Science & technology

See also :

Innovation in France   A chauvinistic section...
Contrary to what you may think, innovation is one of the major strengths of the French economy. (credit)

To put it simply, the French are good at inventing new concepts, new technologies, etc. but unfortunately they are not as gifted for turning them into new products. Several facts to substantiate that :

  • Misc. Facts & Figures : France is Europe's number one country for newly founded business : 538,000 new businesses were founded in 2013 (Source : Eurostat 2014) ; the largest business incubator in the world is Halle Freycinet, in Paris that will play host to more than 1,000 startups in 2016 ; paradoxically, the French tax system, which is a nightmare for all activities, is very favorable to R&D !

  • Ranking : France ranks very well in various business indicators of innovation (Third in the Thomson Reuters Top 100 Global Innovators 2014, First, for the 4th year, in the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 EMEA with 86 companies in 2014, Fourth in the world for patent applications in 2013, etc.)

  • A typical business story in France is as follows : a start-up develops a promising concept and, after struggling with financial difficulties is taken over by a bigger company, often American, which turns it into a profitable business. Such cases are innumerable : this is the strategy of major US groups like UTC, GE or IBM who do their shopping in France on a regular basis.

  • All cultural ? This is probably linked to key aspects of the French culture because history shows that it has always been like that (I studied it in my Ph.d. dissertation) ; a tentative explanation could be found in the fact that, culturally, the French prefer "ideas" to "facts", "invention" to "production", "creation" to "implementation", "dream" to "reality", etc.

  • An example of the American view on innovation in France : "The best asset of the French is innovation. On the other hand, they are handicapped by the cost of "made in France". But they often have a productivity higher than others'." (Kent Fischer, Vice-President Suppliers, Boeing, April 2015)

  • More to come


The good side of the lack of discipline of the French may be a certain ability to think "outside of the box" (see my section on Franco-American differences in cultural values : discipline, procedures, organization, ...).

Many innovations were born in France but in fact, in several cases, the French inventor was not capable to develop successfully his own invention. Read "What if .... Bill Gates had been French?".

 who invented/ discovered ?

 the answer is....

 and NOT ....
Cinema   Louis and Auguste Lumière (first film 28/12/1895)   Thomas Edison
 Planes   Clément Ader (first flight 9/10/1890)   Wilbur Wright (1903) (read more)
 Photography   Nicéphore Niepce (1826)   George Eastman
 Sound recording   Edouard Scott de Martinville (1860)   Thomas Edison (1878)
 HIV virus   Pr.Luc Montagnier (1980s) who was awarded the Nobel
Prize in 2008
  Pr.Robert Gallo who tried unsuccessfully to take the credit for himself
 Helicopter   Paul Cornu (1907)   Igor Sikorsky
 Optical pumping (laser)   Alfred Kastler (1949) (read more)   Theodore Maiman
 The worldwide web   Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire   Netscape (read more)
Personal computer   André Truong Micral N de R2E (Jan 1973)   Altair (1975)
Sardine can   Nicolas Appert (1795)   Peter Duran (1810)
Smart card   Roland Moreno (1974)   Bill Gates
and also !        
Value Added Tax (VAT ie TVA)   Maurice Laure (1954)   the French love taxes...
French patents, etc...   Most famous French scientists ... (this section is under construction)

Regarding innovation, as illustrated by the number of new patents, France is trying to keep its place among major nations, both Europe and the USA being seriously challenged by Asian countries.

  • The number of patents, as registered by OMPI (the United Nations organization for patents and intellectual rights), illustrates that in 2010 the USA are still leading (#1, stable), China (#4) and South Korea (#5) are catching up very fast, globally Europe equals the USA, Germany (#3) is still progressing, France (#6) and UK (#7) are stable (See detailed figures).

  • In France, the largest new patent owners are Thomson (a private technology corporation), CEA (Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique : the State organization for nuclear research), CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique : the State organization for scientific research : read more). In the world ranking, they rank between #34 and #60. Then come Renault and PSA (two French car-makers).

  • It may be recalled that, before WW1, four countries owned over 95% of the patents of the world, with approximately one quarter each (USA, France, Germany and UK).

  • France still ranks #5 ! In spite of her weaknesses, particularly in her educational system, France is still the #5 scientific power according to bibliometric studies. The major world scientific powers are : USA (48.8 million quotes in scientific reviews from all fields, from 2001 to 2011), followed by Germany (10,51), UK (10,50), Japan (8, decreasing), France (7, stable), Canada (6), China (5.2, growing) and Italy (5.15). (Source : Thomson Reuter, (May 2012,


Some French scientists are a matter of national pride and contribute to the image that the French like to give of themselves. Streets are named after them and they belong to the national legend. Among them :

  • Francois Lavoisier : famous for his discoveries in chemistry and also for his death : as he was sent to the guillotine by the Revolutionary Court, he pleaded that if he could continue his research, he would be useful to the new regime and the president of the court answered "The Republic does not need scientists" .

  • Louis Pasteur, seen as a major scientist but also a man of compassion, generated a prestigious foundation, Institut Pasteur (where the HIV virus was identified).

  • Marie Curie, born Polish and seen as an example of the power of attraction of France for the best (she was awarded two Nobel prizes and her daughter one!).

  • More to come ...

Some of the best French Grandes Ecoles rank more than honorably among US institutions for the ratio Nobel prizes per 10,000 alumni (and Ecole Normale Supérieur ranks #1!). See more details.

Since 1954, the CNRS (see below) awards every year one Gold Medal which is the most prestigious French scientific award.
Among its 71 prize-winners (1954-2019), 11 were also awarded a Nobel Prize in physics (Louis de Broglie-1929, Alfred Kastler-1966, Louis Neel-1970, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes-1991, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji-1997, Albert Fert-2007, Serge Haroche-2012), in Economy (Maurice Allais-1988, Jean Tirole-2014), in Chemistry (Jean-Marie Lehn-1987) and in Medecine (Jules Hoffmann-2011).
Two were awarded a Fields Medal (Jean-Pierre Serres-1954, Alain Connes-1982).
Many others were awarded by CNRS for sciences for which there is no Nobel Prize, such as for example Ethnology (Claude Lévi-Strauss, André Leroi Gourhan), History (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Jacques Le Goff), Sociology (Pierre Bourdieu), Linguistics (Claude Hagege) or Computer Science, Cryptology, Climatology, Philosophy, etc. . Click for more details.

DID YOU KNOW THAT . . .? In June 2017 after President Trump announced that his country was withdrawing from the Paris agreement on climate (signed in December 2015), French president Macron invited American scientists to come to France to participate in the French research programs on climate change and "Make Our Planet Great Again". An important budget was earmarked and in December 2017 the first group of 18 top-level scientists were welcomed in Paris before they joined the French laboratories where they had chosen to pursue their research.

More on French innovation on the site of OST/France Tech, a recent initiative of the French government to boost the image and attractivness of France, specifically for the US.


The organization of scientific research in France (

The situation of the country makes everything complicated but, however, there is now (2014) some Good News about innovation.

More about :

DID YOU KNOW THAT . . . ? If you drink pasteurized milk (and even if you don't), you've heard about Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who contributed to the dramatic progress of medicine by understanding germs and how to fight them. The Institut Pasteur he founded in 1888 is one of the most successful French research organizations. A private, not for profit foundation, it has 32 affiliates in 25 countries, 130 research units and with its 1,500 scientists it has obtained 10 Nobel prizes (including L.Montagnier's in 2008 for the discovery of the HIV virus). You can visit the Pasteur Museum in Paris (Rue du Docteur Roux 15ème), with his office and his tomb.

  • In France, most of the scientific research is public and takes place in the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) ; many of its laboratories have partnerships with universities or Grandes Ecoles but CNRS is not part of the university system (this is why it is not taken into account in the Shanghai ranking) ;

  • Of course, universities and Grandes Ecoles do scientific rsearch, often in partnership with CNRS or other public bodies ("laboratoires associes") ;

  • Other major (public) research organisations are INSERM (medical research), INRIA (computer science), CEA (nuclear physics), etc.

  • Some of the most prestigious research centers are :
    • for science : ENS (Ecole Normale Superieure), College de France, Institut Pasteur, Universite Pierre et Marie Curie, etc.
    • for humanities : Universite Sorbonne, EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales), etc.
  • More to come ...
To related pages : more about French society(#1), Education, French issues, etc...

To table of contents

To top of the page 

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!