PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron travels on Wednesday to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where he hopes to secure uranium for his country’s nuclear plants.
The trip comes as geopolitical tensions grow with the EU’s current major suppliers, Niger and Russia.
Macron’s visit to the two countries aims to expand French influence in an area which has strong ties with Russia and is now also growing closer to China, an Elysée official said.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are respectively France’s largest and third-largest suppliers of uranium, which is burned to fuel nuclear plants.
Last summer a military junta took over Niger, which supplies 15 percent of France’s uranium needs, sparking questions as to whether the African country can continue to be a reliable source. Uncertainty has also surrounded imports of Russian uranium since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Niger raises questions, Russia could raise questions in the long term [if] the EU imposes sanctions on the nuclear sector. Macron’s visit to Central Asia helps to anticipate those concerns,” said Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, an energy expert at the Jacques Delors Institute think tank in Paris.
Russia’s nuclear sector has not been targeted by EU sanctions so far, but member countries continue to turn away from Moscow. The quantity of uranium the EU imported from Russia fell by 16 percent last year from 2021, while the amount from Kazakhstan rose by over 14 percent.
Earlier this year, Yerzhan Mukanov, CEO of the country’s state-run nuclear firm Kazatomprom, told POLITICO he was seeing increasing interest from Europe, and that Kazakhstan “intends to become a significant contributor to the European nuclear market.”
French nuclear firm Orano is active in Kazakhstan, where it has been operating uranium mines since the 1990s, and more recently in Uzbekistan. Orano President Claude Imauven is accompanying Macron on his trip along with 14 other French executives, including Luc Remont, head of French energy giant EDF.
An Elysée official said that new contracts and business partnerships will be announced during the trip, including in the energy sector.
EDF has also positioned itself to become a supplier of nuclear reactors for Kazakhstan’s first nuclear plant.
The visit comes as Brussels competes with China for influence in the region via investment programs focused on infrastructure.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are benefitting from Chinese investment under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, with their presidents attending a high-level meeting on the subject in Beijing in October. The EU is trying to gain influence in the two countries by involving them in cooperation and investment projects under its “Global Gateway” initiative, the bloc’s response to Belt and Road.
Victor Jack contributed reporting.