I find manufacturing processes fascinating. In my shower thoughts—you know, these random and occasionally deep thoughts you might have when you’re performing the routine, relaxing task, absentmindedly rinsing your hair—I wonder where the many everyday items I use come from. How much expertize, design, labour was put into producing my soap bar, shampoo bottle, shower head, bath mat, etc.? The journey these less-than-five-dollar products make is also amazing, from raw materials to the assembly line, from quality control to the inventory room, from shipping to delivery.
The blue-collar workers world is equally fascinating to me, both because of the tedious and repetitive tasks required and the political theories on organized labour this type of work and resulting socio-economic conditions inspired.
After Angers and the medieval castle, I wanted to explore a different side of France in Saint-Nazaire, or more exactly Penhoët, site of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, one of the world’s largest shipyards. This is where many assault ships as well as the superliner RMS Queen Mary 2 and MS Harmony of the Seas, the largest passenger ship in the world, were built.
Saint-Nazaire is very close to Nantes and growing up, I saw many of these “giants of the sea” just when driving across the pont de Saint-Nazaire. But I wanted to try to get closer to the industry that keep the city alive.
We got off at Penhoët, a destination so unusual that the train barely stopped and we had to ask the driver to keep the doors open a bit longer, time for the five of us to get off. In front of us was a long pedestrian overpass to cross over railway tracks, and further, the many hangars, cranes and deepwater bassins.
“So, what’s the plan?”
I shrugged. “Walk around and see stuff?”
“It must be gated and off-limits.”
“Maybe, but the site is huge. And they aren’t exactly building microchips—more like giant ships. We’re bound to see something interesting.”
I conveniently ignore the “no picture” sign and we walked past the one, bored security guard.
Everything was huge. It took me a while for me to realize how massive the hangars were and how small we were. I tried to get close to the famous red-and-white gantry crane, the biggest in Europe, able to lift weights of up to 1,400 tons—from the distance, it didn’t look that impressive but it was still overlooking the tallest hangar.
“Watch out for paint splatters” a sign in a parking lot warned. Indeed, it smelled of industrial paint, glue, and burned metal. There were also many union stickers reminding that the shipyard is facing an uncertain future. Its South Korean owner, STX, collapsed last year and only one Italian bidder came forward to buy its two-third holding for €79.5m. Such a deal was controversial as it would allow the Italian firm to control a site of strategic interest for France, so temporary state control of SFX France was ordered in July. Who knows how long the site will remain in activity now…
After a couple of hours, we left the site and walked to Saint-Nazaire. This is not one of these lovely French cities—it’s ugly as shit. The town was one of the most damaged ones during WWII—being a major marine base for the Nazis, it was subject to a British raid in 1942 and it was heavily bombed by the Allies until 1945.
We stood on the fortified U-boat Saint-Nazaire submarine base with a perfect view on the city and its… ahem, in a minimalist functional architectural style. The walk to the train station took us through the “paquebot,” the main street with all the shops (half of them closed)—the economy of the city is founded on the activity of the port and it struggles between major billion-dollar shipbuilding contract.
Times are changing but I hope local blue-collar expertise won’t be sacrificed on the altar of free market to maximize shareholders profits.
One can dream.