PALAISEAU, FRANCE—France takes great pride in its mathematical tradition. But its position has slipped since the days of Blaise Pascal, Pierre Fermat, Evariste Galois and the fictitious Bourbaki.

Frenchman have collected five of 30 Fields medals awarded by the International Mathematicians' Congress since 1950, but only one has come in the past 20 years. And the number of mathematicians has declined precipitously since the 1970s, triggering a shortage that threatens the country’s position in a technology-based world economy.

The problem was the subject of a December meeting here sponsored by the French Mathematics Society and the Society of Applied and Industrial Mathematics. Attendees cited a lack of interest by students, low pay, a dearth of attractive jobs and a significant brain drain as causes, and at the end of the meeting promised a report to attract the government’s attention.

A somber harbinger was seen in a list of 2,269 mathematicians...

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