Rockwool, the discord factory

It’s neat, Courmelles. Quiet, too. The pavilions line up wisely along the main street of this village in the Aisne, a few turns of the wheel from Soissons. In the afternoon, rare white heads protrude from the hedges, busy trimming the rosebushes. A deceptive calm? Placards in disturbing black and red colors catch the eye. “Stop Rockwool”they claim, clinging to the gates.

“The Village against the multinational”

“I will go all the way! », says the mayor of the village, Arnaud Svrcek, 55, an autodidact today at the head of a beautiful 100-hectare farm. The build of a rugby player, his face cut like a billhook, the last farmer in the village takes on the role of defender of the little ones against the big ones. A book is forthcoming, titled The Village against the multinational. The village is Courmelles, 1,800 inhabitants. The multinational is the Danish Rockwool, which wants to build a rock wool manufacturing plant in the business park overlooking the village.

On paper, the file has everything to please. The factory will create 130 jobs, in a region marked by years of deindustrialization, where the unemployment rate exceeds 10%, well above the national average. The environmental argument is in the game since rock wool, derived from basalt, is used in the insulation of buildings, essential for energy sobriety. The plant will also operate with state-of-the-art electric fusion technology and will produce in France a material that is currently largely imported.

Showers of subsidies for a promise of ecology and industrial sovereignty

“Decarbonization”, “industrial sovereignty”, “jobs”… Everything is a concern of the moment, so much so that subsidies are raining down. The State and Europe released more than 10 million euros last June. The Hauts-de-France region is not to be outdone, which paid out 2 million euros. The majority of elected officials from the Greater Soissons conurbation applauded.

Only then, some of the residents are resisting. “The extent of the opposition is difficult to assess, but it is quite active”, says someone close to the case. A first demonstration brought together between 400 and 500 people; another was organized on 1er october.

Petitions are circulating. An inevitable Facebook group circulates information and intox. Appeals are on the rise. A group asks that the prefectural decree of environmental authorization be canceled. The prefecture for its part attacked the refusal of the mayor of Courmelles to sign the building permit. While waiting for the courts to decide, the case escalates.

“Who still believes the ARS? »

Opponents are firing on all cylinders. “People came here looking for tranquility,” thunders the mayor. Not to find noise, chimneys over 40 meters high or polluting discharges. Rockwool may assure that the latter, projected into the air, will not reach the populations, and the regional health agency may affirm that the emissions of toxic substances will be well below the authorized thresholds, “Who still believes the ARS? », says Arnaud Svrcek. The now well-established enumeration follows: “And the tainted blood? Asbestos? Chlordecone? »

In a region devoted to beet cultivation, a major consumer of chemicals, the application of the precautionary principle is now finicky. “The situation has changed in the balance between job creation and public health”, unfolds the outgoing deputy, the macronist Marc Delatte.

Beaten in the last legislative elections by the candidate of the National Rally, he will soon resume his activity as a family doctor. “The links between air pollution and lung cancer continue to grow”, he worries. He would not like that in twenty years one comes to reproach him for a lack of vigilance. At a time when unemployment is falling – even if it’s slower here than elsewhere – the risk-benefit balance would not tip in his view on the side of the project. “Jobs at all costs, it’s an idea of ​​the 1990s”, abounds Arnaud Svrcek. Here as elsewhere, job offers remain unfilled.

Betting on hemp rather than rock wool?

And then rock wool would be a material of the past. Why not bet on hemp, which would also have the advantage of offering a way out for local beet growers whose agronomic and economic model is at the end of its rope? Last summer offered new arguments: the site will be greedy in terms of electricity and water, a “aberration” as drought rages and electricity prices soar.

The Independent Investigating Commissioner issued a negative opinion on the project, the disadvantages of which, in his view, outweigh the advantages. The prefecture, which has the right to do so, ignored it, considering that the environmental file presented by Rockwool was ” very solid “. Use biobased materials as insulation? The approach is supported by the public authorities, including in the department. “But their production is insufficient to meet the demand of a growing market,” is estimated at the prefecture.

The French no longer know what to do with their factories

For state services and elected officials in favor of the project, the question of employment remains crucial. “We have lost thousands of jobs in twenty yearsrecalls Olivier Engrand, elected municipal official of Soissons and regional councilor. We cannot shy away from the creation of industrial jobs, which will generate three times as many indirect jobs and boost the territory’s skills. » Training and recruitment actions will be carried out to fill these jobs with a local workforce.

“Of course France needs to reindustrialiseadmits Marc Delatte. But the location of this factory should be reconsidered. » Industry, okay, but elsewhere. It remains to be seen where, when the natural spaces are to be preserved, when the agricultural land is jealously guarded and when it is necessary to be far from the populations to avoid nuisances.

“There is the idea of ​​favoring the establishment of new factories on industrial wastelands, we report to the prefecture. Except that in the Aisne, as in many other regions, the old factories are in the middle of the village! »” Basicallycontinues this local actor, this story raises the question of the relationship of the French with industry. » A question to explore when the reindustrialization of France has become a priority for the public authorities.


In 2021, more factories created than closed

In 2021, the creation of factories increased sharply in France, with a positive balance of 120 new factories (176 creations and 56 closures), notes the economic data company Trendeo, in the annual report published last April.

More than 32,000 net jobs (32,155) were created in 2021 in industrial production, doing almost as well as digital.

By the end of 2021, a third of French industrial companies (10,500) were supported to relocate or develop activities in France.

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