By Gilbert Reilhac
BELFORT France (Reuters) - For Alstom workers in eastern France, news that General Electric has beaten rival bidder Siemens to a tie-up with their firm has brought relief and a response perhaps best summed up by the saying "better the devil you know".
In the town of Belfort, some 2,500 Alstom employees have worked for more than a decade building electrical turbines just a few dozen metres (yards) away from a GE plant, whose workers they meet each day at lunchtime in a shared canteen.
While French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg kept them on edge for weeks about the fate of their employer - forcing U.S.-based GE to sweeten its bid and prompting a rival one from Germany's Siemens - many Alstom workers admitted they had quietly been pushing for the former.
"General Electric's people have been here for a long time, and this purchase ensures that the factories will remain," said Daniel, a 53-year-old maintenance worker for Alstom who asked to remain anonymous. "My greatest fear was Siemens: with them in charge, we'd have been shut down in three years."
Montebourg, who is known for clashing publicly with foreign investors, reacted furiously in April when he learned through media reports that GE was planning some form of approach to buy Alstom's turbines and grid equipment business.
He set to work stalling GE, soliciting a rival bid from Germany's Siemens and issuing a decree which stated that any deal in the energy, water, transport, telecoms and health sectors required the approval of the economy minister.
Montebourg argued a GE-Siemens tie-up would create a European champion in which France would have a voice, while a GE takeover would put French strategic interest in the hands of a faraway foreign owner.
"We won't let Alstom sell this national champion behind the back of its shareholders, its employees and the French government," he wrote in April on his official Twitter account.
However, that argument never held much sway in Belfort, near France's border with Germany, where GE has employed some 1,700 people since 1999, when it bought Alstom's gas turbine division and chose the town as the site of its European headquarters.
Indeed GE's history in Belfort stretches back even further, to 1928, when one of its subsidiaries, Thomson-Houston, merged with the Societe Alsacienne de Construction Mecanique to form Alsthom, then spelled with an "h".
It was in Belfort that GE's bid for Alstom got some of its loudest backing. The local chamber of commerce, a group of small- and medium-sized business owners and the town's centre-right mayor all urged the Socialist government to throw its weight behind GE's bid in an opinion article published in May.
Many workers pointed to GE's long presence in France, a point which the firm underscored in a public relations campaign featuring television and print adverts.
"GE has been rooted here for longer than the others, which is quite reassuring," said Kamel Elgharbi, 36, an inventory worker. "And if the (Alstom's) patents are protected, as they say they are, there should be no risk of outsourcing."
Some Alstom workers expressed regret at no longer being on the payroll of a French company, and welcomed the fact that the French government had struck a deal to purchase a stake in Alstom from its leading shareholder, Bouygues.
"This is the least bad solution," said an engineer from the control systems department. "It's the best solution in terms of keeping our jobs, compared with Siemens."
(Writing by Nicholas Vinocur, editing by David Evans)