As long-time observer of French politics Art Goldhammer has pointed out, there is little in the French government’s battle with the Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, that makes sense. Uncertainty prevails over what deal the government has done with Mittal, what promises he may or may not have given, and what the future is for the Florange plant that is at the centre of the whole affair.
One thing that seems to be clear: there will be no forced nationalization of the plant, as argued for by France’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg. Well-known as a voice on the left of an otherwise rather centrist Socialist government, Montebourg has long championed the cause of “de-globalization”: a return to national protection and a more traditional national industrial policy of old. Montebourg plunged into the Mittal affair by criticizing publicly the Indian businessman, accusing him of not keeping his promises. His proposed solution – that gave much hope to the workers of the steel plant threatened with closure – was to force a nationalization of the plant. Mittal resisted, saying he was willing to let the government take over some of the plant but he wanted to retain those elements he thought could be profitable. At issue are two blast furnaces at Florange which Mittal argues are no longer worth keeping given the overcapacity of steel production in Europe. As demand for steel has fallen, so Mittal has been forced to rationalize production. Existing demand can be met by steel production in other sites, such as Dunkirk (read economist Elie Cohen on this here), leaving the Florange furnances without customers. As the government wasn’t ready to cough up the cash needed for a full nationalization, and many in the government were opposed to doing so, it made a deal with Mittal. Though Mittal committed himself to 180 million Euros of investment in cold steel processing at Florange, the issue of the blast furnaces remains unsolved. The government is claiming that it has saved the 629 jobs that were threatened but the unions don’t think Mittal will keep his word.
What is really at stake in this affair? In many ways, it seems distinctly French and confirms much of what The Economist wrote about France a few weeks ago in its special report on the country. Loud union reps camping out at the entrance to the site, vitriolic anti-capitalist rhetoric from leftwing ministers, behind-the-scene deals brokered between political and business interests: all evidence of the poor state of corporate France.
Beyond some of these clichés, two issues stand out. One is to do with Montebourg. His appointment as minister responsible for revitalizing French industry was surprising. As someone who harbours ambitions far grander than saving a few hundred jobs on the Franco-Luxembourg border, Montebourg could have been expected to resist the poisoned portfolio. It was obviously going to mean fighting a losing battle over unproductive sites like Florange and yet he accepted the job. What has been tested in the Florange affair is Montebourg’s representativeness. Does he stand for a strong current in French opinion and within the Socialist Party about a state-led route for industrial rejuvenation? Is it correct to see France as torn between its Colbertian instincts of old and a new recognition of the need for liberalisation and market-driven competitiveness? This is the kind of ideological battle The Economist likes but events over the last few days suggest something rather less dramatic is going on in France. Montebourg doesn’t seem to have his own industrial strategy but nor does the government. At the very least, strategies are about choices and priorities. What the government’s response over Florange has demonstrated is immobility and fright: unwilling to give up on the Florange workers and yet unable to place their intervention in this case within a wider plan for French industry. Montebourg appears as the fire-fighter in chief more than as a voice for an alternative French industrial strategy.
The second issue is about nationalization itself. Elie Cohen argues that the Florange affair is different from other recent instances of nationalization: General Motors in the US, Alstom in France. He is right to point to differences: there is little in common between Florange and the company-wide restructuring that resulted from the government takeover of General Motors. But he doesn’t mention the other obvious case of nationalization, that of banking and financial institutions. Via bail-outs, some of these have become the property of tax-payers. In all cases, this was evidence of massive strategic intervention by public actors to save a financial system they believed was on the rocks. Why is it that such interventions are free from the sense of helplessness and pointlessness that government involvement in failing manufacturing industries evokes for all observers?
Former Danish Prime Minister, Poul Rasmussen, an articulate European social democrat, once made the observation that many Western politicians appear unwilling to accept a shrinking of their country’s financial sector but they are willing to run down almost entirely their manufacturing sectors. He put this down to a deference elected representatives felt in the face of suave and sophisticated bankers. He perhaps exaggerated the point but it is certainly true that whilst government intervention to save failing industries appears to us anachronistic, intervention to prop up a tottering financial sector is seen as far-sighted and brave. This is surely as much about sentiment as it is an objective assessment. After all, a reason why the government couldn’t afford to nationalize Florange is that it still hasn’t paid off the debts incurred in saving its banks. These are the kinds of priorities the French government cannot articulate but they are nevertheless there in the background and structure government action over the mid to long term. There is no strategy there, but an underlying structure of interests and relations of power upon which French society rests.