French President Francois Hollande was due to hold key talks with India-born steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal on Tuesday over a mounting row threatening the future of Mittal's giant ArcelorMittal group in France.
Hollande was to meet Mittal at 1700 GMT after Hollande's outspoken Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg threatened to nationalise the company's Florange plant, and said the group was no longer welcome in the country, although he backtracked on this outburst. The French president has so far not publicly spoken on the issue. The fate of the site has become a litmus test of the Socialist president's strategy to rescue the struggling economy, improve competitiveness and create jobs. Mittal, who ranks 21 on the Forbes list of the world's richest people, is engaged in a fight with French ministers over the future of the site in the traditional, but declining, heartland of France's steel industry in the eastern Lorraine region.
ArcelorMittal has said that two blast furnaces at Florange, which were damped down for 14 months prior to their full closure, were uncompetitive in a tough trading climate, partly because they are too far from ports for transportation. France has until Saturday to find a buyer for them.
It says it has two offers, but only for the entire Florange site including other facilities which Mittal wants to retain and keep operating.
Mittal has refused to sell the full operation and warned that nationalisation of the Florange facilities would threaten the viability of all of its activities across France, where it employs 20,000 people. Montebourg, who is suggesting that the state nationalise Florange so as to pass the entire site on to a buyer, raised the stakes yesterday, saying France did not want ArcelorMittal in the country any more and was looking for a partner to take over the group's operations at the plant.
"We do not want Mittal in France any longer because they do not respect France," Montebourg told the French financial daily Les Echos. "Mittal's lies since 2006 are damning," the minister said.
But Montebourg later tempered his comments, saying he meant he did not want Mittal's methods in France, accusing it of "non-respect of its commitments, blackmail and threats."
Speaking to AFP while visiting a factory near Orleans, Montebourg confirmed a nationalisation was possible.
"A temporary public takeover is a perfectly reasonable option... Because it costs nothing to the taxpayer and respects both French and European law," he said.