* 2016 operating profit up 3.7 pct to 1.034 bn euros
* French operating profit 508 mln euros vs 337 mln year-ago
* Eyes growth of at least 10 pct in 2017 group operating profit (Adds details)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, March 7 (Reuters) - French retailer Casino expressed confidence on Tuesday of boosting sales and earnings this year after delivering a promised rise in profits and cash flow in its core French market, and cutting back on its debt burden last year.
For 2017, Casino predicted growth of at least 10 percent in group operating profit at current exchange rates, having achieved a 3.7 percent rise in 2016 despite a weak performance in Brazil, its second-largest market after France.
Casino, whose credit rating was cut to junk by Standard & Poor’s in March 2016 and has been criticised by U.S. activist fund Muddy Waters, is under pressure to show it can revive profits in France at a time of slower growth in Brazil.
Operating income rose to 1.034 billion euros ($1.1 billion)against a restated figure of 997 million euros for 2015, broadly in line with analysts expectations of 1.046 billion euros in a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S poll.
Its 2015 data have been restated to take into account the sale of Asian assets while Brazil appliance retailer Via Varejo , which Casino has put up for sale, is deconsolidated from the 2016 accounts.
Casino said its French operations achieved operating profits of 508 million euros in 2016 against 337 millions in 2015. This was in line with the company’s guidance for profits of slightly over 500 million euros.
For 2017, Casino said it aimed to grow operating profit of its food retail operations in France by 15 percent and forecast a contribution of its property development operations of 60 million euros against 87 million euros in 2016.
The French turnaround reflected a solid performance at the Monoprix and Franprix convenience stores, and a return of the discount LeaderPrice stores to profitability while the Geant hypermarkets reduced their losses.
Casino also benefited from various buying agreements with Intermarche and Dia as well as cost reductions from store closures and the transfer of convenience stores to franchises.
In recession-hit Brazil, where Casino controls retailer Grupo Pao de Aucar, operating profit fell to 314 million euros from 434 million as promotional spending to boost sales at the Extra hypermarkets weighed on profits.
Casino’s shares were hit hard in December 2015 when activist investor Muddy Waters said the group was “dangerously leveraged” and managed for the short-term.
The company has rejected the criticism and cut debt by selling assets in Asia while improving performance in France and simplifying the group’s complex structure, and Casino predicted a further improvement in its gearing ratio in 2017.
$1 = 0.9449 euros Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta