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Miners in France's coal belt give Giscard black mark

Lens, not exactly a beauty spot, is called the land of "les gueules noires" (the black faces). It is the traditional coal belt of northern France -- and it is dying.

Only in a scattered handful of bizarre art nouveau metal towers do the huge spindly wheels continue to groan and screech against the leaden sky as elevator cages are raised or dropped at sickening speeds to depths of over 3,000 feet. Among long rows of red brick houses, deserted 19th century factories, and -- oddly enough -- wheat fields, monstrous squatting slag heaps hark back to more than a century of human toil in the mines below.

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Thirty years ago, some 240,000 Frenchmen, plus large numbers of Poles and Italians, labored in the sweltering pits where temperatures grow hotter the deeper you go. But with the decline of coal as a main energy source in the face of cheaper imported oil as well as increasingly inaccessible yields, the once giant mining companies found it unprofitable to continue. Through progressive closures over the past 15 years, barely 27,000 miners still work the shafts today.

Some miners fervently hope for a "coal revival" that will somehow return the region to its former glory. "There is still a lot of good coal down there," a rugged veteran told me in a working-class cafe here. But the government feels that even with higher oil prices and new extraction methods, little new employment could be created. By 1987 at the latest, the remaining mining operations are expected to close down completely.

The decline of the coal mining industry in northern France is symptomatic of what is happening to the region's other traditional industries. "The north has aged very badly," a local bank director said. "The people here imagined that they would be able to continue forever with their coal, textile, and chemical industries. But with heavy overseas competition, they have been shocked out of their 19th century sense of complacency. Many are finding it extremely hard to adapt to new conditions."

As a result, northern France, considered to be one of the worst recession-hit regions, is struggling with more than 11 percent unemployment, almost four points above the 7.5 percent national average.

With 1.6 million persons on the dole throughout France, unemployment has become one of most hotly disputed issues of the presidential elections.

Despite the government's "priority" policy toward heavily depressed zones such as the coal belt, the local socialist- and communist-dominated municipalities strongly blame the Giscard d'Estaing administration for its sorry state of affairs.

In an effort to provide jobs, the authorities are desperately trying to entice both French and foreign industries to set up shop in the north with the help of state subsidies and tax relief. But as in the rest of France, the problems of generating employment during a world recession are enormous. "I think we must face the brutal fact that we will never be able to provide full employment here until the international crisis is solved," said one central government official.

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"All too often it is like treading water," bemoaned Pierre Rousseau of the chamber of commerce at Bethune, the coal belt's administrative capital, which is graced by magnificent 19th century industrialists' "hotels" or town houses. "You create a new job only to find that another worker somewhere else has been made redundant."

But to ensure the survival of the north is not just a matter of implanting new and more diverse industries. It is also a matter of changing mentalities. Many of the region's forward-looking entrepreneurs and planners complain of a general lack of initiative.

In the old days, the locals could look up to the paternalist mining companies for guidance and security. Today however, the demise of the coal industry is shattering social structures, while high unemployment is encouraging overall apathy. Now that the mining companies are no longer able to ensure their future , the people look to Paris rather than their own self-initiative for solutions.

Fortunately, the northerners have already begun to change. But, it is a slow process. Observed one economist, "In a way, the crisis is having positive effect in that it is forcing people to realize that they must adapt by learning new te chniques or fall by the wayside."

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