Trith-Saint-Léger (North), private correspondence.

“It’s 100% Chinese. We do not do any machining, only assembly. » Alongside his production line, Pascal Hocq designates, disillusioned, the wooden boxes from which come two axles and four wheels. Unpacking, cleaning, lubrication, assembly: you’re done. The worker has worked for 27 years on the Valdunes machining site in Trith-Saint-Léger, near Valenciennes, initially recruited as an apprentice. Here, however, we know how to manufacture a railway axle from A to Z, from steel parts sent by the company’s forge, located in Leffrinckoucke, near Dunkirk. But since the takeover in 2014 by the Chinese giant MA Steel, a lot has changed. “They observed and filmed us a lot”, he recalls. To the point of acquiring the know-how of the last French railway axle company. “At first they didn’t even know how to ‘box’ the bearings, chock the wheels or paint”he rocks.

“Transparency” on buyout offers

Last May, MA Steel announced that it would no longer put a cent in its subsidiary, plunging into the unknown the 340 employees of the two sites, on strike for several weeks at the call of the CGT. Bercy looked into the case and the commercial court initiated a conciliation procedure to find a buyer. “Valdunes is the priority for the return of the CGT, a symbol of the impasse in the financialization of the industry”, comments Sophie Binet, who came to Trith-Saint-Léger on Friday to support the employees, once again called upon to stop work to protest against the lack of information and prospects. Potential buyers have until September 8 to present themselves. “We want transparency on these files and not learn everything at the last moment”insists the secretary general of the CGT.

Friday begins with a visit to the site, in the presence of its director, François Demilly. The latter evokes a list of “ten-fifteen candidates” on the recovery, but recognizes its heterogeneous nature: “Some are customers, others are not in the business…” CGT delegate of the Trith site, Maxime Savaux thinks above all of two competitors, the Czech Bonatrans and the Italian Luchini, who came to visit the site. “They will come and get our order books and they will leave”, he predicted. He also fears that, contrary to all industrial logic, the Valenciennes and Dunkirk sites will be decoupled. François Demilly tries to reassure: at least the competitors “are business actors”.

An Alstom-SNCF consortium as a lifeline?

Another difficulty: the Chinese shareholder, once exceeded the line of credit granted to Valdunes, has limited the supply of parts. “We had to lower the sails and lost markets, especially in freight”, recognizes the director, who asked the SNCF and the RATP to advance the orders planned for next year. With the public authorities, it negotiates “deferrals of charges” and a million euros in research tax credit should be released soon.

This cannot constitute “a real industrial policy”, insists Sophie Binet in the parking lot of the company, when speaking. The CGT worked a “project for the future of Valdunes”, assuming a cash bailout, which could show a €200,000 hole in October. Several avenues are mentioned: loan guaranteed by the State, equity investment, “the orientation towards Valdunes of funds linked to the France 2030 or Rail 2024 plans (endowed with one hundred billion euros, editor’s note)”. There “nationalization”, even partial, even temporary, is mentioned. Finally, a “Alstom-SNCF Consortium” could take over the business. Alstom, in which the state is a shareholder, would make Valdunes its subsidiary and SNCF would once again become a major customer. “Today, the SNCF orders 7,500 wheels from us a year, compared to 55,000 in the past”specifies Philippe Lihouck, CGT delegate of the Valdunes forge.

“We need political will”

To emphasize that the dossier is as political as it is economic, the day ended with a meeting in the village hall of Trith. “Your activity is deeply ecological: the train pollutes between 30 and 70 times less than the car”launches Marine Tondelier, national secretary of EELV. “We want to produce here what we use here. (…) Let’s fight to the end so that the State is committed”engages Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the PCF. “Solutions exist, we need political will”concludes Marina Mesure, LFI MEP.

Ludovic Finez


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