Meanwhile, on the advertising side, there have been several mergers of independent agencies and international groups, with hugely varying degrees of success. The most compatible agency union so far seems to have been the marriage of Callegari Berville and Grey at the end of 2000, which at long last propelled the agency into the Top 15.
Another successful merger has been the DDB Group with Louis XIV in June 2001. DDB Louis XIV is now one of France's top creative agencies and it has already wrenched the much coveted Bouyges Telecom account from Young & Rubicam.
By contrast, the merger between Alice and Lowe Lintas & Partners has been so disastrous that an extraordinary meeting of shareholders in May this year saw the chairman and managing director being sacked and replaced by Philippe Bernard, the European president of Lowe & Partners.
In contrast to the plethora of independent agencies in the UK, France appears to be lacking in this area. Jean & Montmarin is renowned for maintaining its independent stand against the mighty force of consolidation, but for how long? Apart from Les Ouvriers du Paradis, no other reasonably successful agencies have recently been launched in the country.
Yet there is a growing trend among the larger agencies to launch offshoots, or laboratories, for less mainstream work. In March 2001 DDB announced the arrival of V, managed by Xavier del Sarte and Christian Vince, the former creative director of DDB. The agency has already won the account for the retail store La Samaritaine and also services Skoda.
What's more, in November BETC Euro RSCG launched Le Singe. Supervised by Remi Babinet, the creative director and the "B in BETC, it already handles Nike and Sephora and is managed by Ghislain de Villoutreys and David Leclabart.
In December it was Young & Rubicam's turn. It launched Leg, majority-held by WPP, and managed by Gabriel Gaultier (the former creative director of Young & Rubicam) and Christophe Lichtenstein, previously the managing director of DDB. Leg has already won the much sought-after Eurostar account.
According to Christian Liabastre, the chairman of Young & Rubicam, "its ambition is to establish a European presence and to reach gross billings exceeding 15 million euros in five years' time".
Achieving recognition outside of France appears to be a recurrent theme among many French agencies. An increasing number of international accounts are handled by French subsidiaries of international groups or French agencies.
Paris houses Oglivy's main European IBM team, as well as adapting work from O&M Los Angeles on Mattel. Oglivy Paris is also the lead agency internationally on Perrier (Nestle).
Sixty per cent of McCann France's billings are earned through global clients. From Paris, the agency handles L'Oreal in 77 countries, Gemey/Maybelline in 53 countries, excluding the US, and General Mills/Nestle Cereal in 46 countries.
J. Walter Thompson's chairman, Guy Chauvel, insists: "In Europe we are the second agency in the network after London for handling multinational accounts, and we are number three worldwide. For some brands the films we make are for countries that don't even include France."
BETC has taken its ambition one step further and has launched an "international task force", comprising 10 per cent of its staff. All kinds of nationality and background are involved, from the creative directors to PR experts.
The chief executive at BETC, Eric Tong Cuong, explains: "We are already international. Sixty per cent of our business is exported to other countries and we handle some of the best-known brands in France like Evian, Air France, Peugeot, Skyteam and Wonderbra. Our creative and strategic approach to advertisers' problems is a genuine alternative to the Anglo-Saxon networks which all too often offer a single proposition."
The agency is determined to be a major international player and to win "the account which "will make people consider BETC as a true global creative agency, like Diesel for the Dutch agency Kesselskramer", Cuong adds.
There is a renewed ambition to put French creative on the map among some of the higher profile agencies.
"We want to put Publicis Conseil in the top league of creative agencies, Jean-Yves Naouri, the chairman of Publicis Conseil, says.
Yet Violaine Sanson Tricard, the chairperson at Bates France, firmly believes that "French creative work is already just as good as output from anywhere else in the world".
"We must not be ashamed of it, she insists. "Why else would the British employ French teams like Fred and Farid at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, or use directors like Michel Gondry, musicians like Alex Gopher or special effects firms like Buf?"
However, there are other worries at the moment. According to the French research institute Taylor Nelson Sofres Secodip, advertising expenditure in the French media has fallen by 0.7 per cent for the first quarter of 2002, compared with the same period last year. This follows a drop of 5.5 per cent overall in advertising revenue in 2001 in French media.
Sanson Tricard says: "Since the Enron scandal, shareholders have preferred profit to long-term added value. Advertisers have been putting pressure on their subsidiaries in France, who, in turn, have been pressurising their agencies."
With the agencies having to think more about their bottom line, employment has fallen by 2 per cent in 2001.
"Sometimes I think I spend more time writing monthly reports than I do on advertising, Liabastre laments.
But it could have been worse. For communications groups 2001 was still a positive year, even if only by a whisker. Those agencies that are members of the Advertising Agencies' Association saw a small increase of 1.9 per cent in their gross billings, compared with 16.5 per cent in 2000. Some of the larger groups have managed miracles, such as Ogilvy France (+20.2 per cent), Publicis (+18.9 per cent), JWT (+12.8 per cent), DDB (+11 per cent) or TBWA (+10.7 per cent). But in most cases the increase was because of acquisitions or the development of below-the-line activities.
"The agency has won some national and international accounts, but it is our achievements below the line that have boosted our results, Daniel Sicouri, the head of O&M France, admits.
A study by the company intuitucapital confirms that acquisitions in 2001 by the largest groups have been in PR/financial communications and below the line, and not in advertising.
"Certainly we want to concentrate on organic growth, Naouri says. "But we are open to external growth so long as it meets specific criteria - the reinforcement or acquisition of skills in marketing services or consulting. We bought seven companies in these sectors in 2001, and we will continue to look for opportunities."
Jacques Bordelais, the head of Leo Burnett, agrees: "Below the line represents 40 per cent of our investment. It is not enough. Our objective is to reach 50 per cent in two years."
And what of the media owners? How have they been weathering the winds of recession?
All the media have been affected, with the national daily press sustaining the largest fall (-21 per cent), followed by cinema (-11.4 per cent), radio (-8.5 per cent) and television (-5.9 per cent). Yet two success stories of recent times have been commuter freesheets and reality-TV.
Seventy per cent of French people now read a daily paper on the metro, a figure which has hugely increased since commuter freesheets arrived on the scene. Since 1995, more than 20 countries have seen freesheets arrive in their towns and cities, and in France the battle between the publishers, both Scandinavian, has been heating up.
The two Parisian papers in question are Metro, published by the Swedish group MTG, and 20 Minutes, published by the Norwegian group Shibsted.
Both have entered the market with huge ambitions. The 24-page Metro hopes to achieve a circulation of 280,000 in Paris, gradually rising to 350,000.
Meanwhile, 20 Minutes is 32 pages and has just increased its print run from 300,000 to 450,000. France's first free newspaper was in fact Marseille, published in the city by the French publishing group La Provence/Hachette Filipacchi Media. The plan was to have an additional target to its paid-for daily regional newspaper La Provence.
Sylvie Decante, the chairwoman of MediaCom, is quick to point out the benefits of the freesheets: "According to a Sofres opinion poll at the beginning of April, they have an awareness of 82 per cent in and around Paris, and 90 per cent in Marseille. The papers are number four behind Le Parisien, Le Monde and Le Figaro in Paris in terms of audience, while they come second in Marseille. We include them in our media plans, especially when we want to target a youth audience."
It is a similar story with many reality TV shows, which have also paid dividends in targeting the elusive youth audiences. Loft Story is the French version of Big Brother and has been an inescapable phenomenon since it launched on the M6 channel in April 2001, even meriting a cover story on the frontpage of the weighty broadsheet newspaper Le Monde.
The programme captured an audience share of 25 per cent from the start, but this almost doubled to 47 per cent.
As for M6, Decante believes the show has worked miracles: "M6 has helped to attract disaffected young people, whom advertisers couldn't reach, back to television."
Just as in the UK and other countries, Loft Story has spawned a spate of reality-TV shows. A French version of Survivor aired on TF1 twice a week, and then the channels started to get aggressive. TF1 and M6 launched Star Academy and Pop Stars head to head. TF1's Star Academy won the ratings war this time, pulling in more than one-third of audience share, almost 12 million viewers.
TF1's ad department is overjoyed. Before Star Academy the channel's image was far from flattering. It was seen to be targeting forty-something housewives, rather than young people, so it hit a brick wall when trying to attract advertisers such as Coca-Cola or Mars.
Sebastien Danet, the chief operating officer of Zenith Optimedia, says: "Star Academy changed all that, attracting younger viewers while holding on to the family audience."
Yet how long can audience interest be sustained? Despite a positive start to Loft Story 2, which scored even higher than average viewing figures for 2001, audience interest is beginning to wane.
According to Initiative Media, the loss of audience share is quite significant, down 19 per cent. Yet despite the dwindling audience share for Loft Story, reality TV is definitely here to stay, as seen in the imminent arrival of Temptation Island and Fear Factor.
TOP TEN CREATIVE AGENCIES
1. BETC EURO RSCG
Clients include: Orange, Wonderbra, Canal +, Air France, Evian/Danone
2. LOUIS XIV DDB
Clients include: Volkswagen, Remy Martin, Noos, Molnlycke, Henkel,
Badoit/Danone, Bouygues Telecom
Clients include: Tag Heuer, Absolut, Canon, BMW, Beiersdorf Nivea,
McDonald's, Nissan, Michelin, McCain
4. BDDP & FILS
Clients include: Caisse d'epargne, Aerospatiale, Alstom, Bongrain,
5. YOUNG & RUBICAM FRANCE
Clients include: Orangina, Colgate Palmolive, Campbell Soup, Barilla,
Clients include: Cegetel, Fujifilm, Well
7. PUBLICIS CONSEIL
Clients include: Nestle, Renault, Siemens, Club Med, L'Oreal, Sara Lee,
Ericsson, United Biscuits, Hermes
8. LEAGAS DELANEY PARIS CENTRE
Clients include: Adidas, Ikea, Gan, Goodyear, Lycos
9. LOWE ALICE
Clients include: Lever Faberge, Clear, Axe, Signal, Unilever Bestfoods,
Toyota, Johnson & Johnson
10. JEAN & MONTMARIN
Clients include: Yoplait, Nestle/Herta, Land Rover, Lee Cooper, Nomad
Source: CB News 2002