The French state will not take over insolvent Swiss refiner Petroplus' oil refinery in Normandy, but could help the plant financially once a suitable buyer is found, President Francois Hollande said on Saturday.
About 500 jobs at the 161,000 barrels-a-day Petit-Couronne refinery are at risk, the latest industrial headache for the Socialist leader who has vowed to stem rising unemployment.
"It's difficult to find a buyer. We must do everything to find one," Hollande told reporters after meeting union leaders in Val-De-Reuil, a town about 110 kilometers (70 miles) north-west of Paris.
"The state will do its duty, but it cannot take the plant over, and the workers know that," he said.
He added the state could at some point provide financing.
Petroplus poses a major test for Hollande's government after it faced criticism over the tactics it used in a two-month battle over the future of ArcelorMittal's Florange steel plant, which unnerved investors in the euro zone's second largest economy and confused France's unions.
His administration is struggling to stop a haemorrhage of industrial jobs which has helped push unemployment to 15-year highs, while curbing public spending and raising taxes to help slash debt in a stagnant economy.
A French court set a deadline of February 5 for interested parties to submit bids for the Petit-Couronne refinery.
Shell , which had a six-month oil processing deal with the troubled plant running to mid-December, has not extended its contract, making the refinery less attractive for potential buyers because of expensive restart costs.
So far only NetOil, a company led by Middle Eastern businessman Roger Tamraz, has submitted an offer while 7 others have filed letters of intent to buy France's oldest refinery.
Net Oil's offer includes an oil supply deal with BP and an agreement with Hyundai to upgrade the plant.
Other candidates are Hong-Kong-based APG, the Libyan Investment Authority, Jabs Gulf Energy Ltd, an Iraqi company owned by Abu Dhabi's Hanna Al Shaikh Group, Iran's Tadbir Energy Development Group (TEDG), Swiss consortium Activapro AG, and Terrae International SA, another Swiss company.
Union spokesman Yvon Scornet told reporters after the meeting that Hollande had promised to do everything possible to push the project forward, but had given no guarantees.