Letter from France: Eldorado is within reach

June 2013

An entire region of France, devastated by mass unemployment, sees its salvation in the new sites being set up by Swiss watchmaking companies just across the border in Switzerland.

It is a small French town of 6,000 inhabitants located on the border with Switzerland in the southern part of the Territoire de Belfort, in France’s Franche-Comté region. Delle is now 2 hours and 45 minutes away from Paris by TGV and a short bus ride for the last few kilometres. Not too long ago the train ride was five hours. But this shortening of journey times doesn’t change much: the only thing that counts is employment. And there is a terrible lack of it. Unemployment here, at a rate of 22 per cent, is twice the national average. And Delle isn’t hoping for help from Paris but from Switzerland, specifically the small village in the Jura that is almost stuck on to it across the border in the form of a spearhead.

The recent construction in Boncourt of a Swatch Group factory, a Jaeger-LeCoultre workshop in Porrentruy and the imminent arrival of a small production facility for TAG Heuer in Chevenez—all within a radius of twenty kilometres—is a source of salvation for the neighbouring regions of France, which have been bled dry by the economic crisis. And a winning play for the Swiss manufacturers, who know that they can find there, in the middle of the countryside but nevertheless near a road transport network and at an attractive cost, a well-stocked pool of French workers in search of a real job. The French departments in the Jurassian Arc, which were for many years bastions of watchmaking but are less so today because of the success of Swiss Made, have inherited considerable know-how and already provide a large proportion of the workforce for the watchmaking companies set up nearby on Swiss soil.

The Jules Ferry vocational school in Delle has seized upon this opportunity on its doorstep. This year it started a basic watchmaker training course aimed not at students but at the unemployed, lasting nine months and awarding an apprentice diploma. It triggered a rush. Pierre Filet, the young director of this school, who we met in February, told us, “The unemployment offices in the region, with whom we are working on this project, received hundreds of applications. There were still 200 names on the first short-list. In the end we selected thirty applicants, the maximum number of students that we can accommodate on this special programme. We currently have fifteen students, including four women, with fifteen more due to arrive in April. They are aged between 20 and 40 years old.”

Letter from France: Eldorado is within reach

In this softly undulating landscape, the last stop before the high wooded mountain chains of the Jura, nothing much distinguishes France from Switzerland, apart from the typically Swiss cleanliness of cultivated land and inhabited areas. What the border does clearly mark, however, is the social desolation on the one side and the relative prosperity on the other.

While manufacturing continued on the Swiss side, it collapsed on the French side. Franche-Comté lost thousands of jobs after the closure of numerous small and medium-sized companies. The labour market is in tatters and the presence of giants such as Peugeot-Citroën in Sochaux and Alstom (trains, metros, trams) in Belfort is not going to change things. Peugeot-Citroën is adjusting its supply to meet demand by turning to temporary labour on a massive scale and getting ready to lay off 9,500 people in France, of which 580 will be at the Sochaux site. The automobile industry is no longer a promising sector.

The deterioration in French industry is partly due to ideological factors. The class struggle caused a lack of interest in manual work, seen as a punishment and social relegation. This is exactly of the opposite of Switzerland, where it has always been valued and has moved with technological developments. The result, according to Pierre Filet, is that “kids shunned industrial careers for the service industry, which they thought was better valued but where it is difficult to find a job because of the crisis. The paradox is that there is now a lack of experienced labour for industry.” Switzerland is therefore an Eldorado. In the Jura canton, which shares a border with the Territoire de Belfort, the unemployment rate, at barely 4 per cent, illustrates the economic health of this small corner of Helvetia. Which fuels the dreams of young French people. “‘I want to work in Switzerland’: this is what they say,” Pierre Filet explains. “They fantasise about salaries of 5,000 Euros per month.” That’s a rich man’s salary, compared with the minimum salary currently in force in France, which is 1,120 Euros net per month and the rate usually paid to people in their first job. Not enough to start a family, build a house or plan for the long term. Work in Switzerland, live (well) in France: this is what being a cross-border worker allows you to do, notwithstanding fluctuations in the exchange rate between the Swiss franc and the Euro.

Letter from France: Eldorado is within reach

Retrain Fifteen apprentice watchmakers in their white lab coats are working on movements in a relaxed and studious atmosphere under the watchful eye of Guy Petit, a retired French master watchmaker who has worked for Zenith in Le Locle and Rolex in Bienne, a civil aviation pilot who has reported back for duty. They are in a classroom at the Jules Ferry school that is equipped with watchmakers’ benches and basic equipment, bought in cheaply in order to stay within a budget of 200,000 euros allocated to this training course by the local authority. Alexandra, 35, already has some experience in watchmaking. “I wanted to improve my knowledge. I am starting from scratch as far as the movement and the casing up are concerned,” she admits. She used to work in Porrentruy, a Swiss town some twenty kilometres away from Delle, in a company that moulded composite materials, but she was made redundant. “I am hoping to work for TAG Heuer in Chevenez or in La Chaux-de-Fonds. To start with I should earn around 3,000 euros net per month,” she thinks.

“My employment adviser mentioned this training course to me,” says Adriano, 25. “I worked in optics, working with spectacles, which requires quite good dexterity. In an unemployment office I recently saw job offers from Swiss companies for 4,000 euros per month gross.” Like all his fellow students, Adriano will have to complete a three-week internship inside a company in April. “I’ve found one in Porrentruy, at Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss watch brand,” he says. Saisons, 27, has only ever had temporary jobs. “The unemployment office in Belfort sent me here,” he says. “I worked in a pharmacy after my university studies but I didn’t like it. But I’m interested in watchmaking.”

“I worked in the paint shop at Peugeot,” explains Khad, 31. “I left because there was no more work. I took some tests to be accepted on this training course. There were 60 to 100 multiple-choice questions, which had to be completed in twenty minutes, a watch had to be disassembled then reassembled. Where I live in Valentigney (a town in the French department of Doubs), I have three friends who work in Saint-Imier (in the Swiss Jura, where the headquarters of Longines is). I would like to work in Saint-Imier, too. It’s at least one hour’s drive, so it would mean twelve-hour days. We would do car pooling.”

A former heating engineer from the construction industry, Safi, 35, lived off short-term contracts of three or four months. He would like to work at Mercier, in Breuleux, in the Franches-Montagnes. “Watchmaking is a nice profession,” he says. He practised disassembling and reassembling watches for six months before taking the tests. “I would rather have the occupational hazards in watchmaking than those in construction and at least I’m sure that there will always be a demand.”

Letter from France: Eldorado is within reach

Adin, 23, is from Bosnia, the part of former Yugoslavia that was at war with the Serbs and Croats in the first half of the 1990s. He arrived in France in 1992, aged 3. He studied to be a financial adviser but narrowly missed out on passing his exams and went freelance. He is now recovering from a serious car accident. “Watchmaking is a lot more interesting than finance, where only the figures count,” he muses. “In the future I would like to set up a franchise to export watches to eastern Europe.”

Alexandra had a good job at the opticians Optic 2000 in Alsace, but she had “had enough of the sales side” of the job. “My husband said: you are 38 years old, it’s time to retrain.” She would like to find a job “nearby” at TAG Heuer in Chevenez or The Swatch Group in Boncourt, and then focus on packaging, “managing everything to do with packaging.”

Olivier, 31, is the team’s “watchmaker”. His grandfather works in watchmaking and jewellery and so does his father. “My brother did two years of training in Morteau (in the department of Doubs),” he explains. “He got a job at Jaeger-LeCoultre and earns 5,000 Swiss francs per month. I might go there, too.” As for Anthony, 21, who did an apprenticeship in jewellery making, also in Morteau, and then worked in Porrentruy at a manufacturer of dental implants, “I was unemployed from February 2011 to December 2012. I didn’t think I would get on to this training course,” he says, “I am so bad at maths.”

These future watchmakers are sure to find an employer in Switzerland. The Swatch Group has grand designs. The group has purchased 75,000 square metres of land in Boncourt, “at a special price,” according to André Goffinet, the mayor of this small town of 1,300 inhabitants, the eternal neighbour of Delle, known throughout the Swiss Confederation for its Burrus cigarette factory, set up by Alsatians who settled there in 1814. The family company, the economic lung of a region of Catholic tradition, which employs 300 people but has employed up to 800 in the past, is today owned by British American Tobacco. “But one day the factory will close,” predicts the mayor, who worked at Burrus for 32 years. The Swatch Group is ready to step in: its first production unit was scheduled to open in March. French cross-border workers are smiling: the Swiss group plans to create 1,000 jobs by 2020, where before there were just fields.

Source: Europa Star April - May 2013 magazine issue