Gigafactory Verkor in Dunkirk: Renault takes the lead in the race for electric patriotism

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PSA has long prided itself on having been less of a relocator than Renault and has, at times, used this as an argument to get the state to arbitrate in the direction that best served the company's interests. For the moment, by adding a French gigafactory to the Chinese one, backed up by the manufacture of the first European mass-produced battery electric vehicle in France, Renault is in the lead.

Renault-Nissan had initiated a movement at the end of 2020 that seemed to give substance to the proposals of President Macron who, on 26 May, declared at the Valeo factory in Etables that the objective of one million clean cars "made in France" should be aimed for by 2025.

By implying from his arrival in September that he wanted an affordable electric vehicle to be assembled in France, Luca de Meo had sent a powerful signal: while the increasing purchases of battery electric vehicles and imported rechargeable hybrids competing with the Zoé and the Peugeot or DS seemed to contradict the ambitions of May 2020 in the French foreign trade statistics, the announcements concerning the Mégane E-Tech and then the R5 and Micra came month after month to reinforce the credibility of the French ambitions. 

More precisely, Renault, by structuring the ElectriCity project which goes far beyond the Douai site alone to federate the structuring of the entire ecosystem, suggests that the coupling of French gigafactories and French assembly sites makes sense and can therefore allow electrification to become a tool for relocation. When he announced the Envision gigafactory project on Friday 25 June (to take the wind out of Emmanuel Macron's sails, who was due to announce it on Monday), Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts de France Region, who was still harbouring presidential ambitions at the time, indicated that his Region would grant Renault €25 million (in addition to €60-100 million in European funds) to modernise its Douai and Maubeuge sites. At the time, he said: "I said that this Renault modernisation project would only be financed by the Region if we had the guarantee of a new battery factory.  

This was probably not a great political victory against Renault-Nissan, since everything indicates that this was how the Senard-de Meo tandem intended to carry out its project to revive the Douai site. It was nevertheless one of the first clear formulations of this strategy which we can summarise as follows: 
- Since the manufacture of electric vehicles is - as all the studies indicate - less labour-intensive, both directly (at the manufacturers) and indirectly (at their upstream partners); 
- Since, well before the double movement of de-de-identification and electrification, France had already lost a lot of jobs in the automotive industry due to relocation; 
- Since the battery is a key element in a battery electric vehicle (BEV) both in terms of value and in terms of the vehicles' ability to provide the service required of them; 
- Since these are components whose production costs are relatively insensitive to labour costs, whereas the costs and characteristics of the high energy consumption involved are economically and strategically essential; 
- Since the manufacturers demand and obtain very strong support from the public authorities, which have imposed electric cars on them in order to promote their purchase, equip the country with charging stations and finance their R&D and investments;
- It is therefore not unreasonable to consider that a new 'deal' could be struck between France and its manufacturers to ensure that this support continues in exchange for the relocation of assemblies, which would create a clustering dynamic for the BEV 'sector'.

Even if Stellantis has already announced that Rennes-La Janais will assemble the future C5 Aircross Electric, we are still waiting for Carlos Tavares to express his true support for such a credo. Nevertheless, the fact that ACC exists and has chosen to locate its R&D centre in New Aquitaine and one of its three gigafactories in Douvrin suggests that, despite the difficulty it will undoubtedly have in renouncing the weapon of competition between countries and sites, the management of Stellantis could be convinced. 

In fact, we are today in a rather particular configuration since ACC is the actor who carries the hopes of seeing the emergence of French technologies in a few years but its shareholder Stellantis does not seem to want to give up the doctrine which was at the origin of the very powerful relocation movement. This doctrine, which was adopted by our two manufacturers for years - and until 2020 when we saw the assembly of the 208, the 2008 and the Clio - means that small vehicles, those that the French buy, cannot be assembled under satisfactory economic conditions in a high wage country like ours.

Symmetrically, by deciding to assemble the R5 in Douai and to equip it with Envision batteries also produced in Douai, Renault breaks this doctrine and reaffirms this new credo by obtaining from Nissan within the framework of the "leader-follower" scheme the assembly in Douai of the future electric Micra. At Stellantis, the DS3 electric and Opel Mokka are certainly two B segment vehicles assembled at Poissy but the assembly of high volume vehicles such as the Corsa, C3 or 208 does not seem to be on the way to being repatriated.

Thus, Stellantis has, with Total-Saft, designed and financed a "Battery Airbus" (PIIEC, i.e. Important Project of Common European Interest) which carries out its own R&D and prepares, for example, the future generations of batteries. In theory Franco-German since it involves Opel and thus benefits from German state subsidies, the project is in fact very Franco-French. It clearly corresponds, as do all those that have come out of the European Battery Alliance (EBA), to a political and industrial desire to avoid the obligation for manufacturers to form partnerships with the world's major Japanese, Korean and Chinese manufacturers to produce and sell BEVs.

This is obviously what was missing from Renault, which has moved in the right direction in terms of assembly, but which, on the other hand, has done business with Envision for its gigafactory and announced at the end of January, when presenting the Alliance's strategy for 2030, that the development of new generations of batteries would be the responsibility of the Yokohama R&D.

By recycling for the benefit of the Verkor gigafactory the prospective work done for the implantation of the Envision factory which, a year ago, placed Dunkirk in the lead, Renault is dissipating this shadow on the almost idyllic picture that Luca de Meo drew with the Hauts de France Region, the French State and the majority of the trade union organisations: It is true that we are talking about Lithium-Ion batteries and cells and not "solid-state", but backed by R&D in Grenoble and solid, largely French, partnerships.

Verkor and its location in Dunkirk send a clear signal: Renault's ElectriCity ticks almost all the boxes and Stellantis will have to announce a little more than the assembly of an electric C5 in Rennes to get back into the patriotic race.
 

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on www.autoactu.com.

      

 

  
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