French consumers are drinking almost 40% more packaged water per consumer than drinkers across the rest of Western Europe, according to research from the beverage analyst Canadean.

The soft drinks market has been growing steadily in France with consumption increasing in every year since 1993 and by a total of almost 30% in the same period, the reports says. But packaged water is the overwhelming favourite. Indeed increasing concerns about both the taste and quality of tap water have resulted in low price spring water enjoying high "secondary" use in cooking and the making of hot beverages.

Fuelled by prices that are significantly lower than those for other packaged waters, still spring water is predicted to provide the catalyst for much of the sector's future growth. The report predicts that still spring water will account for around 43% of all packaged water consumed in 2003 compared with 37% just four years ago.

The report says that, although far smaller than packaged water, carbonates are easily the second largest sector. Consumption dipped slightly in 2002 following adverse weather in July and August but better things are expected in 2003. Low and light calorie cola saw astonishing growth last year with Coca-Cola Light and Pepsi-Cola Diet/Light up by 17% and a huge 225% respectively. These drinks taste good and have a healthier image - helping expand appeal outside the traditional audience of weight-conscious females.

In contrast to packaged water, carbonates consumption of 40 litres per capita is almost half the Western European average. With strong brands and brand owners, high marketing investment and the increase in informal eating occasions, carbonates offer plenty of scope for further expansion.

Juice and nectars represent the third largest market. The decline in nectars has been more than compensated for by the growth in juice. In all, per capita consumption has risen faster than in any other major sector - by 60% since 1993.

"Water is clearly a huge and well established market. However it is still viewed by the industry as offering potential for further development. Observers will watch with interest as leading brands such as Cristaline, Evian, Contrex and Volvic continue to jostle for position," says Canadean.

The retail market is likely to remain highly fragmented with the leading channel, supermarkets accounting for only 14% of total sales. Although hard discounters are still relatively under-developed in France, the number of outlets has grown by almost 50% in the last five years.

After last year, the country will be hoping for a better summer in 2003. The implications also remain to be seen from the likely reduction in American tourists, disappointed with France's stance in the recent conflict with Iraq. This said, Canadean predicts that the soft drinks market will advance by around 3% in 2003 with consumption reaching almost 14 billion litres.