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The shuttered French ‘ghost factory’ where staff still turn up for work

Every morning the employees of the Sodimedical hospital supplies company in the small town of Plancy L'Abbaye in eastern France show up for work in their shuttered factory.

They haven’t been paid in six months, since Sodimedical’s German parent company Lohmann & Rauscher moved their jobs to cheaper factories abroad.

Yet still they go to work every day, a symbol of the brutal de-industrialisation that hit France in the last 30 years and has become a key issue ahead of the first round of the country’s presidential vote on Sunday.

All the candidates have vowed to return French industry to its former glory, with right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy promising tax cuts to help factories survive and Socialist Francois Hollande offering state investment.

In the meantime the workers at Sodimedical, abandoned and increasingly in despair, struggle to pay their bills with no solution in sight.

“It’s outrageous,” said their spokeswoman, 33-year-old Angelique Debruyne. “There is no consistency between what is being said in the campaign speeches – that we must produce in France – and the reality on the ground.”

That reality hit home for the 47 women and five men who worked at Sodimedical in April 2010, when Lohmann & Rauscher announced it was closing the factory’s doors to relocate operations to China and the Czech Republic.

“That night when I went home and told the children, I was lost,” said one of the employees, 42-year-old Nadine Kapusta.

“I have no degree, no other training, there is nowhere else to go and I have bills to pay,” she said.

For 15 years and more, employees followed the same routine – cutting, folding and assembling textiles for hospitals, at the plant in Plancy-L’Abbaye, a town of 1,000 in the Aube region 160 kilometres (100 miles) east of Paris.

Charts still hanging on the wall in the factory show productivity was rising and the workers were confident, buying bungalows on credit.

But a few years ago things started to change. A group of Chinese businessmen visited the factory and took pictures. Managers noted that a factory had been set up in China to make the same products.

Finally, in April 2010, the axe fell.

Employees were told the factory was moving and they could keep their jobs only by relocating to China on a salary of 120 euros ($156) a month or to the Czech Republic for 400 euros per month.

They balked.

“It was a shock. We could understand if a factory closes because it is in difficulty – but not if it’s to boost profits on the backs of employees,” said Veronique Aubert, 38.

The employees had little hope of finding other work. They were on average 45 years old, with no degrees and highly specialised skills of little use elsewhere.

Once a powerhouse of the French textile industry, the Aube region has seen the number of employees in the sector fall from 24,000 in the 1980s to only 4,000 today.

The employees launched a campaign to save their jobs, hiring a lawyer and filing more than 30 legal cases against Lohmann & Rauscher, which declared Sodimedical bankrupt.

Each time the courts has ruled in their favour, but nothing could be done. Production ceased and the employees sit in the ghost factory every day, knitting, talking and growing increasingly worried.

Help has poured in from the community, with private donations made to help support the workers and the local priest fundraising. But the employees say their bills are piling up and there seems no hope of a turnaround.

Local mayor James Lionnet worries that his once-prosperous town is slowly dying with each factory that closes.

“This means less investment in the area, less work for bricklayers or floor tilers, losses for businesses,” he said. “And if people have no jobs, they will leave.”

BUSINESS

What are the 26 French ‘unicorns’ hailed by the government?

France now has 26 'unicorns', something Emmanuel Macron's government sees as a major success. Here's what this means and how it affects France's future.

People dressed as unicorns attend a tech summit.
People dressed as unicorns attend a tech summit. France now counts 26 start-ups valued at more than $1 billion. (Photo by CARLOS COSTA / AFP)

In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron set what seemed like an ambitious objective: having 25 French start-ups valued at over $1 billion by 2025. 

These companies are colloquially referred to as “unicorns” or licornes in French. 

The target was very on-brand. Macron had sold himself at a youthful, ambitious and liberalising president keen to lead France towards modernity. 

To achieve this goal, the government lifted regulations; hired liaison officers to manage relations between tech entrepreneurs and government ministers; created a new kind of visa to allow entrepreneurs, innovators and investors to move to France; and launched an incubator scheme known as the French Tech Tremplin (“French Tech Trampoline”) to help underrepresented groups such as women, poor people and those in the countryside to launch tech start-ups. 

Just three years later, it appears these efforts have paid off. 

“They told us that it was impossible – that creating a start-up nation was just an act. But collectively we have got there three years ahead of schedule,” said Emmanuel Macron on Monday, sporting a Steve Jobs-style polo neck as he celebrated the fact that France now had 25 ‘unicorns’. 

On Tuesday, La French Tech, a body run by civil servants aimed at creating a healthy environment for start-ups in France heralded another success – a 26th licorne

The latest addition is a company called Spendesk – it runs a platform that allows small and medium sized businesses to manage spending, expenses, budgets, payment approvals and invoices through a single integrated platform. It is already used by thousands of clients. 

Spendesk recently raised a further $100 million, pushing its overall value past the $1 billion mark. It plans to employ a further 700 people in France. 

La French Tech couldn’t contain its joy. 

“We don’t ask ourselves what is going on, we know it: #FrenchTech is booming #26unicorns”, wrote the organisation in its Twitter account. 

La French Tech claims that beyond the 25 ‘unicorns’ valued at $1 billion or more, there are a further 20,000 tech start-ups in France and that half of French people use their services daily. The organisation says that this sector has already created 1 million jobs – and that this figure should double by 2050. 

“French tech is obviously about more than these unicorns, but I see them as an example, a model for the rest of the ecosytem,” said Macron on Tuesday. 

So who are the other unicorns leading the way? 

Alan

This start-up was created in 2016 and offers health insurance coverage for individuals and businesses. What differentiates it from standard health insurance providers, or mutuelles, is that it functions through an easy-to-use app. Individuals can send medical bills directly from their smartphone and be reimbursed almost immediately. Doctors can be reached through the app’s messaging and video call services. Employers can manage arrêts de travail the comings and goings of poorly staff directly through the interface. It is currently available in France, Belgium and Spain, counting 230,000 members. 

Ankorstore

Ankorstore is an online marketplace aimed at supporting independent wholesalers – from florists to concept stores. It pitches itself as a platform to buy “authentic products and brands that e-commerce giants such as Amazon do not offer.” It is present in 23 European countries with offices in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.

BlaBlaCar

This carpooling service has more than 100 million members across 22 countries. It connects drivers with people looking for a lift on a highly accessible app and website based platform. BlaBlaCar allows people to save money on transport and said that it saves 1.6 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2018 through ride-sharing – the platform has grown significantly since then. This company has also started running a bus service, BlaBlaBus. 

BlaBlaCar launched BlaBlaBus in 2019.

BlaBlaCar launched BlaBlaBus in 2019. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)

BackMarket

Backmarket is a website for buying used, unused or reconditioned electronic devices. The company sells everything from cameras, to laptops, to iPhones – at well below the market rate. Many of the products come with a warranty. The company is keen to emphasise its role in reducing electronic waste and carbon emissions involved in manufacturing new products.

Contentsquare 

This start-up has existed since 2012. It acts as a tool to allow website and app designers to monitor how their users behave while on their webpage/app. Contentsquare provides analytical information that can help to tailor websites to improve the digital experiences of users. 

Deezer

Deezer is an online music streaming services similar to Spotify. It was founded in 2007 and counts 16 million active users. 

Doctolib

Doctolib is a platform that connects patients to medical professionals. Creating an account is free and allows you to book medical appointments, with filters such as the kind of care you want, the area of the medical practice and the languages spoken by the doctor. It runs via a user-friendly app and website and is available in France, Italy and Germany. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become the main way that French people have booked vaccination appointments. 

Exotec

This company was founded by two engineers in 2014 and manufactures intralogistic robots. The technology is used in warehouses of retailers, supermarkets, e-commerce and industry. In essence, it is used to remove human labour from the supply chain. 

iad

iad is a network where people can sign up to learn how to become an independent real estate agent – it also serves as a site where people can look for property to buy or rent. 14 percent of all properties sold in France in 2020 went through this platform according to one study. 

Ivalua

Ivalua is a tool used by organisations to manage spending and supplies. It operates largely though Artificial Intelligence and provides a wide range of functions designed to improve collaboration and decision-making. 

Ledger

Ledger is a company that provides individuals and businesses an easy way to buy and sell cryptocurrencies and store these currency on USB-type hardware. If you get sick of that guy at work who never stops talking about Bitcoin, this is probably not one for you. 

Lydia

This is a payment app that allows people with French bank accounts to send and receive money with other users, and is often used by friends to reimburse each other with small amounts for dinner, drinks, holidays etc. If you hold your savings in the app, you can benefit from a 0.6 percent interest rate. It also allows you to pay for things overseas without incurring fees. 

ManoMano

ManoMano is an online marketplace specialised in DIY and gardening equipment. It employs 800 people in 4 offices and operates across 6 European markets: France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK. It’s website sells products from more than 3,600 retail partners and stocks more than 10 million products. 

DentalMonitoring

Patients can download this app after undergoing dental work. They can then use the secured system to send pictures of their teeth to their dentist (if the dentist is subscribed to the service). The start-up boasts that it can allow dentists and orthodontistes to carry out remote consultations and that the AI technology embedded in the app can automatically detect dental problems. 

Meero

Meero is a company that connects professional photographers to clients and vice versa. It organises one photo shoot every 25 seconds and has more than 30,000 customers around the world. 

Mirakl

Mirakl is a cloud-based e-commerce company that allows retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers to access a single online market place. The start-up aims to help other businesses scale-up their operations rapidly and describes its staff as “Mirakl workers” (as in the French ‘miracle’ pronounced me-rackluh). 

OVHcloud

This start-up was founded in 1999 and is now Europe’s biggest cloud provider, offering both public and private information storage solutions. They also provide domain name registration, telecoms services and internet connection. 

PayFit

Payfit is an automated payroll service that allows employers to save time dealing with spreadsheets and other systems. It is an intuitive bit of software already being used by 6,500 small and medium-sized businesses.

Qonto

Qonto provides financial services to freelancers, self-employed people, small businesses, charities and new businesses. It provides solutions for managing expenses, accounting, invoices and payments. 

Shift

This company is based in Paris and helps global insurance companies to detect fraudulent insurance claims via artificial intelligence technology. 

Sorare

This is a fantasy football game where users build and manage squads, trading, selling and buying players. It makes use of blockchain technology. French footballer Antoine Griezmann is a major investor. 

A tradable player card from Sorare.

A tradable player card from Sorare. Credit: Sorare

Swile

This is a financial and networking service for businesses and employees. It essentially is a bank card with an app that allows employers to issue anonymous surveys to employees, facilitate communication via a messaging service, organise collections and plan events. 

Vestiare Collective

This is an online marketplace for second-hand luxury fashion. Be aware that some items still cost thousands of euros, so they’re only ‘bargains’ in relative terms. 

Veepee

This is an online and app-based service. Users can create an account for free to be alerted of upcoming sales of up to 70 percent on their favourite brands. It is available in eight European countries including the UK. 

Voodoo

Voodoo is a French mobile game developer and publisher. It provides help for video game developers to promote their work and councils them on the development process. In the past, Voodoo has come under fire for producing games that appear to be closely modelled on other games already on the market.

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