As US institutions like Harvard and Stanford continue to dominate global rankings, the best that French higher education could muster this year is the 37th place ranking of Pierre and Marie Curie University – Paris 6, a part of the Sorbonne University of Paris.
For the second year running, just 20 French universities featured in the top 500 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or the “Shanghai Ranking” compiled by Jiao Tong University.
That leaves France trailing well behind the US, which once again dominates the list with 17 of the top 20, the UK, with 37 institutions in the top 500, and near-neighbours Germany, which has 38.
Although Switzerland and Australia have fewer universities on the list, they have more in both the top 20 and top 100, and so are listed higher than their French counterparts by the organisers of the rankings.
This year’s French total, however, does represent a slight improvement on 2012, when just three universities were included in the top 100.
France's Minister for Higher Education Geneviève Fioraso claims the rankings do not tell the full story because the criteria favoured Anglo-saxon institutions.
“I am delighted with the progress of French universities,” she said in French daily Le Figaro.
“Although, unlike the previous government, climbing these kinds of rankings isn’t our objective, because they don’t take into account our level of research,” she added.
Fioraso also noted that the rankings focussed on research universities but did not take into account research carried out at organisations such as France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), which is"the first in the world for scientific publications".
Le Figaro itself suggested that French institutions suffered from the ranking's bias towards the hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.
“The Shanghai rankings privilege research in exact sciences, to the detriment of teaching human and social sciences,” claimed Caroline Beyer on Thursday.
That theory, however, is belied by the fact that when it comes to social sciences specifically, not a single French university is included in the ARWU’s top 200.
In this year's rankings Pierre and Marie Curie University (37) replaces Paris-Sud (39) as the top-ranked Gallic institution, and is joined by the prestigious Ecole Normale Supériore (71) in the capital, and the University of Strasbourg (97).
While France makes no appearance, there are seven Dutch and Swiss institutions in the top 100 for social sciences.
This week’s rankings are only the latest to paint a grim picture of French higher education’s global standing.
In March, The Local reported how not a single French university made it into the top 50 of The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.
“It’s a bit of a blow to national pride," Philip Baty, editor of the rankings told The Local at the time.
“There is work to be done: having high-profile, well-regarded institutions recognized by scholars as being among the world’s best is vital for the future success of France’s higher education system and knowledge economy,” Baty added.
“There are some language issues. French academics are not publishing work in English the way universities in say Germany or Asia do,” he said.
The provision of English-language courses at university level has been a highly contentious issue in France of late.
A plan to offer more courses in English provoked vehement opposition, before being passed in the National Assembly by French MPs in May.
"A people that speaks a foreign language more and more loses its identity piece by piece," UMP lawmaker Jacques Myard said during a debate on the bill.
To see the ARWU's Top 500 for 2013 and previous years, follow this link.