Sales of new cars in France are expected to rise by around 1% next year after plunging in 2003 amid shaky consumer sentiment in Europe's worst-hit major market, a market research group said on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

The news agency said the Observatoire de l'Automobile forecast French motorists would buy 2.02 million cars in 2004 compared to two million this year, when sales slid an estimated 6.7%. Sales in Europe, which were expected to fall 2% this year, would remain stable at just above 14 million units, it reportedly said.

Reuters noted that French motorists have been slower than their counterparts in Germany and Britain to return to showrooms after a year of poor economic growth, the war in Iraq and a summer heatwave.

"The French fear unemployment, a reduction in their quality of life, and these uncertainties are undermining consumption," Pierre Bourgeois, the Observatoire's director, told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference to present the study.

The euro zone's second-biggest economy is suffering from a jobless rate of nearly 10% and most industry experts and company executives say it is still too early to call a real recovery in demand for expensive items such as cars, the report said, adding that French consumer confidence slipped to an eight-month low in November due to worries over job prospects.

According to Reuters, Bourgeois said that, despite a record number of promotions, new models and price cuts, he did not expect the French car market to start growing until the spring.

"There will not be an economic recovery in France before the first quarter and the car market will follow. The first quarter will not be very strong," he reportedly said.

Even then, Reuters added, he saw little long-term upside for a market he said had reached saturation point at around two to 2.2 million units.