Afterlife of a factory

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on deindustrialization and industrial heritage commissioned by The Public Historian, expanding the conversation begun with the November 2017 special issue on the topic. 

'The remains of the Moulinex factory in Alençon, France, photographed by the author in 2014.

The remains of the Moulinex factory in Alençon, France, 2014. Photo credit: Jackie Clarke 

Living in Scotland but researching and writing about France, I’m often struck by the differences in the way in which deindustrialization figures in the public imagination in these two places. In Scotland, deindustrialization is very much part of popular understandings of the national past, and the 1980s figure as the key moment in a national narrative of the loss of industry. In France, on the other hand, deindustrialization is much more part of the present: industrial closures have been a recurring object of media attention and political debate since the turn of the twenty-first century, as a crucial confrontation between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen during the 2017 presidential campaign amply illustrated.

Another feature of the French situation is that some of the most revealing struggles over the implications of deindustrialization have taken place within the cultural sphere, prompting a wave of films, memoirs, novels, theater performances, and heritage projects in recent years. What is apparent in this cultural production, as well as in the struggles of workers to save their jobs, is a concern that deindustrialization is consigning working-class people to a new form of social invisibility. In this context, cultural projects are often seen as an important space for resistance, a space in which (in some cases at least) working-class voices can be heard more readily than in mainstream media discourse.

In some cases, the physical space of the factory site has been at the heart of such struggles. Take, for example, the situation that unfolded in the provincial town of Alençon following the collapse of Moulinex, France’s best-known domestic appliance company, in 2001. Moulinex (or at least the sister company that preceded it) had been based in Alençon since 1937 but had really taken off between late 1950s and the 1970s, during the postwar consumer boom. France underwent a new phase of industrialization in this period, as agricultural jobs disappeared and manufacturing expanded in what had traditionally been rural regions. At its peak in the mid-1970s, the Alençon factory had employed well over 3,000 people—many of them women—the equivalent of around ten percent of the town’s total population.

Yet while the industrial past has been central to local identities in the mining and steel regions of eastern France, and industrial heritage has had an important place in the cultural regeneration of those areas, the same cannot be said of Alençon or Lower Normandy—a region still more identified with orchards and dairy products than with manufacturing. This doubtless rendered the ex-Moulinex workers’ sense of their place in the town’s history all the more precarious once the factory’s closure condemned many members of the workforce to a form of forced early retirement.

Some of these workers formed the Association Moulinex Jean Mantelet, which has campaigned for the creation of a museum or memory space on the factory site. Moulinex was of historical significance, they argue, because it embodied a series of important social changes that shaped postwar France: industrialization, the advent of mass consumer society, shifting gender norms. But this project brought the association into conflict with the mayor’s office, which, under the then center-right administration, moved quickly to demolish the factory buildings and redevelop the site for a mixture of residential and commercial use. For the local authorities, demolition represented an attempt to turn the page on a conflictual memory of the struggle over the closure of the site, which was deemed incompatible with the town’s efforts to market itself to new businesses. The association’s demand for a museum was rejected as backward-looking, even though the administration’s proposals for a new business park also made use of the Moulinex past, using the name of the company’s founder, Jean Mantelet, to project an entrepreneurial image. All in all, the approach taken by the mayor’s office exacerbated the sense of betrayal among members of the association, who read the destruction of the factory as a willful erasure of working-class history.

More recently, a new center-left administration has been more willing to invest in preserving the memory of Moulinex, developing an oral history collection in the municipal archives and using it as the basis for activities such as temporary exhibitions. Yet in many ways the physical space of the town remains marked by decisions made in the initial years following the factory closure.

Alençon lace, France, mid-eighteenth century, Diacollectie Kunsthistorisch Instituut Universiteit van Amsterdam [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alençon lace, France, mid-eighteenth century. Image credit: Diacollectie Kunsthistorisch Instituut Universiteit van Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed by CC BY 3.0

The same administration that had dismissed the proposal for a Moulinex museum had in fact been actively engaged in promoting a rather different aspect of Alençon’s industrial heritage. In the years after Moulinex’s closure, a series of municipal initiatives sought to valorize the town’s past as a center for lace making, and in 2010 UNESCO recognized le point d’Alençon as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”  While this technique is still practiced today by a handful of specialists, its history is intimately tied up with Alençon’s past as a religious center: the guardians of the technique as it developed in the nineteenth century were the nuns of a local convent. The memory of a craft activity, traditionally recognized as women’s work, linked to domesticity, Catholicism, and preindustrial forms of production, was considered less contentious than the more recent industrial past, and more appealing to tourists. Lace making now takes pride of place in the municipal museum in Alençon’s historic center, while on the town’s periphery, the only visible physical remnant of Moulinex is a deserted workshop.

This story illustrates at a local level much of what is at stake in France today in the development of industrial memory and heritage. If, as the French historian Xavier Vigna has argued, the working classes attained a certain centrality in social and political life in France in the course of the twentieth century, this has been steadily eroded since the 1980s. Closing factories have become a potent symbol of these developments and hence a site of struggle. Policy makers concerned to rebuild communities in the wake of such closures would do well to recognize this and to reflect on how best to promote inclusive public histories in the context of deindustrialization.

~ Jackie Clarke is a researcher and teacher specializing in twentieth- and twenty-first-century France. She is currently senior lecturer in French studies at the University of Glasgow, where her research focuses particularly on questions about work, consumption, and the legacies of deindustrialization. She has recently published articles on the aftermath of factory closures in France in History Workshop Journal (2015) and The Deindustrialized  World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places, edited by Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnon, and Andrew Perchard (UBC Press, 2017).

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