PARIS (AP) - Many European countries with lagging economies are trying to
draw in foreign investors. But in France, a Socialist minister says he wants
to kick the world’s biggest steel maker out of the country, accusing it of
lying to the government.
The invective from Industrial Recovery Minister Arnaud Montebourg has soured
an already tense relationship between France’s leftist leadership and steel
powerhouse ArcelorMittal. The company says it will shut down a blast furnace
in northeast France whose plight has captured the nation’s attention -
unless the government finds a new buyer by this week.
The showdown over the site in Florange, which is reportedly profitable but
underperforming among ArcelorMittal assets, exposes the simmering mistrust
of capitalism in France. It also raises the prospect that President Francois
Hollande’s Socialists may pay out to nationalize in an old-world,
labor-intensive industry despite a push for austerity across much of Europe.
“We don’t want Mittal in France anymore because they haven’t respected
France,” Montebourg was quoted as saying in Monday’s edition of business
daily Les Echos. The trouble, he said, “isn’t the furnaces in Florange, it’s
ArcelorMittal’s “lies since 2006 are overwhelming,” he said, according to
Montebourg didn’t specify how France could oust ArcelorMittal. But the
stakes in the standoff are high: In France alone, the company has more than
20,000 employees at about 150 sites and brought in E4.6 billion in sales
last year - about one-sixth of its total revenues worldwide.
The company, assembled by Indian-born Chairman and CEO Lakshmi N. Mittal,
one of the world’s richest people, infuriated many on the French left by
announcing Oct. 1 that it planned to stop the furnaces at its Florange
plant. In the face of sustained worker protests, the company gave the French
government 60 days to find a new owner.
ArcelorMittal said it would not comment Monday, though a person close to the
Mittal family - who did not want to be cited by name - said the family was
“shocked” by Montebourg’s comments.
ArcelorMittal says it pours E150 million into the French economy each year,
mainly through capital spending.
The outspoken Montebourg is a point man for the Socialist government, which
is looking to revive France’s lackluster economic fortunes and stave off
debt concerns that have roiled markets in many of its European partners,
including Italy, Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Talk of nationalization harks back to that in the early 1980s era under
then-President Francois Mitterrand, the only other Socialist head of state
in postwar France. In May, Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative
who has been softer on large corporations.
Unions fear that shutting the blast furnace will lead to other closures
throughout the steel industry.
A top French steelworkers’ union pressed Monday for the government to
temporarily nationalize the Florange plant. The metal industry wing of the
Workers Front union said “this is the only solution for this strategic
activity for France.”
The conservative opposition sought to ridicule Montebourg and the governing
“We knew Francois Hollande didn’t like the rich,” said Camille Bedin of
Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party, referring to a quip by Hollande on a TV
debate years ago. “Now, it’s Arnaud Montebourg’s turn to proclaim his hatred
“As if France could forego investors,” Bedin said in a statement. “As if
Monsieur Montebourg could allow himself to insult foreign companies.”