400 years of history ends as French paper mill folds

400 years of history ends as French paper mill folds

15th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

A mill that has lasted 4 centuries has announced its closure showing that even history can't survive a crisis.

MALAUCENE – When the Malaucene paper mill opened in 1545 in Provence, Henri VIII ruled England, the Ming dynasty held sway in China and Spanish conquistadors had just founded Mexico City.

One of Europe's oldest factories still to be at work, the paper mill was built by 16th-century craftsmen in the sun-drenched Vaucluse region of southern France and has been at the heart of village life even since.

All that will end come September, when the factory shuts down, the latest victim of the economic crisis that is forcing plants and businesses to fold across Europe.

"It's a historic monument in our village," said Mayor Dominique Bodon. "Soon, we will be living in a ghost town."

After racking up some EUR 21 million (USD 28 million) in losses over the past four years, Malaucene's US-owners Schweitzer-Mauduit last month announced plans to shut down the paper mill, which employs 211 people.

"History doesn't help pay the bills when you're dealing with these kinds of losses," said factory director Jean-Marc Pavero.

The mill has produced paper virtually non-stop in Malaucene, a village of 2,750 souls.

Built on a hill next to the village, the factory quickly became renowned for the quality of its paper, produced with the water from the Groseau spring.

At the outset, it produced stationary and writing paper, mostly for books, before switching to tobacco products.

Run by a string of wealthy families, the factory changed hands several times until Malaucene Mayor Joseph Geoffroy acquired it and kept it running through World War I, said local historian Olivier Peyre.

"There were a lot of deaths during the First World War and this really traumatised him. He didn't want to continue running the paper mill and that's when he decided to sell it to the Schweitzer family," Peyre said.

US-based Schweitzer-Mauduit has been in charge since 1922, producing cigarette filter paper for tobacco giants Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco.

Workers and local officials have been in a state of shock and mourning since the announcement of the closure.

Union leaders bristled at Schweitzer-Mauduit's explanation that cutting losses from Malaucene would "benefit earnings in 2010 by over 0.30 cents per share".

"We were dumped for 30 cents per share," commented bitterly Frederic Fouquet, from the CGT union.

Many accuse the US company of plotting to shut down Malaucene well before the economic crisis hit and say not enough was done to save the plant.

Schweitzer-Maudit invested USD 100 million to upgrade a tobacco filter producing factory in China in 2005.

All of the cigarette papers produced at Malaucene were for export as tobacco production has for some time now moved out of France.

Workers who agreed last year to cut 70 jobs at the plant to save it from closure now say that sacrifice was for naught.

Factory employee Philippe Palanques, 37, is still smarting from the announcement of the closure on 17 April. "When you turn on the TV, all you hear is news about job cuts and now it's our turn."

"We need to keep the plant alive," said Joel Charbonnel, 56, who is hoping for a rescue plan.

Town residents have held demonstrations and factory employees staged strikes to protest the end of their 'history monument.'

"Five centuries of sweat, labour and savoir-faire are disappearing," said Fouquet. "It only took three minutes, three minutes to announce the closure and leave entire families in despair."

Indeed, the factory has withstood the test of time.

During the French Revolution, the factory kept on producing as it was located in the Comtat Venaissin, a region under the authority of the pope then Avignon, and not belonging to the court in France.

It was also mostly spared during the German occupation of World War II as it was in the Free Zone of southern France.

Some of the paper mill's original buildings remain standing to this day, but most of those in recent use date back to the 19th century, with some modern additions.

"The Malaucene paper mill is part of a long history of Franco-American friendship," said Peyre, the historian.

"It's unfortunate that this friendship is ending because I am convinced we could have overcome this period of crisis.

"Perhaps nowadays we are seeing a new form of capitalism emerging that is different from the one developed by the Schweitzer family, a capitalism that wants a quick and big return on its investment."

AFP / Isabelle Wesselingh / Expatica

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