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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 22:16 GMT 23:16 UK
French town finds life after industry
By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News, Roubaix

Once they called it the town of a thousand chimneys. Now it's more like the town of a thousand clothing retailers.

Former factory in Roubaix
Chimneys of former factories still dominate the Roubaix skyline

French society as a whole may be struggling to cope with the pressures of a globalised economy.

But Roubaix, in the north-east, is living proof that France's former manufacturing strongholds can adapt to changing times.

Roubaix rose as an industrial power in the 19th Century, when it became the centre of woollen textile production in France.

In its heyday, Roubaix and neighbouring Lille were second only to Manchester in the UK as a worldwide source of clothing.

But in the 1970s, after 30 years of post-World War II economic boom in France known as "les trente glorieuses", it all went sour.

One by one, the textile mills shut down as the town found itself undercut by foreign competition.

Now, however, an unlikely combination of art and commerce is reversing the decline, using Roubaix's heritage as the basis for new ventures.

"The image of Roubaix, both at home and abroad, has really changed in the past five years," says Florence Houvenaghel of Roubaix's tourist office.

"People and companies are keen to establish themselves here, whereas it used to be more difficult."

Rise of retail

Fashion and fabrics still play a big part in Roubaix's economy. But these days, the town's jobs are in services, not manufacturing.

La Redoute's headquarters in Roubaix
Roubaix is now the home of mail-order clothing in France

If you buy clothes by mail-order from a catalogue or over the internet in France, they will almost certainly have come from a warehouse in Roubaix.

Big firms including Damart, La Redoute and 3 Suisses have their main operations dotted around the town.

But when the seasons change and new catalogues come out, those warehouses are suddenly cluttered with old merchandise that needs to make way for the latest collection.

That's where Roubaix's other big retail giants come into their own. The town has dozens of factory outlets selling cut-price clothes at knock-down prices, many of them clustered together in one of its biggest former industrial sites.

"Is it the next stop for L'Usine?" asks one anxious middle-aged woman as the Transpole bus trundles down the Avenue Alfred Motte.

Entrance to L'Usine, Roubaix's biggest factory outlet complex
Cut-price clothes attract tourists and residents alike

Several of her fellow passengers assure her that it is. The crowded bus virtually empties when it arrives at the gates of the former textile mill, now home to more than 80 shops.

Inside the complex, everything from Levi's jeans to Yves Saint-Laurent suits can be had, often for half the retail price or less.

As Ms Houvenaghel explains, this policy of adapting Roubaix's old factories for new purposes was central to the town's strategy of renewal.

"We said to ourselves, there are huge numbers of old industrial buildings which have closed down. What do we do with them?" she said.

"Do we knock them down, destroy them, replace them with car parks or housing or public parks? Or can we transform them into something else to maintain our heritage and make something worthwhile out of them? And that's what we did."

Artistic renewal

Not all relics of the town's industrial past have been turned into shopping malls, however. Roubaix's regeneration also has a strong cultural side, best shown by La Piscine.

La Piscine is a highlight of Roubaix's revival

As the site of the municipal swimming pool and public washrooms, it used to provide an essential service for Roubaix's textile workers, who had no baths of their own at home.

The art-deco building features a magnificent stained-glass window depicting a sunrise.

It was closed down in 1985 because it no longer met hygiene standards. But in 2001, it reopened as a museum of art and industry.

"It's funny to think that many people in Roubaix learned to swim here," says Marie Leroy of La Piscine's staff. "Now they come back and visit it as a museum."

And tucked away in a quiet backstreet, a former biscuit and waffle factory, L'Usine Rita, is now home to a community of artists, who rent their studios at special low rates from a not-for-profit trust.

Original sign from the Rita waffle factory in Roubaix, now called Chez Rita
Roubaix has its good and bad points for the artists of Chez Rita

"When we started here 13 years ago, Roubaix had such a bad image," says Bernard Agnias, an artist who helps to run the Chez Rita Association on a voluntary basis.

"People didn't want a studio here, even if it was cheap, because it was a bit far from Lille.

"Now that's beginning to change, but Roubaix is a bit off the track. There's no art market here. You can be based here, but you have to sell your art in Paris, Brussels or London."

Tourist trail

Roubaix has done well to attract private enterprise to replace the old factory owners, but it also owes its revival to some old-fashioned French state intervention.

As part of the wider Lille Metropole region, it has benefited from the successful bid by Lille's former Mayor, Pierre Mauroy, to have his city included on the Eurostar route when the Channel Tunnel was built.

Brightly coloured houses In Roubaix
Regeneration has brightened up Roubaix's streets

And since 1999, an integrated transport policy has meant that Roubaix is just 20 minutes away from Lille by Metro link, allowing tourists to get there easily.

To make the city more appealing to visitors, says Ms Houvenaghel, the facades of many buildings have been cleansed of the old factory smoke and repainted in bright colours under a restoration programme.

"By giving the town back its colour, we've also given back pride to the inhabitants," she says.

"Today, people are very proud to live in Roubaix. They have a real affection for their town."


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