France, a science and innovation powerhouse

France is famous around the world for being a country of scientific excellence that maintains the long tradition of research and innovation exemplified by the likes of Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie and, more recently, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. France is ranked fourth in the world for Nobel Prizes with 55 recipients, with Marie Curie being awarded twice. French economist Maurice Allais was also awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. In 2008, France was also the fourth-ranked OECD country for research and development with 2.1% of its GDP, amounting to 41 billion euros, 63% of which came from companies. France is the second-largest European patents holder (2009) and the sixth-ranked country worldwide for scientific publications (4.2% of world publications in 2008).

Today more than ever, France hopes to promote and develop research with the “Investissement d’Avenir” (Investments for the future) program: the French government will invest 21.9 billion euros to support its goals in research and higher education. Of this amount, 3 billion euros are being put toward thematic projects of excellence, with the goal of investing in essential equipment for research laboratories and to enhance fields of excellence in French research.


France is known as a country of mathematicians where logic and high standards have dominated ever since Blaise Pascal and René Descartes published their works. France is the second country in the world for Fields Medals, the highest award in mathematics. Its mathematicians have received 11 prizes in all. In the famous Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, two French universities, Paris 6 “Pierre et Marie Curie” and Paris 11 “Orsay,” are in the top 10 schools internationally for mathematics. They are ranked sixth and nineth, respectively.


France had the World Health Organization’s top-ranked healthcare system in 2010. The country is a leader in medical research. For example, after Louis Pasteur invented the anti-rabies vaccination, the institute named in his honour continued developing innovations in tropical diseases and new vaccines. French researchers also invented the stethoscope, the blood transfusion and neuroleptic drugs. Two French doctors, Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who discovered the HIV virus in 1983, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008. French surgical practices are considered to be among the best in the world: the French surgeon Alain Carpentier was the first to transplant a fully implantable artificial heart in 2008. France now invents the medicine of the future: the digital modelling of the heart, performed by the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), allows a standard scanner to be used to predict the effects of any therapy. Other researchers have developed a vaccine for cervical cancer. In addition, a French professor recently discovered a potentially active protein to be used against Alzheimer’s disease. All these innovations are helping to expand the boundaries of medicine.

The aviation industry


The aviation industry is one of the key French industry sectors thanks to a level of quality and technological advances that make it almost unrivalled in the world. This was illustrated by the creation of the A380 or “Superjumbo,” which is the largest civil airliners in the world. This long-haul jumbo jet featuers four jet engines and two decks and is built by EADS Airbus. The passenger version is capable of transporting between 525 and 853 passengers and the transport version can carry up to 150 tonnes of cargo. In military aviation, the “Rafale” fighter jet, which is produced by French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation, appears to be the most versatile aircraft of its kind in the world thanks to its onboard technology.

The space industry

Belonging to the very select group of powers that have the ability to launch satellites and cargo spaceships in the space is the result of high technological mastery. Europe's Ariane line of rockets was initially the work of the French Space agency (the CNES) and put half of the existing satellites in the world into orbit.

The nuclear industry

The French nuclear industry got its start in the 1950s and quickly developed in military and civilian branches. Seventy-nine percent of the electricity in France is produced by nuclear plants. The third generation EPR-Type reactors are made by the French company Areva and produce 1650 MW, 22% more than other reactor types. Furthermore, the EPR security system is considered by experts to be the safest one in the world with an accident probability rate that is reduced by a factor of ten. The company Alstom, for its part, is the world's leading supplier of conventional islands for nuclear power plants (REP and REB types) and builds almost a third of the world’s nuclear turbine and generators sets.

Humanities and social sciences

France has an unsurpassed reputation in the world for humanities and social sciences, a status that has been highlighted by many great thinkers. Claude Lévi-Strauss may be one of the most striking examples of this century: he was both an anthropologist and an ethnologist and penned such famous books as Tristes tropiques (1955). He had a decisive influence on the humanities in the second half of the 20th century. Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a writer and a playwright who made his mark on the philosophy of the 20th century with the concept of existentialism which can be found in his books l’Etre et le Néant (1943) and L’existentialisme est un humanisme (1945). The philosopher and essayist Michel Foucault was, for his part, considered by the Times Higher Education Guide in 2007 to be the world’s most quoted writer in the humanities. His books on madness, death, power and subjectivity are indeed unavoidable volumes of philosophy, psychology and literature. The sociological thought of Pierre Bourdieu was a powerful influence on our era with concepts like the “class habitus” and “symbolic violence,” as was the work of Emile Durkheim at the beginning of the 20th century with important publications on religion, suicide and ethics.

Major research organisations in France

Almost half a million people participate in a public or a private research activity in France. Teacher-researchers represent more than three quarters of all researchers. On a full-time equivalent basis, the population of researchers, research engineers, titled and untitled staff and doctoral students is distributed as follows:

More than half of the full-time equivalent researchers work in post-secondary institutions (universities, Ecoles Normales Superieures, Ecoles Centrales, national polytechnic institutes, national institutes of applied sciences);

29% of the researchers work in a Public Scientific and Technical Research Establishment (CNRS, INRA, INSERM…);

14% of the researchers work in public industrial and commercial undertakings  (BRGM, CEA, IFREMER);

The remaining 6% of the researchers work either in non-profit institutions (3.6%) or in administrative public institutions (1.1%) and departmental services (1.5%).

All of these research institutions have a major influence in their respective fields. The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) is the most important one and is ranked second worldwide in terms of number of publications it has had in the prominent scientific journal Nature. French universities certainly don’t lag behind, awarding some 10,000 PhDs per year; 21 of these universities qualified for the well-known Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities.

French research facilities: large-scale instruments

France has a large number of the high-quality research facilities that are essential to the vitality of a country. Some of them are entirely French-owned while others are shared and managed by several partner countries. Here are some of the most famous ones:

  • Space Observation:

-The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile is an astronomical interferometer array, comprising of 66 12-metre and 7-metre diameter radio telescopes, which observes millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths and is managed by the ESO (European Southern Observatory)

- The very Large Telescope is made up of four separate optical telescopes organized in an array formation, built and operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO)

-The CFHT, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope is a Prime Focus/Cassegrain configuration with a usable aperture diameter of 3.58 metres that is operated by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Canadian National Research Council (NRC).

  • Studying particles and nuclei

-The Large Heavy Ion National Accelerator (GANIL) is a French national nuclear physics research centre consisting primarily of two serialised synchrocyclotrons.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator and was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)

  • Studying matter

The synchrotron SOLEIL is a third-generation synchrotron facility with an optimised intermediary energy light source, It is operated by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA)

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) System with very high magnetic fields is operated by the CNRS, the CEA and various universities.

Studying biology and health

-The NeuroSpin is a centre for highly advanced brain-imaging research that aims to study the brain, in particular thanks to the nuclear magnetic resonance system with high-strength magnetic fields.