PARIS—French President Francois Hollande threatened Tuesday to nationalize a plant owned by steelmaker ArcelorMittal in an increasingly heated dispute in which ministers have said the multinational is no longer welcome in the country.
Moments before talks steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, Holland said that nationalizing ArcelorMittal’s plant in northeastern France remained on the table.
“The nationalization is part of the subjects of the discussion,” Hollande said.
“I will meet in a few minutes with Mr. Mittal to see what answer he can give us in respect to this requirement for us to keep the site as it is today,” Hollande said.
The warning came as 40 lawmakers from Hollande’s Socialist party said they were in favor of temporarily nationalizing ArcelorMittal’s plant in Florange.
“Mittal does not respect our country,” a joint statement by the parliamentarians said, adding that his interests “were clearly not that of France, of its industrial fabric and its workers.”
Mittal, who ranks 21st on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, is locked in a battle with France over the future of the Florange site in the traditional, but declining, heartland of the French steel industry in the eastern Lorraine region.
Hollande’s government has made a priority of protecting jobs as it seeks to revive France’s struggling economy.
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.
The company gave the government two months, which expires on Saturday, to find a buyer for them. The government says it has two offers, but only for the entire Florange site including other facilities which ArcelorMittal wants to retain and keep operating.
ArcelorMittal has refused to sell the full operation and warned that nationalization of the Florange facilities would threaten the viability of all of its activities across France, where it employs 20,000 people.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, meanwhile, tried to limit the damage to investor perceptions after Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg threatened to nationalize Florange and said ArcelorMittal was no longer welcome in France.
“Everyone can understand that this case is a special one,” he said.
“We of course welcome investors on our soil,” Moscovici added, stressing that only a temporary nationalization had been envisaged so far.
Montebourg, who is suggesting that the state nationalize Florange so as to pass the entire site on to a buyer, raised the stakes on Monday, saying France did not want ArcelorMittal in the country anymore 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.”
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 nationalization 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.
London’s colorful mayor, Boris Johnson, meanwhile, jumped into the fray, mocking France by saying that left-wing revolutionaries had taken control of the country and were driving investors away.
“I see the sans-culottes appear to have captured the government in Paris. The French minister has been so eccentric to call for a massive investment to depart from France.
“I have no hesitation in saying here, ‘Venez à Londres, mes amis!’ (Come to London, my friends),” he told a meeting of business leaders in New Delhi.
“Come to the business capital of the world,” Johnson added.
The “sans-culottes,” meaning “without knee breeches,” were the most militant supporters of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.