France's trade deficit fell by 9.0 percent last year to 67 billion euros ($91 billion), Foreign Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said on Thursday.
The trade deficit had hit a record of 74 billion euros in 2011, and the deficit for 2012 is the second-biggest ever.
The deficit excluding energy, which the government aims to eliminate by 2017, fell by nearly half, dropping from 29 to 15 billion euros, she added.
"It is the first encouraging signal which should allow us to regain confidence," said Bricq.
"These figures, the first net improvement since 2009, are explained by the growth of French exports and stable imports," she explained.
French exports rose by 3.2 percent in 2012 to 441.7 billion euros while imports grew 1.3 percent to 508.8 billion euros.
The increase in imports was mostly due to energy imports, which rose by 7 billion to 69 billion euros.
The trade deficit rose by 5.35 billion euros in December from 4.29 billion in November, the customs service said on Thursday.
France has developed a big structural trade deficit over several years which analysts say reflects a falling competitive position of French exporters.
The government is introducing measures to switch part of the social charge costs bearing on companies to a broader tax base in the economy to help industry and services to compete.
One of the factors of growth in an economy is a trade surplus, and a deficit tends to counter growth in other parts of the economy.
The share of the eurozone, which is still contracting, in French exports fell last year to 59 percent from 61 percent in 2011.
"In 2012, French companies had to go look for markets further afield for the growth that is lacking on nearby markets," said Bricq.
For the third year running Asia was the region where French exports posted the sharpest growth, climbing by 13 percent.
The aeronautical industry had the biggest trade surplus of 20 billion euros last year. Food and agricultural products followed at 11.5 billion euros due to good wine and spirits sales.