French minister races to save symbolic steel plant

Thu Sep 27, 2012 6:11am EDT
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By Yann Le Guernigou and Daniel Flynn

PARIS (Reuters) - A French minister raced on Thursday to the last blast furnaces in the Lorraine region, once the heart of the nation's steel industry, after a report that the idled plant would close in a blow to the Socialist government's fight against unemployment.

Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg headed to the Florange site after Liberation newspaper said its owner ArcelorMittal ISPA.AS had decided to close a plant which became a symbol of France's industrial decline during campaigning for May's presidential election.

The newspaper said President Francois Hollande's government was negotiating to buy the two blast furnaces - idled since last year due to weak international demand - for a single euro so that it could then seek a company willing to operate them.

A spokeswoman for Montebourg, whose official title is Minister for Industrial Renewal, confirmed talks were taking place with the company but declined to comment on their content.

"The negotiations started three weeks ago and they continue today," she told Reuters, adding that their aim was "to guarantee the industrial future of the whole of the site".

There was no immediate comment from ArcelorMittal.

In a blow to Hollande, unemployment passed the psychological 3 million mark in August, its highest level since June 1999, figures showed on Wednesday.

The Florange plant is the last survivor in the once bustling northeastern steel region after the neighboring ArcelorMittal mill of Gandrange was wound down, despite former President Nicolas Sarkozy's promise to protect it.   Continued...

General view of the ArcelorMittal steel plant in Liege September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir