Dissent, April 26, 2021
In Montceau-les-Mines, a French town once dependent on coal mining, there was no just transition from fossil fuels. Once a left-leaning industrial hub, Montceau today is an open field for the far right.
If there’s one part of the world that’s synonymous with wine, it’s the region of Burgundy, in east-central France. Yet when my mother’s family moved there in the early 1960s, the charm of the vineyards seemed far off. The town of roughly 6,000 they now called home, Sanvignes-les-Mines, practically advertised the fact, the first part of its name reading, “without vines.”
No, this wasn’t wine country. It was coal country, stated plaintively in the second half of the town’s name. Next door was the larger Montceau-les-Mines, a coal-mining hub whose population then numbered roughly 28,000. At their peak, the local mines had employed some 12,000 miners, mostly Polish immigrants, making Montceau a mining powerhouse in an otherwise bucolic region. Much of the coal was used just nearby in Le Creusot, feeding the furnaces in what for a time was France’s largest steel mill.
Today, the local coal plant’s giant smokestacks still loom over Montceau, but the jobs that clustered around the mines are long gone. From 1975 to 2015, the area lost more than half of its industrial jobs. The local unemployment rate shot up to 22 percent, compared to 14 percent nationally. And that was despite more than 10,000 people—a third of the population—leaving Montceau over the same period. Those who have stuck around are disproportionately older: more than one in three over the age of sixty, compared to one in four in France as a whole.
The politics have gradually shifted too. For much of its postwar history, southwestern Burgundy served as a near barometer for national politics, if skewing just slightly to the left. Yet in the early 2000s, that started to change. The far-right National Front (FN), then helmed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, began making gains…
This article was co-published in collaboration with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office, as part of its ongoing series A Season in Hell: Burning Issues in French Politics.