Renault chairman Louis Schweitzer said on Monday he expected the company's share of the western Europe car market to end 2003 slightly down at around 10.6%, but the overall market would grow next year, Reuters reported.

"I'm not sure if we will reach 10.5 or 10.6%, but the target is roughly 10.6%," Schweitzer reportedly said.

Last year Europe's fourth-largest car maker secured a market share of 10.7%, Reuters noted, adding that Renault had said it was aiming to match or beat its share of the Western European car market this year, but has hinted more recently it might fall just short of this goal.

Schweitzer reportedly was a little more optimistic about the prospects for a recovery in the market next year.

"We believe there will be a slight increase in the European market and the French market next year, but not a very major move," he told Reuters.

"In Europe it may be 1% or maybe 2%. Certainly we are not talking about five or 10%," he reportedly added. "In France next year maybe we will see 3% growth, if we are lucky."

According to Reuters, Schweitzer stuck by forecasts that Renault would post an operating margin of 3.5% to 4% in 2003, and maintained that figure would rise to above 4% in 2004.

The news agency noted that Renault has managed to keep its profits rising mainly thanks to hefty contributions from its Japanese partner Nissan Motor, in which it holds a 44.4% stake.

Reuters said the Renault chairman, however, was upbeat about its 51% owned joint venture with an Iranian consortium to build and sell its cut-price X90 car in the fast-growing market.

The venture was due to be launched in early 2004 and production would start in 2006, with an initial capacity of 200,000 cars, the report said.

"This is a market of 700,000 new cars a year, with very little competition...If all goes well, we think we can take 50% of the market," Schweitzer reportedly said. "Iran could become one of Renault's major markets."

He told Reuters the next major announcement concerning Renault's expansion plans would come next spring, when the company would unveil its plans to enter the booming Chinese car market.