CALAIS, France — The clang of giant weaving looms ricocheted across a cavernous factory one recent afternoon at Desseilles Laces, one of the oldest lace makers in France. A handful of workers flitted among the machines, guiding gossamer threads into a floral confection destined for luxury lingerie and couture dresses.
The halls here, and at hundreds of lace factories around Calais, were once thick with employees. But as competition from countries with cheaper labor costs buffeted France, waves of layoffs swept through this working-class town on the edge of the English Channel.
Today, fewer than 300 employees remain at just three factories — Desseilles, Noyon Dentelle and Codentel — a fraction of the 30,000 whose livelihood depended on lace less than two generations ago. Around Calais, the hulking brick skeletons of abandoned lace factories cast shadows over modest, low-slung houses. And Desseilles was recently taken over by a Chinese investor, drawing laments that a crown jewel of the industry had fallen into foreign hands.
It has been a painful retreat for an industry whose delicate creations symbolized “Made in France” know-how, an economic pattern repeated across the country and one of the most divisive issues in the presidential election.
From steel mills to auto factories, the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs to globalization has created social distress — and competing visions from the candidates about how to fix it. France’s rigid labor laws, despite recent reforms, add a layer of complexity by making it difficult for companies to adjust to a shifting economy.
In ravaged industrial areas like Calais, anger about the impact of globalization is fierce, as unemployment tops 20 percent and the remaining factory floors rely more heavily on machinery than manpower.
And while Emmanuel Macron, the liberal former economy minister, is expected to win on May 7, France’s blue-collar bastions may yet prove a liability. His vows to create jobs by keeping France open to global competition and easing labor rules must win over disenchanted workers who have seen incomes and job security erode.
“Marine Le Pen says this election is about the patriots versus the globalists,” said Famke Krumbmüller, the head of research at OpenCitiz, a political risk consultancy in Paris. “She’s right: The new cleavage opposes those who feel they have lost from globalization and want economic and national protectionism, versus those who think the answers to France’s problems also lie in European and international openness and cooperation.”
An Unraveling Dream
French lace has long been a symbol of refinement. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the French aristocracy drove demand for the luxurious adornments that were just starting to be produced in Calais. Today, superfine lace continues to embellish outfits of the elegant, whether as a cascade of sheer flowers on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, or layered in couture gowns on catwalks around the world.
Lace-making began to flourish here in the early 19th century, after three British weavers smuggled giant looms, called Leavers machines, across the English Channel to evade English restrictions on selling lace to the French.
They set up in the textile-making town of Calais. The new industry blossomed, and the metallic click of the Leavers looms vibrated in Calais’s narrow streets day and night. Some streets are named after leaders of an industry that ushered in jobs, prosperity and a cosmopolitan makeover that would sustain the town’s families for generations.
The dream began to unravel around the 1960s. Factories still relied heavily on the antique Leavers looms, which were slow and required many employees. When more efficient lace-knitting machines were added, workers lost jobs.
Shifting fashion trends also affected demand, as women started wearing pants, plainer shirts and fewer dresses and undergarments trimmed with lace. More casual lifestyles took their toll on lace tablecloths and handkerchiefs.
In the ensuing decades, more jobs were lost as factories opened in Asia, cranking out lower-quality but passably pretty lace. Many of Desseilles’s clients shifted their buying away from Europe.
Labor costs were up to 15 times cheaper in Asia than in France, where employers also pay high taxes on salaries to fund the generous social welfare system. “A French person working 35 hours a week cost the same as 15 Chinese,” said Michel Machart, the head of MM Textile, a consultancy.
Soon, only a few thousand of the 30,000 lace-related jobs that had existed 30 years earlier were left. The sound of Leavers machines gave way to silence as layoffs accelerated and factories were abandoned.
Unemployed lace workers in Calais went to nearby steel and paint factories, only to see them shutter, too.
Manufacturing in France in general has fallen from about 25 percent of the economy in the 1960s to around 10 percent today, putting millions of people out of work.
Ms. Le Pen has capitalized on the disenchantment. “The main thing at stake in this election is the rampant globalization that is endangering our civilization,” she told supporters last Sunday. She wants to pull France out of “harmful” European pacts and hold a referendum on membership in the European Union. Around Calais, which used to vote for the far left, Ms. Le Pen’s posters promise to “Bring Order Back to France.”
Mr. Macron, a former Rothschild banker, says that business-friendly policies and sticking with the European Union are the way to shield France from globalization’s threat.
“Globalization can be a great opportunity,” he said on the campaign trail. On Wednesday, he repeated his message at a Whirlpool factory destined for closure in his hometown, Amiens, after a visit by Ms. Le Pen. But in a stagnant economy with high unemployment, he was jeered by some workers, who blamed cheap competition for killing jobs.
On the Verge
At Noyon, executives tried to play the globalization game. In 2003, they opened a factory in Sri Lanka. Like Desseilles, Noyon was still making expensive Leavers lace for high-end lingerie clients, and hoped the production in Sri Lanka would improve margins.
It didn’t stop the bleeding. With around 800 workers in Calais, representing 60 percent of Noyon’s costs, revenue kept eroding.
Noyon laid off hundreds of employees, many of whom had spent their lives in the factories. “It hit all types of workers,” said Henri-Philippe Durlet, the general director of Noyon. “It was people who designed patterns, threaded bobbins, cut lace, maintained the machines, as well as drivers and customs officers who had less to inspect.”
As losses mounted, Noyon filed for bankruptcy last September and was on the verge of closing until a group of French lingerie makers swooped in to invest, wanting to protect their high-quality supply. Today, with just 170 employees, it is the largest lace factory in town.
The only way it can keep a competitive edge, Mr. Durlet said, is by maintaining the exquisite design and quality of French lace that artisans have perfected for decades.
Desseilles faced a similar fate, exacerbated by French labor laws. In 2011, facing what Michel Berrier, an owner, called “catastrophic losses,” Desseilles went into receivership to shed nine of its remaining 74 workers in a bid to survive.
But five employees, among them protected union leaders, sued to be reinstated. In 2015, a court ordered Desseilles to rehire them with back pay and damages, a cost of nearly one million euros. With debts of €600,000, it was money Desseilles did not have.
The company was forced into bankruptcy. “Globalization isn’t the only reason we ran into trouble,” said Mr. Berrier, surveying his near-empty factory floor. “The French labor laws put the last nail in the coffin.”
Ms. Le Pen’s National Front party issued a news release blaming cheap Chinese competition and the French labor code for endangering Desseilles.
Yet it was a Chinese investor, Hangzhou Yongsheng Group, that rescued the company, acquiring it in 2016.
Since then, Yongsheng, which runs textile and investing companies in Asia, has increased productivity, installing a bright new LED system that allows employees to easily identify flaws, and grouping Leavers machines closer together so that one employee can work several looms at once. Yongsheng also added new looms, and linked employee pay to production.
“‘Made in France’ matters — the expertise is here,” said Cloris Li, Yongsheng’s manager in France, who wants to start an Asian luxury label using French-made lace. “I hope I can bring a brighter future to Desseilles.”
With the factory humming again, Mr. Berrier hired five new employees, and hopes to obtain seven more.
Even there, the French system can provide disincentives. When he tried to hire a lace maker whom Noyon had laid off, he said, the man told him he was collecting so much of his old salary through unemployment, he saw no point in working.
The last of the lace makers are relieved to have jobs, but many are nostalgic for the days when French lace was king. Most have family ties to the factories that go back for generations.
“I learned how to string a bobbin when I was 11,” said Sonia Rengot, 47, a lace maker at Noyon for over 30 years. “Everyone in Calais had someone in the business.”
Today, when she walks around town, she can tell just by looking in a shop window whether the lace on a dress was made in Asia or in Calais.
Jean-Philippe Lenclos, 50, has worked the lace machines at Desseilles for 30 years. “We’ve seen our colleagues leave one after another,” he said. “I’m the last one: My three children are teenagers, but none of them wants to do what their father is doing.” He added that the younger generation has grown up hearing only about layoffs.
Even as they hope the factories will stay afloat, the lace makers seem aware that the damage to France’s lace industry — and to other manufacturers around the country — is permanent. On the streets of Calais, no one really expects the factories to return.
Mr. Durlet, the Noyon executive, does not think either of the presidential contenders is capable of reversing France’s industrial decline. Not Mr. Macron, with his pledges of keeping France open to globalization. Not Ms. Le Pen, with her vision of hard protectionism.
“She talks about closing borders, but what will that serve?” Mr. Durlet asked. “Nothing. ”
But for some on the factory floor, Ms. Le Pen’s promises have struck a chord.
“People are so disappointed that they will go vote for Marine Le Pen out of frustration,” said Renato Fragoli, a 23-year Desseilles veteran who led an employee group called the Forgotten, which backed Yongsheng’s bid to keep the factory from closing.
“It’s truly sad,” said Mr. Fragoli, recalling the scores of longtime workers who left the factory amid waves of layoffs. “But I can understand them. The jobs have disappeared.”