As ceremonies go, despite being led by a man with a very French name and accent, the Airbus announcement of its plan to build a final assembly factory in Alabama could not have been more American. The red, white and blue was everywhere; balloons and confetti rained down reminiscent of a US political rally, and even the company name was given the Stars and Stripes treatment, to emphasize the 'US' in Airbus.
Make no mistake, this is a very bold and determined campaign to give this European company a highly American profile.
Whether it pays off has yet to be seen, but the manufacturer has three major advantages. First, this plays to the jobs card. There is huge concern in the US about job losses in general and aerospace and defense jobs in particular, with fears that 1 million of these could fall victim to the huge Defense Department budget cuts that are being proposed.
The 1,000 jobs promised at the Alabama factory may be a relatively small reprieve, but it's still a significant number of real, hands-on, high-skilled aerospace jobs. And as Airbus president and CEO Fabrice Brégier said, it's the type of work that tends to spawn other related jobs: his estimate was that ultimately some 5,000 jobs could be directly and indirectly created. Add to that employment for up to 3,000 construction workers to build the facility, and the "buy Airbus, buy American" message is a strong one to take to Congress however anti-French some may be.
Second, the company clearly has a powerful friend in the State of Alabama. State and local incentives have totaled "well in excess of $100 million" so far, Airbus executives acknowledged today, and there was a huge outpouring of gratitude and warmth from all manner of lawmakers at today's ceremony. With some justification. This was a region that first believed it had secured a military aircraft assembly factory in Mobile when Airbus owner EADS initially won the contract to supply the US Air Force with its new tanker. When that decision was overturned, and the contract awarded instead to Boeing, there was no reason at all for Alabama to believe it would get another chance, let alone from the same company that had such a bruising experience with US politics.
Yet, it turns out that even as the tanker deal died, the Toulouse-Alabama relationship grew. As congressman Jo Bonner put it today, EADS and Airbus proved to be "a keeper" and have placed a flag deep in American soil. He also highlighted how in the first days after the Katrina hurricane disaster, an Airbus Beluga arrived in Mobile loaded with a German mobile hospital and 23 tonnes of supplies from England and France.
And third, it's hard to see how Boeing can outplay this move. Build 737 MAXs in France??
Brégier and his boss, EADS CEO Tom Enders, have played a canny game. Boules anyone?