| BELFORT, France, June 23
BELFORT, France, June 23 For Alstom
workers in eastern France, news that General Electric has
beaten rival bidder Siemens to a tie-up with their firm has
brought relief and a response perhaps best summed up by the
saying "better the devil you know".
In the town of Belfort, some 2,500 Alstom employees have
worked for more than a decade building electrical turbines just
a few dozen metres (yards) away from a GE plant, whose workers
they meet each day at lunchtime in a shared canteen.
While French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg kept them on
edge for weeks about the fate of their employer - forcing
U.S.-based GE to sweeten its bid and prompting a rival one from
Germany's Siemens - many Alstom workers admitted they
had quietly been pushing for the former.
"General Electric's people have been here for a long time,
and this purchase ensures that the factories will remain," said
Daniel, a 53-year-old maintenance worker for Alstom who asked to
remain anonymous. "My greatest fear was Siemens: with them in
charge, we'd have been shut down in three years."
Montebourg, who is known for clashing publicly with foreign
investors, reacted furiously in April when he learned through
media reports that GE was planning some form of approach to buy
Alstom's turbines and grid equipment business.
He set to work stalling GE, soliciting a rival bid from
Germany's Siemens and issuing a decree which stated
that any deal in the energy, water, transport, telecoms and
health sectors required the approval of the economy minister.
Montebourg argued a GE-Siemens tie-up would create a
European champion in which France would have a voice, while a GE
takeover would put French strategic interest in the hands of a
faraway foreign owner.
"We won't let Alstom sell this national champion behind the
back of its shareholders, its employees and the French
government," he wrote in April on his official Twitter account.
However, that argument never held much sway in Belfort, near
France's border with Germany, where GE has employed some 1,700
people since 1999, when it bought Alstom's gas turbine division
and chose the town as the site of its European headquarters.
Indeed GE's history in Belfort stretches back even further,
to 1928, when one of its subsidiaries, Thomson-Houston, merged
with the Societe Alsacienne de Construction Mecanique to form
Alsthom, then spelled with an "h".
It was in Belfort that GE's bid for Alstom got some of its
loudest backing. The local chamber of commerce, a group of
small- and medium-sized business owners and the town's
centre-right mayor all urged the Socialist government to throw
its weight behind GE's bid in an opinion article published in
Many workers pointed to GE's long presence in France, a
point which the firm underscored in a public relations campaign
featuring television and print adverts.
"GE has been rooted here for longer than the others, which
is quite reassuring," said Kamel Elgharbi, 36, an inventory
worker. "And if the (Alstom's) patents are protected, as they
say they are, there should be no risk of outsourcing."
Some Alstom workers expressed regret at no longer being on
the payroll of a French company, and welcomed the fact that the
French government had struck a deal to purchase a stake in
Alstom from its leading shareholder, Bouygues.
"This is the least bad solution," said an engineer from the
control systems department. "It's the best solution in terms of
keeping our jobs, compared with Siemens."
(Writing by Nicholas Vinocur, editing by David Evans)