‘Paris's mixed skyline makes no job the same’

Francis Arsène is passionate about his job

20 December 2017

Francis Arsène's work regularly affords him some of the best views available of the Paris skyline.

He has, he says, never been afraid of the heights involved in repairing, restoring and building the French capital’s zinc roofs: “You’re safe as long as there is scaffolding in place” but adds that after 40 years in the trade “I am less kamikaze with age. I pay more attention these days.”

Mr Arsène, whose nickname is ‘the man of zinc,’ felt the allure of working with the metal when he was very young. He attended a technical lycée and, once he had qualified, began working in the field.

He founded his own company, Couverture GF, 36 years ago, and it has gone from strength to strength in a city where the vast majority of roofs (80%) are made from zinc. The company, which employs nearly two dozen workers, covers 20,000m2 of roofs, using 50 tonnes of zinc each year. If properly installed, each roof will last for an average of half a century.

“Although all these roofs are made with the same material, there are no two that are exactly alike,” he says. “The Parisian skyline has buildings from a variety of different eras, and this means that each new job presents a fresh challenge”.

It is this diversity of work, as well as its supply, that keeps him in the capital, rather than elsewhere in France.

Other than the material itself, it is the outdoor life that inspires Mr Arsène. “We can’t work in the snow,” he says, “but otherwise we’re out there in all weathers. We can and do work in the rain”.

When he is not clambering on to between one and four Parisian roofs each day, he works in his garden on objects and items of furniture which he makes from zinc. Under the auspices of another of his companies, Arzinc, he designs and builds garden furniture, ornaments, kitchen units: almost any object that the imagination can conjure up, in fact.

He is clear, however, that this work does not make him an artist: “I am an artisan d’art,” he says, his emphasis is on quality and respect for the materials used.

Couverture GF regularly takes on apprentices for periods of about two years at a time. It also receives 16-year-olds on work experience, hoping to inspire them to join this vanishingly small profession. Recent starters are supervised and supported in their work by experienced practitioners, allowing skills to be passed down through the generations.

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