- Paris eyes deeper cooperation with resource-rich Kazakhstan
- Macron also wants to tempt Central Asia away from Putin
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.
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.