Corrects penultimate paragraph to say France's performance was notably stronger than that of Germany, Italy or Spain, not that it was France's worst quarter in six years

PARIS - Europe sank to what may have been the recession's low point in the first quarter of this year as tumbling German exports and investment plus further sharp drops in output elsewhere hastened the pace of a year-old contraction.

Official GDP estimates showed the period was the worst since records at European level began in 1995, though more up-to-date business surveys suggest the first global recession since World War Two may subsequently have passed its most severe.

Although we are nowhere near the peak in unemployment, we can safely assume that the first quarter was the worst in terms of the pace of decline, said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING bank.

The latest ugly GDP figures should, however, mark the trough of the current 'Great Recession', said Alexander Koch, an economist at UniCredit bank.

GDP, or gross domestic product, fell 2.5 percent versus the last quarter of 2008, both at the level of the 16-nation euro currency zone and 27-member European Union bloc, according to the EU statistics office.

German GDP fell more than any quarter since reunification in 1990 at least, with GDP falling far more than forecasters had even imagined, down 3.8 percent from the last quarter of 2008, official statistics showed.

French GDP slipped heavily too if less dramatically, by 1.2 percent, official data there showed, while Italian GDP fell 2.4 percent, the sharpest dip since 1980.

Economists had forecast a bad but less dramatic fall of 2.0 percent in euro zone GDP, after a drop of 1.6 percent in the previous quarter and the declines in several eastern European countries outside the euro zone were no less startling.

Czech and Hungarian GDP reports showed the biggest drops since their records began.


Europe's plight is shared by the industrialized world and even fast-developing China showed its weakest pace of growth on record in the first quarter.

U.S. GDP slid for the third straight quarter for the first time since the oil crisis recession of the mid-1970s, according to official data published on April 29.

The fall there in the U.S. method of counting equates to one of about 1.6 percent in European measures, suggesting the first U.S. quarter there, if bad, was not as bad as Europe.

Britain, which is not in the euro zone but depends a lot on its euro neighbors for trade, reported the biggest quarterly GDP drop since 1979 in the first quarter, when GDP dropped 1.9 percent from the previous quarter.

In all, while the figures are provisional and U.S. data is often subject to heavy revision, the picture emerging from the first quarter is that GDP was dire across the board, but worse in mainland Europe.

The first quarter drop eased in the United States from the preceding quarter but accelerated in the euro zone and Britain, though the euro zone and EU drops exceeded Britain's.

More detailed information on GDP is expected on May 20 from Germany and many other mainland European countries as well as a first estimate from Japan, though polls of economists say Japanese GDP could have been the worst since World War Two in the opening quarter of 2009.

France's performance was notably stronger than that of Germany, Italy or Spain due to the fact that consumer spending held up relatively well, rising by a marginal 0.2 percent. Germany is far more export-dependent and foreign demand has evaporated in the broader downturn.

Global GDP is expected to contract 1.9 percent in 2009 as a whole, according to the International Monetary Fund, which sees U.S. GDP dropping 2.8 percent, euro zone GDP 4.2 percent, Japanese GDP 6.2 percent and British GDP 4.1 percent, alongside a slowing in China to 6.5 percent growth from 9 percent last year.

(With reporting from bureaux across Europe; editing by Stephen Nisbet)