How Hauts-de-France became a bastion of automobile manufacturing

Hauts-de-France has become the leading French region in vehicle production, with more than 50,000 people working in the sector. The industry has established itself in the former mining crescent and will have to face major changes.

Toyota plant in Onnaing, near Valenciennes (North)

Hauts-de-France has become the leading French region in vehicle production, with more than 50,000 people working in the sector, an industry which has established itself in the former mining area and which will have to face profound changes.

Regional assets

Historically, automobile construction in France started in two regions: Paris (Citroën in Javel, Renault in Boulogne-Billancourt) and the East (Peugeot), far from slag heaps and belfries. “The history of the automobile in the Nord / Pas-de-Calais is a consequence of the decline of the mine and, to a lesser extent, of the steel industry”, explains Patrice Le Guyader, boss of the PSA regional pole which brings together nearly of 7,500 people on three sites (Hordain, Douvrin, Trith-saint-Léger).

Because faced with the programmed end of coal mining, regional development policies, from the 1960s, “focus on the development of the automotive industry in the region”, notes the former Minister Philippe Vasseur, president of the “3rd industrial revolution” mission in Hauts-de-France. The first installations took place in the middle of the mining area, like La Française de Mécanique in Douvrin in 1969, a “joint venture” involving Peugeot and Renault for the production of engines.

In fifty years, the industrial production of the sector has only increased, with now seven construction sites, including Toyota near Valenciennes, more than 550 equipment manufacturers, suppliers and subcontractors and nearly a third of national production vehicles (627,000 in 2016, according to regional figures).

Among the explanatory factors, a high population density, an available workforce, a land offer with advantageous prices compared to the Paris region, an academic network of engineers and technicians, an anchored industrial tradition or a situation favorable geographic location in the heart of industrialized northern Europe.

In addition, the region “is located between England and the North of Germany, which manufacture 50% of the world Premium (top-of-the-range, note). It serves a lot of OEMs in our region ”, underlines Luc Messien, general delegate of the Regional Association of the Automotive Industry (ARIA).

Mutation

According to Olivier Silva, director of the Renault plant in Maubeuge where Kangoo are manufactured, “the strength of the North also comes from the motivation of the staff: I have filmed in different Renault sites and you can feel here that people are really invested in 200% ”, with one of the best productivity rates of the diamond brand. As a result, at the beginning of November, “we announced 450 million investments on the site until 2020 and we will hire 200 people on permanent contracts”. Another good news for the sector, the Chinese electric bus manufacturer BYD has set up in Allonne, near Beauvais.

If today the factories “are running at full speed”, says Patrice Le Guyader, and that there has been no site closure as in Aulnay (3,000 jobs eliminated in 2014 in this PSA plant in Seine-Saint-Denis ), some black clouds specific to the sector could appear in the northern sky. “According to the Roland Berger firm, by 2030, 50 to 60% fewer vehicles would be sold in France, in particular because of new lifestyles and transport. We have reached a production ceiling and we will probably go towards a reduction in automobile sales ”, explains Mr. Vasseur.

According to Mr. Le Guyader, the industry, “which is not far from having reached the peak of the market”, is “already” in the transition while some are counting on the disappearance of heat engines by 2040. “Tomorrow, we will have a different type of automobile and we will have to adapt to this change. There are already fairly satisfactory signs, Renault has for example decided to invest in electric vehicles ”, pleads Mr. Vasseur. A challenge for which Mr. Messien believes that the region is armed, in particular “because 6,000 people work in research and development, or 12% of the workforce in the sector”.

(With AFP)