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French business activity jumps to 5-month high on firmer services

[PARIS] French private sector activity expanded in March at the fastest pace in five months as a stronger than expected rebound in services helped offset weakness in manufacturing, a poll showed on Tuesday.

Data compilers Markit said a preliminary reading of its composite monthly purchasing managers index rose to 51.1 from 49.3 in February, swinging back into expansion territory - denoted by a result over 50 points - to reach the highest level since October.

Activity in the dominant service sector bounced back to 51.2 after slumping to 49.2 in February, beating economists' average expectations for 49.5 as new orders and hiring improved.

Manufacturers saw activity pull back to 49.6 from 50.2 , falling short of expectations also for an unchanged reading of 50.2 as the flow of new orders dropped at the fastest pace since August while staffing was its weakest in 14 months.

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Markit chief economist Chris Williamson said business activity remained "disappointingly modest" in light of European Central Bank monetary stimulus. "We really need to see that stimulus coming through, boosting business and consumer confidence in the second quarter to get any meaningful growth in France," he said.

Mr Williamson said that at best French economic growth was 0.2 per cent in the first quarter, half the 0.4 per cent that the INSEE official statistics office forecast last week.