In a Vendée garage, customers are roaring and the car industry is reeling

This article is part of our operation “Franceinfo focuses”which highlights key issues little addressed in the presidential campaign: the cost of housing, the crisis of public hospitals, the taboo of mental health and the carbon footprint of transportation.

He bursts into the workshop with a big smile, unusual in such circumstances. Collision victim after a motorist denied priority, client called mechanic. He’s going to need a new hubcap. The wheel has suffered, but he is delighted to be there. He is 69 years old and is none other than Daniel You, the former head of this workshop in Les Herbiers (Vendée), which he founded in 1976 and which bears his name. Ten years after delivery, the retiree still seems to have enough juice to restart a dead battery. He is fueled by pride at seeing his old company outlive him.

In this corner of the bocage de Vendée, far from the coast and the big 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 go to work”, justifies the mayor of various rights, Véronique Besse. The quadricycle would even be a sign of identity, according to this close friend of sovereignist Philippe de Villiers.

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

Véronique Besse, miscellaneous right-wing mayor of Les Herbiers

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Under the garage shed You, however, we began to cough. The activity is good, but the thermal car sees its reign challenged. Too expensive, too polluting, it is slowly becoming obsolete and must make room for other more virtuous modes of transport. “Small garages, we are bad”, slides the only employee, Benoît Villeneuve, 35 years old. The problems have already started.

Daniel You comes to ask for a new hubcap in his old garage, 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 to come to us”, confirms Stéphanie Danard, his wife, who runs the administration. Nothing personal, just a matter of budget. Since the rise of electronics, the aces of mechanics have lost their magic and bills have gained weight. “We almost no longer repair, we replace”deplores the couple in their forties, at the forefront of dealing with customer 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 You garage

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Fixing a salvaged Volkswagen Polo from the junkyard, the mechanic looks in the rearview mirror. “Until the 1990s, customers were less picky. If you wanted a car, you’d stop by, look around and fill it up. It was the old days, there was spending power. Now, for the smallest odds and ends, it’s a budget. The car becomes a luxury product.”

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

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

Sitting in a yellow leather chair in the hallway, Sophie waits to collect her Volkswagen Golf. “Apparently, the tire valve would be punctured”he explained hesitantly, entering. “Usually my husband drives it, but he works. The car, I’m not interested in that. For me, it’s a money pit.” It’s not about 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 are in the center of the city, but we would have to get up even earlier”.

“I chose the installation instead of the exemplarity”.

Sophie, Garage Your Client

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Her husband, passionate about mechanics and speed, is one of those who display his success behind the wheel of beautiful cars. “The car is still an object of prestige, says Fabien Danard. I always have clients who prefer to have a big car and eat potatoes all week.”

A white Audi pulls up in front of the garage. The driver ventures into the shop for a check engine light problem, when he just bought this second-hand sedan. “I stayed with diesel, since it consumes less and I travel 110 km a day to go to work, explains Christopher, a 35-year-old special education teacher. I wanted 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, garage customer You

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Among the clients, several have taken the step to electric. Cyril is about to pay €24,500 for a second-hand Peugeot e-208, he explains as the mechanic obligingly repairs his trailer. “We made this choice in relation to the price of fuel and for ecological reasons”defends this SVT teacher, against Daniel You, who stayed 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 per month.

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

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

In her glass-enclosed office, Stéphanie Danard watches disoriented motorists pass by. “People don’t know anymore if they should buy a gasoline, diesel, bioethanol kit… We just know that we can’t afford to switch to an electric vehicle.” The managers, who live 20 km away, hold on to their old diesels, one per head. Together with their 16 and 18 year old sons, they now have four cars at home.

With a smile plastered to 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 hood and bumper of a vehicle that crashed into a flower bed. On the radio, between two songs, a car commercial ends with one of the mentions now imposed on manufacturers : “For short trips, prefer to walk or ride a bike.”

A lover of bicycles, the mechanic would pedal well to work, a dozen kilometers from his home. “But the road is an old national, a long straight line with trucks sucking you in. It’s too dangerous.”

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

Benoît Villeneuve, employee of the You garage

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Passionate about mechanics from his first bike, moving on to scooters at 14 and cars at 18, the 30-year-old judge “outdated” the cult of the automobile as a sign of wealth and virility. “Also, tuning, we don’t see it here anymore. The car is less and less an expense of pleasure.” some of his friends started carpooling. His expect safe bike lanes.

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

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

Listening to the aspirations of cyclists, the community of municipalities of the Pays des Herbiers plans to invest around 400,000 euros a year until 2030 to create several bike lanes. In May it will also launch a long-term rental service for electric bicycles, which will allow residents to try this mode of transport before a possible subsidized purchase. The potential is enormous: 60% of local workers work at the inter-municipal level. Among them, almost all travel by car, alone on board, while the distances traveled are usually accessible by bicycle.

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

Véronique Besse, president of the community of municipalities of the Pays des Herbiers

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convinced that “The glory hour of the car is over”, the ecological opposition welcomes these advances. It also supports the project to reopen the local station, which could resume service to Cholet (Maine-et-Loire) in a few years, with a stop at the famous Puy-du-Fou park, near Les Herbiers. On the other hand, he deplores the refusal of the right-wing majority to consider the creation of an urban bus network. “The smaller towns in the Vendée like Luçon or Fontenay-le-Comte have gotten into this”underlines Joseph Liard, elected by the left.

What place for the garage You in this future landscape? “In twelve years it’s over, I’ll retire if I can”warns Fabien Danard. This vintage car enthusiast will celebrate his 60th birthday just before theannounced the ban on the sale of new thermal vehicles in the EUplanned for 2035. Until then, he is not sure that the electrification of the car park, synonymous with large investments for garage owners, will continue.

In its beginnings, the You garage fascinated. At the entrance, a car was enthroned on a turntable, “as in living rooms”. Now, three old Golf collectibles sleep on the tile floor, next to a worn piano and vintage knick-knacks. The garage radio is tuned to Nostalgie. The great hall is already taking on the air of a museum.

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