French So­cial­ists risk melt­down in stricken steel belt

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

FLORANGE: Tow­er­ing above the Moselle val­ley in north­east France are two rust­ing tes­ta­ments to the dashed hopes of Fran­cois Hol­lande’s pres­i­dency that loom large over the elec­tion of his suc­ces­sor next year. Five years af­ter steel gi­ant ArcelorMit­tal snuffed out the last two blast fur­naces in a cru­cible of France’s heavy in­dus­try, the work­ers who fought to save their beloved “cathe­drals”, as they call them, are still seething. Lak­shmi Mit­tal, the In­dian bil­lion­aire owner of the sprawl­ing steel­works that runs be­tween the towns of Florange and Hayange, is the tar­get of much of their ire. But the rul­ing So­cial­ists are also feel­ing the heat. They are ac­cused of be­tray­ing vot­ers who elected Hol­lande on a prom­ise to tame cap­i­tal­ism and keep the Florange fires burn­ing.

“I will never again vote So­cial­ist. Never. It’s over,” said Lionel Bur­riello, a 39-year-old me­chanic, who fol­lowed his Ital­ian im­mi­grant fa­ther into the steel mills. “It was a shit job, toil­ing in the heat and the dust. But we took pride in it,” said the trade union­ist, one of the 629 work­ers who were moved to jobs in the site’s rolling mills or pen­sioned off un­der a 2012 com­pro­mise bro­kered by the gov­ern­ment. For Olivier We­ber, an­other son of the val­ley who car­ried out the last smelt­ing op­er­a­tion in Oc­to­ber 2011, the loss of the hot steel mills robbed the re­gion of a key marker of its iden­tity. “See­ing the fur­naces is like see­ing the graves of rel­a­tives in the ceme­tery. It’s painful,” the 35-year-old said.

The dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion that fu­elled Brexit and Don­ald Trump’s rise to the White House has cre­ated fer­tile ground for far­right leader Marine Le Pen, who is hop­ing to pull off a sim­i­lar up­set in the April-May elec­tion on a pro­tec­tion­ist plat­form. More than 1.5 mil­lion man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs have been lost in France in the past 25 years, with some of the coun­try’s best-known man­u­fac­tur­ers like Peugeot and TGV high­speed train maker Al­stom among those re­quir­ing a leg-up re­cently from the state. Sit­u­ated at the cross­roads be­tween France, Bel­gium, Lux­em­bourg and Ger­many, the Lor­raine re­gion where the Moselle val­ley is sit­u­ated has kept afloat thanks to a broad man­u­fac­tur­ing mix.

But the signs of de­cline sparked by the cri­sis in Europe’s steel sec­tor, which claimed a steel­works in Gan­drange in 2008, are start­ing to stack up. “It’s be­com­ing a waste­land here,” said Gabriele Mar­i­otti, the owner of a cafe on the main street of Hayange, a grey town at the foot of the blast fur­naces.

“The gold in this val­ley was steel. Now there’s noth­ing left. They sent it all over­seas,” said Fer­nand, a scrap metal dealer and FN sup­porter whose son was among hun­dreds of peo­ple laid off from ArcelorMit­tal sub­con­trac­tors in the past five years. In 2014, Hayange made head­lines when it dumped its long­time So­cial­ist mayor for a young gun from Le Pen’s Na­tional Front (FN). Trade union­ist Fred­eric We­ber fears the FN could spring a sim­i­lar sur­prise in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which polls show end­ing in a duel be­tween Le Pen and Fran­cois Fil­lon, a Thatcherite con­ser­va­tive. “Peo­ple here are lost,” says We­ber. “They tell us they will ei­ther not vote at all or vote FN.”

On a visit to Florange in Oc­to­ber Hol­lande de­fended the five-year com­mit­ment he se­cured from ArcelorMit­tal in 2012 to pre­serve jobs and plough 180 mil­lion eu­ros ($193 mil­lion) into the area in re­turn for the moth­balling of the fur­naces. “The bat­tle was won,” Hol­lande de­claredan as­sess­ment con­tested by the work­ers, who re­sent him for over­rid­ing for­mer econ­omy min­is­ter Ar­naud Mon­te­bourg’s pro­posal to tem­po­rar­ily na­tion­al­ize the site. Last week, Hol­lande an­nounced he would not stand for re-elec­tion, paving the way for his prime min­is­ter, Manuel Valls, to throw his hat in the ring. “Whether it’s Hol­lande or Valls, it’s the same thing. It’s just a change of pack­ag­ing,” We­ber said.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion’s losers

Lo­cal So­cial­ist law­maker Michel Lieb­gott ac­cuses “Made in France” cham­pion Mon­te­bourg-who is also run­ning for the party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion-of per­pet­u­at­ing “a ro­man­tic vi­sion of the work­ing class that no longer ex­ists”. “In to­day’s fac­to­ries, peo­ple are sit­ting at com­put­ers,” Lieb­gott ar­gues, call­ing for greater in­vest­ment in train­ing peo­ple to work in high­tech plants.

Bur­riello, who is run­ning for par­lia­ment next year on a hard-left list, said vot­ers drawn to pop­ulist can­di­dates faced a choice be­tween two “us-ver­sus-them” pro­grams. “With the Na­tional Front, it’s us ver­sus con­tract work­ers from other Euro­pean coun­tries. With the far left, it’s us ver­sus the fi­nan­cial oli­garchy.” The op­por­tu­ni­ties and pit­falls of Europe’s open borders are on daily dis­play in Lor­raine, where 90,000 skilled work­ers com­mute across the bor­der each day to Lux­em­bourg for bet­ter wages, while the un­skilled eke out a liv­ing at home. It’s a po­lit­i­cally toxic cock­tail for Lieb­gott, whose 20-year par­lia­men­tary ca­reer could be in jeop­ardy if he stands again in the gen­eral elec­tion in June. “I’d be happy to make it to the sec­ond round,” he says.

— AP

NEW YORK: Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump, ac­com­pa­nied by SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, speaks to mem­bers of the me­dia at Trump Tower in New York on Tues­day, Dec 6, 2016.

— AFP

HAYANGE: Photo shows blast fur­naces of steel gi­ant ArcelorMit­tal at the Florange site, in Hayange, eastern France.

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