Arnaud Langlois-Meurinne may look amused, but his goal is deadly serious. "We aim to be among the top 25 business schools in Europe by 2012," says the dean of the Rouen Business School. Climbing up the rankings is just one part of a strategic plan, echoed by other French business schools, to put itself on an international map still largely dominated by Anglo-Saxon institutions. Rouen is an hour north of Paris by train, and is famous for its medieval centre and cathedral. The city is an old port and commercial centre but has a provincial feel. So in 2007 the school, which was founded in 1871, began to reinvent itself through an amicable divorce from the Rouen Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It now has legal autonomy as a non-profit organisation and last year changed its name from Groupe ESC Rouen. "We needed a more international name," says Langlois-Meurinne with a smile.

But how can you compete in so crowded a field? Part of the answer is that Rouen is already one of France's leading business schools. With more than 3,000 students and more than 80 full-time professors, it offers an English-language MBA, a PhD programme, four English-language MSc degrees, including the prestigious Master in Management Grand Ecole, several MSc degrees in French, one MSc half in French and half in English (Management du Développement International de l'Enterprise), and a clutch of Bachelors degrees.

About 40 per cent of the faculty are international and there are more than 50 different nationalities among the students. The school has added more than 20 teaching and research faculty members in the past three years. With a renovated and attractive campus just outside Rouen city and an executive campus in Paris, shared with Reims Management School, there is scope for expansion. The school has links with more than 170 academic institutions worldwide. Of these, seven are in the UK, one being Aston Business School with which Rouen provides a double diploma in the MSc Grande Ecole. Rouen is Equis and Amba accredited and hopes to add AACSB to the list in 2011.

Another part of the answer is to offer courses with a twist. An example is the one-year MSc in Marketing French Excellence. The twist is that selling France is taught in English and run by a Scotsman. Ewan Ormiston has a background in marketing in industry and is an unapologetic cheerleader for France, having lived in the country for almost 20 years and being married to a French woman. "I wanted to differentiate us. Many schools have marketing courses in English. I thought that France is good at lots of stuff, but people don't realise how good it is," he says.

That stuff includes the obvious, such as fashion, and also the less obvious such as high-speed trains, aerospace, nuclear power, the hypermarket (invented by the French global retail giant Carrefour) and hospitality (Accor, a French group, is one of the world's biggest hotel chains). The MSc is aimed at students who are not French but are working, or want to work, for French companies. It covers the marketing and business basics, but also emits a whiff of French culture and the Francophone worldview – French language classes are part of the course.

There are 30 students from eight nationalities taking the course, for which the fees are €11,500. "I want to share the French experience that I have enjoyed. It's a passport to work almost anywhere in the world," Ormiston says. The degree, introduced last year, was designed in close collaboration with companies. As a result, student visits to companies are plentiful and it is relatively easy for them to find internships – which is just as well because the degree includes a placement of about six months.

The degree also illustrates a more fundamental point. Rouen's approach throughout is to emphasise the practical. "Some MBAs are too academic," says Pascal Krupka, director of postgraduate programmes. He brings in a Benedictine monk, Father Legal, from a monastery in Normandy to talk to the MBA class about the ethics and practicalities of doing business in an unusual setting. The monastery employs 70 people and its shop has an annual turnover of €1m.

Professor Krupka enjoys regaling visitors with stories about an unusual feature of the school's International MBA: "mystery tours". Each year, he devises a different test of initiative and leadership. For instance, groups of students might be taken to a secret destination – not necessarily in France – and instructed to find their way to a specified location. With 14 nationalities among the 35 or so students in the MBA class, the cultural contrasts on mystery tours can border on the stereotypical, Professor Krupka says.

This practical approach extends to research as well. A paper published last year predicting that regular shipping could open on the Northern Sea Route by 2015 attracted considerable attention internationally. The Northern Sea Route runs through the Arctic Ocean from Asia to Russia, Northern Europe and North America via the Bering Strait. Global warming is melting the Arctic ice and making realisation of the ancient quest for this route finally possible. The economic and geopolitical implications could be far-reaching and Professor Jérôme Verny, the author of the paper, said he has been approached by the Russian Ministry of Transport and the US Department of Transportation.

Another research speciality is young consumer behaviour. Professor Pascale Ezan, who directs the programme, defines "young" as anyone who is young at heart – although she admits that 30 might be a reasonable limit. Her research suggests that the rise of the young consumer coincided with the emergence of global brands. It seems that there are few significant differences in young consumer behaviour around the world. Business schools profess not to like homogeneity, but the existence of a new class of global young consumer cannot be bad news for ambitious schools such as Rouen.