December 6, 2023
Rare Earth Race: How China and Russia (and EVs) are pushing France back into mining


Paris – The world of mining holds an important place in the imagination of France’s past, from the writer Emile Zola’s “Germinal” in the 19th century to the many films about “black faces” in the 20th century. Perhaps mining is also going to be its future.

Not only are mining projects under development in France, but the war for rare metals, which has taken on a strategic dimension in today’s world, is giving new relevance to French subsoil. French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcements this week of a major new ecological transition plan, which he called a “major inventory of French mining resources,” went largely unnoticed.

Of course, the aim is not to go back to coal mining – the last coal mine closed in 2004 – but rather to discover metals essential for the ecological transition and to reduce French and European dependence on Chinese dominance in the region. The latest studies date back more than four decades, and technology has advanced significantly since then.

The issue is less economic than national sovereignty, and France is not alone in reconsidering the development of mines – all of Europe is now united.

Which minerals will be mined?

The first mineral concerned is lithium, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles. A first mine in the Allier region (central France) is already under development, and is scheduled to come into production in 2028. Other deposits may occur in Brittany (western France) and other areas of eastern France.

But it is not the only mineral. For example, we know that there are traces of tungsten and rare earths, the demand for which is increasing. All the minerals necessary for the energy transition are on the list, the question is whether they are present in sufficient, exploitable quantities.

The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas has served as a warning

The bets are first and foremost strategic. After decades of neglecting the mining sector in favor of the developing world for reasons of cost and pollution, Europe is waking up. The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas have set off alarm bells, and the world now realizes that China has a huge lead in the race for minerals.

ambitious goals

European countries have set targets for the supply of strategic minerals. The plan calls for 10% of European supply to come from extraction on the continent by 2030. An additional 20% should come from recycling; And Europeans should not be more than 65% dependent on any one country outside the EU.

This may not sound like much, but it is actually very ambitious. It would take years to develop a mine in Europe, and it would first be necessary to gain the environmental and social approval of public opinion. This is far from a foregone conclusion, as mining has no positive image today.

But Europe has very few options. Making such a large investment in electric battery factories in Dunkirk (northern France) would be contradictory without reducing our dependence on minerals whose supply is tightly controlled by China.

This will require a huge national debate – but making the list is the first step, so at least we know what we’re talking about.

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