The French Competitiveness Clusters: Toward a New Public Policy for Innovation and Research?

Article excerpt

In December 2002, the French Government gave impetus to a new public policy for regional planning and development. Almost two years later, in November of 2004, the implementation of this policy resulted in a call for projects to create "competitiveness clusters" ("poles de competitivite"). This initiative primarily aimed at promoting partnerships between companies, higher education hubs and research units on a regional or interregional scale around innovative projects. The call for projects was a great success, far beyond governmental expectations. The Interministerial Committee for Regional Planning and Development (Comite interministeriel d'amenagement et de developpement du territoire--CIADT) meeting on July 12, 2005, confirmed 67 competitiveness clusters among the 105 projects which were submitted. (1)

This paper assesses the extent to which the French policy in favor of competitiveness clusters lays the foundations of a new kind of public policy to foster innovation and research. Its first objective is to place the scheme in favor of competitiveness clusters in the history of French policy of innovation and research, since 1945. Secondly, it points out that the main stake of the cluster policy is to promote the emergent effects of the partnerships between geographically close actors. Such an aim implies a break from the linear view of the relations between public research and innovation. Thirdly, it puts forward the idea that this policy may be conceived of as an implementation of the model of the "collective production of public goods," which was supported by the participants of the Paris Forum on "Science, Economy and Society" organized by the Forum Engelberg in 1999. (2) This model is based on a multilateral frame of knowledge production and transfer. Thus, it opens a potentially successful via media between the traditional model of open science and the strictly market-based model that has appeared in some sectors, mainly in the United States.

An Historical Approach of the French Policy of Innovation and Research since 1945

After the Second World War (WWII), and mainly after the return to power of General de Gaulle in 1958, the French policy of innovation and research has focused on a few strategic "grands programmes," which were launched, financed and tightly checked by the State, through the administration, or through an agency or an ad hoc public research institute. (3) The industrial operation of these programs rested on a few--mainly public--big firms, the "national champions." These firms received major financial support from the State through subsidies or refundable loans. At the same time, France developed an important public system of fundamental research, based on hiring full-time professional researchers affiliated with the National Scientific Research Center (Centre national de la recherche scientifique--CNRS). The justification for this second aspect of the French policy of research and innovation was that such a system, governed by the principle of open science, would give the private firms the essential inputs to their innovation activities and would thus fuel, almost mechanically, French economic growth.

In the eighties and nineties, the organization of the French system of research and innovation experienced great changes, which led to the challenge of its "Colbertist" nature (Mustar and Laredo 2002). As a matter of fact, the State gradually gave up its policy of "grands programmes." "The 1990s have thus seen the near disappearance of what has been a central mode of state intervention in research during the post war period: the first central trait of French technological Colbertism has thus, with the exception of space, disappeared" (Mustar and Laredo 2002:60). Thereafter, the French system of innovation and research was deeply reshaped according to the following characteristics.

1) A growing involvement of higher education hubs (Universities and "Grandes Ecoles") in the research field, thanks to tighter relations between the former, the CNRS, and public research institutes such as the National Agronomic Research Institute (Institut national de la recherche agronomique--INRA), the National Institute for Oceanic Research (Institut francais pour l'exploitation de la mer--IFREMER), the National Health and Medical Research Institute (Institut national de la sante et de la recherche medicale--INSERM), and so on. …