Last French coal mine closed Friday

23rd April 2004, Comments 0 comments

CREUTZWALD, France, April 23 (AFP) - Three hundred years of a proud industry became history here Friday with a last, symbolic, shovelful of coal set to mark the closure of France's last-ever coalmine.

CREUTZWALD, France, April 23 (AFP) - Three hundred years of a proud industry became history here Friday with a last, symbolic, shovelful of coal set to mark the closure of France's last-ever coalmine.

The pit is in Lorraine, once the throbbing heart of French heavy industry. Nuclear power and foreign competition have killed off a great tradition associated with sacrifice and the classic years of industrial struggle.Coalmining started in France in 1720 and assumed a vital role in its 19th century industrial development.

As elsewhere in Europe, French coalminers in their heyday were at the centre of workers' struggles for better conditions, the heroes of "Germinal," one of the great novels of social criticism by 19th century novelist Emile Zola.

But, as elsewhere in Europe, French coalmining has been gradually dying for years.

The newspaper L'Humanite, flagship of the once powerful French communist party - now almost as withered as the French coal industry - mourned the passing of an industrial elite that once provided the backbone of French communism.

"For the last half-century," it wrote Friday, "French coalmining has suffered a tormented, contradictory history, a time both of apogee in production and of programmed decline, leading to the extinction of the last pit this evening."

Miners, families and politicians were set to attend a closing ceremony here. On Sunday a mass will honour the many who died in underground work that became synonymous worldwide with notorious hazard to life, limb, health.Miners - who numbered more than 200,000 miners a century ago - were the driving force behind French workers' struggles.

The first French major miners' strike in 1884, led by Emile Basly, was the basis of Zola's "Germinal".

After the liberation of France from Nazi occupation in 1944, the industry had a new lease of life as part of the nation's reconstruction.

Coalmines were nationalised, the communist party gained control of them, and the miners became vital to post-war recovery.

"The miners found new source of pride and dignity, but also new combativeness fed by the awareness of their role in helping the country to complete its recovery," wrote L'Humanite on Friday, recalling the great days of the past.

In 1958 production peaked at 60 million tonnes

Then the decline began, accelerating in the 1970s, when nuclear energy progressively took over as France's main source of energy.

In 1984 recruitment was frozen and management introduced early retirement provisions.

The numbers employed sank from a peak of nearly 370,000 in 1947 to 6,823 by 2001.

By the following year, there were just three mines left, producing a mere 1.6 million tonnes. Two more closed last year, leaving La Houve.

The French industry follows the fate of coalmining in much of the rest of Europe. Those still heavily dependent on coal, especially in central Europe, are increasingly importing it much cheaper than they can mine it.

A tonne of French coal cost around EUR 150 (USD 180) to extract, compared to as little as USD 15 or USD 20 for a tonne of coal strip-mined from the United States, South Africa or Australia.

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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