in a garage in the Vendée, customers are booming and the car industry is faltering

This article is part of our “Les focuses de franceinfo” operation, which highlights key topics that were not covered much in the presidential campaign: housing costs, the crisis in public hospitals, the mental health taboo and the carbon footprint of transport.

He bursts into the workshop with a big smile, unusual under such circumstances. Victim of a collision after a motorist refused the right of way, the customer called the mechanic. It needs a new hub cap. The wheel has suffered, but he is happy to be there. He is 69 years old and is none other than Daniel You, the former manager of this garage in Les Herbiers (Vendée), which he founded in 1976 and which bears his name. Ten years after the handover, the retiree still seems to have enough juice to restart a dead battery. He is fueled by the pride of seeing his old company outlive him.

In this corner of the Vendée bocage, far from the coast and major urban centers, the car is perceived as a basic necessity. In Les Herbiers and in the surrounding towns (30,000 inhabitants), half of the households have two vehicles, according to the latest official figures. “We have an unemployment rate of 4.1%, one of the lowest in France. Everyone needs their car to get to work”, the various right-wing mayor, Véronique Besse, reasons. The four-wheeled engine would even be an identity marker, according to this close friend of the sovereign Philippe de Villiers.

“The Vendé is very independent, he likes his freedom and therefore his car.”

Véronique Besse, various right mayor of Les Herbiers

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Under the shed in the garage You start coughing though. Activity is good, but the thermomobile is seeing its reign contested. Too expensive, too polluting, it is slowly becoming obsolete and must make way for other more virtuous forms of transport. “Small garages, we are bad”, the only employee, Benoît Villeneuve, 35 years old, slips away. The problems have already begun.

Daniel You comes to order a new wheel hub in his old garage on March 21, 2022. (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

“Happy customers like Daniel, you don’t see them every day”smiles Fabien Danard, who took over the garage from his boss in 2008. “Generally, people don’t like coming to us”, confirms Stéphanie Danard, his wife, who heads the administration. Nothing personal, just a matter of budget. Since the advent of electronics, the aces of mechanics have lost their magic and the invoices have increased. “We hardly repair anymore, we replace”regrets the couple in their forties, on the front line to meet customers’ reactions.

“People come to my house and make faces. ‘It’s expensive’, ‘I’m tired of seeing you’… In the long run it’s exhausting.”

Fabien Danard, manager of the garage You

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While repairing a Volkswagen Polo salvaged from the junkyard, the mechanic looks in the rearview mirror. “Until the 1990s, customers were less fussy. If you wanted a car, you would stop by, we looked around a bit and topped it off. Those were the good old days, there was purchasing power. Now at the lowest odds. and ends, is an estimate. The car will be a luxury product.”

Stéphanie Danard welcomes a customer, Sophie, on March 22, 2022. (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

An old Golf adorns the hall in the garage, March 22, 2022. (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

Sophie is sitting on a yellow leather armchair in the hall, waiting to pick her up volkswagen Golf. “Apparently the tire valve would be punctured”she explained hesitantly and stepped inside. “Usually my husband takes care of it, but he works. The car, I don’t care. To me, it’s a money pit.” There is no question of letting go of the car. “I need it to drop off my kids and get to work on timeexplains the 35-year-old client. I could do it on foot, we’re in the city center, but we’d have to get up even earlier.’

“I chose facility over exemplarity.”

Sophie, Garage You customer

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Her husband, he is passionate about mechanics and speed, is one of those who show their success at the wheel of beautiful cars. “The car remains a prestigious object, comments Fabien Danard. I always have customers who prefer to have a big car and eat potatoes all week.’

A white Audi pulls up in front of the garage. The driver goes to the workshop because of an engine light problem, having just bought this sedan used. “I stayed with diesel as it uses less and I travel 110 km a day to go to work, explains Christopher, a 35-year-old special education teacher. I’d like to go electric or hybrid, but it’s too expensive.”

“With rising fuel prices, like other colleagues, I started looking for work closer to home.”

Christopher, your garage customer

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Among the customers, several have taken the leap with the electric. Cyril is about to pay €24,500 for a used Peugeot e-208, he explains, as the mechanic graciously patches up his trailer for him. “We have made this choice in relation to the price of fuel and for ecological reasons”defends this professor of SVT, in front of Daniel You, who remained in the area, not convinced.

“I had it for 40 euros a month at the pump. With electric it will cost me 7 euros to recharge a month.

– Yes, but how long does your battery last? You have an eight year warranty, so what? Electricity, I don’t believe in that.”

Fabien Danard repairs a wheel on a trailer that threatened to fall, March 21, 2022, in front of the You garage.  (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

In her glazed office, Stéphanie Danard watches disoriented drivers pass by. “People no longer know whether to buy a petrol, a diesel, a bioethanol kit… We just know we can’t afford to switch to an electric car for ourselves.” The managers, who live 20 km away, stick to their old diesel engines, one per Together with their 16- and 18-year-old boys, they now have four cars at home.

With a smile plastered on his face, Benoît Villeneuve grabs a paper towel and wipes his forehead. The first rays of spring warm the roof of the workshop. Oil change break before the big part of the afternoon: Replacing the bonnet and bumper of a vehicle that crashed into a planter. On the radio, between two songs, a car commercial ends with one of the terms now imposed on manufacturers: “For short trips, prefer walking or cycling.”

The mechanic, who loves bicycles, would pedal well to work, half a dozen kilometers from his home. “But the road is an old national, a long straight line of trucks that suck you in. It’s too dangerous.”

“If I lived in the city, obviously I wouldn’t have a car. Driving is not a pleasure for me.”

Benoît Villeneuve, employee of the You garage

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He has been passionate about mechanics since his first bicycle, switched to scooters at 14 and cars at 18, the 30-year-old estimates. “outdated” the cult of the car as a sign of wealth and virility. “Also, tuning, we no longer see it here. The car is less and less a pleasure expense.” Some of his friends have carpooled. Hi m expect safe cycle paths.

Benoît Villeneuve, mechanic at the You garage, performs an oil change on a car, March 21, 2022. (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

A jogger runs in front of the garage on March 21, 2022. (PIERRE MOREL / FRANCEINFO)

Listening to cyclists’ aspirations, the Community of Municipalities of the Pays des Herbiers plans to invest around 400,000 euros a year until 2030 to build more cycle paths. In May, it will also launch a long-term rental of electric bicycles, giving residents the opportunity to test this form of transport before a possible subsidized purchase. The potential is great: 60% of the local workers work at inter-municipal level. Among them, almost all travel by car, alone on board, while the distances covered are often accessible by bicycle.

“There is a change in thinking towards cycling, which also represents a health asset.”

Véronique Besse, President of the Community of Municipalities of the Pays des Herbiers

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Convinced of it “the car’s heyday is over”, the environmental opposition welcomes this progress. It also supports the project to reopen the local station, which could resume operations as far as Cholet (Maine-et-Loire) in a few years, with a stop at the famous Puy-du-Fou park close to Les Herbiers. On the other hand, she regrets the right-wing majority’s refusal to consider establishing a city bus network. “Smaller Vendée towns like Luçon or Fontenay-le-Comte have entered it”emphasizes Joseph Liard, elected from the left.

What place for you garage in this future landscape? “In twelve years it will be over, I will retire if I can”, warns Fabien Danard. This old car enthusiast will blow out his 60 lights just before the announced ban on the sale of new thermal vehicles in the EU, planned for 2035. Until then, it is not certain that he will follow the electrification of the car fleet, synonymous big investments for garage owners.

In its early days, the You garage fascinated. At the entrance, a car sat enthroned on a turntable, “like in the living rooms”. Now three old collectibles sleep on the tiled floor next to a worn piano and vintage decorations. The workshop radio is set to Nostalgia. The great hall is already taking on the air of a museum.

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