Mining in France: let’s not repeat mistakes of the Ancien Régime

Loss of sovereignty, dependence on metals from other nations, deindustrialization. These words are not the elements of French or European post-covid-19 language vis-à-vis Asia and especially China.

These words are revolutionary; they are those of the legislators of the French Revolution. Before the appearance of Napoleon and his mining code of 1810, 20 years earlier, as early as 1790, they made the following diagnosis: “if you abandoned the exploitation of the mines… you would put the French Empire more than ever under the dependence of foreigners for the metals of first necessity… … metals would increase in value, manufactures would languish, our industry would be destroyed, our cash would go to our neighbors (to pay for our imports). The mines… must remain at the disposal of the nation“. Their objective was to reorganize the mining activity in order to preserve and develop downstream the industry.

Are our governments “Ancien Régime”?

Why such a diagnosis in 1789?

Because from Dagobert in 635 who granted a lead royalty to the abbey of Saint Denis until 1789, the Ancien Régime was a succession of four disastrous mining cycles.

In the beginning, French mining was a period of unrestricted freedom. There was no legislation governing mining, although the concession granted by Dagobert in 635 to the abbey of Saint Denis was followed by Charlemagne, who bequeathed some mines to his sons in 786, and in 1321 the mines officially became a royal and state right. The kingdom gave miners unlimited freedom to set up and operate without being accountable.

It was only under Charles VI in 1413 and until Francois I in 1547 that, in return for the protection of the workers by the king’s troops, the miners paid the sovereign a royalty equivalent to 10% of their income and compensated the owners of the mined land. The result of this first period of great freedom, but without method, was mines devastated rather than exploited.

To repair such excesses, from Henry II in 1548 until the middle of the reign of Henry IV in 1601, mining was entrusted for 53 years to a Royal Superintendent of Mines, a sort of Minister of Mines. The king received 10pct of the net income from gold and silver and 10pct of the gross income from other metals and ores. But the result of this exclusive privilege was an economic despotism with disastrous results.

The third phase, under Henry IV, saw the appearance of the administrative concession regime under the authority of a Grand Master of Mines. The coal mines were abandoned to the nobility and the other metals knew the beginnings of the concession regime, because no one could open a mine of other metals without the agreement of a new administration represented by a Grand Master of Mines. But this new duality of freedom and concessions was not unanimously accepted and was lost under Richelieu and Mazarin.

Then the fourth cycle until 1789 alternated in a confused way of the three regimes of unlimited freedom, exclusive privilege of the superintendent and then administrative concession. A new superintendent in 1670, but this regime was abandoned 28 years later in 1698 in favor of a new unlimited freedom granted to landowners; 24 years later in 1722 the superintendent’s regime came back, but only for 22 years since in 1744 the concession regime reappeared.

So much of it that before the revolution, mining had accumulated many disadvantages: inorganization of the state, prevarication, lack of mining methods and knowledge. The mining law was a sterile mix of landowner, first owner and concessionary owner. The whole provoked: “a great negligence in the research of the mines, a badly directed exploitation, a competition and divisions between the owners, which joined to the defect of faculties and knowledge caused at first the devastation of the undertaken mines, and then their total abandonment“. Moreover, the non-industrialization had founded colossal fortunes at the expense of the nation, in the same way that in our time the de-industrialization will have excessively enriched some.

General interest and mining

The revolutionaries concluded that the national general interest should be guided by state-directed mining using three principles: “No one can oppose the general interest, the general interest requires that all the country’s wealth be developed, no individual can own a subsoil whose exploitation is impossible for him and whose exploitation is necessary for the general interest.   Using the metaphor of an uncultivated field that must be cultivated in order to feed the nation, the revolutionaries concluded that the general national interest required that mines be exploited in France so that metals held in the country’s own subsoil would no longer be imported from its better organized neighbors. They organized mining with the help of a system of concessions and a mining corps that brought in 1789 methods and knowledge, they differentiated the right of the soil and the right of the subsoil and relied on a service of competent mining engineers. In France, this was the starting point for the mining expansion of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in coal and iron.

Temporal parallels are evident between this French past of unrestricted mining freedom and the gold rushes in the American West or when exclusivity is offered to a contemporary superintendent, e.g. of state mining companies.

Another temporal concordance is between the call for resource nationalism in 1789 and some contemporary producing countries. Thus, Indonesia copies the general interest of 1789 when it flexes its mining doctrine since 2014 by requiring local transformation of its raw materials: palm oil into agri-food products, bauxite into aluminum, nickel and cobalt into batteries for electric vehicles.

This quick historical review is a distant island that illustrates our times. After an expansion of a little more than 150 years, the diagnosis of our country is that of a return to a mining immobility already known in other forms and for other reasons during the Ancien Regime. It is therefore a good time to rethink our objectives. Why do the principles of 1789 no longer work? If the development of the wealth of the French subsoil is no longer of general interest, why do we speak so often of decarbonized sovereignty?

Why talk about decarbonized sovereignty?

Is the general interest of 1789 no longer that of 2021? 232 years ago, it was the ownership of the subsoil, and it slowed down the production of metals. Today decarbonation is the general interest and it accelerates the demand for metals for the energy transition, the production of electricity, its transport, storage and consumption. In both cases, in 1789 and in 2021, mines are on the front line to meet the general interest.

But nowadays, isn’t there an opposition, a contradiction between this general interest and public opinion? The latter is under the influence of strategies of doubt, anti-mining and anti-metals, created by fake news, in particular that of “rare metals”, and promotes the strategy of re-industrialization by assembling. That is to say, decarbonize by not mining in our soil to protect our environment, but let other countries do it and make part products, and then assembling finished products at home.

This strategy is largely underway. Let’s look at the difficulties in opening lithium mines in Spain and Serbia, or the failure to reopen the Salau tungsten mine in Ariège. Let’s note that the populations certainly wish a decarbonized life not by a source of metals close to home, but far away and with a first transformation overseas thanks to the energy of these countries which, even if it can be sometimes decarbonized, is in crisis in 2021 and causes an inflation of the prices of metals from 50% to 150%.

The electric car targeted by fake news

Let’s take the subject of batteries electric vehicle: metals processed far away in mines, for example in Indonesia, and then assembled in Asian factories in Europe. Despite fiscal or regulatory tricks, such as erecting carbon barriers at Europe’s borders, inventive diplomacy, partnerships, etc. … without new dedicated European mines, we are doubly dependent on metals from abroad on the one hand and Asian factories in Europe on the other.

Moreover, in addition to missing the objective of decarbonation, we will no longer be sovereign, since we will be victims of competitive consumption. That is to say that in case of competition between different consuming industries, the producer will always favor the user closest to his own strategic objectives: his national industry to the detriment of exports. Thus, the giant Chinese power outage of last summer until next spring raises the price of metals, a competitive consumption is set in motion. Prices are rising because Chinese metal production is declining and is kept for Chinese consumption. If the consumer continues to favor cost over sovereignty, our electric cars will be made in Asia. This is already the case.

Re-industrialization by assembling

Let’s turn the metaphor of the fallow field of 1789. Our political vision of re-industrialization through assembly in the 21st century is a real strategy of the poor engineer unable to transform local raw materials. It would be comparable to a new French wine doctrine that would impose for ecological reasons that the appellations of French wines, Champagne, Burgundy, Loire wines, Coteaux du Lyonnais, wines of Provence, Occitanie or Bordeaux be produced only from a local vinification of imported grapes and no longer from French terroir vines. I am sure that we would quickly agree on the commercial outcome of such a strategy and on the loss of jobs and know-how of such a wine tragedy.

Decarbonizing through assembling re-industrialization, without mining, is causing industrial and social devastation in the health, semiconductor and future automotive sectors.

Our policy, our national strategy and our administration reflecting our legislators are mimicry of those of the Ancien Regime because it does not respect the general interest of decarbonization. Let’s repeat the 1790 statement of failure: without mines “you would put the French Empire more than ever under the dependence of foreigners for the metals of first necessity… the metals would increase in value the manufactures would languish, our industry would be destroyed, our cash would go to our neighbors (to pay our imports).” 

Last drama, if mining is definitively banned in France, what will become of our geologists, our engineers, their schools and the metallurgical companies that await them? Will they still be part of the general decarbonized interest, or on the contrary, are they all already agreed to disappear? There are many examples of young geologists and mining engineers who are the delight of Canadian and Australian companies, even though their training was paid for by France, or who are recycled in jobs that they do not use their geological competences because, as one of them said to me, “you have to fill the fridge”.

Redo 1789 in 2021 and start by repairing

Just as the men of 1789 aimed for sovereignty and industrialization, diagnosis of 2021 faces our hexagonal mining realities and the presidential elections of 2022. It is therefore an interesting time to set five objectives.

First reality, let’s admit that in people’s minds, mining in France is Salsigne, it is scary. Putting the mine back at the center of the general interest and of the industry means starting by repairing it: let’s prove ourselves, let’s clean up all the tailings of all  the Salsigne of the hexagon. We have the skills and in the framework of the circular economy these operations will be profitable.

Secondly, let us free the administration from its shackles. For example, is it normal that the administrative authorization of two identical drillings requires an administrative delay of two months for a geothermal exploration, but suffers from a delay of two years for a mineral exploration?

Secondly, since the general decarbonized interest of the producing countries favors a nationalism of resources that is indispensable to their industrialization, fewer metals will be available for the consuming countries. The conclusion is logical: we must increase the availability of metals at home through new underground mines, eco-design and recycling.

Fourthly, underground mining is no longer Zola’s way, the old methods have hurt, but modern mining environmental criteria are compatible with our densely populated territory. Conversely, it is on the basis of this credibility that we must exclude the folly of deep sea mining, because its impact on biodiversity is still unknown, uncontrolled and therefore incompatible with our new standards of responsible exploitation.

Finally, the new exploration and production plans that will put the mine back at the center of the general interest of decarbonization must select the really useful metals and leave the others underground. That is, we need less gold from Guyana, but more tungsten from the Pyrenees or the Tarn, but also more copper, more bauxite, more titanium or lithium. All of these are found in the little explored subsoil of France, and they may be useful for new battery chemistries, including solid electrolyte batteries.

In conclusion, if the legislators of 1789 were to visit us today, they would approve of the concordance between their diagnosis and the one I have just given you. On the other hand, temporarily dazzled by our knowledge and skills that they did not have, they would be disillusioned that their desire and their will have vanished.

This is the most important thing, let’s find again this desire and this will, the story is not over.