On 2 November 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron finished his first tour of Central Asia, through which he sought to strengthen French influence in the region. Macron visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and affirmed French interest in strengthening partnerships with both nations. He also assessed the countries’ stances on the Ukraine war given the special relationship both have with Russia. Macron’s tour puts France on the map of regional and international powers in the region, which has recently gained geopolitical momentum. There has been growing European interest in Central Asia amidst heightened competition between Russia, China, and Turkey to expand their influence and implement regional transport corridors to connect the landlocked region to Europe.
Central Asia has become increasingly important since the Ukraine war, given that it is adjacent to Russia and also possesses oil and gas reserves that could provide a potential alternative to Russian energy, which is under European sanctions. France first became interested in the region in 2019, when the French foreign minister at the time toured all Central Asian countries. In addition, there is a French archaeological expedition in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, Paris built the control tower for Dushanbe’s airport, and established the French Institute for Central Asian Studies as well as a French-German cultural institute in Kyrgyzstan. Macron’s recent visit alongside a large delegation of French businessmen and top energy CEOs marks the first time a French president has traveled to Kazakhstan since 2014, and to Uzbekistan since 1994. There were various strategic components and outcomes of this trip, including the following:
1. Paris aims to further its economic interests: The French presidency announced in a statement prior to Macron’s trip that Paris sought to support Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in their efforts towards reform and modernization. It indicated that the president would work on bolstering economic cooperation, particularly in the field of energy, and would help the region deal with climate change. France also aims to become involved in regional energy transport projects connecting Central Asia to Europe. To this effect, Macron has affirmed on multiple occasions that China and Europe should work together on the Belt and Road Initiative and that it should not be only one-way. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative seeks to connect the region through various railroad and other land routes.
2. Make up for declining French influence in Africa: There are other objectives that Macron sought to achieve during this tour, including expanding new horizons for French influence at the international level to make up for waning French influence in the African Sahel. There have been internal shifts in Africa, most recently the military coup in Niger in July 2023, which led to the withdrawal of French forces from the region. Since then, France has endeavored to bolster its presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus near Ukraine. Paris has supported the Caucasus in the Russian war against the latter, which also entails strengthening French support for Ukraine. Furthermore, Paris is interested in the developing security and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The French presence in Central Asia will contribute to strengthening cooperation with Kabul.
3. Joint interest in advancing cooperation: Macron began his tour with a visit to Kazakhstan on 1 November 2023 and met with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. During this meeting, Macron affirmed that continuing ties with Astana was critical for Paris and that it sought to accelerate their strategic partnership. He called for adherence to the UN charter and principles, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty, and expressed his understanding of the geopolitical challenges and pressures that Astana might be facing. This was in reference to the war in Ukraine and US and EU demands that countries in the region commit to sanctions imposed on Russia and prevent circumvention of sanctions given strategic ties between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Moscow.
For his part, Tokayev indicated that Macron’s visit was "historic" and that France was a trusted and important partner in the EU. He called on Paris to contribute to the development of the Trans-Caspian Transport Route for bringing energy resources from the region to Europe.
4. France and Kazakhstan sign joint declaration on rare earth metals: Kazakhstan and France signed a declaration of intent to cooperate on strategic metals. Agreements were signed with French energy companies (TotalEnergies and Alstom) to pump further investment into Kazakhstan for gas exploration and uranium extraction projects. Nuclear power accounts for 80 percent of electrical production in France. However, the country has faced a shortage in its stored capacity since Niger stopped supplying uranium to Paris, after previously meeting 24 percent of its annual need. Approximately 23 percent of French annual rare metals imports come from Kazakhstan, although France intends to increase this. Paris also imports Uzbek uranium, since it needs 10 tons of uranium annually for its electric companies’ nuclear reactors. France seeks to draw on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to make up for uranium supply losses in Niger.
5. Pursue economic and cultural cooperation: Macron and Tokayev discussed new French-Kazakh projects regarding raw materials, agriculture, transportation, logistics, light industry, and healthcare. Astana and Paris also signed an agreement for the AFD (French Development Agency) Group to operate in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, Paris also intends to set up French international schools in Kazakhstan in 2024 and signed a joint agreement for wind farm projects with a total capacity of 1 gigawatt. France is the fifth largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan as a result of TotalEnergies’ investments in the Kashagan Field in the Caspian Sea. Bilateral trade volume reached 5.3 billion USD in 2022 and Kazakhstan and France agreed to a roadmap for economic cooperation through 2030.
Macron ended his tour with a visit to Uzbekistan where he met with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Talks focused on expanding economic, cultural, and innovation cooperation and the two presidents participated in a French-Uzbek business forum. They signed several economic cooperation agreements worth 6 billion USD, mostly in the energy sector. It is worth noting that the AFD is funding an urban waste management project and a project to restore tourism in the Bo‘stonliq mountains of Uzbekistan.
6. Bolster security and military cooperation: Paris has announced that it will supply Kazakhstan with GM400 military radar, which will be installed in Kazakhstan by the French company Thales. This is especially important since Kazakhstan shares a 7500-kilometer border with Russia. France also announced that it would strengthen security cooperation with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to counter terrorist threats and drug smuggling, particularly via Afghanistan. France previously had a military presence in the region from 2001-2014, when Tajikistan hosted a French air division as part of NATO military operations in Afghanistan.
Macron’s tour of Central Asia succeeded in achieving its economic goals through signing a number of agreements. This will have various outcomes for French foreign relations. However, the visit could also entail various challenges for Paris. France might find it difficult to achieve its strategic objective of consolidating French influence in the region as a key European power for a variety of reasons, including:
1. Intensifying European rivalries in Central Asia: Prior to Macron’s tour of Central Asia, countries in the region held the first regional summit in Germany as part of C5+1. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with the leaders of five Central Asian countries on 23 September 2023 in Berlin. The summit raised many of the same issues of regional cooperation that France has pursued, including economic cooperation and utilization of the region’s energy resources to replace Russian gas.
There has also been increased momentum this year in developing cooperation between Italy and Central Asia. The EU and Central Asia held two summits in 2022. In May 2023, European Council President Charles Michel undertook two tours of the region amidst European competition to exert influence within Central Asia. France might soon host another joint C5+1 summit to establish an institutional framework for relations with countries in the region. This will require EU-French-German coordination to prevent conflicting interests or rivalries between German and French energy companies operating in Central Asia. Working at cross purposes would hinder efforts by various European countries to consolidate influence in Central Asia.
2. Regional powers exert pressure on French plans: Following the end of Macron’s tour in the region, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the Kazakh capital of Astana to lead the 10th Anniversary Summit of the Organization of Turkic States on 3 November 2023. The summit’s slogan was "the Turkic Age" and leaders of all member countries attended, including Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Hungary, Turkmenistan, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the last of which has observer status in the organization. This has intensified Turkish-French competition, which has recently ramped up in various areas including in Syria, Libya, and the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara considers Central Asia to be part of its sphere of influence and has strengthened its presence in the region across various fields. This will pose a challenge to Paris’s efforts to expand its influence in the region.
Azerbaijan has emerged as a regional power in Central Asia after it claimed victory over Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. French-Azeri relations have consequently become more tense, with Azerbaijan refusing Paris’s offer to serve as a neutral mediator in that crisis. France has also criticized the persecution of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. It appears that French-Azeri tensions will continue, which could negatively affect French involvement in Central Asia. There is also a risk that French interests in the region could be targeted by terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan such as al-Qaeda or ISIS. This would threaten the French presence and investments in the region, particularly with regard to land routes for energy transport, which could be targeted by acts of sabotage to block supplies from reaching France.
3. Heightened tensions with Russia: Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for the Kremlin, indicated in his comments on Macron’s visit to Kazakhstan that the latter was a sovereign state and could develop ties with other countries according as it saw fit. He emphasized that Astana and Moscow had a strategic partnership and alliance. However, Russia nevertheless remains concerned about increased European and French influence in the region and the various signs of the growing European presence there. This could pose a challenge to Russian involvement in the region and fuel conflict with Moscow, which is engaged in what it calls a "proxy" war against NATO in Ukraine. France is a key member of NATO and has provided Kiev with extensive military aid, even as Macron has sought to maintain communications with Moscow during the war.
The Russian-French conflict over spheres of influence in Central Asia has been particularly evident in their rivalry over building nuclear energy plants in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Astana indicated that French company EDF is one of the candidates for building the first nuclear plant in Kazakhstan. However, popular opinion polls and the Kazakh government favor a Russian company carrying out the project instead. There will be a popular referendum on this issue at the end of 2023. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has indicated that Russia is the only option for building its nuclear plant. Paris has sought to pursue dialogue with Moscow to ensure that natural gas and uranium from Central Asia reaches France. This route currently passes through Russia or via the "Middle Corridor," which is also controlled by Moscow. The French presence in Central Asia could therefore stoke conflict with Russia unless France is able to address these challenges as it pursues its own interests.
In conclusion, Macron is working to strengthen French influence at the international level through expanding into new regions, including Central Asia. He hopes to put Paris onto the map of regional and global powers, which would achieve French and Central Asian interests through increasing economic opportunities and diversifying foreign policies. However, this could also lead to further tensions in French foreign relations with other regional powers operating in Central Asia.