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  • 1 French white paper outlining policies to support the growth of sectors associated with the green in (...)
  • 2 Accélerer notre reconquête industriel (“Accelerating our industrial reconquest”), speech pronounced (...)

1The (re)industrialization of Europe and the United States has been the object of extensive debates and news coverage in recent months. With the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA, the acceleration of the industrial measures of the European Green Pact, the “Green Industry” bill1 in France and the French President’s speech on industrial reconquest2, numerous signs indicate that industry is back on the political agenda. For example, the French government has announced a €1 billion plan to bring industrial land back into use, the launch of a second phase of the “Territoires d’industrie” program providing €100 million to support new projects, as well as tax credits to support technologies defined by Europe as pioneering, such as batteries, heat pumps and solar panels. Deindustrialization is no longer inevitable. These facts are obviously linked to the Covid-19 crisis and to the difficulties experienced by European countries in obtaining supplies of certain vital equipment, and to the shocks caused by the war in Ukraine. Such tensions over access to goods and energy have generated a feeling of loss of power and sovereignty in a globalized world. These two major crises have triggered a shift in narrative and strategy, exemplified in France by the semantic move from “Start-up Nation” to “industrial reconquest”.

2This issue looks at current re-industrialization processes from the perspective of local communities. In France, in addition to high-profile announcements such as the launch by Automotive Cells Company (ACC) of a “gigafactory” producing batteries in the Pas-de-Calais, which will be the first of four sites in the future “battery valley”, or investments in the Ardèche by pharmaceutical company Aguettant, the French industry has seen a notable increase in jobs since 20163.

3This unexpected shift has, and will continue to have, spatial consequences. While metropolises remain a predominant form of territorial organization for knowledge-based and technology-intensive economic activities (Cooke and Leydersdorff, 2006; Shearmur, 2012), industry has never been the preserve of larger cities: it has also contributed to the development of many small and medium-sized European towns. Both during the industrial revolution, when industrialization and urbanization went hand in hand, and later with the implementation of deliberate industrial policies such as France’s industrial de-concentration initiatives, towns were the driving forces behind these dynamics. Industry has shaped their history, landscape, and culture. As a result, in recent decades, many of these towns have been hit by deindustrialization (Connolly, 2010): they lost jobs as well as their identity and, in some cases, entered a spiral of cumulative decline leading to urban decay (Wolff et al., 2013). While part of the leading industries became concentrated in metropolises, small and medium-sized towns were faced with major economic mutations (Carrier and Demazière, 2012).

  • 4 See special issue of Bulletin de l’Association des géographes français, edited by Bost (2011); Revu (...)
  • 5 See special issues edited by Bole and Häyrynen (2020) and Carrier & Demazière (2012).

4The spatial aspects of de-industrialization have been extensively studied4, as has the redevelopment of affected areas towards other economic activities (tourism, heritage, residential)5. However, in these studies, however rich, the question of production is most often (and rather paradoxically) omitted, as if an industrial future was no longer possible. Yet in France, as in Europe, industry still occupies a prominent place in the economic life of small and medium-sized towns (Hamdouch et al., 2017): 29% of small towns in the European Union (still) have an industrial profile. However, these activities have often undergone profound transformations: they provide fewer jobs and call for more skilled workers, a trend amplified by the ongoing digital transition. Fears are therefore being expressed about the rise of an industry of the future, referred to as industry 4.0, with a sprawling land footprint but very few local jobs.

5Nevertheless, small and medium-sized towns are at the heart of current evolutions. They can act as key players in this hoped-for industrial reconquest, thanks to a number of assets: land availability, an industrial culture (Bole, 2021), a capacity for social innovation and cooperation (Gordon, 2019; Gros-Balthazard and Talandier, 2019) as well as positive household perceptions (Desjardins and Estèbe, 2019). In addition, some of them already are productive and innovative spaces (Hamdouch et al., 2017; Mayer 2011).

6In this context, this special issue investigates recent industrial dynamics at work in small and medium-sized towns. Drawing on the wide range of possibilities offered by geography, the contributions explore a variety of materials, both qualitative (semi-directive interviews, analysis of planning documents, etc.) and quantitative (statistical and cartographic analyses), to provide a nation-wide overview of the past and more recent evolutions of small and medium-sized towns, with in-depth case studies aimed at better understanding some of them (Genouillé in the Charente-Maritime; Mons in Belgium; the Vallée du Gier in the Loire).

7The first two articles highlight the key role of small and medium-sized towns in French industrial dynamics: one of them adopts a long-term perspective, covering several decades of de-industrialization (1962-2019), while the other studies the emergence of the industrial revival in the recent period (2016-2019). Ivan Glita’s contribution looks at the evolutions of different industrial specialization profiles in small and medium-sized towns in France since 1962. Using the optimal matching method, he draws up a typology based on the evolution of industrial employment rates, thus highlighting the enduring link between small and medium-sized towns (urban units with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants) and industry. Firstly, small and medium-sized towns are over-represented among industrial or highly industrial urban areas. This over-representation reflects both the very large number of such towns in the urban system, and the concentration of industrial activities in smaller agglomerations. These towns, mostly located in traditional industrial regions (north-eastern France and the former Rhône-Alpes region), benefit from a significant industrial heritage, even if industrial employment has often declined. Some are small and spatially isolated industrial areas (Decazeville, Montbard). Others form part of clusters of small towns (eastern Haute-Loire, Choletais), some of which still specialize in one sector of activity, forming clusters around larger industrial cities (e.g., the Moselle valley or the Montbéliard region). Glita’s typology also highlights the industrial growth of small towns (under 30,000 inhabitants) since the 1990s (or 2000s). In addition to their demographic growth, these towns are characterized by their specialization in specific industrial sectors, in particular the agri-food industry, and their location in historically non-industrial regions (Brittany). The two main types of small and medium-sized industrial towns that still coexist today face different challenges, as illustrated by Clémentine Périnaud and Christelle Morel-Journel’s study of the Gier valley, comprising of towns with an industrial tradition, and by Marie Ferru’s contribution looking at the neo-industrial town of Genouillé.

8Marjolaine Gros Balthazar and Magali Talandier’s article focuses on the recent period (2016-2019), revealing an industrial turning point: France is now creating industrial jobs again. Analyzing the geography of this recovery, the authors depict the “revenge” of small and medium-sized towns. This “revenge” is only partial, as the dynamics of reindustrialization remain concentrated in the largest areas that benefit from sectoral and regional effects. However, within these predominantly metropolitan areas, the true drivers of industrial growth are rural areas, followed by small and medium-sized towns. Finally, a trend reversal is underway in almost all small and medium-sized towns, whether these are located within large urban areas (thus acting as growth drivers) or more “isolated”. Sectoral specificities can be observed in both cases. These discrepancies may explain the slower industrial development of the latter group: these towns offer a broad spectrum of industrial sectors, but with a weaker growth than those present in large urban areas. The authors also stress the importance of better understanding existing local complementarities when devising an inter-territorial industrial policy. In addition, industrial redevelopment can bring about socio-demographic and ecological tensions, which can be exacerbated by the concentration of industries in large urban areas.

9Following on from these two comparative articles, three monographic studies examine the industrial specificities of small and medium-sized towns – whether their industry is new (Marie Ferru and Élodie Texier’s paper on the case of Genouillé), “reconsidered” (Clémentine Périnaud and Christelle Morel-Journel’s paper on the Gier valley) or undergoing transformations (article by Alexis Gilbart and Kristel Mazy on Mons). Three main themes emerge through these contributions: relational aspects; spatiality and planning policies; governance, stakeholder interactions and public policies.

10Firstly, all three articles show the impact of interrelations on the choice of an industrial location in small and medium-sized towns. In such contexts, the embedding of economic activities has an even greater influence on the preservation or revival of production facilities. Gilbart and Mazy present a literature review showing the impact of various factors, both economic (optimization of the productive system) and personal (the entrepreneur’s considerations) on location choices. Their study of SMEs in Mons shows that the former category (including the potential for collaborations between companies) has a lesser overall influence than the latter (personal ties, appeal of a reduced commute between the home and the workplace). Périnaud and Morel-Journel study entrepreneurs’ territorial roots in the Giers valley. Their interviews with industrial workers on their personal and professional trajectories document their emotional relation to the territory. Personal connections contribute to shaping relatively self-contained ecosystems, reminiscent of industrial districts. Finally, in the case of Genouillé, Ferru and Texier show how “random encounters and opportunities” led two investors, originally from Champagne, to set up their plant in the southern Vienne region.

11On a more infra scale, all three articles examine the spatiality of production activities in small and medium-sized towns, along with associated planning issues. Through the case of a small rural town, the article by Ferru and Texier confirms the importance of land resources (availability of low-cost, high-quality land) in the choice of a location: the owners of an organic food manufacture are looking for a large and continuous plot of organic farmland in the center of which to build their factory. In this case, the available surface area is not the only decisive factor: an additional advantage of rural areas resides in their proximity to agricultural production. This reflects the potential role of rural areas in the “agro-industrial transition” (Talandier and Acadie, 2023). In denser urban settings, the other two articles focus on the difficult (but essential) synergy between urban and productive development. The locations and forms of the productive fabric are changing, while the heritagization of former sites is progressing. In the Giers valley, land use is being transformed by processes of residentialization, under the influence of two neighboring metropolises, Saint-Etienne and Lyon; but it is also impacted by the area’s relationship with industry, which is more perceived as a source of nuisance. The presence of an active productive fabric is more low-profile, but its integration remains a challenge in terms of development. The authors present the example of Novaciéries, a project aimed at converting a former industrial site in Saint-Chamond, combining urban renewal and industrial purposes through the creation of a multi-activity cluster including industries. In the case of Mons, the authors point out that very small businesses make up 90% of the productive landscape: a far cry from the large factories that have long spatially structured small and medium-sized towns. The diffuse presence of these facilities challenges an understanding of reindustrialization by urban planners based solely on the creation of mixed-use business parks or science parks, inherited from a functionalist model.

12Finally, in line with this last consideration, these three articles call for local public sector initiatives, which should be adapted to specific territorial features. Périnaud and Morel-Journel argue that to maintain industry in the Gier valley, an area with an industrial tradition, it is necessary to develop a territorial vision that best articulates the “reconsideration” of productive systems with the need to tackle residential segregation, while also addressing environmental issues. Gilbart and Mazy call for the diversification of planning practices: new typo-morphological models should be developed to reconnect urban areas with industrial production, which is hampered by the current focus on the development of business parks in urban peripheries. Ferru and Texier focus on stakeholders, highlighting the figure of the mayor and his role in the activation of local and extra-local resources: the mayor’s role as an intermediary between private and public actors, and between elected officials and technicians, is essential for industrial development. Physical proximity (geographical co-presence and the relational logics mentioned above) can be an asset for small and medium-sized towns, provided that relations of proximity are sufficiently organized. While historically, industrial towns have been challenged to reinvent and assert themselves as productive-residential systems, neo-industrial towns must encourage the settlement of productive activities for the long term.

13The last two articles in this issue examine the role of new “objects” in this industrial reconquest: third places and new business models.

14The article by Guy Baudelle et al. examines the spatial distribution of third places across employment areas. The authors show that third places favor both ends of the urban hierarchy: metropolises as well as rural areas and small towns. Their under-representation in medium-sized towns points to a risk: third places may contribute to reinforcing inequalities between the most attractive and less attractive areas. According to the authors, third places can not only help transform production systems, but also compensate for the loss of industrial jobs through the development of other jobs.

15Finally, the last contribution by Florian Fombérie and Murielle Maillefert opens up new perspectives on the emergence of alternative models of productive development. Drawing on five examples in Romans-sur-Isère that meet the challenges of sustainability, the authors propose a theoretical grid of analysis to describe new forms of current and future productive activities, based on the concept of perma-circularity: links to the SSE, cooperation, circularity and the service dimension of value creation. Using the example of Romans, the authors show how small and medium-sized towns can provide a fertile breeding ground for these new, more sustainable models. In addition to “soft” vectors of attractiveness, these towns benefit from better interconnections between actors, with the potential for value-generating collaborations.

16Ultimately, this issue feeds into the conversation on the territorial implications and driving forces of this accelerating reindustrialization trend. While many small and medium-sized towns boast a long industrial history, the preservation, restoration, or expansion of productive activities – even when those are connected to the local legacy – is taking place in a new context. It is important to consider the synergies with residential development and the needs and expectations of the local population, and to anticipate the tensions and oppositions generated by these new projects. Environmental issues also need to be taken into account. Finally, while this issue examines the place of small and medium-sized towns in these reindustrialization processes, it also highlights the importance of territorial interfaces and interactions. Complementarities between different types of spaces (from rural to metropolitan), as well as between French and even European regions should be promoted and activated to successfully implement an ambitious, sustainable and resilient policy of “industrial reconquest”.

17We would like to thank EchoGéo’s team and editorial committee, in particular Karine Delaunay and Serge Weber, for their support and follow-up on this issue.

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1 French white paper outlining policies to support the growth of sectors associated with the green industry.

2 Accélerer notre reconquête industriel (“Accelerating our industrial reconquest”), speech pronounced by Emmanuel Macron on 11 May 2023, accessible on

3 Data from Trendeo, Observatory for employment and investment. URL:

4 See special issue of Bulletin de l’Association des géographes français, edited by Bost (2011); Revue géographique de l’Est, also edited by Bost (2017).

5 See special issues edited by Bole and Häyrynen (2020) and Carrier & Demazière (2012).

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« Re-industrialization: the role of small and medium-sized cities in France and Europe  »EchoGéo [En ligne], 63 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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