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Bankrupt French refinery attracts 5 bids

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ROUEN, France, Feb 05 AFP

February 06 2013, 07:19AM

A bankrupt oil refinery northwest of Paris has attracted five offers, with the two most serious bids coming from Egypt and Switzerland, the French ministry of industrial regeneration has said as the Petroplus site that employs 470 people focused French anxiety over plant closures.

"Five offers were officially registered with the court administrator. Industrial Regeneration Minister Arnaud Montebourg considers that two seem serious and financed," a statement on Tuesday said.

"They are the Swiss investor Terrae and the Egyptian power company Arabiyya lel Istithmaraat," it added.

The French government was working with prospective buyers and would try to find a solution that preserved jobs at the refinery and offered the site some long-term prospects, the statement said.

The CGT trade union said meanwhile that "at least three offers" had been made for Petroplus, and there had been vague talk of possible bidders from Dubai, Libya or Iran.

Late on Monday, officials at the office of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had played down the chances of finding a buyer following talks between the prime minister's advisers and representatives of the workers, saying the possibility was "limited".

The Petroplus issue has been a thorn in the side for more than a year, first for the centre-right administration overseen by President Nicolas Sarkozy and now for the Socialist government led by President Francois Hollande.

The site at Petit-Couronne opened in 1929. The most-recent parent company Petroplus filed for bankruptcy on January 24, 2012, and the refinery was placed in administration on October 16 with arrangements to maintain activity for two months.

The case symbolises the government's struggle to prevent the closure of industrial sites, fight unemployment, cut a big public deficit and increase the competitive position of French industry.

Some bigger cases in the background involve thousands of planned job cuts at carmakers Peugeot Citroen and Renault, and the jobs of about 750 people employed at blast furnaces in northern France being closed by steel group ArcelorMittal.

Montebourg on Tuesday said the state would likely take a minority stake in Petroplus alongside a buyer "because very large amounts of capital are needed for reinvestment and to make this refinery efficient".

The minister, who has been highly critical of the effects of globalisation and is promoting a "buy French" campaign, was put on the back foot over the recent and highly controversial ArcelorMittal case, having argued unsuccessfully for nationalisation of the steel activities concerned and having held out the possibility of a buyer although none materialised.

Several unions had raised the possibility of nationalisation for the Petroplus site in recent months but Hollande, who visited the site in January, said that the state would do its duty but could not take over the business.

The prime minister's experts were gloomy after the meeting on Monday.

"It is a very difficult case on which the state has done a lot of work, but the chances of success are limited," they warned.

By Chloe Coupeau