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Economy

Rare Earth Race: How China And Russia (And EVs) Are Pushing France Back Into Mining

The government is launching a "major inventory of French mining resources", to prepare for the relaunch of mining in France of the minerals needed for the ecological transition. A concern for sovereignty in the face of Chinese domination of the sector.

A worker holding up two disks of rare earth metals.

A worker displays materials which consist of rubidium, iron and boron at a workshop in Ganzhou City, east China's Jiangxi Province,

Zhou Ke/Xinhua via ZUMA
Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — The world of mining holds an important place in the imagination of France's past, from writer Emile Zola's "Germinal" in the 19th century to the many films about the "black faces" in the 20th. Perhaps, mining is about to also become its future.

Not only are mining projects under development in France, but the war for rare metals, which has taken on a strategic dimension in today's world, is giving new relevance to the French subsoil. Passed largely unnoticed in French President Emmanuel Macron's announcements this week for a major new ecological transition plan, was the launch of what he called a "major inventory of French mining resources."

The aim is not, of course, to go back to mining coal — the last coal mine closed in 2004 — but to seek out the metals essential to the ecological transition, and to reduce French and European dependence on Chinese domination of the sector. The latest studies date back more than four decades, and technology has made great strides since then.

The issue is less economic than one of national sovereignty, and France is not alone in rethinking the development of mines — the whole of Europe is now mobilized.

Which minerals will be mined?

The first mineral concerned is lithium, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles. A first mine is already under development in the Allier region (central France), and is due to go into production in 2028. Other deposits could follow, in Brittany (western France) and other regions in eastern France.

But this is not the only mineral. We know, for example, that there are traces of tungsten and rare earths, for which demand is exploding. All the minerals needed for the energy transition are on the inventory list, the question is whether they exist in sufficient, exploitable quantities.

The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas have served as an alarm

The stakes are first and foremost strategic. Europe is waking up after decades of neglecting the mining sector in favor of the developing world, for reasons of cost and pollution. The war in Ukraine and dependence on Russian gas have served as an alarm, and the world has now realized that China has a big head start in the minerals race.

photo of an old coal mine with smoke

The Bully-les-Mines coal mine in northern France

en.m.wikipedia.org

Ambitious targets

European countries have set targets for the supply of strategic minerals. The plan calls for 10% of European supply to come from extraction on the continent by 2030. A further 20% must come from recycling; and Europeans must not be more than 65% dependent on a single country outside the EU.

It may not sound like much, but it's actually very ambitious. Developing a mine in Europe will take years, and it will first be necessary to gain the environmental and social acceptance of public opinion. This is far from a foregone conclusion, as mining today does not have a positive image at all.

But Europe has little choice. It would be paradoxical to make these massive investments in electric battery factories in Dunkerque (northern France), without reducing our dependence on minerals whose supply is so tightly controlled by China.

This will require a major national debate — but taking inventory is the first step, so at least we know what we're talking about.

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Ideas

What If Globalization Creates Vampires?

Inspired by a new book on vampires, Italian writer Chiara Valerio analyzes how the figure of the vampire has come to represent life and death over centuries of science, art and culture. When understood through a modern lens, what can the vampire tell us about our own Gothic concerns?

A black and white still from the German film Nosferatu, showing the vampire aboard a ship.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922)

Nosferatu (1922)/Imdb
Chiara Valerio

-Essay-

TURIN — What is death?

Well, let's put it like this: what is a vampire? From the moment that they first made their appearance in fiction, vampires have served as a symbol through which to understand the relationship between life and death. But did vampires exist before Gothic fiction? What did it mean to return from the dead and be nourished by blood? Could it have been not horrifying — but divine?

These are the questions that Italian writer Francesco Paolo De Ceglia asks in his book Vampyr, Storia Naturale Della Resurrezione (Vampyr: A Natural History of Resurrection). The book looks at centuries of meditations on the question of death, consisting of religious and scientific nuances, metaphors, and metonymies. Often, it all adds up to nothing more than pain.

Reading De Ceglia, it becomes clear that when understanding death, the pivotal issue is the separation between the scientific moment of death and the metaphysical question of what comes after. Today, technology can pinpoint the exact instant of death. But the threshold between life and death hasn't always been such a sharply defined one. For centuries and centuries, humans observed how the process breathing ceased and that of decomposition began, both obscuring and exposing the human body. Little wonder that an army of shadowy figures made their way into the decomposing body — the vampire being the most famous of them all.

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