Forty miles from the coast of Britain, where the government was again told this week that without urgent action it risks losing the electric vehicle race, “Battery Valley” is taking shape in northern France.
Emmanuel Macron’s announcement last week that the Taiwanese battery maker ProLogium had chosen Dunkirk for its first foreign facility brings to four the number of gigafactories planned in a corridor stretching about 60 miles inland from the port.
“We’re going all in on this,” said Xavier Bertrand, the head of the Hauts-de-France region, once home to many of France’s coalmines and much of its steel industry, which has spent more than €200m (£174m) – on top of huge state subsidies – ensuring the investments came its way rather than to rival sites in Poland, the Netherlands and Germany.
“We’re in advanced talks with other major players in the sector, too – graphite processing, recycling,” Bertrand told AFP. “The aim is to have the whole chain here; it’s a strategic choice. This is a decade of transformation and we absolutely need to be in the vanguard.”
Battery Valley has the enthusiastic support of the French president, who this week unveiled a raft of green measures and tax credits – including electric vehicle (EV) subsidies – aimed at attracting billions of euros in new investment to “reindustrialise” France, create jobs and increase manufacturing from 10% of the country’s economic output to 15%.
“There’s obviously a deep-rooted tradition in France of using a combination of hard money and soft support for industry in this way – far more so, generally speaking, than there is in Britain,” said a UK-based expert on the European automotive industry, who asked not to be named.
“It’s just particularly apparent at times like these,” said the insider. “France is developing a proper, thought-through industrial policy for the green transition. If it all plays out as planned, its EV battery cluster in northern France should be one of Europe’s biggest.”
By 2030, the European Commission estimates, between 33m and 40m electric cars will be on the EU’s roads. Five years later, the bloc will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles. In France, sales of EVs already account for 15% of the market.
The country’s carmakers, Renault and Stellantis – which owns Peugeot and Citroën, as well as Vauxhall (known on the continent as Opel) and Fiat – have promised to build at least 2m EVs in France before 2030, and they will all need batteries.
ProLogium’s plant, the largest of the four northern gigafactories announced to date, represents an investment of €5.2bn. By 2030, a planned workforce of 3,000 should be producing about 48 gigawatt hours (GWh) of batteries on its 180-hectare brownfield site in Dunkirk, enough to power between 500,000 and 750,000 cars a year.
Also based near the port is Verkor, a French startup investing €2.5bn in a gigafactory that in its first phase will employ 800 people. Production there is due to start in 2025, with an initial capacity of 16GWh, rising to 50GWh – powering up to 1m cars, mostly built by Renault – each year.
ACC, founded by Stellantis, TotalEnergies and Mercedes, plans to open its €4bn mega-plant in Douvrin as early as the end of this month, with the first batteries coming off the production line in early summer. It is targeting 1,000 employees by 2025, with an initial capacity of about 13.4GWh, rising to 40GWh five years later.
About 18 miles down the road in Douai will be Envision AESC, a Chinese-owned gigafactory being built on the site of a 50-year-old Renault plant that the partly state-owned company is devoting entirely to EV production. By 2025 it aims to be producing 9GWh of batteries a year for Renault, climbing to 30GWh by 2029.
Germany’s carmakers this week joined calls for an extension of a Brexit trade deadline by three years to avoid a 10% price rise on EVs that cross the Channel to the UK, after Ford, Stellantis and Jaguar Land Rover warned the British government that rules on where parts are sourced from threaten the future of the UK car industry.
The Brexit trade deal struck between the UK and EU at the end of 2020 contained “rules of origin” aimed at boosting domestic electric car battery production to reduce dependence on Asian imports, but new factories have not sprung up quickly enough, meaning some carmakers may face the prospect of tariffs on exports in January.
Stellantis has said that without action it could be forced to shut some of its UK operations. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has insisted the UK “needs to have that supply [of batteries] here in the UK”, adding: “Watch this space, because we are very focused on making sure the UK gets that EV manufacturing capacity.”
Hunt has offered Jaguar Land Rover, one of Britain’s biggest manufacturers, £500m in subsidies in an effort to persuade its owner, the Indian conglomerate Tata, to choose the UK over Spain for a new gigafactory.
France’s attractiveness is based on several factors, Gilles Lenormand, ProLogium’s French-born director of international development, told reporters last week on a visit to the site of the Taiwanese company’s future gigafactory with Macron.
Lenormand said ProLogium, which is developing a new-generation solid-state battery that it says is 10% lighter and offers up to double the range of current models, was insistent on low-carbon electricity, available in Dunkirk both through France’s nuclear network and offshore windfarms.
“But equally importantly, there’s a real industrial cluster of EV battery activity building momentum in the north of the country,” he said. “That means we should very rapidly attain a critical mass that will see raw material and component suppliers establishing themselves there too. It becomes an ecosystem.”
Experts say this is already starting to happen. Jenlain and Onnaing, near Valenciennes, are now vying for the right to host a €600m factory – a joint venture between France’s Alteo and Japan-Korea’s Wscope – producing separators, a key battery component that keeps the electrodes apart.
Finally, Lenormand said, the region around Dunkirk offers “real proximity to our customers, because there are a large number of EV manufacturers in northern Europe. The rail and road connections are excellent and Dunkirk is a deepwater port, which is something we need for both imports and exports.”
For the region itself, a symbol of France’s industrial decline, the transition could be vital. After the shutdown of its mines and most of its steel plants, the Hauts-de-France – formerly the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy – became the centre of the country’s car industry, home to three Renault factories, three Stellantis plants and a big Toyota facility.
But unemployment remains more than 20% higher than the national average, helping ensure it has become one of the heartlands of Marine Le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally). Dunkirk alone has lost 6,000 industrial jobs in the past 20 years, authorities say.
Estimates for the number of jobs Battery Valley could help create in the longer term range from 15,000 to 30,000. “Gigafactories are just the first step,” Luc Messien of the regional car industry association told Le Monde. “Essentially, we’re aiming for the industrial transition of the entire region.”
Ultimately, industry experts predict, if all four French gigafactories are up and running as planned by 2030, France will become one of Europe’s major battery hubs behind leaders Germany and Hungary, by which time Chinese output – currently accounting for as much as 80% of Europe’s EV batteries – should have fallen to nearer 60%, and the EU’s risen to 25%.
Several countries are competing for the sector’s favours, and offering huge subsidies: according to some reports, ProLogium may be receiving as much as €1.5bn from France, while Germany has promised €1bn in state support to Northvolt to help persuade the Swedish company to build a new plant in the country’s east.
Other EU states are equally active: China’s CATL, the world’s largest battery maker, is producing in east Germany and building a €7bn factory in Hungary, while Envision has opted for Spain. Britain’s hopes were hit by the recent collapse of BritishVolt, acquired in February by an Australian company that has yet to build a major project.
That leaves the UK with just one gigafactory being built – near Nissan’s plant in Sunderland. But while Britain is barely in the running, France’s bid to compete with China in the battery race is well under way.
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