Hollande urges Mittal to keep idle furnaces running

PARIS Tue Nov 27, 2012 8:31pm GMT

French President Francois Hollande speaks during a news conference at the end of an EU leaders summit discussing the EU's long-term budget at the European Union (EU) council headquarters in Brussels November 23, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

French President Francois Hollande speaks during a news conference at the end of an EU leaders summit discussing the EU's long-term budget at the European Union (EU) council headquarters in Brussels November 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Vidal

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PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande pressed the head of steelmaker ArcelorMittal (ISPA.AS) on Tuesday to avert the closure of two blast furnaces in north-eastern France, raising the possibility of a state takeover while waiting for a buyer.

Hollande met Lakshmi Mittal at his office a day after a cabinet member said the Indian steel magnate was no longer welcome in France due to years of broken promises, forcing other officials to clarify that no mass nationalisation was under way.

The meeting aimed at mending ties with ArcelorMittal, which employs some 20,000 people in France, and seek solutions to avoid shutting down the furnaces, including a temporary nationalisation of the surrounding steelworks, as a deadline for the conclusion of talks loomed in three days.

Mittal has so far resisted calls to sell the entire Florange steelworks to pave the way for a state takeover and has warned that he will start to close the idled furnaces if no private buyer expresses interest in acquiring them by a December 1 deadline.

Hollande "reiterated his desire to ensure the sustainability of jobs on the site", his office said in a statement, adding that he wanted talks to continue until the deadline.

Spokespeople for ArcelorMittal were not immediately available for comment.

Earlier on Tuesday, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici was forced to deny that the government was contemplating mass nationalisations of its troubled industries.

After meeting U.S. and British investors, Moscovici said that the Socialist government did not plan to nationalise any large firms permanently, despite Hollande's proposal for a temporary takeover of the Florange site.

French officials have said they could take over the entire Florange complex along with a private investor if ArcelorMittal would sell it. This would be a temporary solution while the state continued to seek a private buyer for the idled furnaces.

"This is not about returning to an older way of thinking, carrying out massive, general, permanent nationalisations," Moscovici told reporters after a meeting that included delegates from Blackrock BARS.L, JP Morgan (JPM.N) and Morgan Stanley (MS.N). "What is under consideration is a temporary mechanism," he said in reference to the ArcelorMittal site at Florange.

Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg earlier told a newspaper in an interview: "We no longer want Mittal in France because they haven't respected France.

Montebourg has accused Mittal of breaking a 2006 commitment to keep the blast furnaces running and not considering offers from potential buyers to take over the site.

Sources at Mittal have said that no commitment to keep the sites running was ever made and that plans to shut down the furnaces predate the merger between Mittal and Arcelor.

(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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