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France’s nuclear headache

A Nigerien soldier at a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit. Issouf Sanogo/Getty

Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that France will withdraw its 1,500 or so troops from coup-hit Niger “raises an important question”, says Will Brown in Tortoise: where will the French now source their uranium? The heavy metal is crucial for France’s nuclear sector, which accounts for about two-thirds of the country’s energy supply. And about 20% of French uranium imports currently come from Niger, the world’s seventh-largest producer. Go to Niamey, the capital, and you will find “once glamorous but now rather forlorn and dusty hotels” built during a uranium rush decades ago. It’s not just France that’s reliant on Niger, either. In 2021, two mines near the northern town of Arlit accounted for a quarter of the EU’s uranium imports.

Paris used to deploy its military to protect these crucial supplies: in 2013, French special forces were sent in to defend the two Arlit sites from potential jihadist attacks. Will that still be the case after the withdrawal? Will French energy giant Orano, which has dominated Niger’s uranium industry for five decades, “stay around for long”? There will be wider geopolitical consequences, too. France is already seeking to improve ties with its other major uranium suppliers, such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: Emmanuel Macron held a “rare summit” at the Elysée Palace for the leaders of both countries last year. Back in Niger, the door will now be open for another country to dominate the uranium supply. And perhaps inevitably, the top candidates are Russia and China.