Where does France really stand in the Tech World?

Nov 28, 2017
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Computer and bread

We like to put things – and people – into neat little boxes: this country is good at inventing, this one does well in computer sciences.
How much if it is true?
The OECD has just released a comprehensive report on Science, Technology and Industry for 2017.
Maybe it’s time to set the record straight. So how is France really doing?

Science and the digital revolution

Artificial Intelligence: the rank of the G20 countries in AI relates to their number of patents. France accounts for only 2.2% of all AI related inventions from 2012 to 2014. This ranks well among European countries but France is far behind Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. The USA are at third place.
France’s number of AI related patents is down from 2.8% (in 2000-2005) to 2.1%
One area where France makes a mark is Machine-to-Machine subscriptions. In June 2017, France was only second to the USA and ahead of all the others.

Digital Transformation, Growth and Jobs

Almost 86% of individuals in France used the Internet in 2016. Only 46.9% of them did in 2006. That’s a wooping 97% of 16-24 year olds and 68.5% of 55-74 year olds. More than half of who we now call seniors are in fact surfing the web.
A matter of concern are the low figures in Adult Training. 43% of men and 43% of women are currently engaged in some sort of training. This is among the lowest numbers in the OECD countries. When you take into account that half of jobs in the next 15 years don’t exist yet, there is a dying need to be able to upgrade one’s skills. France hardly promotes lifelong learning and this could prove to be a serious hinderance in the near future.
The digital divide could worsen because of this.
Women graduates are lagging when it comes to scientific fields: they represent 31% of all tertiary graduates in Natural Science, engineering and ICT. Actually, they are barely represented among ICT graduates (2%).
Once in the workplace, women earn 14% less than their male counterpart.
Still, French women account for 10.5% of patents between 2012 and 2015 which is above the figures in the USA (10%) and the rest of Europe (7%). There is indeed much to gain by promoting Science studies for women starting as early as primary school.
There is also a severe drop in IT manufacturing and IT services. Once in the Top 6 (in 1995), France has dropped to the 10th place in 2011 in both fields.
Despite France’s efforts to promote technology, it seems there are issues to address. Mainly education and training. Education, to promote equal access to IT diplomas and lifelong training to adapt to changing technologies.

Taking action

France’s government budget for R&D has strongly declined between 2008 and 2016. It fell by 22%. It declined even more in the defence-related R&D where it dropped by 80%.
This is sure to correlate with the low rate of scientific publications.
As this was not enough, France has lost more authors than it gained through international mobility. In the past 15 years, 8000 more scientific authors left France than entered.
To top this, France doesn’t have “publishing culture” in the scientific area as other countries do. It’s trying to catch up but the ratio of publications in the top-10% of those most cited lags Europe’s figures (11.3%).

Now what?

The situation is far from being hopeless though. Many of those numbers date back to 2016. Sure, this was only last year. But a lot has happened since then.
New president. Economy picking up. Huge efforts to promote the French Tech abroad and seduce foreign investors. Highly-skilled techies and their families invited to settle in French startups. The future may not be so dim after all.
This study gives clear insights into what France needs to improve. Let’s just hope the report will not be discarded like the PISA report (on the education system) which France keeps ignoring. France’s tech future may reside in an unbiased appraisal of its position in the G20 regarding technologies.


OECD (2017), OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2017: The digital transformation, OECD Publishing, Paris