Rip Hopkins spent ten days in Behren-lès-Forbach, the poorest of the 500 poorest cities in France, according to a study by the Ministry of the City. A block of council houses in the middle of the Lorraine countryside built at the end of the second world war to house 15,000 coal miners brought over from Italy and Algeria for France’s national reconstruction effort.
At the time the town had all the trappings of the ideal city, situated at the bottom of a verdant valley a few kilometres from the German border. The working conditions in the pits were tough; it was incredibly hot, the walls occasionally caved in and there were explosions. But France needed coal and the mine owners went out of their way to look after the « grubby mugs » and all their concerns: there was free housing, social security, holiday camps for the children and solidarity all around. If your sink was blocked in the morning the town services would have repaired it by the time you were home from the mine in the evening.
In the 1980’s French coal had become too expensive. In the following years the mines closed one by one and no new industry replaced them. The 10,000 who stayed on in Behren found themselves trapped in a quagmire where both work and solidarity disappeared at the same time.