The energy of the slag heaps : the fabulous turnaround of Loos-en-Gohelle
École de Paris du management
On the same territory, two neighbouring towns are cited as examples : Hénin-Beaumont, known for experiencing under the eye of the cameras the spasms of the « dégagisme » at each election, and Loos-en-Gohelle, which became the reference town for the COP21. How to explain such a difference in destiny?
The former mining basin of Lens has slowly but surely become a land of desolation. Monumental man-made mountains have sprung up there, reminding everyone of the historical economic role of the region, but also and above all of the wealth that was the energy extracted from the mine, which had gone elsewhere, leaving only the waste, the slag heaps.
The moult of a mining town where everything was going badly
Jean-François Caron, elected in 2001 as the environmentalist mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle, found himself faced with a challenge: « The ground has dropped fifteen metres due to mining subsidence, the streams flow in the wrong direction and the low points are constantly changing. Unemployment is considerable. The miners who were seen as the flagship of the working class have become the « freaks » of France : a banner displaying at the Parc des Princes « Nordists = inbreds, paedophiles, alcoholics » was repeated over and over again by the media. When a journalist wants to talk about the North on television, he chooses speakers who speak ch’ti and whom he can subtitle, children with runny noses and broken windows. »
Reclaiming that lost dignity has been central to his strategy. And with what success !
He made sustainable development everyone’s business, so much so that Loos-en-Gohelle was chosen to be the reference municipality for Cop21. Incivilities have almost disappeared and the rate of complaints between neighbours is much lower than in the surrounding communes. The return of pride and confidence has created a new civility. Jean-François Caron was re-elected mayor in 2008 with 82.1% of the votes, in 2014 with 100%… a first for a politician, a dream come true for an ecologist !
Restoring people’s self-esteem has been his priority. Discovering that the city’s two slag heaps were the same size as the pyramid of Cheops, he launched the Slag Heap Chain project in 1988, which aroused enthusiasm and led to the mining area being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
With the mayor encouraging his constituents to take original initiatives, the women of the « foyer logement », who knitted woolen squares that the children of the college sold for 1 euro to feed the « Restos du cœur », mobilised the population to make a blanket for the slag heap. The mayor had to negotiate with them, as heavy handling equipment would have been needed to install and secure it, and got them to make a scarf that was unrolled from the top to the bottom of the slag heap. The event took place in front of the cameras of France 3. « It was a collective work, carried out just for the pleasure of being together and taking its part in the slag heap’s inscription on the Unesco inventory, and it ended with a giant picnic ", says Jean-François Caron.
He has worked hard to develop an « inclusive » democracy. It took a long time to get started, because it was necessary to give confidence to the citizens and to convince the town hall officials to listen and not only seek to justify themselves. In the long run, the inhabitants became more relevant, even impertinent. « The more we work with them, the more the expertise in use is present and the better the intelligence of the projects. This is how Loos became a mecca for the economy of functionality and cooperation. »
The number of associations has doubled, and the participation of the population in events such as neighbourhood festivals or trips for children to discover the sea has increased tenfold. The concept of fifty-fifty has been developed : if the inhabitants take initiatives, the municipality contributes to them within the framework of a charter that defines the respective roles.
A virtuous dynamic
Initiatives have thus multiplied : renewal of public lighting, investment in eco-construction, development of an ecomobility policy, promotion of the circular economy through public procurement. The roof of the church has been entirely covered with solar panels, which strikes one’s imagination. An agricultural and food model centred on local and organic production is being put in place, etc.
The number of shops is increasing and the premises are beginning to run out. A competitiveness cluster bringing together the main players in the circular economy is created in Loos-en-Gohelle. The Fondation d’Auteuil sets up a centre for 350 apprentices in the eco-construction trades. This dynamic, job-creating initiative shows that « green » growth can be beneficial for everyone.
The successes of entrepreneurs are not easily contagious, but Jean-François Caron now strives to spread by transmitting his « source code » which he defines as follows :
Involving the inhabitants, which takes time and learning from the facilitators ;
find a « star » that makes everyone want to move forward, and place the « little stones » marking the path (redo the roof of the church with solar panels, modify the meals in the school canteen, etc.);
to know how to disobey the single thought, without panicking the inhabitants, to dare to change the model : turning a slag heap into a work of art was a founding transgression of a new dynamic.
By making the apparently sterile earth fertile, by transforming artificial mountains into models, Jean-François Caron shows the communicative power of the enterprising spirit, which can express itself well beyond the economic field alone.
Le Jardin des entreprenants, La vallée des entreprenants : la renaissance foisonnante de Romans-sur-Isère, 2018
The article was published simultaneously by The Conversation
Compte-rendu rédigé par Pascal LEFEBVRE, issu du séminaire « Vie des affaires », disponible sur le site de l’École de Paris du management, Transposer la réussite singulière de Loos-en-Gohelle, 13 mai 2016
To go further
Read the Manifeste des entreprenants
Philippe Gagnebet, Résilience écologique, Loos-en-Gohelle ville « durable », Éd. ateliers henry dougier, 2015. 128p
Jean-François Caron, TEDxVaugirardRoad, Changer de regard pour se redonner un futur