Will President Macron resurrect the French mining industry?
During his tenure as the Minister of Economy, French President Emmanuel Macron signed off a number of mineral exploration projects and has been quoted as saying he plans to overhaul France’s mining code. With a parliamentary majority secured, what should we expect? Julian Turner reports.
Emmanuel Macron swept to victory in May’s French presidential election on a wave of optimism and relief. The far right had been routed and a degree of stability restored. Now, the real work begins.
France’s youngest ever president has inherited a nation deeply divided along class and economic lines. Turnout in the election was the lowest in nearly 40 years; almost one-third of voters chose neither Macron, a Europhile centrist, nor the nationalist Marie Le Pen, while a further 12 million people abstained.
Central to Macron’s strategy to win over the doubters are ambitious labour law reforms aimed at kick-starting France’s economy. What role, if any, does mining play in the new president’s plans?
In his previous position as Minister of Industry and Economic Affairs, Macron approved a number of domestic mineral exploration projects and supported plans to overhaul the country’s mining code.
“There is a wealth under French territory, especially gold, in metropolitan France and overseas,” he told news agency LesEchos. “Given the economic stakes we have, we would make a profound mistake by not exploiting it,” he added. “We must, therefore, lift the taboo which suggests that we could no longer exploit the subsoil of our country. Our imagination remains marked by the mine of the 19th century. In fact, we have the capacity to operate in a sustainable, and environmentally and socially responsible, manner.
“That is the challenge for the coming months. It is a development perspective, which is not meant to transform the face of the French economy but to complement and reinforce it. That is why it is part of our economic strategy and our supply chain strategy.”
French resistance: Macron’s call for responsible mining
Macron’s description of mining as a “taboo” is well chosen. Resource exploitation remains a highly emotive issue in France. The government banned fracking in 2011 and cancelled exploration licences held by companies including Schuepbach and Total SA after protests by environmentalists; a decision upheld by France’s constitutional court in 2013. The nation’s last coal mine closed its doors in 2004.
Unlike in the US, the French state issues mining rights but the resources remain public property.
“In France, there was a real mining culture until the 1980s,” said Macron. “It was strong in some regions, Lorraine, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the south. These regions have retained a high degree of sensitivity in this area, much greater than others. How to explain it? First of all, because they are often misunderstanding the hazardous explanations or approximations given to them − sometimes by the industrialists themselves. There may also be local sensitivities, particularly related to the ‘return’ issue, especially when job prospects are too weak or not clear enough.”
“Finally, there is an environmental sensitivity. It is strong in France and this presupposes objectivity. We must admit that there is no ‘ex ante zero risk’. Being environmentally demanding, that means having a democratic and technical debate before authorising a project.
“This also means selecting independent experts, something for which we have had a weakness in France on several projects, and make evaluations. We must replace the culture of controversy with that of objective evaluation.”
In April 2015, Macron launched the French Government’s ‘Responsible Mining’ initiative highlighting clean extraction techniques, followed by the publication of a corresponding white paper in 2016.
Code red: French mining regulations and state strategy
France is rich in natural resources such as uranium and coal, yet imports most of its fuel and mineral raw materials, much of it from Russia. Plans to invest up to €400m in Compagnie National des Mines de France (CMF) − the nation’s first state-owned industrial entity in 20 years − have been shelved.
Macron had envisaged CMF would “re-engage France in the global battles for natural resources”, with a focus on speciality metals, including lithium, germanium, tungsten, antimony and rare earths, both inside France and around the world, extending to former colonies in Africa and South America.
However, the travails of nickel miner Eramet, hit hard by a 40% drop in the price of the commodity since 2015, and uranium producer Areva, which last year required a €5bn capital boost, convinced the then government that the time was not ripe to create a third state-owned mining company.
Macron has outlined his support for the redrafting of the country's antiquated mining code, which remains inconsistent with EU rules on public access to information, on competition and prospecting, operating and extraction permit criteria, and environmental protection and waste management.
“Through the overhaul of the mining code, which is widely consulted, and work on the responsible mine, we want to restore prospects to this activity,” he told LesEchos in 2015. “First, by clearly saying that metropolitan France and overseas have a mining future,” he continued. “There are a lot of exploitable minerals, and we have had a strong tradition and culture in this area.
“This strategy requires a very thorough review. We have the first elements, thanks to the BRGM [Bureau of Geological and Mining Research], on the different minerals and on the potential of exploitation: they are real, one can create value. But this is not such as to meet the totality of French needs or to make France a country that can compete with the major mining countries.”
Going underground: is France set for a mini mining boom?
With global commodity prices recovering, and a pro-mining president in the Élysée Palace, there are signs that domestic and foreign mining operators are showing renewed interest in mainland France.
In 2013, the Socialist Government granted permits for a French gold project owned by La Mancha Resources. Since 2014, Australian operator Variscan has been granted exclusive permits to prospect for zinc, copper, lead, gold and silver in the Merléac area and tungsten in the département of Ariège.
Junior operator Sudmine is applying for a permit to search for gold in the French Basque Country.
Macron has pledged his support for the Montagne d’Or project in French Guiana. Developed by Canadian junior miner Columbus Gold, the site in the north-west of the country is home to proven and probable reserves of 2.75 million ounces of gold, but has faced criticism from environmental groups.
Activists claim the project on the edge of France’s Lucifer Dékou-Dékou biological reserve could cause mineral and chemical waste pollution, deforestation and have a negative impact on biodiversity.
Is Emmanuel Macron, French President, as committed to resurrecting France’s long-dormant mining industry as Emmanuel Macron, Minister of the Economy appeared to be back in 2015?
If so, the hard work of convincing sceptical voters and mining E&P companies begins now.