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French industry alerted by Quebec’s call for foreign investment

Minister Eric Besson takes up premier Jean Charest’s challenge to France to become lead investor in Plan Nord scheme

The French minister of industry, energy and the digital economy, Éric Besson, is determined to take advantage of the call for foreign investments made in May by the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest. The Plan Nord scheme aims to develop an area of 1.2m sq km (twice the size of France) in the far north of the province, with a population of 120,000, a quarter of whom are Native Americans or Inuit. Under the plan, bn (Cbn) is due to be invested over the next 25 years.

The vast expanse of land and water north of the 49th parallel is seen as a sort of El Dorado because of its mineral and energy riches. “It’s a new frontier for French business,” Besson said in Montreal this month, concluding a trip with the heads of 14 big firms, including Alstom, Lafarge, GDF Suez, Vinci and EDF, and the publicly owned Geology and Mining Research Agency (BRGM). According to the minister, the Plan Nord is “an incentive to rise to the challenge Charest made to French firms, urging them to move up from second to first place among foreign investors in Quebec”, ahead of their US counterparts.

Besson announced the start of preparations “to lay the foundations of a global partnership”, linking Quebec and France, to be built into the Plan Nord. Further discussions will be held in October, when Charest is due to visit Paris. Charest has toured China and Japan to promote his scheme. Charest foresees two main challenges: the difficulty accessing a territory lacking infrastructure, and a shortage of labour which could hold back development. “We need both highly skilled and unskilled workers,” he said.

As for Besson, he sees this opening for investments as a possible answer to the need to “secure France’s supply of strategic metals”. At the end of January he set up the Strategic Metals Committee (Comes) to frame a plan to secure access to rare minerals such as lithium, uranium, beryllium and germanium. The north of Quebec abounds in such raw materials. It is also richly endowed with diamonds, gold and base metals, not to mention its hydro-electric potential. But only a few foreign firms, such as Tata Steel of India, Jien from China and the Norwegian Yara, have committed themselves, and all are engaged in mining.

Besson highlighted two other promising sectors: wave power and the digital development of the far north. “We are building a cutting-edge industry with [EDF and DCNS] current turbines”, which could be sited in Quebec’s marine environment, he said. He added that “the Plan Nord would be inconceivable without internet access”. Vivek Badrinath, head of Orange Business Services, is counting on his expertise in international connectivity services and his links with firms such as Bell Canada to win valuable tenders. Vinci Construction has its eye on road and mining infrastructure. This article originally appeared in Le Monde © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds