French Socialists recruit 'working class hero' for EU poll

PARIS Wed Dec 18, 2013 6:54am EST

French President Francois Hollande (R) greets Edouard Martin (L), CFDT labour union representative of Arcelor Mittal Florange blast furnace, during a meeting with the unions and workers at the Arcelor-Mittal headquarters in Florange, September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Nicolas Bouvy/Pool

French President Francois Hollande (R) greets Edouard Martin (L), CFDT labour union representative of Arcelor Mittal Florange blast furnace, during a meeting with the unions and workers at the Arcelor-Mittal headquarters in Florange, September 26, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Nicolas Bouvy/Pool

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PARIS (Reuters) - A charismatic trade union activist who once denounced French President Francois Hollande as a "traitor" to workers is to run for the European Parliament for the ruling Socialist party in a surprise move to counter rising Euroskeptics.

Edouard Martin, a steel worker with movie star looks, rose to fame as the square-jawed spokesman of unions protesting against the shutdown of blast furnaces at ArcelorMittal's Florange plant near the border with Germany last year.

He accused Hollande, who as a candidate had promised to save Florange workers' jobs, of betrayal for letting the Indian-owned steel giant shutter the furnaces in April after his government ruled out nationalizing them.

Now he faces accusations of betraying his own former trade union comrades.

While hardline CGT unionists continued to demonize Hollande, erecting a tombstone to his "broken promises" near the mill, Martin accepted the government's alternative plan to preserve the site as a research centre.

Trading his hard hat and orange overalls for a suit, the articulate working class hero became a fixture on TV talk shows, wrote a book and hinted he might go into politics.

The efforts paid off as the Socialist party, facing a challenge from Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front, named Martin this week to contest the May European vote in the eastern region. He will be up against one of Le Pen's closest aides and economic advisor, Florian Philippot.

"All I want is to keep up the fight we've been leading for years in favor of maintaining industry in France and in Europe, and I want to do it on a European level because that is where the decisions are made," Martin told France 2 television.

With Hollande deeply unpopular after a first 18 months in power marred by record 11 percent unemployment, the anti-EU National Front has gained ground rapidly. A survey in October by pollster Ifop showed the party winning more votes than any other, with Hollande's party losing ground.

The National Front replaced the Socialists as the biggest recipient of working class votes several years ago.

By picking the political novice, the Socialists are reaching into civil society for a weapon with which to combat not just the National Front but also the center-right UMP and the Eurosceptical Communist-backed Left Front.

While Socialists hailed the choice, the National Front's Philippot and Martin's erstwhile allies in the Florange trade union movement quickly denounced him as a traitor.

"He always told us, 'the point is to be able to look at yourself in the mirror," said Frederic Weber, an FO union leader at Florange. "He must have taken down all his mirrors, because I can tell you today that he is no longer our brother in arms."

(Reporting By Sophie Louet; Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Edited by Paul Taylor)

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