France needs Niger's uranium, while Niger needs French assistance. But the relationship is and always has been unequal.
Last December, as negotiations dragged on between the Nigerien government and
the French state-owned mining company Areva over royalties, the latter suddenly
At the time, Niger had been demanding a better deal for its uranium for over a
year and Areva's decade-long mining contract was about to expire at the end of
As its mining activities came to halt, Areva claimed it had suspended production
for maintenance, but many saw it as a political move aimed at putting pressure
on the Nigerien negotiators.
After all, Niger's economy is heavily dependent on its huge uranium reserves and
its population is already one of the world's poorest. Turning off that tap could
have huge repercussions.
However, in a sense, it is that very discrepancy - between the country's vast
mineral wealth on the one hand, and widespread poverty on the other - that the
government was in negotiations to re-assess.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Areva's global revenues of nearly
$13 billion in 2013 make the French firm almost twice as big as Niger's whole
economy, and as Areva's revenues have risen - partly off Niger's uranium -
Nigeriens have remained poor.
In the end, Areva restarted production at the start of this month, but the talks
are still ongoing. Niger is reportedly demanding that the royalties Areva's
mines pay increase from 5.5% to 12%, bringing them closer to the 13% Areva pays
in Canada and the 18.5% paid in Kazakhstan.
However the French-owned company, which has posted losses in recent years,
insists that such a change would not make their operations worthwhile.
The result of the deadlocked talks could prove highly significant for Niger, but
this is not the first time the West African nation has found itself in this
In fact, the current negotiations are merely the latest chapter in a long
history of France-Niger relations, and unfortunately for Niger, a look back at
previous chapters of the story doesn't offer too much hope for a positive
outcome in the one being played out today.
Franco-African relations first began in the late-14th or early-15th century with
trade with the coastal regions of what are now Gambia and Senegal.
But it was only in the early 17th century that France "began granting trading
charters in specified areas as part of an attempt to extend France's power and
wealth," in the words of political scientist Victor Le Vine.
Like most of the European powers, the French initially didn't venture far inland
as trading slaves and resources didn't require more than a port and a few
However, as the nature of trade shifted so did the means by which to plunder the
continent, and by the 19th century, France, along with the rest of Europe's
colonial powers, was moving inland, starting in Senegal.
After its 1871 defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, colonialism was seen as a way
of regenerating nationalist sentiment and elevating France's global status, and
with enhanced efforts, by 1900 France had become the second largest colonial
power in the world.