PARIS – French food company Système U was pushing its "Made in France" strategy well before it became a trendy political topic with all the talk of industrial outsourcing and job preservation. The retail food cooperative calls it: "Commerce that benefits everybody." 

A full 83% of Système U's food products are of French origin, boasts communications director Jean-Baptiste Hespel. The packaging of their U Saveur line even shows the exact origin of each product on a map of France, along with the name of the supplier and how many people the supplier employs.

More recently, however, the Made in France label began to (re)appear on non-food items as well, from fashion (Repetto) to electrical appliances (Calor and SEB). It marks a real shift considering that just a short time ago, providing such information was thought to be superfluous. With the exception of luxury products and gastronomy, the French – unlike car-proud Germans – don't attach much importance to the national or regional origins of what they produce.

Mazaya Kuroki, co-founder of Kitsuné, which produces half of its clothes line in France, notes that their Made in France label "is mainly noticed and appreciated by foreign tourists." And at the electric appliance company SEB, Managing Director for France And Belgium, Gérard Salommez, recalls that images of French flags on the packaging of some French-made appliances was initially "met with a certain reticence on the part of distributors, who have since come on board completely." SEB began using the flag labels eight years ago, making it a pioneer of sorts.

Mentalities change, however, as the website shows. The site lists all the products by category -- from toys to radiators, cosmetics to clothes – that a consumer can "buy French." Founder Hervé Gibet launched the site three years ago. "People thought I was nuts. But that's no longer the case," says Gibet, who claims his site gets 60,000 monthly visits. "These are people who, by definition, when they make the effort to go to the site accept to pay more."

From smirks to smiles

Grégoire Vincent of the trend forecasting agency Nelly Rodi speaks of "a new kind of Made in France exoticism that acts as a counterpoint to globalization." People used to "smirk" when they saw French colors on a product, he explains. "Now there's a smile of contentment."

But SEB's Gérard Salommez warns that there are limits to the magic of Made in France. "The price differential between the French product and an equivalent import can't exceed 10%," he says. If it does, "the French product has to deliver other pluses for the client, such as style, design or real innovation." Such is the case with SEB's best-seller, ActiFry, which costs three times as much as other deep-fryers because it allows customers to fry a kilo of French fries with just one soup spoon of oil.

Thomas Cohen, the founder of Bonton, a line of offbeat chic clothes and accessories for infants and kids, decided on 100 % Made in France for its furniture (made in the Cantal region by Combelle, one of the last French producers). "Clients look at the labels, and the Made in France is part of the quality they expect when they buy the brand," he says. Cohen adds that the brand's clothes – which used to be made mostly in Asia -- are increasingly being made in central Europe and the Maghreb.

Anne-Flore Maman, a professor at the ESSEC Business School and director of SemioConsult, warns of the risks that abusers of the "Made in" system may encounter. "It's like ‘green-washing' and sustainable development. Used unwisely, Made in France can do more harm than good to businesses."

It all revolves around legitimacy – what Maman calls the "congruence" between the category of products in question and the country of origin. "In the case of France, legitimacy goes without saying for the luxury market, the art of living in general." But if savoir-faire, creativity and ingenuity are qualities associated with France, "businesses, particularly small and medium-sized, have to be able to make a marketing tool out of it by getting all the communication around it right," says Maman.

Another impediment to Made in France as a marketing tool? Consumers themselves. They remain obsessed with finding good deals, meaning that in order to seduce them, a Made in France product has to be "original enough that you can differentiate it from something made in China," says Maman. "It has to feel close to home so you get the human touch, the idea of keeping jobs in this country, but the price has to be interesting too." Certainly no easy task.

Read more from Les Echos in French

Photo - Thomas Strosse