French President Nicolas Sarkozy stopped off in Niger's capital, Niamey, on the last stop of an African tour that took him to the DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. Talks focused on Niger's large uranium resources and a deal with Areva.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s African tour ends on Friday in Niger, a former colony and strategic stop for France’s energy policy. The French president was welcomed at Niamey airport by President Mamadou Tandja.
Sarkozy is expected to back a controversial deal signed in January between French nuclear giant Areva and Niger’s government that would lead to the exploitation of the Imouraren mining site in northern Niger, the world’s second biggest uranium deposit.
Under the deal, the Niger government would retain control of a third of the mine, where 5,000 tons of uranium would be extracted annually. Areva is investing 1.2 billion euros in the operation.
France takes great pride in a civilian nuclear program that it says is the key to its energy independency. But the reality is more complex, says Yves Marignac, director of the World Information Forum on Energy.
“One hundred percent of uranium in France comes from abroad,” he says. “A large part comes from Niger. With this contract, its share could increase.” The visit comes a day after Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon signed an agreement for mining research and exploration with the Congolese government, on the sidelines of Sarkozy's visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Niger has one big asset compared with rival uranium exporters Australia and Canada, Martignac adds. “It is the only country that has a uranium contract that doesn’t prevent France from using the ore for something else than a civilian nuclear program.”
But the deal has come under scrutiny in France. Environmentalists have warned Areva against the temptation to enforce poor safety and environmental standards in the mostly desert region.
There are also mounting allegations that the Niger government expelled nomadic Tuareg tribes to make way for the French operation. Tuareg rebels have threatened to attack the uranium mine and transport as they did once in 2007.
It is a tense situation that contributes to blurring the line between trade relations and neo-colonialism.
“A vice-director of Areva has been quoted saying that the nuclear company has urged the French government to help Niger’s government stamp out the rebellion,” Martignac says.
Sarkozy was, with Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon, due to take part in a meeting of the local chapter of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international attempt to set global standards for companies on publishing what they pay and for governments on disclosing what they receive.
Sarkozy is also scheduled to hold a press conference before flying back to Paris late on Friday afternoon.
Date created : 2009-03-27