Béthune could well become a new symbolic name of the industrial difficulties of France. Wednesday, Bridgestone announced “Its plan to cease the activity of its Béthune plant in France”. He informed the staff representatives the same day. In total, 863 employees work directly on the site, which manufactures aftermarket (replacement) tires. But the total impact will be greater with indirect jobs. The closure could take place from “Second quarter 2021”, depending on the group.
With the health and economic crisis linked to Covid-19, the government knew that painful announcements were going to arise. The litany of site closures and social plans will undoubtedly continue. However, the announcement of Bridgestone falls badly for the executive who wanted to highlight the industrial renewal of France.
Immediately, Élisabeth Borne, the Minister of Labor, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the Deputy Minister responsible for Industry, and Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France regional council, issued a joint press release highlighting their “Total disagreement with this announcement”. Following the Cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal even denounced “A betrayal of trust” placed in Bridgestone, which must “Assume one’s responsibilities rather than looking for pretexts”. The executive is all the more inclined to react strongly as the closures of tire manufacturing sites often turn into an ordeal for the authorities. This had been the case for the German Continental, in Clairoix: the site, which employed 1,100 employees, closed definitively in 2010 after months of a very tough social struggle. Similarly, the announcement by the American Goodyear in 2008 of its desire to close the Amiens North site (also 1,100 employees) provoked a long and painful legal and media battle. This also resulted in the closure of the site in 2014.
Each time, media unionists, Xavier Mathieu at Continental and Mickael Wamen at Goodyear, put pressure on the governments in place. Suffice to say that the pressure is maximum on that of Jean Castex. Especially less than two years from the presidential election. Arrived on site at mid-day, Xavier Bertrand said: “We are dealing with liars, cynics. “ “The Covid-19 should neither be a screen nor a pretext for the economic crisis”, denounced Marine Le Pen, MP for Pas-de-Calais.
To justify this closure, Bridgestone, the world’s leading tire manufacturer, explains that “The passenger vehicle tire market is facing many difficulties, and this without even taking into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”. In this market, volumes have remained stable for ten years in Europe. But competition from Asian brands has become increasingly fierce: their market shares have thus increased from 6% to 25% between 2000 and 2018. The consequence: downward pressure on prices and production overcapacity. Hence the decisions of Goodyear and Continental. But also Michelin, which has restructured its industrial facilities in France with the closure of the La Roche-sur-Yon site or the cessation of production of heavy-duty tires in Joué-lès-Tours.
The Bethune plant is the least efficient of all Bridgestone European plants
The Japanese manufacturer specifies that “The Béthune plant is the least efficient among all of Bridgestone’s European plants”. As an additional handicap, the Pas-de-Calais site produces aftermarket tires, more in competition with low-cost tires from Asia. These elements encourage a “Total and definitive cessation of the activity of the Béthune plant, the only option which would make it possible to safeguard the competitiveness of Bridgestone’s operations in Europe”.
And the Japanese giant to list the accompanying measures offered, namely the very classic early retirement, internal reclassification proposals (but Béthune was the only industrial site in France) and aid for external reclassifications. As the law requires, he will put in place a revitalization plan for employment in the region and will start looking for a buyer for the site.
The next steps are classic. Agnès Pannier-Runacher thus specified that she was going to meet the staff representatives and local elected officials to take stock of the situation. And try to find solutions. The government wants to keep up the pressure. The Deputy Minister declared that the group “Give up the game without having fought to achieve alternative solutions”. Still, it is difficult to prevent the closure of an uncompetitive industrial site.