With French film riding high across the globe, 2003 looks primed for a good start at the Rendez-Vous of French Cinema which begins today.

Approximately 340 foreign buyers will descend on Paris to screen films, meet with sales agents and cut deals at the five-year old event which many consider an integral part of their business year.

The five day market and screening forum is organised by Unifrance, the body charged with promoting French film around the world. By providing buyers and sellers a chance to meet before the festival season starts up, Unifrance creates a unique opportunity and this year could see French film capitalise on a record-breaking streak.

Just before Christmas, Unifrance announced that 40.2 million people had bought tickets to French films outside France over the first 11 months of 2002. That figure represents a 7.5% increase over the whole of 2001. The staggering jump in foreign admissions - from 16.6 million in 2000 - can be traced back to a roster of films that scored big at home and went on to perform well abroad.

Certainly, that's down in part to the Amelie phenomenon which has created a snowball effect. In 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fairy tale earned $12m outside France and went on to ring up another $10m in 2002. Along with Amelie's second year take, the other 2002 films to make an international impact were The Brotherhood Of The Wolf - over $10m in the US alone - Asterix And Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, 8 Femmes, Wasabi, Tanguy, Dead Weight, My Wife Is An Actress and Europudding.

Some of those films have yet to be released in the US, making it evident that French film is succeeding in other territories, most notably Eastern Europe which is responsible for 13% of the box-office take.

Unifrance president Daniel Toscan du Plantier says, "All the films after the fall of communism were American. Now we're seeing that French films are in second place and often before the national cinema."

Part of the reason for the healthy export figures, he says, is that French cinema has "rejuvenated itself into a younger cinema which makes it more accessible. The Besson 'family' has helped open doors," he adds.

Indeed, Luc Besson has been the most globally visible and successful filmmaker in France for the past 15 years. Now, via his studio Europa, Besson is corralling a stable of talent that makes films people want to see. Gerard Krawczyk's Taxi 3 is primed to be one of the top box-office performers in France and possibly in export for 2003. The film will have a special screening at the Rendez-Vous this weekend.

And, although Krawczyk himself tends to make event films, he is pleased that doors have opened worldwide to a varied French cinema. " We're really at the beginning of something - it used to be that French cinema was very specific and now people can see all the colours of the rainbow."

Catherine Breillat, a director of far less commercial films, still recognises the need for export. "We can't wait passively, we must realise that we can sell and make our films profitable."

Conversely, within France, local films dropped back in 2002 achieving a 34.2% market share compared with the Americans' 52.4%. But, Toscan du Plantier contends that this sort of back and forth shift is almost inevitable from year to year. While the market is nearing saturation at home, he believes it is still possible to double France's take outside the borders.

Yet, a lament from sales agents is that the market is depressed and despite the healthy numbers, the industry still needs to be prudent. Head of sales at Pathe International, Pascal Diot, contends that in Europe with the TV presales market drying up, distributors are taking fewer risks and buying less. With the troubles at Canal Plus, historically French film's largest investor, sales agents and producers will have to look for creative ways of finding money. Still, he says, "This year will be a year of transition and reconstruction."

Haut et Court president Carole Scotta takes a similar line as Diot, "I think the numbers are a little embellished by the success of a few select films. We have to remain vigilant, but also optimistic."

Head of sales at Flache Pyramid, Eric Lagesse straddles the two opinions saying, "2003 will be the year that catches us up on 2002," referring to the fact that 2002 was a difficult year for sales companies that work with mid-range films - veteran sales company Mercure and others in 2002 were forced to close shop because of the crunch. However, he adds: "When we have a good film that amuses and touches people there is no reason that it doesn't sell."

This week Lagesse will proffer Pascal Bonitzer's heavily touted Berlin entry Petites Coupures. That films looks poised to have a nice international career along with others like 18 Years Later from Coline Serreau, Daniele Thompson's Jet-Lag, Patrice Leconte's The Man On The Train and Swimming Pool from Francois Ozon.