In common with the global wood market, the French timber industry has had a turbulent couple of years.

Rather unexpected was the very strong economic recovery experienced after the Covid pandemic. Until June 2022 the market was very dynamic, and demand was high for all types of products; sawmills were struggling to keep up with the demand, often having to cut back on orders or delay shipments to try and satisfy their existing customers.

At that time, most suppliers were focusing on offering a service and sufficient volumes to their long-standing customers and were unable to take on any orders from new prospects. Buyers were under a lot of pressure to secure enough wood to ensure their business could continue for just a few months ahead. During this period prices rose impressively, both on log and lumber markets.

The situation then started to change. In the softwood market there was a sudden drop in demand from June 2022. Buyers felt a sudden shift in customer sentiment. This was attributed to several factors; the boom in the cost of energy, general inflation, political uncertainty and previous over-ordering.

In consequence, many customers postponed investment in new projects and the general building industry started slowing down. Subsequently the sawmilling industry experienced several very testing months of slow demand, orders being pushed back or cancelled.

The French and to some extent, European markets generally remained in a wait and see mode for a good part of the following 12 months. Some sawmills found good opportunities in developing exports to other regions, such as the Middle East or Asia, which were less affected by the international market drop. Then, at the start of 2023, there was a general divestment of inventories and orders started again on a day-by-day base. Today the situation is reported to be not too bad, with the consensus that the French softwood sector is back to 2019 level of business.

The hardwood market (especially oak), on the other hand, has been less impacted by these extreme changes. Most sawmillers report a drop in demand in some markets after the second semester of 2022 which saw prices reducing to more conventional levels after the inflationary buying frenzy of 2021/2022, especially for flooring and second grade lumber. Demand in the domestic market was lower than usual as demand for most construction related products, such as doors, windows and staircases, was down, although producers offering further processed or finished products such as glued scantlings, flooring or glued panel products – areas where available volumes and potential suppliers are generally limited – still reported good demand. Because of limited availability upper grade lumber, remained in strong demand, underpinning high prices.

For most French hardwood sawmills exports have been a necessity for many years; more so as in recent times when the French economic situation has been so unstable and unpredictable. Mills have had to diversify their customer base and establish relationships in a spread of export markets to hedge against volatile domestic demand.


Exports of French oak lumber, after having undergone a significant drop (-28%) in volumes between 2017 and 2020, experienced a real boom in the past two years (+53%).

In 2022, all France’s European customer markets have performed well, unlike its biggest Asian customers in China and Vietnam where the market suddenly stopped after the second semester. On the other hand, there has been encouraging progress in secondary Asian markets, India and Indonesia.

The UK is still by some distance France’s leading oak export destination, with a 28% share of total foreign sales. It is reassuring to note that Brexit and its resulting new import controls and regulations did not significantly impact the commercial relationship between our two countries. Most French exporters report slower customs document processing, but efficient organisation and a good transport agent make for easy compliance.

What these figures do not show, is the sudden slowdown in volumes on the last trimester of 2022 but most export destinations reduced their orders at the end of the year.

This can be seen in the January 2023 volumes. Most buyers had by then slowed their purchases and, as a result, France’s global sales were down by more than 26% on the same month last year.

Sawmills servicing the ready-to-fit carpentry sector or supplying big projects are not reporting any hard slowdown as oak still represents a small project cost percentage in these markets. But those working with retail and traders are reported to be experiencing a more difficult situation.

This year, say mills, will be a time to rebuild depleted inventories following the booming demand of 2021 into 2022, but they will have to meet high log costs, so prices should remain firm. Otherwise production will be reined back, as is already the case in North America.


French exports of beech lumber have followed a similar pattern as the oak market: a 14% drop between 2017 and 2020, followed by two years of strong growth (+30% between 2020 and 2022).

Belgium is the main importer of this lumber, but the country is mainly a ‘logistic hub’: most of the volume is being shipped off to China from the port of Anvers.

Except for a few countries, most major buyers upped purchasing last year; on the Asian markets, China was still very dynamic, unlike Vietnam, which started to slow down earlier in the year.

As with oak sales, exports of beech started to slow down at the end of the year. Similarly, January figures show a drop of almost 20% against last year.

On the softwood market, things have evolved differently. The market was growing steadily between 2017 and 2019 (+6%) before seeing a 16% boom in 2020. Belgium and the Netherlands were very dynamic export markets and fuelled most of this hike. In 2021, volumes gained another 3% but the market was already showing signs of slowdown from August onwards.

In 2022 global demand dropped and, apart from a few months, export levels remained lower than for the two previous years. Most customers for this lumber are European and are all experiencing similar market slowdowns. January volumes were down 38% on 2022.


France’s forest cover is 17.3 million hectares, around 31% of the total land area.

Total wood in 2021 was 40 million m3. Of this, 10 million m3 was destined for pulp, another 10 million m3 for the energy market. The rest went to sawmills or other processing industries, such as panel or veneer production.

The forest comprises 72% hardwood and 28% softwood and 76% is held by private forest owners. Oak accounts for more than 24% of the total resource, followed by beech at 9% and chestnut 5%. The main softwood species each represent around 7% of standing wood volume, with Douglas fir at 3%.

Annual (debarked) saw log output is estimated at 24.3 million m3, with sawn lumber output at 8 million m3, according to 2020 figures from the timber research institute FCBA (

Excluding sleepers and squared logs, annual production of lumber is estimated at around 1.3 million m3 of hardwoods (0.65 million m3 oak, 330,000m3 beech, 220,000m3 poplar) and 7.3 million m3 of softwood (4.11 million m3 for spruce and fir, 1.36 million m3 for Douglas fir and 1.18 million m3 of Scots pine).


In our unstable times, it’s a challenge to make hard and fast predictions for the industry.

The hardwood market should regain momentum as it suffered less of a slowdown, and this was in part due to importers’ earlier overstocking in the market boom. Also, French hardwood mills have a broad customer base, allowing them to diversify output. The current sales trend looks like the market stabilising and coming back to ‘normal’ levels.

The softwood market is more uncertain as it suffered a drastic drop in demand for several months and significant price deflation. Also, with decreased demand in the US, a lot of volume previously exported is now staying in Europe, where there is now intense competition.

Particularly in the packaging sector, vendors are also seeing cheap offers from Ukrainian and eastern European producers trying grow share of the French market.

As an association dedicated to the promotion of French lumber products in export markets, French Timber is trying to help its members to find new destinations and new opportunities. The key is to find profitable partnerships in countries that might represent less global volume but offer reliable and stable markets.

Currently we are focusing on high potential countries such as India and Indonesia where we have been successfully marketing our products for several years. The end of the Covid restrictions means we were also able to return to Vietnam for an exhibition this year and China will follow in September.

For our softwood members, we are looking at prospects in the Middle East and Africa. Also, we could consider trying to gain share of existing markets where we are not active enough.

The UK for instance is our biggest customer for oak lumber, but we have very little presence in its softwood market. It could provide opportunities for developing new partnerships with importers of first and second transformation softwood lumber products. ­