France has always been at the forefront of the space sector at an international level and in particular has a leadership role in Europe. The French state has begun to develop its autonomy in access to space in the 1965, with the launch in orbit of the first satellite called "Asterix", thus making France the third space power in the world after USA and USSR1.
There are many reasons for the race to French space. Surely the spirit of "height "Classically French, but also a forward-looking strategy that already foresaw an increasingly massive use of space technology in contemporary society. It is important to remember that after the Second World War France never wanted to align completely with the Atlantic Pact, not wanting to depend on the US or NATO for its own national defense and security. It was the General De Gaulle, with this spirit, who founded the French space agency in the 1961, ie the CNES (Center national d'études spatiales, ed). Today the CNES is the most important European space agency, counting around 2.500 employees and an annual budget of over 2 billion.
There are five main areas of intervention by the CNES. The first of these concerns "Arianespace", the world's leading commercial transport company, controlled at 64% by the French capital. Ariane allows France to have access to the autonomous space, launching from the Kourou base in French Guiana. The strategic importance of this company, and especially of the launch base, is not limited to France alone, but extends to the whole European continent and to ESA partners. In fact, all the member countries of the European Space Agency launch from the Kourou base, having to ask permission from France, which could potentially deny it to the European partners.
The other areas of intervention of the CNES concern development and scientific research, Earth observation, telecommunications and defense. In addition to the strategic importance of the companies and the bases controlled by the CNES, there is a further primacy of the agency compared to the European counterparts. The CNES has not only a coordinating function, such as ASI in Italy, but also has an industrial and commercial character for the development of some "in-house" components.
All areas of intervention are obviously to be framed within the framework of a European partnership, both through bilateral agreements and through the ESA. France is among the main financiers of the European Space Agency, preceded by Germany and followed by Italy and the United Kingdom2. The CNES has a very pro-European characterization also in the recruitment of personnel. Usually the national space agencies, given the sensitivity of the sector, only recruit personnel with their own nationality. The French agency, on the other hand, was the first to open up to "non-French Europeans", even in key areas such as the agency's external relations.
Given the strategic importance of the space sector for France, how is this seen on an internal political level? Surely the CNES has a considerable weight, and the president of the agency is practically equivalent to a minister. It suggests to the President of the Republic the strategies to be adopted and officially never a President has deviated from these indications. France has always had the opportunity to pursue a long-term strategy on space. Regardless of the political color of the majority, like any other sensitive and strategic sector, the institutions have always provided their support without ever cutting the budget.
The French space strategy, being in a European framework, can not avoid industrial compromises and collaboration with foreign states. The French satellite equipment is an excellence in the field of optics for Earth observation. Italy is instead known for its satellite radar components, world-wide excellence in the sector. In order not to start a competition between the French and Italian industries, it was decided not to step on the feet, leaving the optician to France and the radar to Italy. The acquisition of some Italian space companies by France, which led to the formation of industries such as Thales Alenia Space, suggests, however, that cousins across the Alps do not intend to limit themselves to an Italian collaboration in the radar sector. France wants to maintain space supremacy in Europe, acquiring the main skills necessary for this purpose. In light of the foregoing, it is clear that Italy is a necessary partner for France for the time being, but as soon as it is no longer indispensable it can be confined to a minor role. The real challenge for the French is Germany, which through its own space agency, the DLR, is increasingly increasing its weight in Europe and in the world through increasingly large investments by the public.
And European integration? Surely all European space agencies are "forced" to collaborate in the EU and ESA framework to remain globally competitive, having much larger competitors such as NASA, Roscosmos, CNSA, JAXA and so on. However, space remains an extremely sensitive sector for states, depending on telecommunications, intelligence, defense and national security. Greater European integration is unlikely without an effective European common defense.
1 Asterix, 1er satellite francais (https://cnes.fr/fr/2-cest-beau-la-techno/asterix-1er-satellite-francais)