By Cezary Szczepaniuk
France was one of the first countries in the world that started to use nuclear technology for peaceful means, not only to ensure its military power. It was as well the second country in the world, after Japan, to develop high-speed trains and build a high quality speed trains network. Being one of the founding members of NATO in 1949, Paris left its military structures in 1966 in order to develop its nuclear capacity and become one of the world-leading arms and military equipment producers. Nowadays France, member of European Union that seems to be in economic trouble, is becoming a world leading know-how and technology exporter.
French nuclear power
After the oil shock in 1973 France undertook a strategic decision to reshape its energy mix and replace it by nuclear power. The initial conditions were very favorable due to the high potential of French engineers and the scarcity of other natural resources in France such as coal and oil. Hence, forty years after developing nuclear capacity, France has fifty-eight nuclear reactors located in nineteen power plants that produce 75% of its energy needs. Nuclear power thus helped France to achieve a high level of energy security and independence – now l’Hexagone is one of the few countries in the world that is net producer of electricity – it sells 30% of surplus to neighbors. Despite having the cheapest energy prices in Europe, France has to abandon its nuclear path for the sake of renewable energies. The French president – François Hollande, said that France should reduce nuclear energy dependency from 75% to 50% by 2025. How will France address this challenge?
During all these decades of developing nuclear capacity France gained a high level of unique expertise and know-how in field of nuclear sciences. Even adversaries of nuclear energy in France admit that the government-backed programmes to preparing high number of well-educated engineers in the field of nuclear energy have been a long-term success. Nowadays, in the era of European Energy Policy 2020, France has the chance to use this scientific potential. Being constrained by European regulations of energy supplies, France decided not to waste its nuclear potential and export technologies. AREVA – the biggest French nuclear company (selling everything from uranium to fuel recycling) cooperates in forty-three countries across the world, currently builds a new European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) technology reactor in Finland, France and two in China. In the market of enriching uranium and reactor construction and servicing AREVA has about 25% of the world market whereas Électricité de France (EdF), another net electricity exporter, has shares in more than thirty European countries, Asia and the Americas. Amongst the crucial partners for French nuclear industry are Belgium, South Africa, Southern Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. French engineers are working on long-term contracts in these countries by building nuclear reactors as well as working as consultants of nuclear energy use. The International Atomic Energy Agency states that in contrast to decreasing investments in the nuclear sector in Europe, it will expand more than double in Asia. AREVA will also compete to build new EPR reactors in South Africa, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland and elsewhere. The French tendency towards research and development in the sector of nuclear technologies is increasing and France is on the good track to become a leader in the field.
Train à Grande Vitesse
In the beginning of the 1970s France was one of first countries (only after the Japanese Shinkasen project) to develop cutting-edge high-speed trains technology together with an extensive infrastructure. The first TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) started to operate between Paris and Lyon in 1981. Attracted by this success, other European countries also started in the late 1980s to develop its own high-speed train lines and rolling stocks. Soon, the French consortium ALSTOM became the world’s leading technology supplier and consultant in building high-speed tracks and trains in Spain (AVE), Eurostar Italia, and so on. Over the last twenty-five years ALSTOM has sold 650 train sets whereas its trams operate in twenty-eight cities worldwide. Furthermore, it has 18% share in the world’s railway market and it is still growing. French engineers are currently working on high-speed trains or metro construction projects in Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. In the highly-developed French market, there are few companies that specialize in sending French engineers that had experience in building French TGV or French nuclear reactors for long-term contracts in developing countries to share their experience. For the moment being, French engineers are working on the 450km-long high-speed railway from La Mecca to Medina and negotiating a speed train line construction in Morocco and Russia.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbook, France is ranked third (sometimes fourth) largest weapon exporter in the world, with 8% of the world market share, and places nine French companies in the ranking of 100 largest arms producers according to sales for the year 2011. After EADS (international corporation that was created after merger of French company Aerospatiale Matra, German DASA and Spanish CASA with seat in Toulouse) in the ranking were listed following French companies producing military equipment: Thales (electronics, military vehicles, racquets, light arms, munition), DCNS (ships), Eurocopter (aircraft), CEA (aircraft), MBDA France (racquets), Groupe Dassault (racquets) and Nexter (military vehicles and munitions). In France operates about 5000 enterprises in field of defense and security that ensures about 400 000 working places, standing for 25% of European defense production. France largest clients are United Arab Emirates (32%), Singapore (13%) and Greece (12%). In light of this defense cooperation, looks like l’Hexagone does not have any moral constrains to trade arms with undemocratic regimes and deliver arms to conflict areas like munitions to Libya, armored vehicles to Egypt and Chad and munitions to Syria in recent years. Former president Sarkozy was famous for his “arms delegations” in which he traveled to Brazil or Morocco to lobby in favor of French defense products. This way he sold to Brazil four nuclear submarines, Rafale hunters and helicopters. Similarly, after Sarkozy’s delegations France sold arms to Morocco and Saudi Arabia. In 2011, after long negotiations France concluded the biggest contract in modern history between NATO and non-NATO countries by delivering two Mistral naval ships to the Russian Federation. In 2012 France spent 1,6% of its GDP, being second in Europe after the United Kingdom. Despite the economic crisis and having abandoned the military structures of NATO, France still has the ambition to play a crucial role in the world defense sector. In recent years France significantly improved the quality of its armaments – building the transport aircraft A400M and the Rafale Multirole combat fighter. This year, François Hollande’s Socialist Party wants to undertake austerity measures to decrease government spendings in defense sector for the period 2014-2019.
In times of economic and financial crisis it looks like France is actively looking for its new place in global economy. Paris is reorienting its economy from only domestic producer to a worldwide supplier of cutting edge technology and know-how in the field of nuclear energy, high-speed trains and defense sector. France cooperates with clients not only from Europe but as well in emerging countries – BRICS. Is the French way a solution for post-industrial countries? Will it help to restructure the European industry and energy sectors? So far, the French nuclear technology export, high-speed train and arms trade industries are experiencing renaissance. It is up to other Member States to find their way in fast changing global economy.
Cezary Szczepaniuk graduated from University of Maria Curie-Skłodowska in Lublin with a Masters degree in international relations and from College of Europe postgraduate European Interdisciplinary Studies with specialization “EU as a regional actor”. His interests vary from international security, to Eastern Partnership, Ukrainian geopolitics and French security and defense policy.