The French cruise market is the fifth largest national market in Europe, having produced some 220,000 passengers in 2004 - most of whom cruised with Costa Crociere.

With a population roughly equal to the other major European markets, however, France is producing significantly fewer passengers than the U.K., Germany, Italy and also Spain, and its potential is said to have suffered from lack of French mass market products. All the French operators are niche brands with a combined annual capacity of only 30,000 passengers, of which many are not even French.

"Although we are perceived as French, our demographic is only 65 percent French," said George Roll, director of cruise for Club Med, which has· an estimated annual passenger capacity of22,000. He explained that some markets, such as the French, take more time to develop, and that demand is growing. "But for the French market to really take off," Roll added, "somebody needs to make some bold moves."

That is not going to be Club Med, however, having initially launched two 392-passenger sail-assisted sister ships, one of which was later sold to Windstar Cruises, and barring French restrictions on its ship financing, the second ship may have been sold as well.

The other French operators are Plein Cap and Ponant Cruises, each able to carry an estimated 3,900 and 3,875 passengers annually, respectively.

But neither Plein Cap nor Ponant have plans to develop the French market on any significant scale, although Ponant's executive vice president of sales and marketing Daniel Nedzela called the market "an open space to take advantage of."

Ponant has previously announced plans to acquire two to three more mid-sized ships (after the 170-passenger Le Diamant, the former Song of Flower), and has recently been in talks with shipyards, including Chantiers De L'Atlantique, according to Nedzela. But he also said that any newbuilding would not be of more than 400 passengers, thus leaving the bigger market open to Costa and MSC Cruises.

Costa CEO Pier Luigi Foschi told Cruise Industry News that "the French think of us as a French product." Costa's office in France is staffed with French nationals, and passengers can embark in Marseilles. During the winter Costa also operates a ship out of Guadeloupe.

Costa, of course, acquired the last mainstream French operator, Paquit Cruises, in 1993, but sold its ship, the 1957-built, 530-passenger Mermoz to Louis Cruise Lines in 2000.

Paquet was also marketed as a French cruise product in North America for a while.

What does the French market need? Bigger ships offering cruises at more affordable prices, according to Roll, who said new vessels are the trend in Europe.

Nedzela said that many French perceive cruising as being for the elderly and that travel agents do not know enough about the cruise product.