UPDATE 2-Intra-EU trade to save French wheat export season - FranceAgriMer

Valerie Parent

* Farm office sees 17/18 soft wheat exports at 9.1 mln T

* Raised estimate would be 12-year high for intra-EU trade

* EU sales offset drop in non-EU exports seen at 8.1 mln T

* Rail strike not seen reducing exports but adding costs (Adds comments from news conference)

PARIS, May 16 (Reuters) - A 12-year high for French soft wheat exports within the EU will offset reduced shipments outside the bloc linked to Russian competition, helping keep French wheat stocks at a normal level, farm office FranceAgriMer said.

In a monthly supply and demand outlook for cereal crops, FranceAgriMer raised its estimate of French soft wheat exports in the 2017/18 season that ends on June 30 to 9.1 million tonnes from 8.9 million forecast last month.

The last time French wheat exports within the bloc surpassed 9 million tonnes was in 2005/06, customs data gathered by Reuters showed. In 2016/17 they stood at 5.0 million tonnes.

Projected soft wheat exports outside the EU were increased to 8.4 million tonnes from 8.3 million last month, but continued to lag intra-EU volumes.

France has faced stiff competition from other major wheat exporters, led by Russia after a record harvest last year. But demand for French wheat from EU neighbours has been boosted by poor harvests in countries such as Spain.

"What has been achieved towards EU destinations should save the export campaign," Remi Haquin, a farmer and head of FranceAgriMer's cereals committee, told reporters.

"For non-EU destinations, we should manage to avoid a disaster despite Russia's dominance."

Rolling rail strikes since early April have so far had a limited impact on export volumes, Haquin added, noting April saw the highest monthly amount of soft wheat loaded for non-EU destinations this season at 1.1 million tonnes.

"The volumes have been respected but with extra costs and lot of logistical acrobatics," he said.

There have been fears that transport problems caused by the strikes - in protest at a planned reform of national train operator SNCF, could lead exporters to rearrange export shipments and load grain in other countries.

French soft wheat stocks at the end of 2017/18 are now expected at 2.5 million tonnes, down from the 2.7 million seen in April, with France heading towards a "balanced" stocks level, Haquin said.

In barley, FranceAgriMer cut its estimate for exports outside the EU this season to 3.1 million tonnes from 3.4 million tonnes but lifted the export outlook within the EU to 3.4 million tonnes from 3.3 million tonnes.

Ending stocks are now expected at 1.1 million tonnes, up from 1.0 million last month.

For maize, FranceAgriMer cut its forecast of 2017/18 ending stocks to 2.7 million tonnes from 2.8 million tonnes last month, mainly due to an almost 200,000-tonne hike in expected exports within the EU, now seen at 5.0 million tonnes.

A rise in U.S. and Ukrainian prices have opened opportunities for French maize exports to neighbouring countries. (Reporting by Valerie Parent, writing by Sybille de La Hamaide and Gus Trompiz; editing by Louise Heavens and Mark Potter)