* Hollande meets ArcelorMittal CEO, demands furnace restart
* Industry minister says France "in conflict" with Mittal
* French unemployment topped 3 mln in August, 13-year high
By Gilbert Reilhac
FLORANGE, France, Sept 27 The French government
urged ArcelorMittal on Thursday to restart idled blast
furnaces at a plant in northeastern France or put them up for
sale, declaring itself in a "tug-of-war" with the steel giant
over their fate.
President Francois Hollande held talks with ArcelorMittal's
chief executive after a media report that the firm will shut the
furnaces at a plant which became symbolic of France's industrial
decline during campaigning for May's presidential election.
Speaking to angry workers at the plant in the town of
Florange, Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg said Hollande had
called on Lakshmi Mittal to invest 150 million euros in the site
or sell the furnaces.
"We are now in a conflict with ArcelorMittal," Montebourg
said in a speech frequently interrupted by jeers. "It's a
"The French government has at the highest level insisted ...
that we want the restart of these two furnaces at Florange that
have been idled for 14 months," he added.
The furnaces - where iron is extracted from ore for use in
steel production - employ about 550 of the 2,800 workers at the
Florange plant, the rest of which is operational.
Earlier, Liberation daily said the government was offering
to buy the two 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.
Montebourg did not make reference to any such offer in his
speech. Earlier his spokeswoman confirmed talks were taking
place with the company but declined to comment on their content.
An ArcelorMittal spokesman said it would not comment on
Florange until after a meeting with unions on Monday to discuss
the its sites in northern and eastern France.
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 neighbouring ArcelorMittal
mill of Gandrange was wound down, despite former President
Nicolas Sarkozy's promise to protect it.
Lorraine's days as an industrial heartland based on its rich
coal and iron ore deposits are long over, but lightweight
steelmaking has continued at Florange to supply car factories in
France and nearby Germany. This demand has fallen as struggling
French carmakers such as Peugeot cut production and
Hollande, who has vowed to revive an industrial sector which
lost 750,000 jobs in the past decade, visited Florange during
his successful campaign and promised to keep it open.
The president, whose popularity has dived since the May
election, has staked his reputation on reversing the upward
trend in unemployment by the end of 2013 using state-sponsored
job plans, industrial investment and labour market reforms.
Several major companies have announced big layoffs in recent
weeks including Peugeot, retailer Carrefour and
pharmaceutical firm Sanofi. Business leaders complain
that high taxes and social charges are eroding France's
A government report in July concluded that Florange remained
economically viable as a steel-producing site, provided it
received appropriate modernisation and investment.