The European Commission has cleared the way for French government plans to fund a European search engine to rival Google.

The EC this week approved €99 million of French state aid for the Quaero search engine project, which is backed by 23 companies including electronics maker Thomson and France Telecom.

The backing is intended to cover half of the project's operating costs over the first five years.

Following an "in-depth examination," the EC said the funding was a justified example of state intervention.

"Quaero will create new or much higher-performing solutions for carrying out automatic searches and interpreting digital multimedia and multilingual information in various different formats," the commission said.

State aid was allowed because, despite the project's potential benefits, it had not been backed "spontaneously" by the market, due to "divergent interests within the consortium and to uncertainties regarding the project's chances of success."

This remark refers to differences in strategic direction proposed by Quaero's original backers, Germany and France, with France aiming for a multimedia-oriented engine while German interests focused on word-based searches.

German engineers from Quaero have formed a separate, word-search oriented engine, called Theseus, which received EC approval for German state aid in 2007.

The EC found that the Quaero project could be a valuable contribution to the European high-tech industry.

"We are confident that the positive contribution the programme will make to European research will outweigh any distortion of competition caused by the aid," EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement.

France's scheme is oriented around a multilingual "query image" engine for recognising, transcribing, indexing and automatically translating audiovisual documents.

The plan was originally unveiled with great fanfare in 2005 as a Franco-German answer to Google's de facto monopoly. Public cheerleaders for the scheme have famously included the former French president Jacques Chirac.