As climate change opens new economic opportunities and strategic interests in the circumpolar region, countries like France are demanding a voice in how the Arctic is governed.

Ties between France and the Arctic have increased over the years, but they are not new. Despite having no Arctic territory, France nonetheless nourished its relationship with the circumpolar North, mainly through scientific research and cultural inquiry, while natural resources and economic interests have drawn French transnational corporations to the High North. The oil and gas company Total SA, for example, has been present in circumpolar areas since the 1970s. France has had observer status on the Arctic Council since 2000, and, as a nuclear maritime power, it has maintained a strategic interest in the region through military cooperation with northern coastal NATO allies such as Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States and, more recently, with Russia’s Northern Fleet.

But thawing polar sea ice has led to a reevaluation of the Arctic as a zone of interest and influence. While French governments have hesitated to clearly define an Arctic policy, discussion of circumpolar issues among academics, scientists, business and diplomats has increased in recent years, particularly in the wake of the dramatic Russian Arktika expedition to the seabed under the North Pole. Along with the impacts of climate change, these visions of an expansionist Russia gave a boost to the popular notion of an ”Arctic race” for untapped resources, which required a French response.

In 2009, former prime minister Michel Rocard was appointed France’s first ambassador for international negotia- tions on the Arctic and the Antarctic (commonly referred to as the ”polar ambassador”), taking France’s relationship with the Arctic to a higher diplomatic level. Rocard is France’s leading voice on Arctic foreign policy issues, reminding Arctic states that the future of the region is a matter for all, regardless of territorial connections with the circumpolar space.

Rocard’s connections to polar issues are deep. As prime minister in the late 1980s, he collaborated with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke to drive the diplomacy leading to the Madrid Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty of 1991, which essentially protected the vulnerable continent from commercial mining activities for 50 years. Rocard acknowledges that the issues facing the Arctic are not the same as those of the southern pole but contends that the Arctic also faces governance gaps.

Rocard has been opposed to leaving the fate of the region to the five Arctic coastal states (the Russian Federation, the United States [via Alaska], Canada, Norway and Denmark [via Greenland]), known as the A5. In 2011 a June speech, he called the Arctic Council (which also includes Iceland, Sweden and Finland) ”a sleepy monster with great uncertainty on how it manages in world affairs,” and in an article in Le Devoir in August the same year he criticized what he described as the ”unspoken assumption [between Arctic states] that whatever happens in the Arctic, it is sufficient for each coastal state to shoulder alone and totally the responsibilities.”

Renowned Arctic governance expert Oran Young has argued in a 2009 article that third-party states like France are not ”prepared to accept the role of the five coastal states as stewards who are deputized by the international community to look after the Arctic issues in the interest of all.” Young anticipates world powers like France or associations of powers like the EU will continue expressing strong disapproval of such Arctic arrangements. Given the obvious links between the Arctic and the outside world, it would be a mistake, he says, ”to relegate outsiders (for example Britain, China, France, Germany, the European Union) to the status of observers who seldom even get to speak at council sessions.”

Rocard appears to be the diplomatic embodiment of this mood. Three recur- ring questions emerge from his speeches and interviews on Arctic governance. Do rules and regulations sufficiently cover all economic activities in the Arctic? Can ” and should — the A5 tackle alone or as a bloc the growing list of issues in the area that will potentially have implications for French and EU national interests? And how can France support the efforts of Arctic states in protecting the High North from emerging relevant global security challenges?

Concern about the governance and protection of the Arctic environment is growing, not just among local communities and environmental activists, but within the extractive industries engaged in exploration. The images produced by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico forewarn of the dangers awaiting multinationals should there be an equivalent spill in the pristine landscape of the Arctic. In September 2012, Christophe de Margerie, Total’s chief executive, said his company would not drill for oil in the Arctic because the risk to corporate reputations from any spill was too great. ”Oil on Greenland would be a disaster,” he told the Financial Times. ”A leak would do too much damage to the image of the company.”

While de Margerie’s words were welcomed by antidevelopment activists, Total is not opposed to exploration in principle — it simply argues that drilling for gas is a less risky activity than drilling for oil. Total has been present in the Arctic for over 30 years and has coveted cold weather hydrocarbon extraction expertise. Most of Total’s current Arctic operations are located in Russian and Norwegian offshore and onshore projects. The company holds 25 percent of Gazprom’s Shtokman gas/oil field project in the Barents Sea, which is projected to be — when (and if) it is completed — the world’s largest oil field, with a capacity of 3,800 billion cubic metres of gas and approximately 37 million tons of light oil. And France’s economic relationship with the Arctic expanded in 2011 when Total acquired 20 percent of the Russian Yamal LNG field in Russia’s High North.

For the time being, French expertise on oil and gas development is needed for Russian companies to exploit energy resources in the High North. Meanwhile, the Shtokman project (despite its recent delays) will be a key element of energy security for France: hydrocarbons represent 92 percent of Russia’s exports to France. And while Russia is France’s leading oil supplier, Norway is its biggest supplier of natural gas. Total and Gaz de France/Suez are among the principal clients and partners of the Snøvhit gas field in Norway’s Barents Sea, the first offshore project in the history of Barents Sea extractive activities, and the first Arctic development to export liquid natural gas from Norway to Europe.

Rocard has responded to this extensive Arctic activity by French multinationals — and their competitors — by trying to introduce a French voice into the Arctic Council’s deliberations on oil and gas regulations for extractive activities. In the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, he warned in June in an interview with Radio-Canada:

If such a trivial spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico should happen in the Arctic, the difference is that in the North, it is so cold that the chemical products used in the South to clear up the oil do not work. It is so cold that we cannot work underwater like in the South to close and seal the well. Therefore, if there is an accident similar to the one of the Gulf of Mexico in the Arctic, it will be a disaster infinitely considerable to any others ever known and probably unsolvable.

French actors outside government also believe that the Arctic needed an enhanced international framework to protect the region and its inhabitants from any form of economic activity arising from thawing ice. In 2006, the NGO Le Cercle Polaire (CP) was created, as its Web site states, ”to develop and promote true scientific understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and to encourage the preservation of the polar environments.”

CP’s cofounders Stanislas Pottier and Laurent Mayet are big players on the French Arctic scene. Pottier was adviser to a past minister of the economy, industry and employment, Christine Lagarde, currently president of the International Monetary Fund, while Mayet, a physicist and philosopher, is associate professor at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris. Both men were appointed special advisers to Rocard, and are considered part of the country’s Arctic elite. Under their leadership, CP has pushed for the design of an international treaty that would promote ”the principles of international control over and management of the polar environments, through either the reinforcement of existing regulatory frameworks or the introduction of new regulations” (also from the CP Web site).

plouffe apr 2013
No deep arctic roots: an early map of north-east canada and greenland, printed in Bordeaux, france, 1771. Photo: Shutterstock

French interests in the Arctic are rooted in the exploration and study of Arctic spaces and northern peoples. Despite its geographical distance from both polar regions, France has produced many famous polar explorers and scientists dating back to the 18th century, such as geographer and glaciologist Charles Rabot (1856-1944) and geomorphologist Jean Corbel (1920-70), after whom France’s permanent scientific bases at Ny Ålesund in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, opened in the 1960s, were named. Years later, the French continue to pursue their scientific interests in the High North, notably with Germany as part of a bilateral program at the AWIPEV base at Ny Ålesund.

But while scientific research has been the traditional pillar in the relationship between France and the Arctic, the end of the Cold War has steered France to- ward security issues. The 2007 Russian flag-planting incident inspired two well known French defence observers, Richard Labévière and François Thual, to assess the emerging geostrategic situation in the Arctic. In their book La bataille du Grand Nord a commencé (The battle for the Great North has begun, 2008), Labévière and Thual argue that the Arctic is a vast, increasingly ”unstable” maritime zone, with bordering nuclear states, that France cannot afford to ignore.

While there is no direct link between this book and subsequent policy moves, the French military appears to be taking a greater interest in Arctic preparedness. Since March 2009, French infantry battalion members have taken part in Norwegian-led multinational exercises that involve several thousand soldiers from NATO countries. In 2012, France and Russia held naval drills in the Barents Sea. The French deployed their navy warship De Grasse up to Severomorsk, in the Russian Federation, to carry out military exercises with Russia’s large landing ship Aleksandr Otrakovsk, part of the Northern Fleet. Russian officials note that the purpose of the Arctic exercises was to ”practice interoperability between warships of the two countries in order to act jointly in critical regions worldwide.”

France’s defence ministry claims the country’s forces have ”Arctic-friendly” capabilities and cold climate troops that could be deployed in any northern crisis. And since 2010, it has integrated an Arctic security component into its national military school research institute as a way to produce and promote northern-defence-related academic research.

French engagement in the Arctic is becoming clearer. While it has not produced a formal Arctic strategy or policy, France has certainly been actively promoting its vision of the future of Arctic governance. It looks at the Arctic maritime space as an international zone like any other, where global actors coordinate and defend their national interests through foreign policy and international institutions. In doing so, it is showing how non-Arctic geographical states can ensure a role for themselves in shaping the future of the polar region.


Joël Plouffe is the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook (www.arcticyearbook.com), from which this article is adapted.