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Coronavirus: France’s boom city Toulouse shaken by pandemic

A visitor takes a photo of a model Airbus plane at the company's headquarters outside ToulouseImage copyright
Getty Images

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Toulouse is France’s fourth largest city and is synonymous with the aerospace industry

As you head up the motorway from the Mediterranean to Toulouse, there is a big sign outside the city that shows an aircraft and orbiting satellites and the words in bold letters: “Toulouse, capital of the aerospace industry.”

Until Covid-19 struck, most of the sector was booming. Now it’s reeling as airlines have no idea when they can resume flights or when they will require new planes. France’s fourth city has seen relatively few cases of coronavirus and yet suddenly it is looking vulnerable to the fallout of the pandemic.

The sign outside Toulouse is no exaggeration:

  • Plane-maker Airbus, which makes around half of the world’s big commercial aircraft, has its headquarters here with around 26,000 employees
  • Europe’s two key satellite-makers Thales Alenia and Airbus Space are here too
  • Nearly 3,000 people work for the state-run French Space Agency
  • Hundreds manufacture the fuel that launch the Ariane rockets that carry satellites into space.

Include all the supply chain manufacturers and around 90,000 people are employed in the region’s aerospace sector.

Unprecedented crisis for aerospace industry

Such is the concern for the future that local reports have warned that Toulouse’s fate may resemble that of Detroit, the US city once synonymous with the car industry.

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Getty Images

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Toulouse’s population may not have been hit as hard by the virus as other French cities, but its economy is under threat

Alain Brault, an aerospace engineer here since 1991, now works from home and is unsure about his long-term future. The industry has faced crises in the past but nothing like this, he says.

Hundreds of British expats are based in Toulouse working for Airbus. Roger, an engineer in his mid-50s, says he will probably scrape through to retirement, but he is relieved his son hasn’t chosen the same career path.

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Alain Brault says this crisis is like nothing he has seen in his 30 years as an engineer

Prof Marc Ivaldi from the highly regarded Toulouse School of Economics rejects the comparison with Detroit.

US car manufacturers uprooted factories to build more cheaply and efficiently elsewhere, he says, whereas in Toulouse a virus, not economics, has brought the aviation industry to a temporary halt.

However, he accepts the industry will have to adapt as fewer people fly for business in the future.

Is this the end of the Toulouse boom years?

Toulouse is nicknamed the pink city because of the colour of the local brick used to build the historic city centre. On summer evenings the view is achingly beautiful when the sun bounces off the buildings creating a rose glow.

For the past decade it has also been France’s fastest-growing city.

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Toulouse has seen its economy and population grow in recent years

Its population of around 900,000, including the suburbs, has been expanding by between 1% and 2% a year – with newcomers attracted by the quality of life and job opportunities.

According to government statistics, skilled people from Paris aged 30 and younger make up the biggest number of new arrivals. It’s too early to say whether that trend has come to a sudden halt.

How is Toulouse coping?

Toulouse has also long been synonymous with rugby and rich food, from foie gras to cassoulet and sausage. In the famous Victor Hugo food market during normal times you wou

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