After finding itself suddenly unwelcome in its traditional sphere of influence, France is casting further afield.
That’s why president Emmanuel Macron will travel to energy-rich Central Asia this week to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two suppliers of the uranium that powers the country’s nuclear reactors.
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The trip aims to boost France’s energy security, according to two people familiar with the French president’s thinking, who declined to be named when discussing matters of diplomacy. These efforts are in keeping with a wider European effort to diversify away from the Russian fossil fuels on which the bloc was formerly so reliant.
But there is a second motive, the people said, and it involves tempting the former Soviet republics to look beyond their own dependence on Russia. French officials suggest the war in Ukraine has unsettled long-established relationships in the region, and that creates an opportunity.
Central Asia’s vast reserves of oil, gas, and minerals put it at the center of a contest for influence in the region that has habitually been Russia’s stomping ground.
China is extending its reach through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road infrastructure project, the US is seeking to bolster its political presence, while the European Union is striving to bind the region into a trade and energy corridor that would run through the Caucasus and on to Europe, bypassing Russia.
France already boasts some large investments in the region; for instance French nuclear company Orano SA — formerly known as Areva — exploits uranium deposits in Kazakhstan via a joint venture with state-owned Kazatomprom. Deepening Orano’s presence will be on the menu of discussions, according to one delegation insider, who declined to be named discussing details of the trip.
Yet France’s pursuit of uranium is freighted with a greater urgency in the wake of a coup this July in Niger, which last year was second only to Kazakhstan as the EU’s biggest source of the raw material. Orano had to stop processing uranium ore at one of its facilities in the Saharan republic because international sanctions against the military junta were hampering logistics, it said last month.
“Kazakhstan is key to France’s energy security,” said Michael Levystone, a Paris-based researcher at the French Institute of International Relations. “Macron’s visit will act as a reminder that Paris is ready to step up cooperation.”
In addition to being the biggest supplier of uranium to France, last year Kazakhstan was also its second-biggest source of crude oil, down from first place in 2021, according to figures from the French economy ministry.
Sparked by the invasion of Ukraine and powered by deeper concerns about the advance of China, Kazakhstan is one of a few countries where earlier this year G7 nations jointly resolved to deepen their partnerships, according to a diplomat familiar with the Group-of-Seven leaders’ internal deliberations.
That means that in courting the land-locked republics wedged between China and Russia, Macron finds himself part of a broader trend.
Last week the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan met with the 27 EU Member States’ foreign ministers for the first time, according to an EU statement about that meeting, while in September President Joe Biden met their leaders on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. That same month, Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz hosted them in Berlin.
In France’s case, the overtures take place as it contends with increasingly limited room for maneuver in its usual sphere of influence. Since 2020, coups in nine sub-Saharan countries have variously spooked or sent home French diplomats, and in some cases the threat to French interests has been powered by Russia, in the shape of the mercenary Wagner Group.
Macron’s search for allies in Russia’s own backyard is helped by the Central Asian countries’ ambivalence toward the war in Ukraine. As they adhere faithfully to the west’s sanctions on Russia, at least on paper, his November 1 to November 2 trip arrives just as these nations’ commercial relationships are themselves in flux.
The French president will travel with a delegation of 15 business leaders from the energy, agrifood and mining sectors, according to an Elysee official, including utility Electricite de France SA and engineering company Assystem SA, which provides expertise to build nuclear reactors.
They will have noticed Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s plans for a referendum on a nuclear power plant that would reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Kazakhstan also has plans to start extracting rare-earth metals next year, at a time when Macron has called for France to be less dependent on Chinese raw materials crucial to Europe’s electric-car industry.
Even so, earlier this year the French president made a state visit to China, underscoring a strategy of distancing himself from the US’s more hawkish stance on Beijing, and in line with his attempts to expand France’s influence in Asia.
Macron recently became the first French president to visit Mongolia, later signing a deal to source more uranium, while least year he was the first French leader to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit with the countries of the Pacific Rim.
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