Behind the French disconnect

Once a lace capital, its factories stand empty

Dresses on display at the Calais Lace Museum and a designer at the Noyon Dentelle lace factory in Calais. The effect of globalisation on the city's lace industry is an economic pattern repeated across France and has become one of the most divisive is
Dresses on display at the Calais Lace Museum and a designer at the Noyon Dentelle lace factory in Calais. The effect of globalisation on the city's lace industry is an economic pattern repeated across France and has become one of the most divisive issues in the election.PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Dresses on display at the Calais Lace Museum and a designer at the Noyon Dentelle lace factory in Calais. The effect of globalisation on the city's lace  industry is an economic pattern repeated across France and has become one of the most divisive i
Dresses on display at the Calais Lace Museum and a designer at the Noyon Dentelle lace factory in Calais. The effect of globalisation on the city's lace industry is an economic pattern repeated across France and has become one of the most divisive issues in the election. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

The French will vote in a presidential run-off on Sunday, a poll many say is the most significant in the country for decades. The economy and security are central to the outcome. Here's a look at how the two issues are playing out in two major cities - Calais and Nice.

CALAIS • The clang of giant weaving looms ricocheted across a cavernous factory one recent afternoon at Desseilles Laces, one of the oldest lace makers in France. A handful of workers flitted among the machines, guiding gossamer threads into a floral confection destined for luxury lingerie and couture dresses.

The halls here, and at hundreds of lace factories around Calais, were once thick with employees. But as competition from countries with cheaper labour costs buffeted France, waves of layoffs swept through this working-class town on the edge of the English Channel.

Today, fewer than 300 employees remain at just three factories - Desseilles, Noyon Dentelle and Codentel - a fraction of the 30,000 whose livelihoods depended on lace less than two generations ago.

Around Calais, the hulking brick skeletons of abandoned lace factories cast shadows over modest, low-slung houses. And Desseilles was recently taken over by a Chinese investor, drawing laments that a crown jewel of the industry had fallen into foreign hands.

It has been a painful retreat for an industry whose delicate creations symbolised "Made in France" know-how, an economic pattern repeated across the country and one of the most divisive issues in the French presidential election.

  • <300

    The number of employees at Calais' three lace factories - a fraction of the 30,000 whose livelihoods depended on lace less than two generations ago.

    20%

    The level of unemployment in industrial areas such as Calais that have been affected by globalisation.

From steel mills to auto factories, the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs to globalisation has created social distress - and competing visions from the candidates about how to fix it.

France's rigid labour laws, despite recent reforms, add a layer of complexity by making it difficult for companies to adjust to a shifting economy. In ravaged industrial areas such as Calais, anger about the impact of globalisation is fierce, as unemployment tops 20 per cent and the remaining factory floors rely more heavily on machinery than manpower.

Far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen won big in the April 23 presidential run-off in such locales. Her pledges to revive industry in France, impose "intelligent" protectionism and roll back harmful European policies have found a ripe audience.

And while Mr Emmanuel Macron, the liberal former economy minister, is expected to win on May 7, France's blue-collar bastions may yet prove a liability. His vows to create jobs by keeping France open to global competition and easing labour rules must win over disenchanted workers who have seen incomes and job security erode.

"Marine Le Pen says this election is about the patriots versus the globalists," said Ms Famke Krumbmuller, head of research at OpenCitiz, a political risk consultancy in Paris. "She's right: The new cleavage opposes those who feel they have lost from globalisation and want economic and national protectionism, versus those who think the answers to France's problems also lie in European and international openness and cooperation."

Manufacturing in France in general has fallen from about 25 per cent of the economy in the 1960s to around 10 per cent today, putting millions of people out of work.

Ms Le Pen has capitalised on the disenchantment. Around Calais, which used to vote for the far left, her posters promise to "Bring Order Back to France".

Mr Macron, a former Rothschild banker, says business-friendly policies and sticking with the European Union are the way to shield France from globalisation's threat. "Globalisation can be a great opportunity," he said on the campaign trail.

On the streets of Calais, no one really expects the factories to return.

Noyon Dentelle general director Henri-Philippe Durlet does not think either of the presidential contenders is capable of reversing France's industrial decline. Not Mr Macron, with his pledges of keeping France open to globalisation. Not Ms Le Pen, with her vision of hard protectionism.

"She talks about closing borders, but what will that serve?" Mr Durlet asked. "Nothing."

But for some on the factory floor, Ms Le Pen's promises have struck a chord. "People are so disappointed that they will go vote for Marine Le Pen out of frustration," said Mr Renato Fragoli, a 23-year Desseilles veteran.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Behind the French disconnect Once a lace capital, its factories stand empty'. Print Edition | Subscribe