Moselle : from industrial epicenter to economic no man’s land
In North-East France, coal was like a culture, a way of life of the 20th century. Today, old mines and mining towns look more like open wounds.
Lorraine’s coalfield counted 58 mines, all of them have been closed more than 10 years ago. For generations, men of the region worked at the mine. Not all of them actually went down though. During coal’s golden age, estimations said that one miner created three jobs at the surface : administration, logistics and so on. Somehow, every single family was linked to the industry.
Jean-Claude, a baby boomer from Moselle acted as a guide for a day, finding what is left of almost two centuries of coal mining. His family has been in the region for generations and he closely watched the industry until its very last breath in 2004.
A unique social regime
The corporation managing Lorraine’s mines, the Houillères du Bassin de Lorraine (HBL), had a way of being omnipresent in people’s life. To convince people to do this very hard job, the HBL would offer a whole lot of social advantages. First of all, houses for free that your family could keep even after you retire or die. At the time, these houses were very comfortable, almost luxurious. Jean-Claude recalls discovering the mining town where he spent most of his childhood : “The toilets were inside the house, and not in a cabin in the garden. It was outstanding for that time.”
The old man grew up in a miner’s house but his dad never was a miner. The HBL would offer these advantages to anyone working for them, directly or indirectly. That way, even people working at the power station nearby were helped by the HBL. It is important to grasp that concept of “HBL regime” that most people enjoyed at the time.
Apart from accommodation, miners would benefit a special sécurité sociale régime : every single medical care would be free, without having to pay an advance. This regime would spread to the whole family. Virginie, a visiting nurse working mainly in former mining towns, still has many patients enjoying this regime : “Widows of miners for example, still don’t pay anything for medical care.” Even she was able to benefit it : “Back in 2000, I was hired in a public hospital that used to be a HBL hospital. And I had a few social advantages too.”
Memories from the past
France’s very last mine was located in Creutzwald, Moselle and closed in 2004. For a short amount of time, people were able to visit it. The public’s response was overwhelming : “There were cars parked all the way to the city center. You had to queue several hours to be able to go down in the mine”, explains Jean-Claude. This reaction is proof of the mining culture in the region. Miners had, and still have, a very corporate state of mind. There’s is a strong sense of pride in being a miner and doing such a difficult job. Today still, miners are often being honored on special occasions.
After the closure of La Houve in Creutzwald, buildings used for the industry got destroyed one by one, or sometimes abandoned. What used to be Moselle’s livelihood is now just broken-down factories and missing headframes (“chevalement”). These areas that used to swarm with workers are now waste grounds outside of cities.
Today, Moselle is one of the poorest regions of France. Jean-Claude watched this slow decay over several decades : “It started with globalization in the 70s. Mosellan coal was too expensive in terms of production. On the other side of the world, they had open coalfields. Unlike Alsace, Lorraine didn’t diversify itself so the end of mines hit us like a train.”