Saving la Manufacture des Tabacs – The making of a political thriller: Interview with Bernard Durand

The Manufacture des Tabacs is an iconic landmark of the late 19th century, representing industrial architecture in France. Being the formerly biggest employee of -predominantly female— workers in the pink city, the building preserves and maintains the outstanding heritage of Toulousain culture. Yet, in 1988 it was on the verge of being destroyed. This is the story of the courageous battle that led to its rescue.


Bernard Durand was born in Toulouse. Following his baccalaureat, he attended the liberal arts college Washington and Lee, in Lexington, Virginia. At the time of the rescue of the Manufactures des Tabacs, he was both a teacher and an ecological activist at the same time. In the aftermaths, he became Chief of Cabinet of the City of Toulouse, serving under several mayors from Baudis until the first cabinet of Moudenc. In this position, he created the famous Festival Cinespania.

Dominique Baudis (1947-2014) served as mayor of Toulouse from 1983 until 2001. He was a member of the centrist party UDF (Union for French Democracy), and later of the leading centre-right UMP (Union for a Popular Movement, now Les Republicains). During his term, Toulouse witnessed a significant rise in population and economic activity. Perhaps most famously, he inaugurated the Toulouse metro line A and started works on line B. As of 2009, he was a member of the European Parliament. He died of cancer in 2014.

Philippe Emery was and still is working for the periodical la Depeche du Midi, as a member of the local editorial staff in Toulouse.

You are known as the person who instigated the rescue of the Manufacture des Tabacs. Can you tell us how this came about?

The beginning is very simple. One day [in 1988] a friend of mine told me that the Manufacture des Tabacs was about to be destroyed. The mayor had a demolition permit on his desk, requested by former constructing company SAES. This company had constructed all the buildings between the Manufacture and the Garonne, which did not exist at that time, including the student residence Estudines. A demolition permit is what you need in France before destroying any kind of building. I remember it was a Saturday, I sat down at my computer and wrote a letter. I signed as “President of the Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Manufacture des Tabacs.” I was not only the president, but also the only member of this association. Nobody else was a member of that association at that time.

A daring move… What happened next?

I sent the letter to the newspaper La Depeche du Midi. A journalist, Philippe Emery, who is still working for La Depeche du Midi, published the letter on a full page with a beautiful picture of the Manufacture des Tabacs. It was an open letter to the mayor, to the president of the Conseil General and the Conseil Regional. These three were involved in deciding the fate of big buildings. At the same time, I had some people calling me, saying “you are president of this association, I want to belong to this association”. Ten days later we were about twenty people in the association.

What did you see in the Manufacture des Tabacs to stage such a big fight? What distinguishes it from other buildings to make it an architectural landmark?

The Manufacture des Tabacs is a building of great architectural value, the testimony of what was industrial architecture in the 19th century. In fact, we were not the only ones to say that, it was known across the world. There was a guy in the United States, Smith, who had written a book about the French Manufactures des Tabacs, built in the 19th century, not by architects, but by polytechnicians. It was considered as remarkable, and all the manufactures in France were constructed according to the same construction plan, featuring a director’s house in the centre. Also the bricks were not from Toulouse; Toulouse’s bricks are larger and thinner.

How could the status of an association help you in preserving the Manufacture des Tabacs? Could you convince the general public on the matter, and more importantly the mayor?

L’Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Manufacture des Tabacs was an association with enough members to convince people to sign a petition to the mayor: a petition saying that we wanted to preserve the Manufacture des Tabacs. After one month 4,000 persons had signed our petition! And I received a call from the mayor of Toulouse, Dominique Baudis at that time—saying that “before signing the demolition permit to destroy the building, I want to talk to you.” In fact, I learned several years later when I was chief of cabinet, that on his schedule he had put only fifteen minutes to talk with me. But it happened that he was calling his cabinet throughout the meeting saying cancel this meeting, cancel that meeting. Eventually we talked for two hours! And at the end he said, okay, I’m not going to destroy that building, you convinced me. And that was it. Because he was the only person who could allow the destruction of the Manufacture des Tabacs. I was completely happy, because that was the only thing that I wanted, the building to be preserved.

That sounds too good to be true…

You have to mention the two [other] people who saved the Manufacture: Philippe Emery from La Depeche du Midi, and the mayor Dominique Baudis. There were articles every week, Emery took it as a personal battle. And Dominique Baudis, whom I got to know as a very nice and honest person, could have signed the demolition permit and nobody would have said anything. Philippe Emery now has responsibilities, and he knows the story pretty well. I had also met a journalist at France 3: One day we climbed the walls with a cameraman by the Garonne like smugglers, and she made a beautiful documentary about that. There was also a team from France 2 that came in at that time, so there was quite a lot of information about that battle; it was the main battle in Toulouse.

What kind of obstacles prevented it from ending just after you met Dominique Baudis, in 1989?

The problem was that Baudis had decided not to destroy the Manufacture, but we had to find a solution for that building, and that was the second part of the battle. One idea was to transform it into the cinematheque, which was looking for a place at that time. Then we talked about a museum for transportation, things that would have cost the city money. And Baudis did not want to spend money. He was someone who advocated a zero-debt philosophy.

At the same time the owner of that building, the firm SAES, was involved in a scandal in Marseille where it had bribed city officials. The company was in bad shape, yet they were the owners of this building. Then, in 1989, a year after the battle began, there were two fires in the Manufacture des Tabacs.

What happened?

When we did the documentary inside the courtyard, there were kids playing on roller blades. The place was abandoned, there was no one to guard, not even at night. There was plenty of space for the people we call the squatters. They went inside the building and set it on fire twice. Fortunately, the people from the other side of the canal called the fire brigade and they came to extinguish the fire. The first time the entire roof of a building to the right was destroyed, the second time it was inside the director’s house, the administrative building was heavily destroyed. There was a real danger…

Do you believe that SAES tried to get rid of a building they had no use of?

That was what we suspected. If the building had burnt to the ground, there would have been no more problems. They could have said that it had burned down and that this was unfortunate. I remember I was once invited by a journalist to say what I think about that. And I said “I don’t see why the SAES would do in Toulouse what they did in Marseille, in Lyon or in Bordeaux. Toulouse is a different city, they will not do the same things they do elsewhere”. Which actually meant that I didn’t see any reasons why they would not do in Toulouse what they did in all the other cities. SAES disappeared and didn’t survive all these scandals. And Toulouse could have been a big scandal if the manufacture burnt down, which it did not, fortunately.

What was the solution to all that?

Finally, another company which runs the parking in Toulouse, Vincy, bought the Manufacture des Tabacs from SAES and sold it to the city of Toulouse for a symbolic price in exchange and the right to build all parking spaces in Toulouse. That was a pretty good deal because they gave something to the city of Toulouse and the city of Toulouse gave them something back in return. Ultimately, the mayor decided to give the buildings to the Conseil Regional in 1992.

Looking back after all these years, are you happy with what has become of the Manufacture des Tabacs?

Has the battle been won as we wished it would have been? No. Actually, when you look at the Manufacture des Tabacs today, it is no longer what it was. They have changed the facade quite significantly. Except for the front left building, the interior no longer features the pillars that distinguished the interior. What was saved was not the whole building, only the roofs and the facades. The interior is no longer what it used to be. You can think of it like the interior of the Tour Eiffel, made from metal, very beautiful. Nevertheless, the choice of usage was fantastic. Giving the place to the university was the best thing to do. The university needed a larger place and the only other solution would have been to put it outside the city as the Université des Lettres. I think Baudis was very well inspired to act the way he did. And it cost the city nothing!

This story of protest and civil courage strikes us of being particularly French. What do you think?

I don’t know if it is just us. I think there are more strikes in France than in any other country in the world. It is true. The French like to protest but also the Spanish are a bit like that. The Americans are not like that, when they demonstrate. They draw little signs, hold them up hoping that Obama will see them from the window. But they don’t have the kind of system as we have, it’s a system in France, really. We like to fight the cops, we have no respect, we do not like the cops, which is not true for other countries. In the United States, the cops are welcomed, they are doing their job, whereas in France, no.

Do you think it is useful?

It depends, but sometimes it is useful. Sometimes you can change the policy of the government, but very often it doesn’t help. Two years or three years later, what the first government couldn’t do the second will do.

By Teresa Aguilar, Amelie Abadie, Benjamin Prissé and Christopher Sandmann


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