with some 60 percent of its area used for farming.

The country's biggest rivals for the U.S. high-technology market are West Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan, Afsit says.