FOR sheer theatrical effect, it is hard to beat Arnaud Montebourg. Tall and telegenic, the 50-year-old Socialist politician is as shameless bossing about global companies as he is charming old ladies at trestle-table picnics over bottles of burgundy in his wineland constituency. Since becoming France’s industry minister in May, however, Mr Montebourg has had a series of awkward encounters with economic reality, which have begun to raise questions about his future in government.
His most recent bruising experience came from his effort to stop ArcelorMittal, a steelmaking giant, closing two blast furnaces at Florange, in Lorraine. At a time when other companies are laying off many more workers, the 629 planned job losses were relatively small. But the political symbolism was large. Lorraine, on France’s eastern border, was once the centre of world steelmaking, and still projects muscular industriousness as a source of national pride. On the election trail, Francois Hollande, now president, went to the site, clambered atop a van, and vowed to protect jobs there.
Mr Montebourg took up the cause with enthusiasm. He promised to find a buyer for the blast furnaces and denounced the company, declaring “we don’t want Mittal in France any more”. As union hopes rose, he threatened to nationalise the firm—an option Mr Hollande himself then refused to rule out. In the end, however, the government backed down. On November 30th Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, announced that the blast furnaces would not be restarted, and that talk of nationalisation was off the agenda.
In his role as saviour-in-chief of French industry, Mr Montebourg has tirelessly criss-crossed the country, even dressed up in a striped Breton top in a bid to promote stuff “made in France”. But his credibility is wearing thin. Although he staked out a claim as a left-winger at the Socialist presidential primary, he has zigzagged within the party over the years.
Mr Montebourg’s real hallmark is a tough and consistent call for cleaner democratic politics. A lawyer, he campaigned to hold Jacques Chirac to account on charges of corruption linked to the former president’s stint as mayor of Paris. He called for a new constitution and a Sixth Republic. More recently, he has been one of the rare Socialist voices calling for the expulsion of corrupt officials. Today, however, that reputation has got lost amid what his detractors consider recklessness, and what union supporters—including at Florange—increasingly see as betrayal.
For now, Mr Montebourg insists he will stay in his “battle station” job. In some ways, this suits Mr Hollande, who was elected on a promise to stand up to finance and save industry, and needs to show his left wing that he does not just roll over in the face of giant corporations. Yet keeping his minister in place also makes for confusion in French economic policy. Reformists in government are trying to argue that France is open for business. Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, who has glacial relations with Mr Montebourg, talks of a “Copernican revolution” in Socialist economic thinking. But such a message remains inaudible after Mr Montebourg has so recently put the threat of nationalisation back on the table.