Tuesday, April 27, 2004

les gueules noires...

France's last functioning coal mine closed for good last Friday in Lorraine. Long the mainstay of France's Communist Party, the mining industry had been suffering a steep decline for decades.

In 1947, there were 370,000 miners in France. Production peaked at 60 million metric tons in 1958 and declined steadily thereafter. According to the AFP's Franck Iovene, France's first coal mine opened in 1720 and throughout the long history of the industry, its workers were were at the forefront of the struggle for social progress, as was the case in many places. France's first miner's strike in 1884, lead by Emile Basly, was the basis for the novel Germinal by the crusading writer (and one of my personal heros) Emile Zola.

Upon nationalization of the mines after the Liberation, the Communist party gained control over the organization of the mining workforce and coal production became vital to post-war reconstruction.

But the long goodbye started with the arrival of cheap foreign coal and then nuclear power in the 1970s. Recruitment was frozen as early as 1984 and by 2001 there were only 6,823 miners left in France. In 2002, there were just three mines, producing only 1.6 million metric tons at a cost of production far greater than the price of imported coal.

This process concluded last Friday. In a solemn ceremony, the last block of French coal was removed from the La Houve pit at Creutzwald. The ceremony began (see program — PDF; 77k) with the arrival of minister for Industry Patrick Devedjian and the last French miners bid the pit farewell in the presence of their children. Twenty-five hundred guests assembled under a big-top tent and observed a minute of silence in honor of those who had died in the mine. Conspicuously, representatives of the powerful union known as the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) were not asked to speak during the ceremonies.

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