Why closing car plants in France is a long and painful process

Europe

On purely business grounds, Renault could do without its plant in Maubeuge.

Like its sister factory, 75 kilometers (47 miles) away in Douai, the plant opened nearly half a century ago as part of a government effort to stem the decline of France’s northern industrial coal belt. Production at the two sites is now at just a fraction of their combined capacity.

With the auto industry’s already weakening fortunes crushed by the pandemic, Renault’s three-year survival plan hinges on cutting 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in costs and 14,600 jobs worldwide, about a third of them at home.

The root of the problem, according to Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, is overcapacity in France, and Maubeuge is among sites whose future is being mulled.

Not so fast, say unions and the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Bucking health rules on social distancing, thousands marched through the town on Saturday to oppose any move to shut the plant.

Even before Senard unveiled his plan, Macron ordered Renault to reconsider any moves to streamline production in its northern factories and consult with unions.

Not surprisingly, Senard, who has signaled the closure of a site in Choisy-le-Roi, near Paris, has tried to defuse tensions, saying that shutting the Maubeuge plant had not even crossed his mind.

Closing a factory in the best of times in France can test the mettle of an executive. But Senard will be trying to do it over Macron’s twin resolves to save the local car industry and get the pandemic-wrecked economy back on track.

The government now expects an 11 percent contraction this year, more than previously anticipated. To top that, Renault is counting on 5 billion euros in loans backed by the state, its most powerful shareholder.

“To save Renault, the government will have to accept that it will reduce its industrial footprint in France,” said Jean-Pierre Corniou, a partner at consultancy SIA Partners. While politicians the world over wrestle with such issues, French interventionism tends to make the inevitable worse. “Jean-Dominique Senard is trying hard, but the house is burning,” Corniou said.

The first step in what promises to be a long-drawn process began Tuesday when labor representatives, local politicians and management met at the finance ministry to discuss Maubeuge. If history is a guide, it will be one of many such gatherings.

Track record

France has a long record of industrial battles involving bosses, unions and political leaders. The well-worn French playbook includes lots of bluster and ends up in bitterness all around after sites close, often costing millions in taxpayer money and false hopes of a rekindling of mass manufacturing.

A former Whirlpool plant near the northern city of Amiens — Macron’s hometown — died a slow death over nearly two decades, benefiting from millions in government subsidies. It became a flashpoint during the 2017 presidential campaign.

ArcelorMittal and oil giant Total were also objects of political grief over, respectively, a steel plant at Florange and now-closed refinery at Dunkirk.

In one spat, ArcelorMittal CEO Lakshmi Mittal was threatened with the nationalization of his French site — an empty threat that has not stopped it from steadily shrinking ever since.

Case by case

In Renault’s case, perfectly in line with the French way, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has demanded a “site by site, job by job” evaluation of the company’s strategy and warned that closing plants should be a last resort.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, the minister agreed to sign off on the state-backed loan and said talks between Renault and unions would continue next week to guarantee a level of employment and activity at Maubeuge beyond 2023.

For the site, which employs about 1,725 people, it does not help that Macron made a visit there in 2018 when more jobs and investments were promised.

Renault’s problems pre-date the pandemic, stemming from years of expansion under former leader Carlos Ghosn, who sought to make the three-company alliance with Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors into the biggest global vehicle manufacturer.

As they grappled with management turmoil and bitter infighting following Ghosn’s 2018 arrest, they lost focus in the global race with rivals including Volkswagen Group and Toyota to make more electric models.

Renault’s struggle to cut costs at home will add to the difficulties.

“There has been a long deterioration in Renault’s competitiveness, so rationalization is unavoidable,” said Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois. “Carrying this out is tricky, especially during a crisis. The company is being quite vague about what exactly has been decided and what is still being negotiated.”

French unions are demanding that the company bring more manufacturing back home. “Renault may be too big for its needs, but French workers are being asked to make the greatest sacrifices,” said Franck Daout, a spokesman for the CFDT union.

PSA model

Senard has vowed to sell the Caudan (Fonderie de Bretagne) site, and transfer operations at Choisy-le-Roi to the nearby Flins factory. While Maubeuge has crystallized anger, vehicle production is set to be phased out at the Dieppe plant and Flins.

Renault’s factory utilization in France stands at just 60 percent, Senard says, with output at about 655,000 vehicles for a maximum capacity of 1.9 million. “We can’t sustain this situation for long,” he said.

In the tussle to get the job done, Renault acting CEO Clotilde Delbos has held up archrival PSA as a model.

PSA underwent a painful revamp under CEO Carlos Tavares and now boasts industry-leading margins and has also stolen a march on Renault with a planned merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

One key aspect was PSA’s decision to stop making cars at a plant in Aulnay-sous-Bois in 2013, the first car factory closure in France in two decades. After the company made the case that its very survival was at stake, the government watered its stance on job cuts down to “inevitable” from “not acceptable.”

Tavares is fond of talking about PSA’s near-death experience and his vision of an industry in which the strongest will survive.

Senard has so far taken a soft approach, saying he plans to take a lot of time to reach a consensus with unions. Yet his message is clear.
“Politicians should take into account the future of our industry without focusing on short-term objectives that have electoral connotations,” he said Sunday on national television.

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