The often rainy and windy weather in the north of France can feel much more like England than a visitor would expect. It should come as no surprise, though; the towns dotting the country’s northern coast are favourably positioned as portals between France and the UK. Rouen, a medieval city seated on the Seine Valley of Upper Normandy, and 200 kilometres further north, Calais, the strategic port city of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, have historically been hubs of export and travel, from the middle ages to World War Two to today. Now, with improved transport technology and an ever-growing need for services and human talent, the northern French cities are taking on new projects and campaigns to increase their capacity as global centres of trade and movement.

Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, is ideally situated for French and international commerce. One of France’s main ports, the city is part of the historic relationship between the ports of Le Havre, Rouen and Paris, where river traffic extends the maritime lines providing major access to France and Europe. “We have the first port of Paris and, by definition, major traffic, know-how and highly developed logistical and industrial activities significant to the potential of the Seine Valley,” says Frédéric Sanchez, president of the metropolis.


Logistics base

Consequently, the city is working to expand its role as a logistics and transport hub. “Rouen is a logistics base permitting regrouping and distribution. Thus, we seek investors for a logistics base with available services, available working space and access on the Seine,” says Christian Laguerre, president of investment promotion agency Rouen Normandy Invest. The city is looking for investors for a 2016 project that aims to develop its eastern industrial zone on the sites of a former petrol refinery and factory. “We have the space and the logistics; we just need the investors,” says Mr Laguerre. 

“Some of the crown jewels of French industry are based in or near Rouen,” says Mr Sanchez. The city boasts strong pharmaceutical production and is home to Sanofi Pasteur, a division of multinational vaccine and medicine producer Sanofi. It is also a historical centre of the auto industry and hosts one of France’s biggest motor plants, Renault-Nissan. French offshore oil extractor Technip is also based in Rouen, as is a Total refinery and several nuclear energy centres, and the city is developing a research centre for offshore wind power.

“In Rouen, we do not have one specific thread in the economic fabric, but many; automobiles, logistics, a well-established petrochemical industry, aeronautics, professional services and biotech,” says Mr Laguerre. The region is also home to a web of small businesses that seem to perform well in three significant emerging sectors – biotech, energy and surgery. It additionally offers a range of professional services, particularly business services and insurance, exemplified by French insurance giants Matmut and AXA, both founded in Rouen.

“Economic development is easier here because the population is well trained. The educational facilities are excellent, and we can supply qualified professionals, skilled workers and engineers,” says Mr Sanchez. Rouen University and Rouen University Hospital Centre are vital in providing local human talent to the city’s businesses.  

Life-work balance

“The whole mission revolves around attracting and attaining human resources,” says Mr Laguerre, who knows that work and living should go hand in hand. Rouen Normandy Invest has thus launched its new brand, Enjoy Rouen Normandy, a campaign centred on promoting local culture, tourism and the region’s natural environment. “We are going to do this through ambassadors and are in the process of selecting 100 CEOs, artists, elected officials, and others who are proud of the region and will go abroad to promote the brand,” says Mr Laguerre.

Mr Laguerre has unique insight into attracting private investment thanks to his background as CEO of chemicals manufacturer Laguerre Chimie. “It is our principal mission to facilitate firms settling in, whether it is for construction permits, financial aid, recruitment aid, attractive policies, as well as the cultural element – we work with politicians to encourage this as well, and all of this helps retain personnel,” he says.

Cultural attractions include the recently opened Joan of Arc Museum, visited already by France’s foreign minister and the British Ambassador. The city is rich with medieval architecture, most notably the stunning Rouen Cathedral in the city centre. Several parks and natural riverside attractions also contribute towards the impressive quality of life in the city.

Frédéric Henry, president of lubricant manufacturer Lubrizol France, has been in Rouen for 15 years. “I have never seen any issue with attracting people to Rouen; the quality of life here is good. It is not far from Paris and you are close to the countryside, but it is still a big town with a lot of students and good schools. And it has the historic centre, which is very nice to work around,” he says. Lubrizol, a US company, has been in France since 1954 and in 1978 moved its French headquarters from Paris to Rouen. Its Rouen plant employs 350 people and total sales of Lubrizol France have surpassed €1bn.

One-stop shop

To facilitate foreign companies’ entry into Upper Normandy, Rouen Normandy Invest offers a one-stop shop with a network of partners to work with companies through every step – from finance, administration, acquiring regional and national subsidies, and recruiting labour to helping families find homes and schools.

The city is also taking on a major urban project developing 80 hectares of office and residential space, intended as a sort of 'third sector' of Paris, according to Mr Sanchez. The private-public partnership will cost €250m.

In coordination with this is the construction of a rail line between Rouen and Paris that, over the next 15 years, will link with a new rail station for Rouen that will serve all of Normandy. “We are looking at 10,000 to 20,000 jobs in the next 15 years,” says Mr Sanchez. “The new station will have a tunnel under the Seine connecting it to the port of Le Havre. This will all be an investment of €1.5bn, creating on its own plenty of work with a knock-on effect of revitalising Rouen. We want to publicise the projects under way to attract better public-private co-operation.”

Calais’ connections

“Everyone argues for their city. But we have a difference: [we are] the first port for travellers and the Channel Tunnel. No one else has that,” says Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais since 2008. Located on France’s northern Atlantic coast just 30 kilometres from England, the city is a historic portal between mainland Europe and the UK.

Because of this, Calais’ economic activity revolves largely around transport and logistics. French telecoms company Alcatel has been based in Calais since 1891 and is one of the only companies in the world offering totally integrated turnkey sub-sea network solutions. German motor parts and industrial manufacturer Schaeffler has been in Calais since the company’s establishment in 2006 and has an annual turnover of €63m, with clients such as GM, Jaguar, Audi, Hyundai and Peugeot. German-based logistics services provider CargoBeamer has also chosen Calais as its first terminal in Europe, setting up in the new Calais Premier logistics hub with an investment of €25m.

For Antoine Ravisse, CEO and founder of All4Trucks, a one-stop service centre for truck drivers, choosing Calais as his first site was an easy choice. “Calais is the crossroads for European road transport. Eighty per cent of the traffic from the European continent to the UK goes through Calais,” says Mr Ravisse. The company, an initiative of both Dutch and French investors, has invested €12m into its Calais project and has an annual turnover of €40m. 

The number one European port for trade with the UK, Calais barely needs to market itself for connectivity – it has France’s shortest maritime and railway links to the UK, and is an hour from London and Brussels, and 90 minutes from Paris by high-speed train.

Port expansion

Calais’ biggest project by far is Calais 2015, a €660m investment plan to double the port’s capacity by creating a hub of maritime activity north of the existing port facilities. It involves 50 sub-projects to be completed by 2020, including the construction of buildings, a railway junction, three large ferry stations and a three-kilometre dyke to house a 10-hectare lake. These development works will allow the port of Calais to accommodate increased traffic and new generations of transport technology.  

Several tourism projects are also in the works, including construction of the Heroic Land theme park, set to open in 2018. With total investment of €350m, the park aims to attract 1.5 million visitors annually upon opening and become the fifth most-visited theme park in France. A shopping village is planned for construction next to the park, featuring hotels, shops, restaurants and housing units.

Beyond logistics

More than just a transport hub, Calais has dedicated plans to showcase its cultural side. Since 2011, €35m has been invested in renovating the city’s historic heritage. It is home to Notre Dame, the only Tudor church in Europe, and the belfry of Calais is a Unesco World Heritage site. “We also have some unique specialties,” says Ms Bouchart. Calais is known throughout the fashion and textile world as an international capital of lace. “Calais lace cannot be made elsewhere because the material and craft are unique to the region, and all the big lingerie brands use Calais lace – Le Jamby, Chantelle, Victoria’s Secret,” says Ms Bouchart. The city will host a promotional event to increase sales and exports of its lace during an international exposition to celebrate the designer Cristóbal Balenciaga in April.

Finally, the city has a well-established support infrastructure for foreign companies looking to invest. “Calais Promotion is here to talk to overseas investors about transport and innovation, as it is innovation and research that we seek,” says Ms Bouchart. Formed in 2009, the economic development agency positions itself as the first port of call for start-up and development projects in the region, and has a network of partner organisations to ensure support for companies from project conception to completion.

“We help companies deal with French administration, permits and regulations, authorisations, and provide a one-stop shop to find an appropriate workforce,” says Natacha Belkisse, communications officer at Calais Promotion. “We offer tailored service according to each project’s needs.”

Imad Jenayeh, director of CargoBeamer, testifies to the city’s support ecosystem. “The city is really supportive; this is one of the best projects I’ve had and best support I’ve had in the whole of Europe. In Calais, I don’t have any obstacles. We’re in really good shape to start and boost the project,” he says.

The city is hard at work reinforcing its position as a European trade crossroads and a centre for both logistics and culture, says Ms Bouchart. “This gives an identity to a region that could seem small, but in this small space we have assembled a lot of attractions and specialties that other bigger regions lack.”