France in Antarctica


France was one of the first countries to go to Antarctica. Since the 18th century, French navigators and explorers have been instrumental in the epic discoveries of the southern seas and Antarctica.

French scientists are following in the footsteps of those who made France an active polar nation scientifically (they are constantly present on the great white continent to carry out scientific research), as well as diplomatically and politically. They are constantly working to preserve the major principles of the Antarctic Treaty and to strengthen protection of Antarctica’s environment and ecosystems.

The main French stakeholders in Antarctica

The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs

The Ministry preserves and strengthens the Antarctic Treaty System. The French delegations to the ATCM and CCAMLR are led by the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs with the participation of representatives from the Ministry of Ecological Transition, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food for the CCAMLR. Scientific delegations are led by French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor for the ATCM (Committee for Environmental Protection) and by the National Museum of Natural History for the CCAMLR Scientific Committee. France closely follows all proposals and developments that could undermine regulations stemming from the Treaty, Madrid Protocol or the CCAMLR. With its partners in the ATCM, the CEP and the CCAMLR, France also seeks to strengthen mechanisms to protect Antarctica’s environment and ecosystems.

French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor

The French Polar Institute Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV) plays a central role in France’s action in Antarctica.

The Institute is responsible for selecting, coordinating, supporting and implementing French scientific projects in Antarctica, as the agency with the appropriate expertise and means, often in partnership with foreign scientific teams. It also organizes and conducts French scientific expeditions and ensures the operation of our stations in Antarctica:

  • The French Dumont d’Urville Station (25 to 35 staff in winter and up to 100 in summer)
  • The Concordia Research Station (13 to 15 staff in winter and 50 to 70 in summer)

The Institute manages the logistics necessary for their activities (coordinating polar activity of the Astrolable icebreaker) and, in the particularly harsh and restrictive environment of Antarctica, foresees difficulties and deals with unexpected events.

As the French representative in the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), the Institute maintains close ties with all of the fellow institutions of our foreign partners with the aim, established by the Antarctic Treaty, of promoting international scientific cooperation and research in Antarctica and the free availability of results of this research (Articles II and III of the Treaty).

French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Many research institutes of the CNRS are present in Antarctica to cover the range of scientific programmes deployed there.
Physical sciences, namely the teams of the Institut des Géosciences de l’Environnement (IGE), have collected essential data in the millenia-old ice sheet that covers the continent at the French-Italian Concordia Research Station for reconstructing the history of the climate over hundreds of thousands of years. Glaciologists also study the dynamic of glaciers, their melting, injections of freshwater in salt water and the consequences of these phenomena on the circulation of water masses off the coast of the continent.
The Southern Ocean and its ice shelves are also a main concern of oceanographers because, far from being isolated, this icy ocean communicates with all the other ocean basins and helps regulate the world’s climate. That is why scientists from the Laboratoire d’Océanographie et du Climat (LOCEAN) focus on heat, salt and ice mass balances of the mixed layer beneath the ice.
Physical modifications of this fragile balance have repercussions at every level of food chains, from plankton and krill – small crustaceans that play a vital role in maintaining populations of superior predators but also in global food – to birds and sea mammals, icons of these icy ecosystems. CNRS biologists from the CNRS working at the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé CEBC use these predators as indicators of changes in the ice sheet. Data collected on animals monitored by the CEBC but also a consortium of foreign partners from Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa consider sea elephants, for example, valuable in the process of finding both biological and physical information on the state of the sea ice ecosystem and especially the mysteries that occur underneath it.
Astronomy is also involved in Antarctic research. Similar to physicists of the atmosphere, astronomers of observatories in Côte d’Azur and Lyon take advantage of the pure air of the continent to take measurements that would be difficult at other latitudes.
All of these studies, whether they are basic or applied, are developed in an atmosphere of international cooperation, which is clear in this place in the world where people are working together to preserve a unique environment. For a number of years, CNRS researchers have been very involved in working groups and managing bodies of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, which is the International Science spokesperson at the ATCM and the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP).

National Museum of Natural History (MNHN)

For several decades, MNHN scientists have been working to improve information on Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems. They play a vital role in the French delegation to the CCAMLR. Their expertise is particularly valuable because they analyse the evolution of ecosystems, propose best practices (decreasing the impact of anthropic activities, improving fishing techniques to reduce by-catches), draft recommendations for establishing the catch rate of fish resources off the coast of French EEZs, Crozet and Kerguelen. MNHN scientists take part in the CCAMLR’s work of advising (it is responsible for giving its opinion on the evolution of fish stocks in the Convention area). MNHN scientists also play a central role in advising the French delegation to the CCAMLR on proposals for creating new Protected Marine Areas.

French Southern and Antarctic Territories

The senior administrator of the French Southern and Antarctic Territories is the national competent authority for implementing the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (the Madrid Protocol) regulating human activities in Antarctica. It authorizes and monitors activities under its jurisdiction, mainly scientific missions implemented by the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor in Adélie Land and Concordia, and tourist expeditions organized by French agencies on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Since 1955, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories are also responsible for administrating Adélie Land and subantarctic archipelagos (Kerguelen and Crozet). Under the Antarctic Treaty, the jurisdiction of these territories in this regard only applies to French nationals. The essential logistical missions to provide supplies and staff to the Dumont d’Urville Station are made by the icebreaker Astrolabe, owned by the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, equipped by the French Navy, and whose polar activity is coordinated by the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor.
The Astrolabe conducts logistical missions for the French Southern and Antarctic Territories and the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor and mainly provides supplies to the Dumont d’Urville Station in Antarctica. This Antarctic Logistical Support Mission is deployed four or five times a year from Port of Hubart in Tasmania, Australia, located an estimated 2,700 km north of the station. This icebreaker ensuring logistical operations for our scientific stations is equipped by the French Navy. More about Astrolabe

France and Antarctica Timeline

  • 1738-1739: Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier travelled to the Southern Ocean. He was the first person to describe tabular icebergs and discovered the island that bears his name.
  • 1771-1774: Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec travelled to the Southern Ocean on two occasions. He discovered the archipelago that today bears his name.
  • 1838: French explorers headed by Jules Dumont d’Urville set sail in search of the South Magnetic Pole. On 21 January 1840, they landed on the continent of Antarctica at a place that Dumont d’Urville named Adélie Land, after his wife, Adèle.
  • 1903-1905: Jean-Baptiste Charcot conducted his first expedition to Antarctica. He discovered the sites that now bear the names of Port Lockroy and Port Charcot and was the first French person to spend a winter season in Antarctica.
  • 1908-1910: Charcot took his second expedition to Antarctica. He discovered Loubet Land, Fallières Coast, Marguerite Bay and the Charcot, Pavie, Adelaide, Rothschild and Millerand Islands.
  • February 1947: The French Polar Expeditions were created. Paul-Emile Victor became the head until 1976.
  • 1949-1951: The first expedition of the French Polar Expeditions was to Adélie Land. They build the Port Martin base and spend two winter seasons there.
  • 1950-1952 and 1951-1953: The second and third expeditions of the French Polar Expeditions were to Adélie Land.
  • 23-24 January 1952: The Port-Martin Station was destroyed by a fire and the French team moved to Pétrels Island in the Pointe archipelago five kilometres from the continent, on the current site of the Dumont d’Urville Station.
  • January 1956: The Dumont d’Urville Station was created.
  • 1957: The Charcot Station was built in 1957, for the International Geophysical Year, 320 kilometres from the Dumont d’Urville Station.
  • 1 July 1957-31 December 1958: France took part in the International Geophysical Year that resulted in the signing of the Washington Treaty on Antarctica on 1December 1959. France was an original signatory State. The Treaty entered into force on 23 June 1961
  • 1959: The Charcot Station closed.
  • November 1968: The 5th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) was chaired by France and held in Paris.
  • 1 June 1972: The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, to which France is an original Party, was adopted.
  • 20 May 1980: The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR), to which France is an original Party, was adopted. It entered into force on 7 June 1982. In this organization, France defends the adoption of environmental regulations to protect ecosystems, and the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas around Antarctica
  • October 1989: The 15th ATCM was chaired by France and held in Paris. France and Australia under the impetus of their respective Prime Ministers, Michel Rocard and Bob Hawke, refused to ratify the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources Activities, drafted a short time earlier, and advocated for an international text to protect the Antarctic environment.
  • 4 October 1991: The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, known as the Madrid Protocol, was adopted. It entered into force 14 June 1998.
  • January 1992: The French Polar Expeditions and the Research Mission for the French Southern and Antarctic Territories merged. The French Institute for Polar Research and Technology (IFRTP) was created.
  • 1993: The IFRTP and its partner, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment (ENEA), signed an agreement to build a French-Italian Station on Dome C. Construction of the Concordia Research Station began two years later.
  • 1993: Summer buildings were opened for the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, EPICA.
  • 1997: EPICA coring began on Dome C and France participated actively.
  • January 2002: The IFRTP became the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor.
  • 15 April 2003: Act 2003-347 on environmental protection in Antarctica was adopted. The French Southern and Antarctic Territories became the competent authority for conducting environmental impact studies provided for by the Madrid Protocol.
  • 2004: The building of the winter Concordia Research Station was finished. The first nine-month winter season began the following year during which the thirteen first researchers were completely self-sustained.
  • 2010-2014: The IPEV Director Yves Frénot chaired, on behalf of France, the Committee for Environmental Protection, created by the Madrid Protocol.
  • 2008: The CCAMLR decided to commit to the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean and adopted in this connection a conservation measure concerning MPAs in 2011. Consequently, the Ross Sea MPA was presented by the United States and New Zealand and adopted thanks to highest-level support of the US executive branch. The European Union, its Member States and Australia proposed a MPA in eastern Antarctica, however for several years, two States have refused its adoption despite its validation by the CCAMLR Scientific Committee. France has been very involved in the creation of this project and its defence.
  • November 2019: Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frédérique Vidal visited Antarctica.
  • 2020-2021: The COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the operation of scientific stations.
  • June 2021: France will hold the 43rd ATCM for the third time (following the 1968 and 1989 ATCMs). The meeting scheduled to take place in Helsinki in 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic.

February 2021