The Renault motor car factory in Paris, at Boulogne-Billancourt, about 3 km downstream from the Eiffel Tower, was an icon of 20th century manufacturing industry in Europe.
Louis Renault (1877-1944) began to build motor cars in a small workshop on the bank of the Seine in the area in 1898. His business prospered and by 1914 he was mass-producing cars, including London taxis, on assembly lines. From 1909 he purchased in stages the whole of the 1 km long Ile Seguin, which in due course the Renault company covered with buildings, after raising the level of the island by 6 m as a safeguard against flooding. A coal-fired power station was constructed at the western tip of the island, and in the centre was a huge 5-storey block of 1929, 225 m long and 28 m wide, that accommodated chassis assembly, body construction and painting, and upholstery. A two-tier covered track for testing finished vehicles ran around the island’s perimeter.
The Boulogne-Billancourt factory became a symbol of the working class movement in France. It was occupied in 1936 by workers supporting the Popular Front, and was prominent in the agitations of 1968, when the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) spoke to workers at the factory gates.
Ironically, it was a cousin of Sartre, Louis Schweitzer, who as chief executive of Renault, took the decision to close the factory in 1992. Some regeneration has taken place on the Billancourt bank of the Seine, as part of a large scale plan for urban regeneration in an area that extends to La Defense. Louis Renault’s original workshop of 1898 is preserved, and a building of 1984 by Claude Vasconi has been transformed into a communications centre for Renault, the only activity that the company continues in the area.
The buildings on the island were cleared in 2002-04 and were to have been replaced by a museum of modern art designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to house the collection of the entrepreneur Francois Pinault, but in 2005 Pinault, professedly impatient with indecision from the Parisian authorities, declared that his collection would be displayed in Venice. The Ile Seguin awaits regeneration.