PARIS, Feb 27 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy kept up the role of defender of French industry on Monday, promising state investment in an idled ArcelorMittal plant as opposition Socialists rushed out rival plans to keep such plants open.
With industrial decline a major election issue, the Florange plant in northeastern France has become a battleground for the April-May ballot as both Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande, who is leading polls, vow to save it.
Florange's blast furnaces, the last functioning in France's former steelmaking heartland along the German border, have stood idle for lack of orders since the second half of 2011. Workers fear they may never be fired up again.
Sarkozy, who launched his bid for a second term as president in mid-February, urged ArcelorMittal to make investments so the furnaces could be started up again in the second half of the year when the economy would be stronger.
He said the state could help finance investments needed to get the plant functioning again - on top of the 150 million euros ($202 million) it has already said it would invest if the European Commission chooses the site for a partially EU-financed carbon-capture pilot programme.
"France will not abandon its steel industry," Sarkozy told RTL radio. "If the state has to invest through the FSI (strategic investment fund), then we are ready to do it."
Hollande told cheering workers during a visit to Florange on Friday that he would introduce a law to force companies to sell unused factories to buyers who would keep them in operation.
Losing no time, he proposed a bill to that effect on Monday.
"This law would force a company planning to close an industrial site within the group to consider any acquisition proposals that are put to it," Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon said.
Sarkozy said it made no sense to force companies to sell facilities that would only end up in the same predicament six months later in the hands of another firm.
The Socialist proposal has next to no chance of passing in the lower house of parliament, where Sarkozy's conservative UMP has a majority. However, the party could revive the bill were Hollande to win the presidential election, whether or not the left also wins legislative elections in June.
Hollande leads Sarkozy by between 1 and 6 points in polls for the April 22 first round, and by 12 points for a May 6 run-off.
The demise of plants like Florange has left France one of the least industrialised of some 40 advanced economies tracked by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
France has lost 355,000 jobs in industry over the five years that Sarkozy has been in office, a fact Hollande rarely misses an opportunity to point out.