By Elizabeth Pineau, Gilles Guillaume and Michel Rose
PARIS – For French President Emmanuel Macron, it was a light-bulb moment.
In an ornate ballroom at the Palace of Versailles last July, the head of Taiwan’s ProLogium took out a pair of scissors and cut one of its solid-state batteries the size of a credit card in half. The small bulb it was powering continued to shine.
Macron was amazed by the demonstration of the safety and durability of the next-generation technology many carmakers hope will soon power electric vehicles (EVs), according to two people at the meeting. “We’ll make your life easier and help you set up shop here,” he told ProLogium’s Chief Executive Vincent Yang.
Ten months later, Macron and Yang stood side-by-side in Dunkirk to announce that ProLogium had picked the northern French port ahead of sites in Germany and the Netherlands for its first EV battery gigafactory outside Taiwan.
It is one of four such gigafactories Macron hopes will transform the poor, former coal mining area near Belgium into a hub for the EV battery industry, creating jobs and helping to put France at the forefront of Europe’s energy transition.
It didn’t happen by chance.
Interviews with 10 government officials and executives involved in the investment decisions show that France rolled out the red carpet, offering battery makers generous subsidies thanks to a relaxation of EU state aid rules for green energy projects – along with some personal lobbying by Macron.
The people said changes since Macron became president in 2017, such as cuts in corporate tax, measures to make hiring and firing easier, and reductions in a production tax based on the size of factories, also played a role in the decisions.
Besides ProLogium, China’s Envision AESC, local startup Verkor and the ACC consortium including Mercedes and Stellantis are setting up gigafactories in the same area – and officials said France is courting Chinese EV giant BYD and Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) to build car plants too.
“Results don’t just fall from the sky,” Macron told Reuters in Dunkirk. “It’s in line with what we’ve been doing for six years. France is adapting to the world.”
‘RACE WITHIN EUROPE’
Automakers are racing to stay ahead of rivals by producing cleaner vehicles, securing greater control over their supply chains and bringing plants making EV batteries – an industry dominated by Chinese, South Korean and Japanese firms – closer to their manufacturing sites.
At the same time, European governments have been fretting that the $430 billion U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes big tax subsidies to cut emissions while boosting domestic manufacturing, would divert investment to the United States at Europe’s expense.
That’s why France is presenting the conversion of its once-industrialised north into a gigafactory hub as a victory for European economic and manufacturing sovereignty in the face of stiff U.S. and Chinese competition.
But Macron’s activism also highlights the growing rivalry between European governments to land high-profile investments from car companies and their suppliers.
“The president fights for Europe whenever possible. But it’s also a race within Europe,” said a French diplomat familiar with Macron’s thinking who declined to be named.
With the ProLogium deal and the inauguration of ACC’s plant last month, Macron also hopes to show a disgruntled public that his business-friendly reforms are paying off, and shift the narrative away from months of protests over his decision to raise the retirement age.
At the moment, however, France lags well behind Germany when it comes to attracting battery makers.
Including ProLogium’s 48 gigawatt-hour (GWh) plant, it has 169 GWh of planned or existing sites, way short of Germany on 545 GWh and Hungary with 215 GWh, according to a snapshot of projects co-authored by Heiner Heimes, an academic specialising in battery production at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.
PLAYING CATCH UP
But France is catching up, partly thanks to its largesse in funding projects upfront.
To bag the ProLogium solid-state battery plant, which is expected to involve a total investment of 5.2 billion euros and create 3,000 jobs over time, France offered incentives worth more than 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), one source with knowledge of the deal told Reuters.
French officials and ProLogium executives declined to comment on the level of support as it is still pending European Commission approval and the final amount could differ.
For the 2.3 billion euro plant opened by ACC (Automotive Cells Company) – the battery manufacturer involving Franco-Italian carmaker Stellantis, German rival Mercedes and French energy company TotalEnergies – France provided about 840 million euros in subsidies, including funds for research and development, according to the finance ministry.
ACC plans to build two similar plants in Germany and Italy, with the help of 437 million euros and 370 million euros in public funds respectively, according to the German and Italian governments.
Ola Kaellenius, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Group, said it was taking a region by region approach to ensure EV batteries were made near its auto manufacturing plants around the world – so having gigafactories in Europe was inevitable.
“Now that you have additional economic incentives on top of that, it is something you have to take into your business case calculation, there is no doubt about that,” he told Reuters.
To roll out the public support France is using to entice battery makers, Macron lobbied Brussels to let EU member states match the kind of subsidies Washington is throwing at the EV industry under the IRA.
The EU agreed in February to loosen state aid rules, paving the way for France to unveil a green tax credit package, which can be worth up to 40% of a company’s capital investment in wind, solar, heat-pump and battery projects.
“The usual level of support to major industrial companies is around 10 to 15%. Here, it’s higher than usual,” said Marc Mortureux, the head of the PFA French car lobby. “We’re now at support levels in line with those of the U.S. IRA.”
‘A CHARMING GUY’
Xavier Bertrand, head of the region home to the battery hub, told Reuters it could fast-track projects in less than half the time it takes other French regions as it gets all the necessary approvals done in parallel, rather than one after the other.
France is also making a cash incentive of up to 5,000 euros for buyers of new electric cars conditional on the manufacturers meeting tough low-carbon standards, effectively shutting out many non-European carmakers using dirtier energy.
Still, the IRA almost threw ProLogium’s investment in France off course, one French presidential adviser told Reuters.
In April this year, Macron advisers and ProLogium held a crunch meeting in Paris after the company said it needed a “little extra” to convince its board to invest in France.
According to the adviser, what sealed the deal was a promise by Macron that he would attend the signing ceremony in person, and give ProLogium a welcome publicity boost.
“Macron is a charming guy,” ProLogium’s Yang told Reuters, when asked about the French version of events. He added, though, that the cheap electricity from the nearby Gravelines nuclear power plant was just as important, if not more so.
French officials say the gigafactories are just one example of a country that is starting to open factories on its soil after two decades of offshoring to lower-cost sites – thanks to the government’s supply-side reforms.
Some opposition politicians say, however, that Macron is just exposing France to the whims of companies that are playing governments off each other to win more public money.
“Dunkirk has Chinese and Taiwanese investors,” Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party told Reuters. “These shareholders can pull out for a number of reasons. What happens if the state has no guarantees or a share in the business?”
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