Battle For Jobs: Euphoria and resignation: a tale of two Toyota towns - Valenciennes / Burnaston

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The Independent Online
On the reception table, a bottle of soya sauce had been placed speculatively next to a bottle of champagne. At the edge of town, there was a large, skew-whiff banner in French and Japanese, reading: "Bienvenue a Toyota". Hundreds of Japanese flags had, supposedly, been issued to local school-children but they were nowhere to be seen.

The joy of Valenciennes at winning the jackpot in the great European car jobs lottery was touchingly makeshift. The battered former textiles and steel town, hard against the Belgian border, has been disappointed so often that it refused to believe in its luck until the last moment.

"We have come here to the Valenciennes area because you are at the heart of Europe," Hiroshi Okuda, president of the Toyota Motor Corporation, told the assembled national and local dignitaries (so numerous that the translation of their titles into Japanese occupied the first five minutes of each speech).

Everyone tried to claim a bit of the credit for the capture of the Toyota factory, which should directly create 2,000 jobs, and indirectly another 4,000, for one of the most economically stricken areas of France (unemployment 22 per cent).

The Socialist-led government of Lionel Jospin, represented by the de facto deputy Prime Minister, Martine Aubry, was delighted, as much for itself, as for the French far north. Contrary to what the domestic and foreign critics had been saying, she suggested, Toyota's decision to come to France proved that the Jospin government was good for industry, investment and jobs. She also suggested that this was a first fruit of France's decision to place all economic bets on the creation of the European single currency (first promoted by her father, Jacques Delors).

But the Toyota big-wigs placed the stress on France as "the heart of Europe" in a different sense. Valenciennes had been chosen, they suggested, because it was at the hub of a motorway and rail network, which placed the new factory within three hours' car-transporters' drive of five other European Union countries.

There is almost certainly another reason for choosing France, which was mentioned only obliquely. France, of all EU countries, has been the most resistant to Japanese car imports.

The building of the Toyota factory, due to start producing a new mini- car to rival the Renault Twingo and Ford Ka, from 2001, is a final attempt to breach that barrier. As the centre-left newspaper, Liberation said: "The big bad wolf is in the French sheep-fold".

French car unions are already complaining that the arrival of the Japanese will place a large political spanner in the hands of Renault, Citroen and Peugeot, who will seek all kinds of labour concessions to compete with the new arrivals. None of this worried the Communist mayor of Onnaing, the tiny town just north of Valenciennes which will host Toyota."This is a joyous day," said Daniel Crepin. "We have been promised so much and so often. Now, finally, our young people can see some future here."

Valenciennes is the epicentre of a corridor of industrial dereliction which runs along the Belgian border from the Channel coast. It used to be one of the most vibrant towns in northern France, with steel, textiles and coal industries and a thriving cultural life. It still calls itself the "Athens of the North", on the strength of the colony of Impressionist painters produced by the town a century ago. But despite its naturally beneficial position at the centre of the European single market, and despite considerable foreign investment, the whole region has remained depressed.

The coming of Toyota suggests that the greatest natural advantage of northern France - its location - may be producing dividends at last.


"To be honest, I'm glad Toyota have gone to France, we're quite happy as we are" said Riba Rich as she strolled with a friend through the Derbyshire village of Burnaston.

In the distance was the sprawling cream-coloured complex of Toyota UK, which opened seven years ago.

"I'm sorry we won't be getting the jobs here, but we didn't when Toyota first arrived.

"Most people at the plant were unemployed and came from Coventry or Birmingham or they came over from Japan.

"We are a farming village really although we only have two working farms here now.

"One of the farms was bought up by Toyota. I must admit we were scared at the time. We thought everything would change and we didn't want that because there aren't many villages like Burnaston left.

"We don't have a shop, a church, a pub or even a post office. All we have is the meeting hall. We are just a sleepy rural village."

Mrs Rich, who has lived in Burnaston for 40 years, walked on, down the narrow main street which was empty, past the large well-cared for houses, one or two of them now home to managers at Toyota UK including a Japanese family.

"We get students here asking about Toyota as part of their study projects. They've been coming for the last four years and I tell them to ask their teachers why they can't think of something else to do."

Mrs Rich laughed at the idea with a friend who worked briefly for Toyota as a secretary and preferred not to be named.

But she said: "If anything it's more of an embarrassment to the Government that Toyota are going to France rather than a disappointment to us. We are happy as we are and don't want to see any further expansion."

Toyota is investing pounds 260m at its Burnaston plant to launch the Avensis model and is extending the plant to build the Corolla. It also currently recruiting staff. At the factory the deputy managing director Bryan Jackson said: "We are not disappointed. We take Toyota's decision to build a second plant in Europe as an endorsement of what we have achieved."