While its historical involvement in the polar regions has favoured the Antarctic to the Arctic, France nonetheless has substantial interests in and historic ties to the Arctic region, and is seemingly working to increase and strengthen them. France’s historical ties to the Arctic have been through polar expeditions – beginning in the 18th century with such famed explorers as Jean-Baptistery Charcot and Paul-Émile Victor – and scientific research in the region.
As of 1990, France has been an observer on the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and in 2000 it assumed official Observer status at the Arctic Council.
Within France, various organisations and governmental agencies have emerged as thought- and policy-leaders regarding the country’s involvement in the Arctic. In 1992, the Institut Polaire Français Paul-Émile Victor (IPEV) – a public interest group composed of nine public and parastatal organisations – was founded. More recently, the French National Centre for Scientific Development (CNRS) created the French Arctic Initiative, which aims to coordinate the scientific activities performed by French universities and laboratories in the region. In 2006, the think-tank Le Cercle Polaire (CP) was founded with the aim of “developing and promoting a true scientific understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and [encouraging]…the preservation of polar environments.” In recognition of the growing importance of the polar regions, France appointed an Ambassador for international negotiations on the polar regions in 2009 – at the time the first ambassador-level diplomat appointed specifically for the polar regions by a non-Arctic country.
France has various economic and scientific interests in the region. Total SA has been active in the polar regions since the 1970s, and remains active in the Arctic alongside such companies as GDF Suez and Areva. Likewise, France has fielded scientific research teams in the Arctic since the 1960s, and today has two research centres – the Jean Corbel Camp and the Charles Rabot Station – in the region. Additionally, in conjunction with its German partners, IPEV runs the AWIPEV Arctic Research Base – a permanent joint French-German research station – at Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard. France currently has one icebreaker – l’Astrolabe – which primarily serves the Antarctic region but has been deployed to the Arctic on occasion. L’Astrolabe is due to be replaced in 2017 by a new icebreaker of the same name.
In the political realm, while one has allegedly been under preparation for years, France has no official Arctic policy independent of the EU’s. However, it has spearheaded efforts to increase EU participation in the Arctic Council, and is on record as wanting the EU to have a more important position within the organisation – potentially even comparable to that of its larger member-nations. Furthermore, France has emerged as a leader in global efforts to combat climate change, including as it pertains to the Arctic region – a role that most recently manifested itself as the host of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. To wit, French President François Hollande was a featured speaker at the 2015 Arctic Circle Conference in Reykjavik in the immediate lead-up to the conference.
Strategically, France seems to be increasing its presence in the region as well, and has acknowledged that its role in both the EU and NATO could lead it – albeit indirectly – into assuming a strategic posture in the region. Since 2010, France’s national military school’s research institute has included a component on Arctic security, and in 2013 France released a White Paper on Defence and National Security which concluded that “…the reduction in Arctic sea ice already has strategic consequences and the prospect of regular use of new Arctic shipping lanes is drawing closer.” Accordingly, France has – and is continuing to develop – its in-theatre strategic capabilities. French submarines routinely patrol in the Arctic Ocean, with French Next Generation Device-Launching Nuclear Submarines (SNLE-NG) active in the region for training missions, and in 2012 France held joint naval drills with Russia in the Barents Sea. Likewise, since 2009, French infantry battalions have taken part in Norwegian-led multinational NATO exercises in or adjacent to the Arctic. Accordingly, France’s Defence Ministry has claimed the French military has “Arctic-friendly” capabilities and maintains troops equipped for cold-weather deployments that could be used in a regional crisis.
While France has historically involved itself more with the Antarctic than the Arctic, it nonetheless has significant historical, economic, and scientific ties to the region. As the Arctic grows in global importance, France seems to be positioning itself to ramp up its involvement in the region, and take a more active role in regional diplomacy and governance. However, as a non-Arctic nation, its ability to do so is somewhat limited. Accordingly, France has emerged as an advocate for an increased role in the region for supranational organisations such as the EU, via which it may be able to exert greater influence on regional affairs than it would be able to as an individual nation-state. Likewise, as one of the more powerful militaries in the NATO alliance, France is taking a more active role in security and strategic concerns in the region, and is increasing its cold-weather capabilities should a regional deployment of its military become necessary.
Arctique: Préoccupations européennes pour un enjeu global: www.senat.fr/rap/r13-684/r13-684.html