France to close its last coal mine Friday

19th April 2004, Comments 0 comments

CREUTZWALD, France, April 19 (AFP) - France on Friday is to close the last of its coal mines, ending an industry that, after more than two centuries of toil and occasional tragedy, became doomed because of reliance on nuclear energy and cheaper competition abroad.

CREUTZWALD, France, April 19 (AFP) - France on Friday is to close the last of its coal mines, ending an industry that, after more than two centuries of toil and occasional tragedy, became doomed because of reliance on nuclear energy and cheaper competition abroad.

The excavation of a symbolic final block of the compressed black carbon from the La Houve mine near the eastern town of Creutzwald is to be a highly symbolic moment for the country and Europe on many levels, underlining personal, historic, social and economic and political transformations.

"We are worn out by years spent underground, without ever seeing the daylight, and for that we are happy to stop," said one miner, Yves Cerati, who spent 24 of his 43 years in the depths of La Houve.

He particularly remembers the date of February 25, 1985, when 22 of his colleagues died of methane gas suffocation -- a frequent risk for coal miners everywhere.

But the subterranean cameraderie that informs his sadness is also a point of pride, and something he and other miners said they will deeply miss.

"Down there, you're nothing, you exist for and thanks to the others. And now, with the last mine closing, that knots the stomach up," said a maintenance chief, Bernard Starck, 50.

The end of coal's long era was forseen decades ago, when France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands got together to start the European Coal and Steel Community that came into effect in 1952.

That pact, which formed the nucleus of today's European Union, permitted France to freeze new hirings in 1984 and set in place early retirement provisions for the miners.

The first vein of exploitable French coal was discovered in the north in 1720, but it was the demands of Europe's industrial revolution that spurred widescale mine production and the discovery of other sources in the country, notably in the centre, the south then to the east.

By the beginning of the 20th century, nearly 200,000 miners were labouring under the earth to bring up 41 million tonnes a year to feed furnaces, trains, steamships, home ovens and electricity power plants.

The work was dangerous, and conditions, both in the mine and on the surface, were brutal, as Emile Zola's novel "Germinal", about a miners' strike, attested.

The life bred toughness and became a natural recruiting zone for French socialism and communism. The northern coal fields became battlefields in both world wars, and the miners were especially active in the French resistance against Nazi occupation.

Reconstruction of postwar Europe sent coal demand rocketing, and the mines -- quickly nationalised -- became the workplace for 300,000 men, many of them immigrants from North Africa, Italy and Poland.

But by the 1960s, alternative energy generation, notably from nuclear plants in France, and the move towards less polluting and more efficient diesel, petrol and gas fuels and the advent of electric trains spelled an inevitable death of the sector.

Like in Britain, Germany and elsewhere, gritty mining towns emptied, leaving behind the carcass of an industry that had once been vital to the national economy.

In 2002, there were just three mines left in France, producing a mere 1.6 million tonnes of coal. Last year, two of them closed, leaving just La Houve.

"France slowly came to realise that it couldn't compete with countries like the United States or South Africa, where resources are strip-mined, meaning extraction methods that are much less costly," said Alain Rollet, a technical director with the state coal company Charbonnages de France.

"The price for a tonne of French coal is EUR 150 (USD 180), compared to USD 15 to USD 20 for US coal," he said.

France - which now derives nearly 80 percent of energy needs from nuclear plants, and uses natural gas for much of the rest, with coal accounting for just four percent -- will join countries such as Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands in eschewing the carbon fuel.

In much of the rest of Europe, the industry is also in decline, and those still heavily dependent on coal, especially in central Europe, are increasingly importing it cheaper than they can mine it.

China is the world's biggest producer and consumer of coal. The United States, which relies on coal for around half its energy needs, is just behind, ripping nearly one billion tonnes of the stuff out of the ground each year.

Coal still accounts for 26 percent of global energy production.


© AFP                                                   

                                                         Subject: French news

 

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