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Steel giant ArcelorMittal confirmed its intention on Monday to close two idle blast furnaces in eastern France, but said it would allow the French government 60 days to find someone willing to take them over, union officials said.
The fate of the two furnaces has become a litmus test of French President Francois Hollande's strategy for combatting rising unemployment. The furnaces have been idle for 14 months and employ 550 of the 3,200 employees at the Florange plant in the Lorraine region of eastern France, the traditional centre of France's steel industry. Hollande met steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal last week to discuss the future of the plant amid reports the state was offering to buy the furnaces for a symbolic euro in the hope it can find a firm willing to keep them working.
The Socialist government is planning legislation that will ban profitable firms from closing down a plant and laying off workers without first seeking another company to take over the site. The promised law was an election pledge by Hollande, who is under growing pressure to deal with unemployment as he grapples with a Euro37-billion hole in public finances that he plans to plug with sweeping tax hikes and belt-tightening.
Figures released last week showed unemployment had risen to just over three million people, equivalent to 10 per cent of the workforce.