Why on earth are you going to Amiens? Or why Amiens reminds me of my Mancunian roots
And so why was I going to Amiens for the first time in my 11 years of residence in France? Well, it was nothing to do with the recent Franco-British summit. Despite my genuine fondness and interest for all things Franco-British, I really am not that important.
The truth is I have been working with two fellow consultants on a mission to develop a territorial marketing strategy for Amiens since late 2015.
For those of you unfamiliar with Amiens, it is a city with a greater urban area of approximately 340,000 inhabitants in the North of France and is situated 120km north of Paris and 100km south-west of Lille. If you have been attentively following the recent territorial shake-up, administratively speaking it is now in the Hauts-de-France region, which merges the two former regions of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de Calais (which respectively had Amiens and Lille as their administrative capitals).
So as I was saying, for the first time in my 11 years in France, all of which have been spent residing in the south even if my work takes me all over the country, I find myself with the prospect of going to Amiens. On announcing this to various personal and professional contacts, I was staunchly met with the same incredulous response “Mais, pourquoi tu vas à Amiens?!”
I began to wonder why this could be. Was Amiens such a terrible place? And if so, then evidently the mission we had just taken on to develop a territorial marketing strategy was going to be a tough one. On delving deeper, curiously very few of the people with whom I had been talking had ever been to Amiens and most of them knew nothing about the town whatsoever. There was a common denominator however. All the people I had been talking to were from the south of France.
And this is where we enter the north-south divide. Being a Mancunian I have been haunted by a certain north-south divide all my life. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the typical southern retort of “it’s grim up North” and let’s be fair, the BBC did take an awfully long time to realise that regional accents, in general, were admissible on the UK’s nightly news.
So what is the French north-south divide? I think it is fair to say that in France we start from the basis of “there is Paris … and then the rest of France” which is still fairly well engrained in business mentalities (and many policies) to this day. If we are to maintain the comparison with the UK, there have been less defined attempts at the recognition and representation of the regions in France. And even if many of these have felt like lip service delivered by London at times, we do now hear regional dialects on a daily basis in mainstream media, whereas to have a Toulousain present the evening news on TF1 would be simply unheard of, unless he were subtitled to allow the rest of France to understand him. (That’s pure British sarcasm there, just in case any of my French readers didn’t pick it up!)
However once we put that aside, there is also a very definite divide between the north and the south of France. Whereas conversely the south is mocked for its regional accents, it is the north that is considered a less appealing place to live and work.
In 2008 Danny Boon released a very funny film (well, it made me laugh) called Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis which told the story of a civil servant based in Provence who was sanctioned and as such sent to Bergues, in the North of France between Dunkerque and Lille. The story revolves around the confrontation of the stereotypes we have of the north of France (when based in the south) and how when actually confronted with the reality of life in this part of France, we find a generous, welcoming and authentic local population and the quality of life that goes with this.
So what is the problem with the north of France? If we get down to basics, the southerners have an issue with the lack of sun. To the British this will seem strange, we are genetically programmed to only anticipate 3 weeks of sunshine in June each year, but I suppose when you border the Mediterranean Sea to the South, you are a little spoilt.
However, it is also true that the north of France is where industrialisation started in France, much like the North of England, and as such as borne the brunt of an apocalyptic image attached to the decline of industry faced with the rise of the service sector.
If the Industrial Revolution started in the north of England in the 1760s, it was in the 19th century that industrialisation really started to set in in France and this happened first in the north and east of the country. The textile industry boomed around three cotton mill centres in Rouen, Lille/ Roubaix and in Alsace and the 19th century also saw extensive coalmining in the Pas-de-Calais and Lorraine regions, leading to the development of ironworks.
Clearly manufacturing has taken a hit in France, as it has in many western economies. Recent figures cite that output at French factories fell for a ninth consecutive month in February 2016, as new orders dried up and overseas demand fell. And so the parts of the north (and east) of France are battling too with this reality of a decline in manufacturing, even if it should be highlighted that there are a large number of industrial investments in France, both by French and foreign companies. This underlines what is the modern day diversification in industry.
Of course it would be logical that Amiens has been impacted by this. It is in effect a town that has felt the brunt of both job losses and media coverage associated primarily with incidents around the closure of the Goodyear plant. But surely things have also moved on a little and it is not such a farfetched thought to want to go there?
Well, the answer is clearly that it is not such a farfetched thought, no.
Having spent a good few months working on this mission I have had the pleasure to discover the reality of what Amiens is today and have come to the conclusion, that ok, they might not have as much sun as Aix-en-Provence and they may have suffered with industrial job losses, but this is a town steeped in culture and history and rather an interesting diversification of research, training and economic activity.
In fact, if you have time, let me take you behind this stereotyped image for a moment and give you some examples of what is happening in Amiens today.
Reinvestment is happening – and this is of course undeniably clear indicator that a company is happy in its chosen location and what’s more these investments represent innovation and expansion in traditional industries. In Amiens over the past 5 years reinvestment has been announced (amongst others) by Procter & Gamble, Unither, Faiveley, Scott Bader, Valeo and Metarom to name a few.
The strategic development of tomorrow’s industry and services is also underway.
- At the end of the 1990s, there was a rise in France (following the UK trend) of what was then considered a new activity of “call centres”. Amiens was part of this trend in France and was successful in having 4000 jobs within the industry by 2006, and notably the presence of leaders such as Coriolis. The image of this activity has been somewhat tarnished by a notion of poor-quality, ill-paid jobs with many companies choosing to move this activity offshore, but the reality is quite different. Today these centres do not just make and receive calls, they manage customer relationships across a number of integrated digital channels, making it quite a different job to what one would have experienced in the 1990s. The manipulation of big data is only going to make these jobs more and more complex and Amiens has enough existing presence in this sector, and established training programmes in place to ride these new changes.
- Battery development and energy storage are critical elements within the further development of numerous technologies today, be it the electric car, renewable energy or portable electronic devices. The Laboratoire de Réactivité et de Chimie des Solides (LRCS) was created in 1969 at the l’Université de Picardie Jules Verne and today holds an international reputation for the work it undertakes in field of energy storage. Thanks to one of its eminent researchers, Professor Jean-Marie Tarascon, the HUB – a new pole bringing together major laboratories and industry representatives will be inaugurated in the autumn 2016 in Amiens.
- Europe in general is witnessing a rise in the importance of the healthcare sector. Amiens is home to well-developed competencies in three major areas and the local government are currently formalised structuring these into an organised cluster. You probably don’t know this if you are not within this field of medicine, but the first ever facial graft was undertaken by a team at the CHU Amiens making this hospital a forerunner in reconstructive surgery.
I have been far from exhaustive in describing what is happening in Amiens today, which if I were to resume has not only a solid manufacturing base but also one of the most important concentrations of research and training in France for a town of its size. However, in a way this is not the point of this post. The point I keep coming back to in my analysis is that the key stumbling block Amiens has in many ways today is a battle with a stereotyped image, as where lack of image exists, human nature will inevitably revert back to a given stereotype of the dreaded north.
So why the lack of image? Well, Amiens is also battling with an administrative structuring of France and ingrained policies and attitudes that make it virtually impossible for a town of its size to have the visibility it desires.
Amiens experiences the blessing and the curse of being a medium-sized town at the heart of the international market that is Northern Europe. It is great because Amiens can offer a location that allows access to 80m consumers within a 300km radius, but it can be hard to position yourself when faced with your immediate neighbours who are the Paris region and Lille.
Such a localisation can also give you a slight inferiority complex. If I wanted to be provocative here, I would also suggest, that reverting back to this duality which is a north-south divide juxta-positioned with a Paris-is-much-better-than-rest-of-France attitude, Amiens has found itself in double trouble.
During the work I have been undertaking with Amiens, I have been thinking a lot about my own roots in the north of England. I have mentioned the image problem that has existed for the north of England – this part of the UK that has seen the birth of the industrial revolution, has been victim to the decline of key industries and has had to prove itself capable of responding to the economic mutations this has engendered.
Now let’s talk about the inequalities that exist in the UK as a result of what has been a largely non-devolved system of political power, centred in London, and what the UK government is now doing to counter this.
The UK government first started talking about the concept of the Northern Powerhouse in June 2014. The analysis was made that the North of England, with its major cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Hull, and a population of 15 million (that’s just shy of a quarter of the population) is simply not fulfilling its potential.
It would seem that the gap in productivity between London and Manchester, which is the UK’s second largest city economy is wider than the equivalent in any other G7 country. Whereas such a comparison when made with one of the world’s financial capitals can be perceived as unfair, it is also likely to get under any Mancunian’s skin with a view to the devolved decision making and budget allocation that Manchester has asked of London for some time.
However, if we take this statement as the precursor to analysis, discussion and real remedial change, then maybe this is a positive step.
According to Core Cities (a cross-party grouping of leaders of the major regional cities), at present, almost 95% of taxes raised in cities go directly to central government funds, with just 5 - 7% controlled locally. This a figure in stark comparison with federally structured countries such as Germany (approximately 30%) the US approximately 40%) and Canada (over 50%). So, this is launching the devolution agenda in England (a process which has already happened with Scotland and Wales).
Aside from this however, and to my mind critically, this has allowed for the airing of a complementary view on the development of infrastructure in the UK. Whilst there is ongoing discussion and negotiation around the UK’s planned HS2 high-speed train providing faster journey times between London, the Midlands and the North, the Great Northern Powerhouse has raised the essential question of local infrastructure links between key northern towns, which are inadequate, slow and overcrowded at present. Coupled to this is the further development of Manchester airport, but also infrastructure links in the North to the UK’s most important airport outside of London. This will allow greater opportunities for local residents and businesses, but also a larger talent pool for companies.
And then there is the question of investment in human capital. Currently, of those who move to the North to study, a staggeringly low 15% stay in the region to work following graduation and yet recent reports show that Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds scored highest in the study on a combination of graduate-level employment opportunities and affordable housing (when compared to the south of England).
This latter point leads us to investment in innovation and training, which has been happening for some time, and often with the participation of key industrial OEMs such as Rolls-Royce and Boeing, but also points to an enduring image problem for the north of England.
And so we come back to Amiens. I am far from comparing Amiens or the North of France with the North of England in its entirety and this article doesn’t pretend to present all the answers, but I think we can definitely draw some parallels for regions that have been victim to capital city-centred politics, a lack of representation and a tough battle to realign with new economic realities. Maybe it helps to know we are not alone.
If we also now come back to the more recent reorganisation in France where Amiens now finds itself in a larger region with Lille as administrative capital, I also understand the fear that regional power, budget and representation will be centralised even more so, when one is already in a battle to position oneself nationally as a place to live, to work, to invest, to visit.
I am delighted to see London giving the north of England the forum it deserves and that this has allowed these cities to think collectively about creating better links between themselves. I could only encourage the areas outside of Paris to think in such a way, especially in the new territorial restructuring.
Secondly, and again one of the important links for me, is this enduring negative stereotyping that the north of France and the north of England have been subjected to. Undeniably, the Northern Powerhouse is above all about economic development policy, but it has also allowed for more widespread communication and promotion of the north of England as an investment location and a place to live and work.
Communication is critical in the face of such outdated, misrepresentative visions.
Just last week saw Le Point cite Amiens as “the place to be” thanks to numerous noteworthy recent events and a staggering 4 members of the current parliament who originate from there. And yet simultaneously, and again in national media, the trainer of France’s Paris Saint Germain football club, when criticised as the players had been on holiday to Las Vegas (when they should have been training, I suppose) was cited as having replied “Would you prefer they went to Amiens!?”
As someone working in territorial marketing and communication, I am obviously quite attentive to any territorial image campaigns and was really quite impressed with the promotional video which appeared recently about the Northern Powerhouse. If you have a chance, please do have a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Dr0JYpcFtw
Secondly, as a Mancunian, the video actually made me feel quite proud to be issued from this great Northern Powerhouse. I particularly liked a comment from a viewer that simply stated “We started the industrial revolution and now we are going to finish it!”
From what I have seen and heard from those people I have met in Amiens, the town is definitely proud of what it is today – and so it should be. I can only encourage them to all mount to the top of their most magnificent cathedral – which incidentally is recognised internationally as one of the finest examples of Gothic cathedral architecture in Europe – and shout it out as loud as they can!