A French icon totters: country's biggest Gauloise plant may close

NANTES, France, April 14 Mon Apr 14, 2014 12:10pm EDT

NANTES, France, April 14 (Reuters) - In a blow to Gallic pride, the largest Gauloise cigarette factory in France may be shut down.

The dark-tobacco Gauloise - a macho smoke as evocative of France as the beret or the baguette - has already seen its best days. The last original-style Gauloise made on French soil was rolled in 2005 in Lille before production moved to Spain.

Now a factory near the northwestern city of Nantes that makes "Gauloises blondes" - a lighter version of the original - is being targeted for a possible closing.

The owner of the brand, the British company Imperial Tobacco , will present a plan on Tuesday to close the factory, which employs 327 workers and produces 12.2 billion cigarettes per year, the CGT union told Reuters. Imperial Tobacco was not immediately available for comment.

The original dark-tobacco Gauloises, which first appeared on the market in 1910, were stubby, unfiltered and strong, sure to provoke a coughing fit in all but the most hardened smokers. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre haunted Left Bank cafes in post-war Paris with a pen in one hand and a Gauloise in the other.

The late singer and up-to-five-packs-a-day smoker Serge Gainsbourg preferred Gitanes, another quintessentially French brand owned by Imperial. Most production of the original dark- tobacco Gitanes also moved to Spain in 2005, though the Nantes factory occasionally made them as well.

Included in French combat rations during World War Two, the light blue pack of Gauloises with the military helmet logo and working class panache remained the most popular brand in France until the 1970s, when ligher, sweeter American brands like Marlboro took over.

Imperial Tobacco, whose subsidiary Seita owns the brand, is grappling with falling sales as market regulation increases and consumers grow more health-conscious. Seita declined comment.

Tobacco revenue in the segment that includes France fell by 5 percent to 1.82 billion euros in 2013 as operating profit narrowed. Adjusted operating margins for the overall tobacco segment were static, at 43 percent.

The CGT union secretary at the Nantes plant, Michel Laboureur, said the threat of closure was incompatible with the upcoming launch of "Gauloise Generation," a "100 percent Made in France" brand destined for the French market.

"Today, they're destroying our factories to keep making more money," Laboureur said. "It's a terrible irony."

Laboureur said the plan also envisions closing a research and development centre and a logistics centre in France, each employing about a hundred people. A smaller factory in Riom that produces about 9 billion cigarettes a year will stay open, but that may change in years to come, Laboureur said.

It's not just tobacco workers who are concerned about troubles in the industry. Owners of France's ubiquitous tabacs - who have the monopoly on cigarette sales - have been up in arms in recent months over a 20 cent rise in the cost of cigarettes and a government push for more anti-smoking education. (Writing By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Larry King)

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