March 4, 2020 / 5:31 PM / a month ago

France says four buyers looking at British Steel's French business

PARIS (Reuters) - Four bidders have expressed interest in buying British Steel’s French business, France’s finance minister said on Wednesday after Chinese steelmaker Jingye Group said it would buy its British and Dutch assets.

Jingye said on Tuesday it would invest 1.2 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) to acquire British Steel’s main plant in northern England, but questions remain over the sale of its Hayange plant in eastern France, which can be blocked by Paris.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the plant, which employs more than 400 people, was considered a strategic asset as a supplier for railway company SNCF, and that a sale therefore required government authorisation.

“My position is very simple: Hayange manufactures the SNCF’s rails, so it’s a strategic activity,” Le Maire told BFM Business TV. “So I want to find another buyer since British Steel will be taken over without Hayange.”

British Steel was placed into compulsory liquidation in May after Greybull Capital, which bought it for a token one pound from Tata Steel (TISC.NS) in 2016, failed to secure funding to continue its operations.

Le Maire did not name the bidders, but a union source told Reuters that global number one steelmaker ArcelorMittal (MT.AS), Germany’s Saarstahl, Olympus Steel and Britain’s Liberty House, were interested. However, a source close to the matter played down Liberty House’s interest.

Beyond the purely economic issue, the plant’s future also has a political dimension for the French government, less than two weeks before the first round of mayoral elections.

The town of Hayange, where the plant is located, is one of a dozen municipalities in France controlled by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, formerly the National Front.

Hayange’s far-right mayor is running for re-election in the March 15-22 mayoral elections.

Reporting by Gwénaëlle Barzic and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, additional reporting by Clara Denina in London; writing by Michel Rose; editing by Alexander Smith

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