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France ends coal mining with tears but not a single protest

By John Lichfield - Indypendent, April 24, 2004

The French coal miner, a powerful symbol of social revolt and industrial strength for more than a century, passed into extinction yesterday.

The French coal miner, a powerful symbol of social revolt and industrial strength for more than a century, passed into extinction yesterday.

The last lump of coal was ceremonially carved last night from the La Houve mine near Creutzwald in Lorraine. An industry that produced 60 million tons of coal and employed 150,000 people as recently as 40 years ago has ceased to exist.

Although several smaller European countries have already stopped coal mining, France is the first of the world's large industrial powers to abandon production of what remains the world's second largest energy source.

Paris decided10 years ago to close its remaining mines, rather than compete with cheap, open-cast coal from other countries. The last shipments of French coal cost €130 (£86) a tonne to extract. Coal imported from Australia costs €40 (£26) a ton, including transport costs.

French coal miners, once numbering 300,000, built a fearsome reputation as the spearhead of social revolt and the champion of workers' rights - illustrated by Emile Zola's novel Germinal, based on the strikes in the northern coal fields in the 1880s. The last pit closed yesterday with nostalgic ceremonies but not a single protest.

By agreement with the unions, all redundant miners are paid 85 per cent of their salary until they are 45 and then 80 per cent until they reach normal retirement age. They keep their free homes and generous health and other social benefits.

Although the end of the industry has been a cause for mourning in the once great coalfield near the German border, there has been none of the social unrest about the sudden destruction of communities that accompanied the demise of Britain's coal industry. Britain still has 16 pits and 4,000 miners, compared with 170 pits and 180,000 miners at the time of the 1984-5 strike, according to the National Union of Mineworkers.

The subsidised inactivity of tens of thousands of men in France's former mining regions has brought other social problems, such as alcoholism, suicide and higher rates of divorce. In the north, where the last mines closed in 1990, and in central France and the Marseille area, which ceased mining last year, former pit workers have found it hard to live without the companionship and almost military discipline of the mines.

Under the 1994 redundancy agreement, men as young as 35 can draw almost full salaries for life, provided they do not take another job. Other work in the ex-mining areas remains hard to find. Some have taken up hobbies; others voluntary work, but many find themselves slumped in front of the television all day. Although the active coal miner has ceased to exist, there are more than 380,000 former coal miners or their widows who have rights to benefits up to 2050.

The last few coal miners, who ceased work yesterday, had mixed feelings. Bernard Starck, 50, said: "When you're down there, you're useless as an individual. You live for, and through, your work mates."

"The redundancy terms are fair but the past few months have been a time of great suffering. It was as if we were working for nothing."

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