* Workers say May 6 election is their target date
* Protest an embarrassment for Sarkozy
* Nearby plant closed after Sarkozy vowed to keep it open
FLORANGE, France, Feb 20 Workers at an
idled ArcelorMittal steel plant in northeast France
occupied the site on 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
With Sarkozy trailing his Socialist challenger Francois
Hollande ahead of the two-round election in late April and early
May, unions are seeking to capitalise 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-subsidised
shortened working weeks.
Florange's blast furnaces are the last survivors of the once
bustling steel region after the neighbouring 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 energise 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 on 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 tonnes
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
The company was not immediately available for comment.