On a weekend in late October, more than 8,000 people flocked to an art deco swimming pool in Roubaix, an impoverished city in the post-industrial belt of northern France.

The occasion was the reopening of the Piscine Museum, following a €9.3m two-year refurbishment. The pool, which opened in 1932 during the city’s heyday as a textile manufacturing centre, was originally commissioned in an attempt to encourage cleanliness and exercise among the mill workers.

Today, museum guests mingled among sculptures by Rodin, Picasso, Giacometti and others. At either end, light poured in through stained-glass windows depicting the rising and setting sun.

The Piscine Museum is an apt metaphor for a transformation tentatively under way in Roubaix. It is a place of contrasts. Earning the dubious accolade of being named “France’s poorest town” in a 2014 survey, it was the birthplace of Mehdi Nemmouche, a radicalised Islamist terrorist who attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014. But it is also where France’s richest man, luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault, was born and where the Mulliez family built a retail empire around the Auchan chain of stores and the sports brand Decathlon.

The city’s Piscine Museum has reopened after a €9.3m two-year revamp
The city’s Piscine Museum has reopened after a €9.3m two-year revamp © Ilyes Griyeb

To get a sense of the city’s former riches, you need look no further than its magnificent Hôtel de Ville in the city centre. Unveiled in 1911, the building was financed by local textile patrons.

A frieze running across the pavilion depicts figures in the various stages of cotton-harvesting, cotton-washing, spinning, weaving, dyeing and conditioning. From the 1970s, as in so many industrial towns and cities in the west, this tradition of local manufacturing was outsourced to cheaper factories in emerging markets. Textile companies floundered, prompting closures. Job losses, urban decay and vandalism followed. Roubaix was held up as a cautionary tale for globalisation.

The city is now trying to reverse these decades of decline. Cultural reinvigoration — epitomised by the revamp of the swimming-pool museum — is only one pillar. “There was a time when journalists only came to Roubaix to report on dark images and social difficulties,” says Bruno Gaudichon, the museum’s director. “Now there is a story about urban renewal in Roubaix. There is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship attached to the city; it is not a place that resigns itself to difficulties.”

The attempted reinvention of Roubaix precedes president Emmanuel Macron’s structural and economic reforms, notably his moves to liberalise the nation’s sclerotic labour market. Nonetheless, the ability to revive such cities across France is key to the success of his presidency and the country’s future. Macron has staked his tenure on an ambitious reform programme to revitalise the eurozone’s second-largest economy and bring down its stubbornly high unemployment rate, hovering at more than 9 per cent.

Now, 19 months into his presidency, impatience is growing among the electorate. His government is up against the gilets jaunes movement, named after the yellow vests worn by its supporters, which has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations across France over four consecutive weekends. What began as an online campaign against surging fuel costs has morphed into broader protests against high taxes, declining living standards and a president deemed elitist, arrogant and out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

'Gilet jaunes' protesters in Paris © Getty Images

The stakes are high. If the reinvention of places such as Roubaix succeeds, they could represent case studies for post-industrial renaissance. If it fails, and if the government is brought to its knees by the gilets jaunes, it could fuel momentum behind extremist parties such as the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) whose leader Marine Le Pen lost to Macron 19 months ago.

“The challenge in France is how to avoid the rise of political extremes — not to maintain power but to transform our country,” says Xavier Bertrand, a former centre-right minister who is now president of the Hauts-de-France region. “The fight against regional, generational and social fractures, and access to employment, are essential. One cannot have a France that continues to fracture.”

There are reasons for optimism in Roubaix: the development of OVH, a global IT infrastructure company that has turned the city’s former textile factories into data centres and created more than 1,000 jobs in the region; the revival of local retailer La Redoute, which has transformed its dying mail-order business into a state of the art ecommerce operation; and an ambitious urban development plan by the city’s mayor.

“There’s a creative destruction process in Roubaix: the destruction of an old economy and the creation of a new one,” says Nicolas Bouzou, founder of Asterès, an economic research centre. “The key has been the role of the local government and an acceptance that the old economy is dead.”

Yet for many in Roubaix, this emphasis on culture, technological innovation and urban renewal is a world apart from their everyday concerns. More than 40 per cent of the city’s 96,000 inhabitants still live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is 30 per cent, more than three times the national average.

“Roubaix is the crisis,” says a local café owner, who has lived here for three decades. “I haven’t seen any positive changes for the moment. We used to call Roubaix the city of a thousand chimneys but now a lot of things are closed.” He says inhabitants face daily struggles, such as “problems of security, too many immigrants. The challenges for people here are to find work and for companies to create jobs, and to bring back a bit of security. If not we could have the extreme right, which would be very hard.”

The walls that line the OVH campus on an industrial estate just outside Roubaix are lined with barbed wire. Visitors must pass through two heavy sets of metal-barred doors to reach the vast, nondescript buildings behind them. On closer inspection, these buildings are former textile factories, which have been given a new lease of life as data centres by the IT infrastructure company.

Founded almost two decades ago by Octave Klaba, a Polish immigrant who came to France as a teenager, OVH has emerged from the wasteland of deindustrialisation in Roubaix to become one of the country’s most remarkable entrepreneurial success stories.

Octave Klaba, founder of IT infrastructure company OVH
Octave Klaba, founder of OVH: 'There were so many poor people — there was no hope. It’s for a company like OVH to create this hope, to create this new wave of innovations' © Ilyes Griyeb

In the 12 months to the end of August, it recorded revenues of more than €500m and expects to reach €1bn in the next two to three years. In its most recent private funding round, OVH was valued at more than $1bn, making it one of only a handful of so-called unicorn companies in France.

The car park at the headquarters is overflowing, struggling to keep up with the group’s rapid expansion. Inside, buildings that once shuddered with the mechanical clang of looms and knitting machines are filled with endless rows of racks, where gigabytes of data are stored in servers on behalf of different companies.

Collectively these servers — along with millions of others around the world — make up what is known as the cloud: the backbone of our modern online life. Screens in OVH’s central control room monitor 28 data centres stretching over four continents, from Roubaix to Sydney.

Dressed in his daily uniform of jeans, trainers and a company T-shirt with its “innovation is freedom” mantra, Klaba blends in with the mainly male, youngish workforce at the Roubaix campus. When he arrived in northern France after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he didn’t speak a word of French. But he was interested in computer technology and, after leaving engineering school, he built his own servers, funded by a $5,000 loan from his parents.

The dark circles under his eyes are testament to the relentless days and nights he has worked helping his web-hosting company grow into a group that is now the only non-American global cloud provider. OVH competes with US tech giants such as Amazon and Microsoft, and has 1.5 million customers and 2,200 employees globally.

OVH’s servers were initially hosted in data centres in Paris but soon the company was growing so quickly that it wanted to build its own, and in the early 2000s Klaba set up its headquarters in Roubaix. The city’s abandoned textile factories offered just the space he needed. “I had a lot of people saying to me, ‘Why do you create OVH from Roubaix and not from Paris?’” recalls Klaba. “This is the perfect place to be central in Europe . . . and there is the network to connect the data centres to the different European capitals.”

He says he was drawn to helping turn around the city’s fortunes. “It’s also about creating something from a city that nobody would have bet on . . . There were so many poor people — there was no hope. It’s for a company like OVH to create this hope, to create this new wave of innovations.”

Klaba refers to the set-up as “Roubaix Valley” in a nod to its much larger (and sunnier) cousin in California. While OVH is a source of pride among some in the community, it also brings into sharp relief the tensions between a digitally savvy mobile workforce and a local labour market that is largely unskilled. “Roubaix is changing,” says Henri Neirynck, who has run a pharmacy in the run-down neighbourhood near OVH for the past two decades. “There’s a new dynamism in the past few years, especially around culture, and we have supported the arrival of new companies, industries and skills. It’s complicated though . . . For a company to become known in an area, you have to know people who work there. OVH employs few local people and sells nothing that they can buy. The company lives among itself.”

The growth of OVH also illustrates another challenge for the local authorities: it is one thing to lure people to work in the city, but quite another to convince them to live there. The company’s campus is self-contained and provides everything from a subsidised canteen to a crèche, which means that employees don’t rely on local services. Klaba, when he is not travelling, lives between Paris and Wasquehal, a town near Roubaix.

Germain Masse was one of OVH’s first employees. Now vice-president of network engineering, he does not live in Roubaix but in neighbouring Marcq-en-Barœul, a suburb of Lille. “Roubaix is not a very animated city,” he says. “To be honest, people prefer to live outside. Either they prefer to live in the countryside and come in by car or, for the younger people, they are looking for a lot of activities, and the only way is to be in Lille. Our youngest colleagues live in Lille, because they have the bars, the cinemas, the concerts and the restaurants. They cannot do that in Roubaix at the moment. It’s changing but it’s not there yet.”

From a hiring perspective, it can be difficult for OVH to attract talent. Roubaix does not have the immediate attraction of cities such as Paris, Berlin, London, New York or San Francisco, says Masse. “Come to Roubaix. Roubaix what? That’s the disadvantage.”

OVH’s headquarters in Roubaix
OVH’s headquarters in Roubaix © Ilyes Griyeb

A few hundred metres from OVH and just 10 minutes by foot from downtown Roubaix is the Pile district, one of the poorest parts of the city: dense rows of abandoned red-brick houses that once accommodated factory workers. There is a higgledy-piggledy feel to these buildings, where housing and former factories are intertwined. Successive economic crises have taken their toll, leading to the closure of local shops and businesses. A halal butcher offers three whole chickens for €10; many of the buildings bear signs saying they will be demolished to make way for public areas and green spaces.

But inside one of these houses, builders are getting to work. They have knocked down the wall that leads into the tiny garden, a mass of debris, tarpaulins and overflowing wheelie bins. They will keep the 19th-century tiles that cover the ground floor — barely visible beneath the rubble — but will transform the rest of the two-storey property as part of an ambitious “one-euro-housing” project designed to inject life into the city’s housing market.

Inspired by “Britain’s cheapest street”, in Liverpool, where the council sold houses for £1 to people who pledged to bring them up to standard, Roubaix is launching a similar initiative. The local authorities are in the process of choosing owners for the 17 properties selected for the project, each of whom will be able to buy their house for one euro, on the condition that they pay for renovation and keep it for at least six years. So far, 13 of the 17 families have been selected.

From his office in the Hôtel de Ville, resplendent with chandelier and parquet flooring, Mayor Guillaume Delbar is outlining the details of the project. “The objective is an experiment that could then be developed on a larger scale,” he says. “It is also about trying to change the cultural state of mind because we are more accustomed to large global plans than we are to experimentation.” If one-euro-housing is a success in Roubaix it could be ramped up and rolled out across hundreds or even thousands of houses at a regional level, he says.

Delbar combines the vocabulary of a tech boss with the promises of a politician. But like Macron and many of the MPs elected with him in 2017, Delbar is not a career politician. The 47-year-old grew up in Roubaix, where his father was a contractor in heating, electricity and plumbing while his mother worked for La Redoute, but he moved to Paris for work. After 15 years as a communications consultant, Delbar returned to his hometown to enter politics and was elected mayor in 2014 for the centre-right Republican party.

Roubaix mayor Guillaume Delbar: ‘My biggest challenge today is to take a city on a downward slope and, step by step, to make it a city on an upward slope’
Roubaix mayor Guillaume Delbar: ‘My biggest challenge today is to take a city on a downward slope and, step by step, to make it a city on an upward slope’ © Ilyes Griyeb

“I was convinced that Roubaix had the capacity to rebound, and I wanted to be useful for my city,” he says. “I think it’s a city with incredible potential and a capacity for innovation. Roubaix was very successful with the textile industry. Then the crisis came and Roubaix was innovative with retail. Now OVH is following this tradition of innovation.”

One of the first projects supported by Delbar was Blanchemaille, which has turned the offices of La Redoute’s former mail-order business into an incubator for digital retailers. Blanchemaille was put in place by EuraTechnologies, a campus in Lille that has attracted international tech and consulting giants such as Microsoft and Capgemini.

Today, there are 35 companies inside Blanchemaille’s red-brick offices, accounting for more than 200 jobs between them. Since it launched in 2016, 68 projects to create a new company have gone into the incubator. “What we are doing here is to create and develop a global ecosystem, which aims to support entrepreneurs and start-ups in the commerce area, particularly digital commerce,” says Samuel Tapin, director of Blanchemaille.

Delbar is aware that while companies such as OVH are creating jobs in Roubaix, his challenge is to turn it into a city that people choose to live in, not just commute to. He has travelled from San Francisco to Liverpool to find ideas for environmental and urban regeneration projects and has launched a “zero-waste” initiative. “There are lots of problems linked to the quality of life, and we have a real issue on how to animate life in the city,” he says. “My biggest challenge today is to take a city on a downward slope and, step by step, to make it a city on an upward slope.”

Roubaix’s fledgling regeneration plan reflects how successive French governments have tried to tackle unemployment, discrimination and housing problems in the country’s poorest areas over the past few decades. “There’s an almost 40-year history in France of these place-based policies such as infrastructure or local economic development schemes that target underperforming areas, but they only go so far,” says Nicola Brandt, an economist specialising in policy advice at the OECD.

“Part of Macron’s grand plan for France is to attract new businesses, notably in the tech sector, to help turn around the country’s fortunes. The question is how much of the employment there fits the skills of the local population. In France, it’s well documented that there’s discrimination based on your name and the place you come from. And when there is a lot of poverty, the biggest problem you have is education. All of this needs to be tackled.”

Zohra Elbasri, director at the Pôle Emploi unemployment centre in Roubaix, has seen first-hand how the city’s jobseekers can face discrimination. “Hiring discrimination is a fact, sometimes based on your name or where you live,” she says. In April, Macron’s government introduced an experiment called emploi franc, which offers employers financial incentives over a number of years to hire people from the poorest parts of France. The programme will run until the end of 2019. In Hauts-de-France, 33,000 jobseekers in 26 priority neighbourhoods in the metropolitan area of Lille are eligible. Elbasri says early signs are promising: 1,000 people in the region have found jobs since April thanks to the initiative. About a third are from Roubaix.

But France still faces an employment paradox. Unemployment levels are among the highest in the eurozone, while businesses complain that they can’t fill jobs because people don’t have adequate skills. In 2016, Bertrand, the region’s president, launched a programme called proch’emploi that aims to promote direct contact between companies and jobseekers, reflecting the fact that three out of four job offers do not pass through the Pôle Emploi but are instead advertised internally within companies or through private networks — something that excludes the average jobseeker. It has found jobs for 10,000 unemployed people in Hauts-de-France in the past two years.

At a national level, Macron has launched an overhaul of France’s €32bn annual professional training scheme. From 2020, every worker, including part-timers, will be able to spend €5,000 over their careers on courses of their choice. The amount will increase to up to €8,000 for those with no qualifications and comes on top of a €3bn annual spending programme to train one million jobless and one million school dropouts over five years. The government has also outlined plans to create more apprenticeships and is in talks with unions and employers’ organisations about how to tighten links between benefits and training.

Such reforms have been welcomed by economists. “France is one of the countries where its share of adults with low literacy and numeracy is very high,” says the OECD’s Brandt. “Policies to bring in businesses and new employers in places such as Roubaix are promising but they have to come with better educational policies for children and better training for adults.”

While OVH has introduced Roubaix to an entirely new industry, La Redoute is attempting to overhaul an old one. In the reception area of its offices, a few miles outside the city, stacks of old mail-order catalogues are on display in a glass cabinet: artefacts in an era of one-click online ordering and same-day delivery. Almost a hundred years ago, these glossy catalogues epitomised Roubaix’s pioneering spirit. Now La Redoute is trying to rediscover this, with a new automated logistics centre that it believes can act as a model of 21st-century retail distribution.

The story of La Redoute is one of constant reinvention: it began in Roubaix in 1837 as a worsted spinning mill. With the crash of 1929, it launched mail-order retailing because transport was expensive. The group went on to become France’s leading mail-order business, pioneering 48-hour and then 24-hour delivery. But following the turn of the millennium, La Redoute ran into trouble.

“In the 2000s, La Redoute was again disrupted, both by the emerging actors in ecommerce and by ‘fast-fashion’ brands such as Zara and H&M,” says Nathalie Balla, the group’s co-chief executive. In 2014, Balla and her business partner Eric Courteille bought it from then parent company Kering for a euro. “La Redoute had two catalogues a year and suddenly the model did not fit at all with the ecommerce needs of ability, speed and simplicity. Up against fast retailing, La Redoute’s collections were in need of more regular renewal. And so we had to reinvent ourselves,” she says.

Nathalie Balla and Eric Courteille, joint chief executives of Roubaix-based online retailer La Redoute
Nathalie Balla and Eric Courteille, joint chief executives of Roubaix-based online retailer La Redoute; 'It’s a revolution,' says Balla. 'We have finally built the factory of the future' © Ilyes Griyeb

The group cut its product range and abandoned its catalogue in favour of a new online store, mobile app and digital marketing. The final stage of its transformation was to invest €50m in a new, technologically advanced logistics centre, called Quai 30, and to retrain workers to operate it. La Redoute’s target is to break even this year, and in April it sold a majority stake to French department-store chain Galeries Lafayette. “It’s a revolution,” says Balla. “We have finally built the factory of the future.”

Downstairs in the new 42,000 sq metre logistics warehouse, automation has brought huge gains in productivity. “Before, the fulfilment time was 24 hours; now it’s two hours,” says logistics director Patrice Fitzner. “The new fulfilment centre takes up four times less space, employs three times less people and takes over 10 times less time.” Ten million items are stored in the warehouse, stacked all the way up to its high ceilings.

At the old site, workers would do the “picking” operation manually; each walking between 7km and 10km a day. They have now been replaced by automated shuttles that glide between the aisles. Each product is now handled up to four times by a person, as opposed to 14 under the old model. Amal el Waridi has worked at La Redoute for more than a decade and was part of the old site’s picking team. “There was never a routine, so we were not as efficient as we could be,” recalls Waridi. “Today Quai 30 is very linear and it allows us to save time . . . People have much less physical effort.” As part of the transformation of the business, La Redoute laid off 1,178 people throughout France and now employs 500 people in the new workforce, across Roubaix and nearby Wattrelos.

Automation has replaced some jobs but Roubaix’s deep roots in commerce have attracted other pioneers of these new models to the city. Last year, Vestiaire Collective, an online marketplace that buys and sells “pre-owned” designer clothing and accessories, chose Roubaix over other European cities for a new operations warehouse. “We wanted to make sure we landed in a region where the workforce context would enable us to bring on board 50 people quickly,” says Olivier Marcheteau, director-general at Vestiaire Collective. “The fact that the region has a history of textile and manufacturing, and more recently mail order and commerce, meant we could find these skills.”

The company now plans to expand its 50-strong team in Tourcoing, next to Roubaix, to cope with an increase in volumes. “Our objective is not to bring people in from other regions but to tap into the local labour market,” says Marcheteau. “Going to an area that’s one of the most economically challenged places in France, where we could create jobs, was another reason it was attractive to invest there.”

Meanwhile, Showroomprive.com, a French ecommerce group, has installed its charitable foundation at Blanchemaille and opened a training school there. Thierry Petit, co-founder, describes the group’s choice of location as “symbolic”. “Roubaix is a town with big problems and lots of unemployment. It’s quite natural to want to create this foundation in the most complicated town in France,” he says.

La Redoute’s offices in Roubaix
La Redoute’s offices in Roubaix © Ilyes Griyeb

It’s still early days for Roubaix. Unemployment remains high and day-to-day life is a struggle for most residents. At a national level, the gilets jaunes movement is undermining Macron’s authority and his ability to implement further reforms, notably in sensitive areas such as pensions, unemployment insurance and streamlining the state. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by pollster Ifop before the protests suggested Macron’s party would receive only 19 per cent of the vote in next year’s EU polls, his first electoral test since taking office, just behind the far-right forces of Marine Le Pen.

Back at OVH, network engineering VP Masse paints a more optimistic picture. He draws similarities between the mayor’s urban renewal projects and the tech company’s own obsession with innovation. “We are in the same way, we are trying things, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail,” he says. “And that is perhaps what OVH has in common with Roubaix. Yes, we try to disrupt, we try to innovate, we try to change things by doing them differently to what we did in the past. Let’s try. If we don’t try, we will never know if it can succeed.”

Harriet Agnew is the FT’s Paris correspondent

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