Blog: Simon WarburtonWorth stopping in north east France

Simon Warburton | 15 November 2013

I'm writing this 600ft under the English Channel on the still-impressive Eurostar thundering its way from Lille to London St Pancras after two days spent looking at the series of north-east France automotive clusters.

Tunnels I'm not a great fan of - especially when there are hundreds of millions of gallons of water above me - what if it springs a leak is just one thought I try not to have in my head - but the subterranean journey gives me a bit of time to think about the 48h I've just had in the Lille area.

Most Brits like me pile off the ferry or more likely these days, Le Shuttle and head straight for that greatest of French signs, "toutes directions" and plough down the A26 to either gites in the Dordogne or the bright lights of Provence.

But it's really worth making a detour to have a look at this area, which is heavily populated with auto companies and has the ambitious aim to be France's premier region for the industry after it lost a significant part of its mining business, the legacy of which are the vast slag heaps that loom up out of the generally flat landscape.

I was with Nord France Invest, who are looking to drum up interest in the region, although to be fair, it already boasts an impressive array of OEMs and suppliers, whose ambition to make the area pre-eminent in France's auto sector, will probably only be enhanced by the imminent closure of PSA Peugeot Citroen's Aulnay plant near Paris.

Some 36,000 people are employed in the auto sector in this vast region, encompassing Lille itself, but also Valenciennes, whose Ligue 1 football team is sponsored by Toyota, while Lens, Arras, Amiens and others are names resonating in First World War history.

Next year will see the region gear up for vast ceremonies commemorating the hundreth anniversary of the outbreak of WW1, but despite that past, the area is especially keen to stress its place in the present by attracting automotive companies to its burgeoning mobility clusters, encompassing universities, government and business.

We spent a whistle stop first day looking at Toyota's vast Yaris factory in Valenciennes, before meeting the directors of the Transalley and Pole Automobile sustainable mobility clusters.

The afternoon was with UM Corporation, a joint venture between Magnetto and Japanese Unipres, as well as independent test centre, CRITT M2A, whose 7,000 square metre facility features a turbocharger evaluation unit, replete with reverberating rooms and semi-anechoic chamber. One room was so deliberately quiet you could have literally heard a pin drop.

Nord France Invest organised its 'The Lille Region, an engine of the European automotive industry' conference yesterday at a hotel with a vast casino and featuring civil servants, manufacturers and suppliers, all keen to promote the significant impact this area of the country has on the auto sector.

As well as debates featuring Toyota, Renault, several suppliers and green mobility companies, the afternoon was enlivened by former US Ambassador, Howard Gutman, who took delegates on a barnstorming analysis of European and American future energy needs. 

A walk back through the rain brought me to Lille's international station, a bleak, windswept concrete edifice, but the impressively punctual Eurostar whisked us rapidly across northern France and back to Blighty.

There is far more to this region than meets the eye and it genuinely merits a stop on its own, particularly from an automotive perspective.

It has a determined set of industrialists, academics and politicians, who see huge potential to replace old sectors and develop new ones; it's a rare bright spot at the moment in France's current economic gloom.

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