With French presidential elections underway, France's recently unveiled new space strategy is calling for a gradual integration of the European Space Agency (ESA) into the European Union as well as changes to ESA rules that could work to France's benefit.

During a visit to Cannes last month, higher education and research minister Laurent Wauquiez touted France's 16% increase in the civil space budget over the past five years and the belief that for every euro invested in space, 20 are generated in the wider economy. He said civil and military space spending combined is €2 billion ($2.6 billion) per year in France, where more than 12,000 people are employed in the space sector.

As the largest contributor to ESA, with €770 million in 2012, France reinforced its leadership in space with €540 million in public bond money devoted to studies of launch vehicles and satellite projects in recent years. But it is seeking a more federal approach through the EU to give European space the political legitimacy it has lacked in the global arena.

Europe manages most space programs on an intergovernmental basis among ESA's 19 member states. Since the 1990s, however, the European Commission—the executive arm of the EU—has assumed a stronger role in European space, and the EU's involvement was formalized by the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. Some ESA member states, including France, maintain considerable national space budgets not managed by the agency.

“Our country has supported for many years the rise of the European Union in the space world,” Wauquiez says, adding that the EU must bring to bear the space budgets of all member states in order to be a global competitor. “The U.S. space budget is six times higher than European budgets.”

Wauquiez says that if Europe views access to space as a strategic asset, it must do more to support it. “Why would the EU not support the Ariane launch vehicle program to ensure all Europeans independent access to space?” he asks.

However, efforts to finance large space infrastructure programs, including the Galileo satellite navigation system and the showcase Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), have proved challenging for the EC. Confusion over the ownership of GMES, for example, was highlighted recently when the EC, hoping to elicit protests to proposed spending caps imposed by member governments, removed €5.8 billion in GMES operations funding from its next multiyear financial framework.

“In this context, you know the position of France and many other states on the Commission's proposals regarding the future of GMES,” Wauquiez said. “GMES must be funded by the EU budget. Not doing so would send a disastrous signal to the world that the EU does not want or can no longer assume a space policy that is forward-looking.”

France's 20-page strategy document says folding ESA into the EU is something that “will only occur in stages” and that in the near term, the EU must be allowed to delegate to ESA “the oversight of EU space programs and the definition of ad hoc rules for the management of those programs.”

It is worth noting, though, that the policies outlined in the new strategy are vague enough to survive the impending French presidential elections, regardless of the result. To date, space has been the subject of wide consensus in France.

The country still favors a long-term road map to Mars, including a sample-return mission on the way to eventual manned exploration, having contributed a piece to NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover that is expected to reach the red planet in August. In the meantime, France is debating with other ESA member states the prospect of spending €1.2 billion for Europe's two-pronged robotic ExoMars campaign to Mars in 2016 and 2018.

Notably absent from the strategy document is mention of the International Space Station and Europe's continued support for it, namely a discussion of what type of platform France would like to build as an in-kind contribution to ISS prime contractor NASA. One possibility is a robotic vehicle that could operate in low Earth orbit, performing tasks such as removing dead satellites from orbit.

While the strategy notes that Europe should avoid duplicating technologies already mastered by other countries, it urges that France focus on critical space exploration skills.

“The European contribution could, for example, cover four critical technology areas: automation and robotics, energy, high-performance propulsion and life support,” the document asserts.

France also supports a relaxation of ESA's “geo-return” rules, which guarantee a 90% return on investment in the form of workshare to any ESA country that contributes financing to a specific program. At the same time, the document urges the EU to allow occasional sole-source awards rather than always seeking competitive bids. Both recommendations tend to favor France, which boasts the largest and most comprehensive space industry in terms of available technologies in Europe.

In the launch sector, access to space continues to be of paramount importance to France, which finances 50% of the current Ariane 5. The French want to start work on a follow-on rocket, dubbed the Ariane 6, and are debating its merits with Germany, another big ESA contributor. The Germans would prefer to continue work on an Ariane 5 midlife evolution (Ariane 5 ME) before funding a next-generation launch vehicle development.

The two have been trying to reach common ground on the rocket since February, ahead of ESA budget talks in November. The midlife upgrade is expected to cost a little over €1.5 billion; the next-generation launch vehicle would rely less on the commercial launch sector and be cheaper to operate.

Although France supported the effort to start work on the Ariane 5 ME, approving €355 million for the project at ESA's 2008 budget ministerial meeting, there has since been a change of heart. The strategy document does not take a clear position on the issue, but Wauquiez pointed out that France is devoting “almost €200 million” of the public bond issue to study the next-generation launch vehicle design in preparation for the November meeting.

In the meantime, ESA is readying a tender for design proposals, to be issued in May, for a next-generation launch vehicle. After months of polling its largest European customers—SES S.A., Eutelsat, Hispasat, and European militaries—for future launcher requirements, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says he wants the new vehicle's architecture and industrial team in hand by year-end.

The new strategy also urges the EU to assimilate into the EC's critical infrastructure budget the space center in Kourou, French Guiana, an idea that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has put forth in recent years. France finances about two-thirds of the facility and other ESA members the rest. Sarkozy says the equatorial launch center should benefit from EU financial support if space is a strategic asset for Europe, though it remains unclear how this funding would work.

In the area of satellite telecommunications, the strategy calls on the EU to make Galileo a 30-satellite constellation, as opposed to the 26 navigation and timing spacecraft on order. As originally planned, it was to comprise 30 spacecraft plus several spares. The new strategy also pressures the EU to assure an additional source of dual-satellite launches besides Soyuz. Adding Ariane 5 to the mix would afford launches of four spacecraft, though €50 million is needed to adapt the European rocket for Galileo.

The new strategy also outlines four priorities for military space: very-high-resolution optical reconnaissance capabilities, secure satcom links, signals intelligence capabilities and missile detection.

France operates the Syracuse 3 system with secure satcom links and has contracted for a next-generation Helios optical reconnaissance mission. Technology demonstrations of sigint capabilities are also flying on the Elisa constellation orbited last December, and France has talked about a follow-on operational system called Ceres, though it is not yet funded and no one else in Europe seems willing to share the costs.

France has launched an experimental missile-warning system called Spirale, as well. Although it has yet to attract interest from European partners, Astrium Space Transportation CEO Alain Charmeau says his company is proposing the capability as an in-kind contribution to a wider NATO territorial missile defense system, a topic expected to come up at the NATO summit in Chicago next month.

“Spirale has given outstanding results, which now allows the French defense ministry to design what could be an operational satellite for early warning,” Charmeau says. “They are already working on it and I am absolutely convinced that there will be a French program for early warning satellites.”