Alstom Factory Fight Reignites French Industry’s Call for Reform

  • Producing goods in France is too expensive, employers say
  • Unions, government seek to preserve manufacturing work

A French train factory threatened by job losses is symptomatic of what’s ailing Europe’s second-largest economy: Taxes and employment costs are too high and industrial output too low.

That is the view of employers seizing on Alstom SA’s plan to halt production at the Belfort facility and move 400 jobs to another site. That will leave just 80 workers at the plant in eastern France, where locomotive output has dropped dramatically and Alstom hasn’t booked a new freight order from state-owned railway SNCF in a decade.

“The cost structure of an industrial manufacturing plant in France is still too high compared to Germany or the U.S.,” Thierry Le Henaff, chief executive officer of French chemicals maker Arkema SA, said in an interview Wednesday. “Progress has been made but France needs to continue its push on tax reforms.”

Le Henaff joins a growing chorus of executives calling for action in recent weeks to stem the slide in French industry. France has lost 330,000 industrial jobs since 2008, and manufacturing’s share of gross domestic product has dropped to 12.6 percent from 20 percent in 1980, according to the Industrial Federations Group, an employers’ association. Germany gets about a quarter of GDP from industry production.

Government Goal

In the case of Alstom, the company, which is 20 percent owned by the French state, wants to transfer locomotive manufacturing from Belfort to another site 120 miles away. Facing protests from workers and opposition politicians, the French government is preparing to unveil an alternative to that plan.

Economy Minister Michel Sapin said this month that the government’s goal was to maintain railroad activities at Belfort. Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge and Martin Bouygues, the head of Alstom shareholder Bouygues SA, met Tuesday with advisers to President Francois Hollande to discuss the plan, AFP reported, citing unidentified sources.

What the government might propose isn’t clear. France has a history of government intervention in corporate decisions, especially at Alstom. The state rescued Alstom from financial collapse in 2004, and it weighed in when the company sold its power business to General Electric Co. in 2015.

Industrial Comedown

“We are in discussions with the government about the future of the Belfort site,” Alstom said in a statement. “No conclusions will be drawn before the end of the discussions.”

With the plant controversy, Alstom has become the latest symbol of France’s industrial comedown.

The resulting outcry was reminiscent of the storm around ArcelorMittal’s blast furnaces in Florange, France, which the steel maker sought to close in 2012. The company agreed to a government’s request to look for a buyer, but no one wanted the mill. Florange was finally closed in 2013 after France dropped a threat to nationalize the plant. Unions have since grown wary of government promises.

At issue is the competitiveness of French industry, which produces goods of similar quality to Spain, where salary cost per worker is 10 percent lower, Patrick Artus, Natixis Securities’ chief economist, wrote in a report Wednesday. The cuts in salaries or corporate taxes that would be needed to make French industry competitive with countries such as Spain are simply too great to be implemented, he said, adding that it’s not moving up the value chain either.

“We do not believe that it is possible to reindustrialize France,” he wrote.

Demands

Pessimistic views like these haven’t stopped industry from making demands. “We need structural reforms to support sustainable and strong growth,” Jean-Marie Danjou, general secretary for the Cercle de l’industrie, an organization of industrial companies including Alstom, said by phone. “The industrial decline of France is not inevitable.”

Danjou, Le Henaff and others say tax reforms are key. The Arkema CEO is calling for the elimination of a tax on revenue called C3S for large companies while at the same time he said a French tax credit for research has meant 70 percent of the company’s R&D is in France.

With the presidential election looming in May, Belfort’s plight has unleashed a wave of criticism from right-wing politicians on the Socialist government’s handling of the economy. To shore up sagging competitiveness, Hollande’s government has slashed taxes on business by about 40 billion euros. This month, it promised again to bring the French corporate tax rate down to the European average of 28 percent by 2020 from 33.3 percent.

Fewer Robots

Low investment at home is also not helping French industry. Spending capacity by France’s largest industrial companies has expanded in the last 12 years, but the money was mainly spent abroad, according to Max Blanchet of consulting firm Roland Berger. The country also hasn’t fully participated in the automation boom that boosts factory productivity.

“France missed the turn of automation turn in the ’80s and ’90s because it was afraid of sacrificing jobs,” he said. The country has fewer than half the robots per 1,000 manufacturing jobs as Germany, according to Natixis’s Artus, citing statistics from the International Federation of Robotics.

Rail is Dying

Meanwhile, at Alstom the number of locomotives and engines produced in Belfort dropped by almost 80 percent between 2008 and 2013 and the factory hasn’t had an order for freight locomotives from the state-owned railway SNCF for the past decade, according to Alstom.

Like other French industrial companies, Alstom is focusing on international expansion. Last month, it lost out to German competitor Vossloh AG on the bidding to build locomotives for an SNCF subsidiary. At the same time, the French company announced it would build 28 high-speed trains to run along Amtrak’s corridor between Boston and Washington in the U.S. Most of that production will occur in the U.S..

“The French railway industry is dying,” said Philippe Pillot, a Force Ouvriere union representative at Alstom.

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