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Steel production channeled to most efficient plants

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1980



Fos Sur Mer, France

With flights of wild ducks and screaming gulls gliding over the misty winter marches surrounding the Cote d'Azur's Europort South, the smoking ultramodern steel mills of France's most ambitious industrial project of the 1960s are beginning to signal a gradual upturn in the country's recession-bogged steel industry.

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Solmer and Usinor, the two steel factories that constitute a vital section of Europe's second largest port complex after Rotterdam, are now producing 80 percent of their 3.5-million-ton annual capacity, a vast improvement over the mere 1.6 million tons produced in 1975 when the world economic slump hit the French steel industry head-on.

On a national basis, France has managed to increase its steel production by 18 percent over the past two years. It now stands at 23 million tons or 3.2 percent of the world's total steel production.

But these figures are still a far cry from France's overrall production capacity of 32 million tons. Between 1974 and 1978 French steelmakers were forced to reduce output by 15 percent because of the recession.

The Fost factories however, are producing more steel than elsewhere in France. More conventional steel mills are only working at 66 percent capacity. "With the best and latest techniques in steel production in the world," observed Antoine Robert of the French Chamber of Commerce for Steel, "the government is paying particular attention to the Fos complex."

Seeking to streamline its foundering, debtridden steel industry in an attempt to make it more competitive in the face of cheaper third- world steel, the government is in the process of closing all of France's antiquated and nonprofitable factories.

Instead, it will retain modern steel mills such as those at Fos and Dunkirk, as well as a number of efficiently equipped shops in eastern and northern France as the backbone of the industry.

This has meant laying off substantial portions of the industry's massive labor force. The hardest-hit regions have been in the Lorraine of eastern France and in the north where the French steel industry was first developed in the mid-19th century.

More than 30,000 workers have lost their jobs over the past six years. By 1981 steel companies expect to reduce their total work force to 100,000 as compared with 157,629 in 1974. Such drastic measures have obviously caused severe social discontent. Strikes have become the norm of the French steel industry. The most recently hit area was the Lorraine town of Denain, where workers have been on strike since the beginning of December. Company officials have announced the layoffs of almost 5,500 workers at the Usinor mills, which represents practically the entire town's only source of industrial employment.

"This has obviously been a grave shock for many workers who traditionally relied on the security of their paternalist factories," said Mr. Robert. "Suddenly this very security which had been an established fact of life among their fathers and grandfathers has gone."

Another problem is that workers in eastern France do not tend to be a very mobile people. They attach great importance to their homes, friends, vegetable gardens, fishing streams, and hunting grounds.

"Despite industrialization," explained one analyst, "both steel and textile workers in eastern France may work in factories but have never really left the soil. As a result they still strongly harbor conservative peasant mentalities. American-type job and location mobility are unheard of in this part of the country."