Lille (AFP)

The Japanese manufacturer Bridgestone has decided to permanently close its Béthune (Pas-de-Calais) plant which employs 863 people in the manufacture of tires for cars, AFP learned from management on Wednesday.

Citing excess production capacity in Europe and competition from low-cost Asian brands, the group claims to want to limit as much as possible the number of layoffs through pre-retirement measures, internal or external reclassification of employees, and the search for a buyer for the site.

"This is not a decision we took lightly," Laurent Dartoux, president and CEO of Bridgestone Europe Africa and Middle East told AFP.

"Structural market problems lead us to take structural measures to preserve the viability of the company's operations," he explained.

This announcement comes almost a year after the decision of French competitor Michelin to close its tire plant in La Roche-sur-Yon (Vendée) which employed 619 employees and its site in Bamberg (858 employees), in the south of the 'Germany.

The Continental group also announced on Tuesday the closure of its tire factory in Aachen (western Germany) where 1,800 people are employed.

In a press release, Bridgestone said it had informed employees on Wednesday morning that it was considering "the total and definitive cessation of the activity of the Bethune plant" at an extraordinary meeting of the social and economic committee.

The closure could take place from the "second quarter of 2021".

Bridgestone says it is "fully aware of the social consequences of such a project and undertakes to implement all the means necessary to define a support plan adapted to each employee".

Reclassifications could in particular be considered in the group's sales and distribution activities, which employ 3,500 people in France.

The Japanese manufacturer, which claims the world's leading position in the tire market, promises "a sustained dialogue with employee representatives" and "an ambitious revitalization plan for employment" in the region.

The Béthune plant, which produces automotive tires under the Bridgestone and Firestone brands, has been experiencing difficulties for a long time.

It is "the least efficient" among the ten factories of the group in Europe, says management.

In a decade, its workforce has fallen by 40%, at the same rate as its production volumes (from 8.5 million units to 5.1 million) in a stable market.

Like Michelin last year, Bridgestone invokes increasingly strong competition from low-cost Asian brands, especially Chinese.

He estimates that their market share increased from 6% to 25% between 2000 and 2018.

This situation contributes to squeezing prices and margins, but also to creating overcapacity.

The Japanese group currently estimates that it suffers from a "structural overcapacity" of production of around 5 to 6 million tires in Europe.

The health crisis has not helped.

The European automotive market fell by nearly 40% in the first half of the year and is expected to remain down 25% over the year 2020, hit by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

© 2020 AFP