The French Aerospace Sector: Domestic Economic Engine and Global Innovation Leader

When speaking about French industry with Americans, one quickly realizes that many in America are familiar with the country’s reputation as a global leader in wine, luxury goods, and cheese.  France certainly boasts the world’s leading catalog of products from any of these categories and many more.  Many do not realize that beyond consumables France is also a leader in aerospace and space, second only to the United States (and on America’s heels in some cases).

It is easy to understand why Americans may be unaware of the French position.  It is routine for many to travel in America on a Boeing jet; Lockheed Martin offices are in nearly every major city; SpaceX is in the news nearly as much as Ford.  American space dominance is even portrayed in pop culture and films, in everything from science fiction involving end of time scenarios to historical fiction that would lead even the most careful observer to conclude that everything we learned about or did in space originated in either Texas or Florida.

But an observer is sorely mistaken if they take these premises to conclude that France is not a major player in aerospace and space; quite the contrary is true.  France ranks second in the world for total expenditures on space, and second in the world for export of space and aerospace technology and services.  French producers are in many cases the industry standard in markets in all corners of the globe, and French collaboration with the United States, Russia and other leading countries has a rich history.

Based on figures compiled by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, France is the second-largest investor in the space sector globally with an impressive €30 per year, per resident, compared to €46 per year, per resident in America and €16 per year, per resident by Germany.  The UK sits far down the ladder, with only €6 per resident, per year invested in the space sector.[1]  France is also a leader in exports of hard products, placing second in 2015 (again behind the United States) with aerospace and space exports totaling a combined USD 58.3 billion, and spacecraft and aircraft alone representing 10.7% of France’s total exports.[2]  Data are not yet available for 2016, but one can assume this number will continue to grow given the pace of dealmaking seen in industry publications over the last year.

The French government is keen to see this success continue, and supports the space industry as much as possible by making the country attractive for foreign investment, ensuring reliable financing options exist for companies, and promoting educational opportunities to foster research and development and guarantee a reliable workforce for companies.  According to Invest in the EU, the French government promotes investment by promising the lowest set-up costs for the sector in the entire EU, generous tax incentives, and even assistance with utility cost management (not to mention special taxes for energy conserving operations).[3]  The Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES, France’s space agency) also supports the industry with important investments in research and development, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates yields an investment return of €20 for every €1 of government investment.[4]  Aerospace Valley, a cluster of space and aerospace industry leaders, academics and researchers also contributes to French success in space, with the cluster itself employing over 120,000 people (nearly a third of the industry in France) and generating an unquantifiable amount of research and information for the industry each year.[5]

France’s leading aerospace companies, such as Arianespace, Airbus, and Dassault Aviation are playing key roles in many of the globe’s most important space deals of the future.  Arianespace, the world’s first commercial launch company and a global leader in launch services and the development of launch vehicles, recently signed with American firm OneWeb to provide launch services for its soon-to-deploy network of 900 satellites, a deal that could result in as many as 21 launches by current estimates. OneWeb has also partnered with Airbus Defense and Space to build up to 880 small satellites at a factory in Florida, with Airbus playing a key role in the project.[6]  Other French companies, such as Eutelsat, play leading roles in spacecraft operation and network design and management.

It should be clear that the French position as a leader in aerospace and space is well-cemented.  The industry will continue to evolve as customer’s demand changes with new technology, and has a healthy future ahead with over five years of backlogged orders.  The collaboration between America and France is likely to increase as well, as Russia becomes a greater investment risk for American companies.  France is the natural choice for aerospace companies in America seeking a reliable global partner, and will continue to be for years to come.

[1] France Diplomatie. (2014, January). France, the world’s second-largest investor in the space sector.

[2] Anderson, G. (2016, May 06). France’s aerospace industry looks back on a record year.

[3] Invest in EU. (2016). Aerospace sector in EU.

[4] France Diplomatie. (2014, January). France, the world’s second-largest investor in the space sector.

[5] Aerospace Valley. (2016). About Us.

[6] De Selding, P. B. (2016, September 16). U.S., French export-credit agencies’ role in OneWeb remains questionable.


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