-Overall registrations down 1.6% in April, but still 18% lower in first four months
-Peugeot Citroen registrations rise 8.9% in April
-Renault registrations fall 10% in April
(Adds background detail throughout and analyst comment)
By David Pearson
The recent plunge in registrations of new cars in France showed signs of bottoming out in April with a decline of just 1.6% compared with the same month last year, a much shallower fall than in previous months, according to latest industry data released Wednesday.
Still, over the first four months of 2012, French car registrations were down 18% from the same period in 2011 after sales in Europe's biggest auto market after Germany had fallen sharply in the first quarter. The decline partly reflects a bulge in the same year-ago period when car makers were delivering cars ordered before government scrapping incentives were phased out at the end of 2010.
French auto makers had mixed fortunes in April. Registrations of PSA Peugeot Citroen (>> PEUGEOT) increased 8.9% in April, while those of its cross-town rival Renault SA (>> RENAULT) were down 10%, according to the data released by the French car manufacturers' association. Over the first four months, Peugeot Citroen's registrations were down 23%, while Renault's were down 26%.
The recovery at Peugeot, Europe's second largest auto maker which earlier this year struck a wide-ranging alliance with General Motors Co. to help reduce their losses in the region, was enough to take some analysts by surprise.
"It's better than the decline of about 5% that I had anticipated," said Carlos da Silva, an analyst at IHS Automotive. Analysts expect the French car market to contract by 3% to 4% this year from 2.2 million vehicles registered in 2011.
Strong sales of French auto maker's Citroen brand, with registrations up 13% in April, as well as an expected recovery for the Peugeot brand, due to the launch of its new 208 compact car, with registrations up 5.5%, explained the relatively strong showing, said Da Silva. Peugeot clawed back some of the French market share lost earlier in the year, with its share up at 32.6% from 29.5% in April 2011.
In contrast, registrations for Renault's ageing model line-up were weighed down in April by a 19% fall in registrations of its Dacia low-budget vehicle brand, while the core Renault brand was down 8% year-on-year, ahead of the launch of a replacement for its popular Clio compact car due later this year.
Da Silva said precautionary buying of vehicles ahead of the French presidential elections, the runoff vote of which will be held May 6, may explain the partial recovery in the French market.
The new government, whatever its political color, could scrap or make less attractive a system of penalties on more heavily polluting vehicles and cash payments for buyers of clean cars, as the scheme, due to expire at the end of the year, has turned out to be a bigger drain on the heavily-indebted country's finances than expected. The system of bonuses and penalties is costing France around half a billion euros a year despite being toughed since its introduction in 2010.
Peugeot shares were up 2.5% at EUR9.307 around 1100 GMT, among the biggest gainers among component stocks in the benchmark CAC-40 index, while shares in Renault were flat at EUR34.33.
Foreign car makers, benefiting from weak demand for Peugeot and Renault cars in recent months, lost market share in April, with their aggregate share down at 44.8% from 46.1% a year before. In particular, Italian manufacturer Fiat SpA (>> Fiat SpA) continued to lose market share in April, accounting for 3% of the French market, down from 3.7% a year before, as its registrations fell 19%.
-David Pearson, Dow Jones Newswires; +331 4017 1740, firstname.lastname@example.org