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French steelworkers warn blockade is a last stand to save industry
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Sunday, 07 Oct 2012

The Guardian reported that in a valley lashed by wind and rain in the industrial heartland of north east France, steelworkers blockading the local foundry see their action as a last stand to save their jobs, their factory, their region's economy even the entire French steel industry.

As thunderstorms raged in the area this week, the symbolism was potent: the picket line bonfire hissed and went out. The tent where protesters had taken refuge from the elements ditched its concrete anchors and threatened to blow away.

There is little humor to be had these days outside the ArcelorMittal steelworks in Florange, where the temporary closure of two blast furnaces was declared permanent on Monday, with the loss of 629 jobs. Bitter jokes and anger are directed at the Indian born, British based Mr LN Mittal, owner of the world's largest steelmaking company.

Mr Edouard Martin head of the CFDT union at Florange said that "That man is a predator. He's not an industrialist, he's a financier."

Mr Martin, whose father worked at Gandrange, a neighboring steelworks bought by Mittal in 1999 and closed in 2009, added that "I'm sick of hearing people say: you are a historic industry but one from the past, you have to move on, do something else. I say: you don't need cars or washing machines or TGV trains? Try driving a microchip down the motorway."

The ArcelorMittal plant at Florange has become the symbol of France's industrial decline and a litmus test for the future of steelmaking in Europe.

In the Vallee de la Fensch in the Moselle, whose rich iron ore fields once made it the jewel of France's industrial crown, and where for this reason the earth is soaked with German and French blood spilled in conflicts over the last 140 years, Florange is the last steelworks standing. It's an industrial crisis that has echoes of the privatizations and plant closures that all but wiped out British steelmaking and coalmining in the 1980s and 90s. Unemployment in this area of France is already above the 10% national average, and the Florange plant, which supplies the car industry, has been hit by a fall in demand for new cars. Peugeot Citroën caused outrage in July when it announced it was cutting 8,000 jobs and closing a production line in suburban Paris, but it followed a first half loss of EUR 700 million and a 20% fall in sales in Europe in the first quarter.

Mittal is not shutting the entire site, but the so called hot line, the blast furnaces, where the iron ore is melted to produce steel and the neighboring coke plant.

Today the two furnaces, closed temporarily last year, are idle. The nearby heating stoves are on hold, emitting wisps of smoke into the grey sky.

Mr Maurice Nicotra, surveying the abandoned plant, said that "It's a sad sight. It's dead here now. Mittal told us he would put money into our steel industry, but look where we are."

France's Socialist president Mr François Hollande, who visited Florange during his election campaign this year, and Mr Arnaud Montebourg, the minister for industrial renewal, have taken up arms on behalf of the steelworkers and pledged to find a buyer for Florange's furnaces. However, Mittal, who blames falling global demand for steel and high production costs for the closure, has given them just two months to do so, at a time when Hollande is grappling to reduce the public deficit by EUR 30m and reverse rising unemployment that has topped three million.

Mr Cyril Colpin, a third generation steelworker employed at Florange since 1999, said that "We're all afraid. Over the years all the plants have closed here. If this one goes it won't be easy to find work. It's not that we don't make money here, it's that we don't make enough money for Mr Mittal. It's about maximum profit, not people."

Mr Walter Broccoli, the local Force Ouvrière secretary general, doesn't believe for one minute that the Hollande government will find a buyer and wants the plant nationalized. He said that "We want the government to declare steel a strategic asset for the country like electricity and petrol and requisition it. Oh, and not give a penny to Mittal."

He added that "They call us dinosaurs but the steel industry here has always been at the forefront of new technology. I'm not optimistic. I think we're already condemned, but we have to fight to save Florange because if we don't the whole valley will suffer the consequences."

Back in the leaking tent, Mr Martin says protesters will maintain the blockade. He added that "All eyes are on Florange. People are watching our battle to see what happens. They know if we lose, there are no guarantees for anyone. We're a historic industrial area, but for 40 years they've treated us like sheep as they shut our factories. This used to be the jewel of French industry. We had crises but survived them because we were willing to adapt to the market and we produced good quality steel. If we lose this battle, it's a bad sign for the rest of Europe's steelworks and will boost the multinationalists who will think they can do anything they want."

He added that "People say we are more expensive than Chinese workers. It's true. But those same people forget they're also more expensive. Everything and everyone is more expensive in France than in China, so what are we to do close down Europe and go elsewhere where everyone is paid USD 80 a month? It's not about pay, it's about the society we live in. Go tell that to Mittal."

Mr Henri Blaffard, a vice president of ArcelorMittal Europe, told the local Republican Lorrain newspaper that the closure was due to a serious crisis in Europe that had led to a 25% reduction in demand for steel. He added that "We cannot produce when there are no orders. The overcapacity in Europe is recognized by everyone the markets expect us to adapt."

He said the steel company had invested EUR 2 billion in other French plants at Dunkirk and Fos because they were more competitive.

Source - The Guardian


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