April 24, 2013 / 4:37 PM / 5 years ago

Tombstone marks Hollande's "broken vows" in French steel country

* Unions angry at closure of blast furnaces

* Workers disillusioned by empty election campaign pledge

* Hollande stuck with dismal ratings as industry languishes

By Nicholas Vinocur

FLORANGE, France, April 24 (Reuters) - Steelworkers here cheered Francois Hollande in early 2012 when, as a presidential candidate, he vowed to protect them from a plan to close two blast furnaces. Now they’ve they erected a marble tombstone engraved with the word “BETRAYAL”.

Owner ArcelorMittal turned off a gas feed on Wednesday, shutting the furnaces for good. The workers’ gesture reflects deepening disappointment with the Socialist leader and his pledge to revive industry, not just at the Florange steelworks but at plants across France where thousands face layoffs, transfers and economic uncertainty.

“This is the end of 22 months of fighting, of false hopes nourished by this government,” Frederic Weber, 39, a Force Ouvriere union leader behind the initiative, told Reuters.

“We’ve discovered how much real power the government has against finance, against big money - none.”

When Hollande made a campaign stop in Florange a year ago and addressed workers from a truck wearing a hard hat, many believed he could succeed where his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had failed.

Sarkozy’s inability to prevent the 2009 closure of Gandrange, another ArcelorMittal steelworks in the region, near the German border, earned him his own on-site gravestone.

While Hollande did not explicitly promise to save Florange’s furnaces, pledging instead to pass a law forcing viable firms to find buyers for sites they wanted to close, many understood his speech from the truck as a commitment to do just that.

Eleven months into his term, Hollande’s talk of legislation has faded, the furnaces are shut for good and industrial decline has continued apace, with technology giant IBM saying last week that it will axe up to 1,400 workers in France.

Overall unemployment has surged to 10.6 percent and is still rising, while Hollande’s approval ratings have sunk to as low as 25 percent, a record in modern France.

“Hollande made the mistake of coming here and telling lies once. He won’t do it again,” said Florange worker Jean Mangin, 50, as a rumour swirled that the president might return to the site to promise new funds for “cold-phase” mills still running.

MUSEUM VALLEY

ArcelorMittal says the aging Florange furnaces are no longer viable compared with other furnaces it runs on the north coast, fed with iron ore shipped from abroad to the port of Dunkirk.

The company is also grappling with shrinking demand from carmakers in the area around Florange, in eastern France.

Chief Executive Lakshmi Mittal proceeded with the shutdown after several meetings with Hollande and despite Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg’s threats, at one stage, to nationalise the furnaces temporarily.

The Indian magnate plans to invest 180 million euros ($235 million) over five years in the cold-rolling mills at Florange, which will transform steel slab into increasingly high-end products for the auto and packaging industries.

Workers dismiss the measures as too little to halt the decline of the sprawling site, which spans several small towns dotted across a valley.

The investment means that no workers will be fired at Florange but some 629 who operated the “hot phase” will be offered new jobs elsewhere or early retirement. Another 800 temporary workers are unlikely to be rehired immediately.

Vestiges of centuries of industry are visible from the road that passes Florange and eight other towns. Many old furnaces lie rusting. One is now a museum.

The tombstone workers have put up as a rebuke to Hollande also commemorates the end of an era: “Forging and steelmaking of Lorraine - 1323-2013.” (Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Andrew Roche)

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