By Matt McGrath
BBC science correspondent
More than science: Projects such as Galileo carry political significance
Ambitious plans for European missions to the Moon and Mars are being considered by the French government.
It wants to kick-start a revolution in space by letting EU politicians not bureaucrats decide on priorities for the European Space Agency (Esa).
The French say that if Europe fails to change its approach to space, it will fall behind Japan, China and India.
Paris is seeking an alliance with the UK to drive the agenda forward during the French presidency of the EU.
President Nicolas Sarkozy's well-known admiration for all things American now extends to space exploration. Speaking to the BBC, a senior official involved in French space policy said that it was time to shake up the European Space Agency and make it more like the US space agency (Nasa) by giving it a new, politically-led direction.
The French take over the rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 July and are planning to make space policy a key area for reform.
The official said that Europe was in danger of becoming redundant in global space terms and it needed an agency that followed a clear political agenda.
President Sarkozy has big ambitions in space
"The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let's get the same chances as the others.
"Beside the scientific pilot, let us have a political pilot, too, which will be the EU, because there is only the EU that can speak at that level."
But Alan Cooper, European space policy implementation manager with Esa in Paris, says that comparisons with Nasa are unfair.
"Nasa has the reputation it has on the strength of the programmes it has delivered," he told BBC News.
"It spends seven or eight times as much as Esa spends in a year. Its profile you would expect then to be seven or eight times higher than Esa. If you want the European space programme to have the same impact, it will need a higher profile and the investment to match those goals."
Record of success
The European Space Agency was formed in 1975, and its seventeen member-states include countries outside the EU - Switzerland and Norway. Canada also takes part in some projects under a co-operation agreement.
Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability. Its objectives are scientific and industrial; and the latter is reflected in its funding arrangements. The agency invests in the space industry in each member-state roughly equal to the amount of money the member-state pays into Esa.
A current debate centres on Europe having an independent crew vehicle
Esa has had many significant successes in space exploration. It has developed a launch site in French Guiana, become a major player in the business of commercial satellites, trained an astronaut corps and has contributed the Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station. It is also developing its own, controversial, global navigation system called Galileo.
But critics of Esa say it belongs to another age when European space activities were seen as a bridge between the American and Soviet space racers; and it is time it lost its dependence on others. Europe has no means of getting its own astronauts into space, for example.
Now, documents seen by the BBC indicate that the French plans for an overhaul of Esa are at an advanced stage. The papers say that a politically-led space enterprise is necessary for Europe to be taken seriously in the international arena.
The documents talk about the manned exploration of Mars and the need for Europe to play an "indispensable" part.
Commenting on the issue of Mars, the French official agreed it was now on the agenda.
"The French impetus would be to say that a European contribution to a human flight mission to Mars is something we should set as an objective.
It's exactly this kind of question that needs to be answered - this is highly political. You have to say, do you want to go human, to the Moon first, or do you want to go directly to Mars, which is the French position.
Plans at present only extend to the robotic exploration of Mars
"These are all political questions, of course. You can turn them into science, but they are political questions and Esa cannot answer them and this is why we need a political element."
Alan Cooper says that political leadership which comes with extra resources would be very welcome at Esa.
"If we are focussing on the question of whether we welcome an increase in political interest in space in Europe - clearly, yes, if that results in higher goals and the investment to match, we would be extremely happy about that.
"It's tempting to use a phrase like, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune', but really it's down to accountability. If you are accountable for the money you are spending, then you determine the rules under which it is spent. If someone else is raising that money, they have that accountability.
"I think what you are talking about is fundamentally changing the aims of Esa and if you want a fundamental shift in goals for Esa then it's got to be a decision for all the member states."
According to the French, the UK is their model partner in this endeavour.
The two countries had similar views on how business should be encouraged to get involved in space to develop commercial opportunities. And the two countries were now of the same view when it came to exploration, he said.
"It is mainly since the arrival of our new President that we have come up with a pretty British type of idea," the French official added. "Britain has always been pushing for exploration and by discussing our plans, we have had quite a good reaction from the British National Space Centre and from the ministry."
France hosts Europe's spaceport at Kourou, French Guiana
But not everyone is happy with this political approach; and the French acknowledge there will be serious opposition from some countries.
"People are very much attached to the Esa which we understand. But this attachment translates into keeping the status quo, and we think this is not a good position; we think that Europe now needs political support otherwise the Chinese or the Indians will overtake us."
The French EU presidency also coincides with the next major meeting of Esa member-state ministers in November, when many of these issues are sure to be aired.
The acknowledgement that EU and Esa interests increasingly overlap led to the creation in 2004 of a Space Council in which shared concerns could be discussed.
Some space projects, such as the Galileo satellite-navigation system, are deemed so fundamental to the future economic well being of the EU that the driving force to implement them comes direct from the European Commission in Brussels.