France's Hollande, Sarkozy in industrial pre-poll visits
FLORANGE/PETIT COURONNE, France |
FLORANGE/PETIT COURONNE, France, Feb 24 (Reuters) - France's Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande and conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy staged rival visits on Friday to troubled industrial sites which are becoming battlegrounds for an election centred on jobs and industry.
Hollande, who is pledging more investment in the flagging industrial sector, dropped in on an idled ArcelorMittal steelworks in the northeastern town of Florange to support workers protesting a months-long closure.
Sarkozy travelled to northern France to announce a deal with Royal Dutch Shell to restart an oil refinery shut after its owner filed for insolvency.
The incumbent has started to close the gap on Hollande in opinion polls since launching his campaign last week but still faces an uphill struggle to win a second term.
France has fallen behind countries like Germany and China in recent years and the slump in its industrial base has become a key theme of the April-May election, with Sarkozy vowing structural reforms and Hollande saying investment is the way to go.
Sarkozy has placed employment at the heart of his campaign, much as he did five years ago, saying France will only emerge stronger from economic turmoil through hard work.
The other main candidates in what is shaping up as a two-horse race have also seized on the issue, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen, centrist Francois Bayrou and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon all portraying themselves as saviours of industry.
"We are going to do everything so that this site can be developed and modernised, that is my message to you," Hollande told some 200 workers who had been blockading management offices and production facilities at Florange this week.
Determined to go one better than a man he is striving to depict as too weak to be president, Sarkozy intervened to keep the Petit-Couronne refinery running for at least six months with a deal where Shell will provide crude oil for processing.
The plant halted production after Swiss owner Petroplus filed for insolvency last month. The French government and unions have been seeking ways to restart output in order to make the site viable for a buyer.
"I am a man of my word. It's signed. I'm not saying the refinery is saved but it keeps it in work for six months," Sarkozy told workers at the refinery, where a banner proclaims "Plant for Sale".
CAMPAIGN WILL BE KEY
The centre-right president, who said he was at the refinery as president and not as a candidate, has not indicated that he will visit Florange, but vowed this week to try and save it.
Ranked two points behind Hollande in opinion polls for the April 22 first round but twelve points behind him in voting intentions for a May 6 runoff, Sarkozy has begun a high-energy campaign weeks after Hollande launched his presidential bid, well aware that everything may now hinge on his strength as a campaigner.
The two men's trips coincided with fresh Labour Ministry data on Friday showing the number of jobless rose 0.5 percent month-on-month in January, bringing the jobless total to the highest level in over twelve years.
"What strong France is he talking about," Hollande said in reaction to the jobs data, referring to Sarkozy's election slogan for "A Strong France."
France has lost 763,000 industrial jobs in the last ten years and shed 355,000 since Sarkozy took office in 2007 - figures Hollande rarely omits from his speeches on industrial policy.
Industry now accounts for some 12 percent of jobs versus 23 percent three decades ago, according to Thomson Reuters Datastream.
Hollande told union leaders at Florange that if elected he would propose a law to let the state block the closure of profitable plants.
Florange's two blast furnaces are the last of dozens that used to smelt iron ore and coke in the Moselle valley, a heartland of steelmaking for three centuries but now part of France's rustbelt. A skeleton crew manages the plant since its furnaces were shuttered in two stages last year due to a lack of orders. (Additional reporting By Leigh Thomas; Writing by Catherine Bremer. Editing by Andrew Osborn.)
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this