Which are the largest ports in France?
Open on several maritime fronts (the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the English Channel and the North Sea, etc.) with strong overseas regions and departments, France has a total of 66 commercial seaports. Mainland France has 7 of the country’s 11 Grands Ports Maritimes (major seaports): Dunkirk, Le Havre/Rouen, Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Marseille. They alone account for 80% of maritime freight traffic .
How does the development of port activity contribute to France’s commercial and international standing? Which are the country’s most important port complexes and why should I consider setting up a commercial, logistical and industrial site there?
Find out what you need to know through Dunkerque Promotion, a specialist in business facilities in the economic area and Grand Port Maritime of Dunkirk!
Which are the largest Grand Ports Maritimes in France?
When it comes to developing its port activity, France has a number of geographical assets including a number of coastlines opening onto the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The different overseas departments and regions extend the country’s maritime influence even further, to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
On mainland France, five Grand Ports Maritimes stand out for their significant volume of activity.
1) Le Havre/Rouen
The sea and river port of Axe Seine has combined the port infrastructures of Le Havre and Rouen since 1 June 2021.
With 130 million tonnes of goods per year , Le Havre/Rouen is France’s leading port in terms of external trade, as well as the leading logistics hub. Furthermore, it’s the fifth largest port in Europe and in terms of trade in goods, too.
Marseille seaport occupies a strategic position as the gateway to the south of Europe. And as France’s second largest port and the third in the whole of the Mediterranean with 96.5 million tonnes of goods per year , it represents no less than 41,500 direct jobs and 3 million square metres of storage space .
This multimodal port handles all types of freight and means of conveyance, including waterways, rail and airline networks and, of course, motorway routes.
At the crossroads of the English Channel and the North Sea, Dunkirk is strategically located along the busiest shipping route in the world. It is France’s third largest commercial port with 53.6 million tonnes of goods traded in 2019 .
Dunkirk’s port activity has a strong industrial element, but also includes cross-Channel ship traffic for roll-on and roll-off vehicles (or RoRo vehicles), as well as fruit and vegetables and container trade.
Dunkirk port’s multimodal infrastructures are high quality, with a real logistics hub comprising road routes, railways and waterways.
Calais is France’s fourth largest commercial port with 38.3 million tonnes of trade, but it’s also the number one passenger port (11.7 million passengers per year) because of its ferry link with Great Britain .
5) Nantes – Saint-Nazaire
Nantes-Saint Nazaire is the main commercial port on the French Atlantic coast. It sees annual traffic of 34.5 million tonnes of goods. The port complex carries out multi-purpose activities and is also known for its internationally renowned shipyard.
France’s major port activities
The economic activity in France’s major ports has multiple components and some ports have developed specialisms.
French ports are a major gateway to international trade flows. The import of hydrocarbons is one of the main areas of commercial activity in French ports, such as Marseille (60% of total hydrocarbon traffic in France) .
Container traffic for all types of goods is also developing at high speed and already represents 12% of total traffic . For example, Rouen is the leading port for the export of grains in Western Europe . And Le Havre is the world’s leading exporter of wines and spirits .
Port areas are ideal places to launch industrial activities. Companies specialising in the automotive industry are quite active in the territory of the Grand Port Maritime of Le Havre. The refinery and petrochemical industries also represent a significant portion of the activities in some ports, including Le Havre, Marseille-Fos and even Nantes-Saint Nazaire.
The seaport of Dunkirk brings together a huge number of industrial activities. The area is a crossroads for the European energy industry given the proximity of numerous production sites (nuclear and thermal plants, LNG terminal, planned wind power plant, energy recovery centre, gas pipeline terminal, etc.). The opening of the LNG terminal in 2016 further strengthened its dominant position in the field of energy as it enabled giant LNG ships with a maximum capacity of 266,000 cubic metres to be accommodated .
Created in 2020, a new major industries area in Dunkirk-Port covers a total of 125 hectares. It is said to be “turnkey”, as the administrative procedures (town planning, preventive archaeology, environment) have already been completed, meaning manufacturers can set up their business right away.
Logistics & transport
Commercial ports are hubs that naturally attract new logistics spaces and infrastructures. Take the port of Le Havre as an example: it already has 200 hectares of logistics parks and no less than 435,000 square metres of warehouses . Its main infrastructures include the Pont de Normandie 2 logistics park and the Port 2000 area.
New specialised logistics parks are also being built elsewhere. The Dunkirk International Logistics Area is located in the commune of Loon-Plage, in the immediate vicinity of the container terminal and freight services to Great Britain. It includes :
- 140 hectares of total surface area
- 130,000 square metres of warehouses
- An attractive cluster of businesses already up and running there: D Fresh Logistics, DHL, DUNFRESH, DUNFROST, Logistique Dunkirk and TLN.
Furthermore, the commercial ports are making an ongoing effort to innovate in order to offer high level infrastructures to companies and logistics providers. In 2021, a rack feeder and negative temperature warehouse is It will include a total of 24 platforms and cover 60,000 square metres of land .
Environmental stakeholders in their own right
French commercial ports are actively engaged in the sustainable development of their territory and in environmental conservation. They are aiming to reduce their ecological footprint, in line with the commitments made by France towards becoming carbon neutral by 2050 .
Several French ports have, for example, adopted a natural heritage master plan (SDPN), which aims to support business development while respecting the surrounding biodiversity. This is the case for:
- The Grand Port Maritime of Reunion
- The Grand Port Maritime of Le Havre
- The Grand Port Maritime of Dunkirk , paying attention to the flora in the port area (70 remarkable plants of heritage interest have been identified), its vertebrate fauna (black-winged stilt, common ringed plover, European herring gull, etc.), and its invertebrate fauna (13 species of dragonflies, around twenty butterflies, etc.).
Numerous initiatives should be highlighted. A development and sustainable development plan (PA2D)  for the port area was launched in Maritime Flanders in 2014, making Dunkirk a real ecoport. This particularly ambitious approach aims to fully integrate the sustainable development challenges into the seaport’s activity, and is broken down into a total of :
- 5 strategic guidelines
- 13 objectives
- 26 measures
- 156 performance indicators
The Port of Dunkirk’s active commitment to the environment was recognised in 2018 when it obtained the PERS (Port Environmental Review System) certification as part of the EcoPorts network (ESPO) .
For companies wishing to study the feasibility of their project and discover the opportunities offered by the Dunkirk territory or the port areas, Dunkerque Promotion development agency is the leading intermediary for bringing industrial development and investments into fruition. Since 1992 the agency has already helped more than 2,200 companies and supported the creation of more than 10,000 jobs  through free, confidential and bespoke advice at the heart of one of France’s largest port complexes.
Key points to remember:
- France’s 66 commercial ports actively contribute to the country’s commercial and industrial influence.
- The North Sea coastline is dominated by the Dunkirk port complex, with more than 50 million tonnes of goods traded each year.
- Dunkerque Promotion helps you to set up your business in Maritime Flanders.