The sky darkens once again above the Saarstahl factory in Hayange (Moselle), the last French site to manufacture rails. Already a victim of the bankruptcy of British Steel in 2019 then of the financial difficulties of Liberty Steel (GFG Alliance) in 2021, it was thought to have been relaunched since the takeover by the German group Saarstahl in the summer of 2021. was carried out under the careful supervision of the State.
But the plant has been suffering for several months from a loss of competitiveness linked to the increase in the price of electricity. The order book is lightening and the management is negotiating with the trade unions for partial unemployment measures for the 470 employees of the site. Friday, February 4, the meeting ended in failure. “In normal times, we produce 300,000 tonnes of rail per year, indicates Djamal Hamdani, CFDT delegate. En January, we were told a forecast volume of 240,000 tonnes for 2022. And today, we hear about 220,000 tonnes. With such a low level of production, there can be no profitability. »
If the plant has lost competitiveness, it is because it is supplied with blooms, these steel ingots which are then rolled into rails, from the Ascoval electric steelworks in Saint-Saulve (North). This had been bought at the same time as the Hayange site by the Saarstahl group. With soaring electricity prices, these blooms cost much more to produce than those that come out of coal-fired blast furnaces and supply competing factories.
“The state is interfering, it’s not normal”
The merger between Hayange and Ascoval dates from the signing of a tripartite agreement with the SNCF, the main customer of the rail manufacturer, in 2019. At the time, it was a question, with the support of the State, of creating a national sector for the production of low-carbon rails (known as “green rails”, made with reused steel melted in electric furnaces), but also to ensure a future for the steelworks in the North, which is in great difficulty.
In November 2021, in order to preserve the competitiveness of the Hayange plant, the Saarstahl group had considered temporarily relocating part of the production of blooms to Germany, to traditional blast furnaces. This project had caused a real outcry on the side of Ascoval. The president of the Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, then in the middle of the campaign for the primary of the right, had stepped up to the plate. The government had intervened, by facilitating the renegotiation of the selling prices of finished products, carried out with the main customers of Saarstahl Rail, in particular the SNCF and the RATP. The German group then abandoned its relocation project.
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