Paris: Steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal and the French government sought a last-ditch solution on Friday on the eve of the expiry of his deadline to the state to find a new buyer for a plant it has threatened to nationalise.
A number of scenarios were evoked and media reports were awash with names that could take control of the Florange plant in the eastern Lorraine region, where two blast furnaces have been closed by ArcelorMittal as it seeks to react to sagging demand for steel.
The two sides were said to be seeking a compromise in which ArcelorMittal gets to shut the two furnaces if it guarantees that the 650 workers whose jobs are on the line are redeployed.
"Between the two hypotheses, a third way is being sought," an informed source told AFP without giving any details.
France's Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg meanwhile met with workers from the plant who have camping outside his office to declare that President Francois Hollande would take a final decision on nationalisation.
He underscored that this option was "not a false hope but a solution that is serious, credible and lasting."
Mr Montebourg was the first to brandish the nationalisation threat and said he wanted to expel Mr Mittal, the world's 21st richest person according to Forbes, from France.
The world's largest steelmaker, which wants to continue to operate the rest of the Florange site, has given the government until Saturday to find a new investor willing to take over the furnaces.
Mr Montebourg has said there are interested investors, but only for the entire site, with a nationalisation as a means to sell the plant to another firm.
ArcelorMittal has warned that nationalisation of the plant would cast doubt on the future of all its operations in France, where it employs 20,000 people.
Both ArcelorMittal and the French presidency have indicated that the talks could carry on beyond the expiry of the deadline to Sunday.
Mr Montebourg, widely regarded as a loose cannon whose mantra to promote national industry has even seen him don a Breton sailor top for a popular French magazine, has defended his threat to nationalise the plant.
"Barack Obama's nationalised. The Germans are nationalising. All countries are nationalising. I've also noticed the British nationalised six banks," he told CNBC after a meeting with trade unions in Paris.
The minister had said there was a new buyer interested in Florange, describing him as a "steelman, an industrialist, who is not a financier, who wants to invest his own money and who is ready to put almost 400 million euros into renovating this plant."
As the deadline approached, there was feverish media speculation on who the interested party could be.
The names ranged from Russia's Severstal, controlled by Russian billionaire Alexei Mordashov which in 2006 suffered a high-profile setback to acquire Arcelor, Italy's Riva Steel - Europe's third-biggest producer - to Tata Steel, the oldest steel firm in India.
A survey published Friday revealed that 53.6 percent of French people were unhappy with the way the government had handled the case.
However, 62.9 percent of the 986 people polled by BVA for the iTELE channel said they favoured temporary nationalisation.
Mr Hollande's government has been caught in a bind over the plant, between his pledge to protect jobs and improve the competitiveness of French industry.
There have also been concerns the episode will dent France's credentials as an investment location. London's colourful mayor Boris Johnson has seized on the controversy to invite fleeing businessmen to invest in the British capital.