Toulouse wants to avoid the “Detroit syndrome”

The steel industry in Lorraine, the mines in the North, and soon aeronautics in Toulouse? By nailing the planes to the ground, the Covid-19 crisis darkens the prospects for the aviation sector, and sheds an even harsher light on the dependence of the fourth French city on this industry.

While the government is banking on a revival of the sector without jeopardizing the growth of air traffic, another path is emerging: that of reconversion. Scientists, employees, students and local activists opened an unprecedented dialogue on the future of the territory. For a long time in their respective corridors, they are now debating together to respond to the social and ecological crises that are looming.

“When Airbus coughs, the whole region catches a cold. The Toulouse adage has been repeated over and over in the local media in recent weeks. Faced with postponements and cancellations of airline orders, the European aircraft manufacturer, which employs 20,000 people in the pink city, has reduced its rates by a third. Even though its order book still stands at more than 7,000 aircraft, its economic health remains subject to the pandemic risk, which could permanently slow down long-distance mobility.

Beyond Airbus, all aeronautical companies and their thousands of subcontractors could fall like dominoes. In the South-West, 160,000 direct jobs, at least as many indirect jobs, and even more induced jobs, could suffer from this crisis.

“Leaving the mono-industry”

Faced with this threat, four associative activists wrote a first text, end of April. “Is Toulouse a future Detroit (…)? It is not out of place to advance this comparison today ”, write the editors, in reference to the American city, former capital of the automobile which became disaster, with a population divided by two in forty years.

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Members of the Université populaire de Toulouse and the Toulouse branches of the Copernic Foundation, Attac and Friends of the Diplomatic World, the authors recommend to “Leave the mono-industry” to avoid this « syndrome Detroit ». To achieve this, they call for “To mobilize trade unionists and aeronautics employees by relying on their” internal “knowledge of the issues”.

The call appears to have been heard. A few days later, the CGT union representative of Airbus Xavier Petrachi and the economist Gabriel Colletis write a first answer on Médiacités Toulouse. While they are more optimistic about the sector’s ability to overcome the crisis and improve its energy efficiency, both insist on a necessary “Support for the diversification of activities (…) in the aeronautical sector [et] of the entire economic fabric of the Toulouse region ”.

Toulouse decision-makers have tended instead to undo existing activities, such as the closure of a Sanofi research site, or another of Motorola.

Reorient the industry, okay, but in what way? Xavier Petrachi and Gabriel Colletis point to several sectors already present in the region: “Space, embedded systems, automotive electronics, IT, artificial intelligence, without forgetting the food industry, mechanics, chemistry, fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals”. The authors of the first contribution retort, in Médiacités Toulouse, that the recent orientations of Toulouse decision-makers have tended rather to undo these activities, and cite as an example the closure of a Sanofi research site, or another of Motorola in recent years.

While all agree on the region’s dependence, the debate on how to get out of it is only just beginning.

“You are our twenty-year-old friends, you are our neighbors”

At the beginning of May, the discussion widens. The Political Ecology Workshop (Atécopol), a group of around 100 Toulouse scientists, publishes a open letter to Toulouse aeronautics employees. Believing that a considerable reduction in air traffic is necessary, these researchers call on employees in the sector to engage in dialogue on the future of aeronautics: “It is you who can raise thoughts and demands in order to make this activity sustainable and beneficial”, they say.

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Rather than a turnkey industrial reorientation plan, the scientists first propose to democratically redefine the essential activities.

“Taking the climate problem seriously means reducing global CO emissions2 of 36.8 GtCO2 in 2019 to 2.2 in 2050. Such an objective prohibits the sanctuarization of any sector of activity ”

Rejecting the “great lessons of experts”, these academics present themselves as locals. “You are our twenty-year-old friends, you are our neighbors, you are the students that we have trained, you are members of our family, you are sometimes project partners, you are the passers-by in the streets of Toulouse », they write to the employees.

“We do not want to place ourselves in a position of overhang”, specifies one of the editors, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Our entourage really works in aeronautics, it’s not rhetoric. “

At the base of their call for dialogue, they express an implacable observation. “Taking the climate problem seriously means reducing global CO emissions2 of 36.8 GtCO2 in 2019 to 2.2 in 2050. Such an objective virtually prohibits the “sanctuarization” of any sector of activity “, say scientists. They even qualify “Smoking” the promises of greening from the industry, which plans to double the number of passengers in fifteen years without CO emissions2 additional, using carbon offsets and sustainable fuels.

Internal blockages

Despite the harshness of the diagnosis, the initiative works. “We received more than 80 responses during the week, of which only four were negative. It was a real breath of fresh air, rejoices the editor. Employees were affected by the process. Several have told us that they cannot raise these issues internally. ”

The management of aeronautical companies, to which the letter was sent, however, did not follow up and remain away from this local debate. Several unions are taking the issue seriously. Around twenty CGT delegations launched, in mid-May, a consultation with employees in the sector, the results of which must be known in June.

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The dialogue has spread to the political sphere. One of the CGT delegates behind the consultation discussed with two Atécopol researchers on the Citizen Archipelago chain, the list which brings together the Toulouse left (PCF, FI, EELV, PS, PRG) for the municipal elections. Their observation is similar: a reorientation of Toulouse industry is necessary, and must be carried out democratically with its employees.

In the meantime, the aeronautics students entered the arena. At the end of May, hundreds of engineering students, mostly from ENAC and ISAE-Supaéro, signed a forum in The world calling for a reconversion of the sector and a reduction in air traffic.

When contacted, Ange, Gwendal and Nicolas, three of the editors, recount having dreamed for years of “Build rockets” or from “Work in an airline”, before becoming aware of the challenges of the energy transition, to which they now want to devote themselves. Their text has also been emulated. The three engineers say they have started a dialogue with small groups of aeronautical employees, and are delighted to have “Burst an abscess” in the academic environment, where the subject remains sensitive.

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