PARIS, Aug 13, 2009 (AFP) - France returned to economic growth in the second quarter, with a surprise 0.3-percent increase in output which signalled the end of its recession, official figures showed on Thursday.
The news from the national statistics agency INSEE took economists and experts by surprise following forecasts of a 0.6-percent drop in gross domestic product for the second quarter.
"After four quarters of negative growth, France is finally coming out of the red," Economy Minister Christine Lagarde told RTL radio.
"We have come back to positive growth," said Lagarde, welcoming what she described as "extremely surprising" figures.
But the minister warned the outlook for unemployment remained bleak. The economy ministry had forecast in June that private sector job losses could reach 591,000 this year.
"The job market will remain difficult during the following quarters," Lagarde said in a statement.
The French economy contracted by 1.2 percent in the first quarter.
INSEE said the rebound was due mostly to a stronger export market and that consumer spending continued to show resilience during the downturn which hit France last year.
Exports grew by 1.0 percent during the second quarter compared to the big drop of 7.1 percent registered during the first three months of 2009.
The sudden switch came as a surprise because INSEE had forecast a 0.6-percent contraction of quarterly output and the Bank of France a 0.4-percent contraction.
Germany's federal statistics office also announced an unexpected second-quarter gross domestic product rise of 0.3 percent from output in the first quarter of the year.
The announcements were likely to boost hopes of a recovery, although there is still considerable uncertainty about the speed and sustainability of the climb from the worst economic crisis for decades.
On Thursday, the International Energy Agency warned that evidence of "green shoots" was "patchy", and in several leading economies unemployment, a lagging consequence of downturn, is still rising and is expected to do so for some time.
However, the French figures follow other encouraging indicators in recent weeks including a rise in industrial production.
The French and German figures are in contrast to the situation in Britain, the United States and Spain which have seen falls in second-quarter gross domestic product.
"France is clearly distinguishing itself from its neighbours," said Lagarde.
The government was expecting a return to growth in 2010.