Introduction

The topic of mining has been at the forefront of the news in France for several months, due in particular to the  stands taken by the man who is now the former Minister of Industrial Recovery, Arnaud Montebourg. Mr. Montebourg has, on various occasions, pointed out the need to give fresh impetus to the mining industry in France to address difficulties associated with the procurement of metallic mineral resources and the increased challenges concerning rare metals. Four points deserve further discussion.

The reform of the French Mining Code

In December 2013, Philippe Tuot, a member of the Conseil d’État provided the Government with a draft Mining Code, intended to tidy up the current Mining Code, which had not been “revamped” since it was enacted in 1810.

Philippe Tuot’s draft Mining Code, with over 700 Articles, is a continuation of the former Code. (Only ten percent of the Articles in the Tuot draft are new provisions.)

First, all the legislative provisions which apply to mining matters are grouped together in the draft Code – as in the current Mining Code – irrespective of the relevant materials, environments, and territories.

Second, the predominant role played by the State in mining matters is reaffirmed, the State having sole authority to issue mining rights for exploration for mining operations and also for works authorizations.

The draft Mining Code does, however, propose some important innovations. For example, in the interests of simplification and efficiency, the draft Code proposes

  • to ensure that decisions on mining matters are taken solely at ministerial level (works authorizations are currently granted at county level);
  • that authorizations no longer be submitted for purely academic explorations which are not intended to lead to an exploration (as is currently the case);
  • to limit the time limits for examination procedures (which are currently very long) and to introduce a system of an implied license;
  • to submit any litigation relating to administrative decisions on mining matters to a system with full jurisdiction (the judge would decide on the basis of the law in force on the date of his decision and would, above all, have powers to reverse decisions).

Further, in the interests of taking better account of the environment, the draft Code proposes

  • to require an applicant to take account of the environmental impact of its project as early as the application phase for the exploration licence and mining operations licence (and not merely at the phase of the works authorization, as is currently the case);
  • to create a national program for enhancing the subsoil, with which administrative decisions on mining matters must necessarily be compatible;
  • to establish a principle of operator liability or “failing which, the beneficiary of the explorations or operations or the person which actually carried out the mining works” when mining works are terminated, such liability being effective for a period of 30 years, at the end of which the State will become liable (at present, the State is liable for the management of former mining areas).

We are not at present aware when the draft Mining Code will be debated before Parliament.

The announced formation of a state company devoted to underground prospection

In February 2014, Arnaud de Montebourg made a public announcement regarding the future formation of a new state company, the Companie Nationale des Mines (CNM) whose principal purpose will be (i) to explore the sub-soil in France (including the Overseas Areas), to assist with any mining thereof and (ii) to export French know-how on mining to any interested countries.

The stated objective is for France to ensure its independence by controlling its supply of strategic raw materials.

Although full details of the future company are still not clear, its financing will be based both on the Agence des participations de l’État (APE), an agency which manages the State’s holdings in various firms, and on the Geologica and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM), a state institution for the application of Earth Sciences. and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM), a state institution for the application of Earth Sciences.

The ongoing update of the inventory of mining resources in France

In 2012, the State entrusted to BRGM – a state institution whose assignments include gathering all available information on the subsoil – the task of updating France’s mining inventory.

This update of the mining inventory is still ongoing and should allow – in particular through a 3D application which was presented by the BRGM in June 2013 – for a better understanding of the condition of the subsoil and the identification of areas with strong potential.

Is there a renewed interest in France for mining companies?

In June 2013, Variscan Mines was granted an exploration licence for the County of Maine-et-Loire, France.

In November 2013, Cominor was also granted an exploration licence for the County of Creuse.

The grant of such permits received a good deal of press coverage, since it was the first time in 20 years that exploration licences were granted over land in Metropolitan France, leading some to say that France might in the near future become a country with a mining industry once again.

Due to the recent changes in government, which occurred at the start of April 2014, doubts remain as to whether the various reforms or works discussed above will be implemented and, if so, when.