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FLORANGE, France (Reuters) - Workers at an idled ArcelorMittal ISPA.AS steel plant in northeast France occupied the site Monday, seeking to put their plight on the political map ahead of a presidential election where industrial decline is a central theme.
Some 200 workers invaded management offices at the factory in Florange, in the Moselle region close to Belgium and Germany, after ArcelorMittal announced last week it was prolonging the temporary shutdown of its two blast furnaces.
Unions had announced at the weekend their intention to take action and workers found the offices empty. They plan to install a tent village at the site, imitating the "Occupy" anti-capitalist movement which swept Western nations in the wake of the global financial crisis.
"Our deadline is May 6: the presidential elections," Jean-Marc Vecrin, a delegate for the CFDT union, told Reuters.
The protest is an embarrassment for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who vowed to revive France's industrial fortunes but has failed to reverse a decline in competitiveness which has caused a spate of high profile industrial closures in recent months.
With Sarkozy trailing his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande ahead of the two-round election in late April and early May, unions are seeking to capitalize on their campaign focus on France's industrial fortunes.
The plant's two blast furnaces were shuttered in July and October 2011 in the face of weaker demand and workers fear that the longer they stay idled, the greater the chance the factory will be permanently closed.
Half the plant's 5,000 workers are on government-subsidized shortened working weeks.
Florange's blast furnaces are the last survivors of the once bustling steel region after the neighboring ArcelorMittal mill of Gandrange was wound down despite Sarkozy's promise in 2008 to find a way of keeping it going.
Hollande has made much of the closure of industry and relocation of companies during Sarkozy's five-year term.
France has lost 763,000 industrial jobs in the last 10 years with 355,000 shed since Sarkozy took office in 2007 -- something Hollande has dwelt on in his campaign speeches.
Sarkozy, elected on a pledge to return France to full employment and energize its economy, has blamed the global economic crisis for derailing his plans and has placed restoring competitiveness and the fight against unemployment at the heart of his re-election agenda.
Recent opinion polls have indicated a slight narrowing of Hollande's lead over Sarkozy in the May 6 second round. An Opinionway survey published in the daily Le Figaro Monday put his lead at 12 percentage points, in line with other polls.
Edouard Martin, CFDT representative on ArcelorMittal's European corporate board, said the company was choosing not to operate the plant.
"We have enough orders to operate at least one blast furnace. Every month we have between 150,000 and 200,000 tons of orders," he said.
"To increase its profits, ArcelorMittal is transferring Florange's orders to Dunkirk," he said, referring to a more modern steel plant the company operates on France's northeast coast.
The company was not immediately available for comment.
Reporting by Vincent Kessler and Gilbert Reilhac; writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Philippa Fletcher