Finding the face of France’s unemployed

May 24, 2013

Florange, France

By Vincent Kessler

The name “Valley of the Angels” is derived from the last four-letters, “ange” meaning “angel” in English, which is found in the names of many cities in the Lorraine valley of northeastern France. This valley, also known as Fensch Valley for the river which flows through it, was long home to forges and steelmaking which grew out of the mining of iron ore. The mines and steel foundries forged the culture of a people and the landscape they live in.

The decline of this industry started at the end of the seventies with major social conflicts and demonstrations in other nearby valleys in the region, also involved with the steel industry. For 20 years now the valley has faced closures of industrial sites, mines, furnaces, all contrary to the steel tradition of the region. When I headed there last week, I first photographed the imprint of the past and present on the valley. And like anybody, I was initially taken by the kind of “gloomy” atmosphere you will find in any industrial area.

But the interest was also to try to go further in finding people and testimony about the past, and how it exists with the valley today. As a starting point I contacted trade union representatives and steel workers I knew from coverage of demonstrations and strikes in the region for 20 years, and especially during the last 20 months of social conflict at the Florange-Hayange and ArcelorMittal sites, the last two blast furnaces in the valley.

I did not think I could find retired mineworkers still living next to their now closed iron mines, most of them the sons and even grandsons of mineworkers. I even met two retired miners living next to a giant wall fresco representing them at work. One of them was still living in the house where he was born in 1936.

One of the sites, the Gandrange ArcelorMittal steelworks, closed in 2009, is now abandoned and rusting, a second, the Uckange U4 furnace, halted in 1991 after a century of production, was turned into a museum in 2007 where some retired steel workers are now volunteer guides. They share their knowledge and history of the steel making tradition in the “Angel Valley”.

Finding witnesses from the present was not an easy part of the job. If most of these workers are the sons and grandsons of steel workers, their children mostly choose different ways to build their future, maybe especially because of the experience of their parents. After the 2009 closure of Gandrange, and the recent ArcelorMittal decision to mothball two blast furnaces at its site in Hayange-Florange, increases the fear of the end of the forging and steelmaking tradition in “Angel Valley”. I eventually met the son of a steelworker who worked in Florange. As a temporary worker he was fired in 2012 from his father’s site after the drop in demand for steel, and also because of the fact that workers from other sites, now closed, were transferred there.

With a level of more than 10 percent unemployment, the Lorraine Region and its “Angel Valley” is one of France’s most financially impacted areas. However, giving a face to unemployment is not an easy task. When a site closes most of the steel workers are relocated to other sites or take retirement. The most impacted are temporary workers or subcontractors who are often difficult to meet with and also don’t want to testify on their situation fearing consequences.

At the end I met a young student in tourism, 19 years old, the grandson of a steel worker and living in Hayange. He works as a trainee at a nearby Iron Mines museum. His project is to build a career on the tourism industry and help turn “Angel Valley” into “Museum Valley”.

I hope for him that there are “steel” angels in the valley

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