By Gilbert Reilhac
FLORANGE, France (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande, seeking to regain the support of steel workers angered over his failure to stave off redundancies, said on Thursday he would return to their plant every year to ensure promised investment went ahead.
With his approval ratings at all-time lows and unemployment above 10 percent, Hollande is looking to traditional backers of his Socialist Party to stop the advance of the far-right National Front before municipal and European polls next year.
The Socialist president announced the creation of a public research center for the steel industry after touring parts of the Florange plant that have been modernized with a $243 million investment by owners ArcelorMittal.
He also touted the draft "Florange Law" that would impose tough fines on firms that shutter plants deemed economically viable - a gesture to workers disappointed after a year of EU-imposed belt-tightening and unpopular labor market and pension reforms.
His visit to the Florange steelworks, fulfilling a campaign promise, showed he is determined to mend ties with workers still furious that his government reneged on a threat to nationalize two blast furnaces and let the multinational shut them down.
The furnaces that became a symbol of a highly politicized battle to maintain steel production in France during last year's presidential campaign are now gathering rust.
"I will come back here every year to ensure that what has been promised is carried out," Hollande said in a brief statement after meeting trade union leaders. He took no questions in public but union reaction was mostly positive.
Describing talks with Hollande as "heated", CFDT union representative Edouard Martin said the onus was now on the president to see the investment pledge through.
"We didn't mince our words, we gave him an earful of our bitterness and anger. But we can't spend our lives moaning and groaning, we have to look to the future now," Martin said.
His efforts to stimulate growth and job creation have yielded few conclusive results so far, though data showing unemployment fell in August for the first time in two years brought mitigated the gloom.
In the closed-door meeting, Hollande pointed to a 300 million euro ($405 million) development plan for the Lorraine region which included the research center, signed earlier this month with regional authorities.
The "Florange law", which parliament began debating on Tuesday, requires firms to prove they have exhausted all options for selling a plant to a new operator before closing it.
Such a law would not have saved Florange's blast furnaces as ArcelorMittal said no viable buyer had materialized, and trade unionists said they expected more from a left-wing president.
"We salute his political courage, but there is still a lot of bitterness," said Lionel Burriello, head of the hardline CGT union at Florange. "We're naive enough to think he's not coming with his hands in his pockets on some sort of publicity stunt."
Florange workers brought Hollande some of the worst publicity of his 16 months in office when they erected a marble tombstone engraved with the word "BETRAYAL" in July.
It was a grim reminder of the day when the Socialist presidential candidate promised he would protect their jobs during a speech given from top of a truck.
The plant's fate became a lasting scar on his reputation after Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg brandished the threat of temporary nationalizing to stop the furnaces closing only to be disavowed by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
ArcelorMittal has since shut the furnaces, which it said were not economically viable.
Le Monde cartoonist Plantu summed up the irony of Hollande returning to a site which has been abandoned in large part.
Standing atop a truck with a bullhorn, he addresses an desolate landscape of rusting steelworks with not a worker in sight, saying: "My friends, I've returned!"
(Reporting By Gilbert Reilhac; Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Ralph Boulton)