SAINT-JEAN-DE-MAURIENNE, France / Savoie: French Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg demanded on Friday that Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto rule out closing an unprofitable aluminium plant in southern France and hand off ownership to German investors.
“Rio Tinto has a responsibility that negotiations are fulfilled as the French government will not accept the other solution, a closure, that Rio Tinto is still keeping on the table,” the minister said after a visit to the plant.
Rio Tinto Alcan, the aluminium division of the mining giant, is in talks to divest the plant to German aluminium company Trimet in a deal backed by a French government investment fund.
“I indicated to Rio Tinto that we have concluded a deal that is economic, financial, industrial but also political with our German friends,” the minister said.
“Rio Tinto is facing a political consortium of two world powers,” he warned.
Since Socialists took power in France nearly a year ago, the firebrand Montebourg has put several multinationals on the spot demanding that French jobs are preserved despite a stagnating economy laid low by the eurozone debt crisis.
In March, Montebourg made world headlines when he said steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal was not welcome in France after ArcelorMittal seemed committed to closing a furnace in northeastern France.
The aluminium site in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne has been threatened with closure for months, ever since Rio Tinto announced it would end operations after the expiry of a sweetheart deal with France’s power giant EDF that provided the plant with a cheap electricity bill.
Rio Tinto Alcan executive Arnaud Soirat said the company felt it was under no pressure and “until proof of the contrary, the owner of the site is us.”
“We are working hard so that this negotiation reaches a conclusion, but it is clear that if it does not the last option would be to close the site,” Soirat said.
Rio Tinto sites in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and Castelsarrasin are believed to be responsible for about 2,000 direct or indirect jobs.
Rio Tinto has been on a long push to unload aluminium operations around the world as it looks to pull out of a business it took on spectacularly in buying Canada’s Alcan for a whopping US$38 billion in 2007.
The blockbuster deal drove up debt and forced Rio Tinto to slash costs when the aluminium market imploded amid the global financial crisis.
The Rio Tinto chief executive who championed the acquisition of Alcan, Tom Albanese, was forced to step down earlier this year.