When you go up the Mediterranean motorway to Toulouse, there is a large sign outside the city which shows an airplane and satellites in orbit and the words in bold type: “Toulouse, capital of the aerospace industry . “
Until Covid-19 struck, most of the industry was booming. Now that is staggering because airlines have no idea when they can resume flights or when they will need new planes. The fourth largest city in France has seen relatively few cases of coronavirus and yet suddenly it seems vulnerable to the fallout from the pandemic.
The brand outside Toulouse is not exaggerated:
- The aircraft manufacturer Airbus, which manufactures approximately half of the world’s large commercial aircraft, is headquartered there with approximately 26,000 employees
- Thales Alenia and Airbus Space, the two main European satellite manufacturers, are also present
- Nearly 3000 people work for the French Space Agency
- Hundreds manufacture the fuel that launches Ariane rockets that transport satellites into space.
Include all supply chain manufacturers and approximately 90,000 people are employed in the region’s aerospace sector.
Unprecedented crisis for the aerospace industry
This is the concern for the future that local reports have warned that the fate of Toulouse may resemble that of Detroit, the American city once synonymous with the automotive industry.
Alain Brault, an aerospace engineer here since 1991, now works from home and is unsure of his long-term future. The industry has had crises in the past, but nothing like it, he says.
Hundreds of British expatriates are based in Toulouse and work for Airbus. Roger, an engineer in his mid-50s, says he will likely retire until retirement, but is relieved that his son has not chosen the same career path.
Professor Marc Ivaldi of the renowned Toulouse School of Economics rejects the comparison with Detroit.
American automakers have uprooted factories to build elsewhere more cheaply and more efficiently, he said, while in Toulouse, a virus, not an economic one, temporarily put an end to the aviation industry.
However, he accepts that the industry will have to adapt, as fewer people will fly for business in the future.
Is it the end of the Toulouse boom years?
Toulouse is nicknamed the pink city because of the color of the local brick used to build the historic city center. On summer evenings, the view is painfully beautiful when the sun bounces off the buildings, creating a pink glow.
Over the past decade, it has also been the fastest growing city in France.
Its population of around 900,000, including the suburbs, is increasing by 1% to 2% per year, as newcomers are attracted to the quality of life and job opportunities.
According to government statistics, qualified Parisians aged 30 and under constitute the largest number of new arrivals. It is too early to tell if this trend has stopped suddenly.
How is Toulouse doing?
Toulouse has also long been synonymous with rugby and rich cuisine, from foie gras to cassoulet to sausage. In the famous Victor Hugo food market in normal times, you will find evidence of both.
- French stores reopen but masks are widely required
- Lockdown bites the poor as France loosens its grip
Toulouse is currently the defending French rugby champion but did not have a chance to defend its title because the season was canceled a little more than halfway through.
Before the matches, supporters huddled in the various wine bars on the market, with groups of paper clips known as bandas whip everyone into a frenzy.
Since March, these bars have been closed. One of the best known meat stalls on the market belongs to the Garcias. Three generations of the same family raise their own black pigs fed on acorns.
The youngest, Loïc, told me that he had lost 60% of his business. Restaurants have closed and the virus has made business owners and buyers nervous.
Nonetheless, he says, his downtown and affluent suburban customers are coming back because they want to eat good quality, locally produced food and have the income to do so.
Marc Péré, mayor of L’Union, one of the prosperous suburban cities surrounding Toulouse, is not as confident.
About 500 of its 11,000 voters work in the aerospace sector – just like him.
Most are well paid and 80% own their own house. Her fear is whether or not they can keep their jobs. Then there is the possible knock-on effect on local stores and restaurants, as well as on corporate tax revenues that are collected locally.
A city that is both rich and poor
While Toulouse has made a good living from the aerospace industry, a few kilometers from the center are some of the poorest housing estates in the south of France.
Tens of thousands of mostly North African immigrants live in towers where youth unemployment is double-digit.
So far, the aerospace industry has provided a ticket out of poverty for many residents here, including young people who dropped out of school too soon.
- Airbus abducts 3,200 people after “silver bleeding” alert
- Aerospace industry “will take years to recover”
A charity called Envoi has provided hundreds of workers with long-term training and job placement programs on aircraft plant lines. Its president, Jean-Marc Thomas, former director of Airbus France, says there is no doubt that young people’s second chances will become much more difficult.
Looking to the future
Before the current crisis, Toulouse had a facelift to attract new businesses and tourism.
A key artery of the city has been transformed into an avenue inspired by La Rambla in Barcelona. A large business and residential area around the main station is also emerging, including a new, transformed skyline.
The mayor chose an American architect, involved in the new design of the World Trade Center, to build an elegant futuristic tower as a symbol of the new look of the city. Not everyone is convinced that it will ever be built or even should be.
Meanwhile, a public-private incubator called Aerospace Valley brings together 850 aviation and high-tech companies to diversify.
Its president, Yann Barbaux, recognizes that Toulouse has become too dependent on a single industry and says that they are now considering autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and new sources of energy.
The irony is that Toulouse and southwestern France in general were one of the regions least affected by the coronavirus. Patients were flown in from eastern France because its hospitals had hundreds of free beds.
Yet the impact of the pandemic could hit the city hard.
Chris Bockman is the author of Are You the Foie Gras Correspondent? New slow news in the southwest of France.