Shale energy, much of it extracted by a controversial process known as fracking that involves cracking rock deep underground, is having a radical effect on global energy markets.
The change is driven by massive production in Canada and particularly the United States, where the downward pressure on energy costs is credited with giving a big boost to industrial productivity.
In its announcement on Tuesday, GDF Suez, a global group and a leader in the gas industry, said that it was taking a minority interest in 13 exploration permits in Britain held by Singapore-based firm Dart Energy, marking its first investment in shale gas anywhere.
The total eventual cost of purchase and exploration investment would be $39.0 million (28.6 million euros).
Dart Energy said that interest in shale energy in Britain was rising almost by the day.
The exploration for shale energy in France is banned because of concerns about pollution from water and chemicals used to crack open rock and other effects on the environment.
The announcement comes a day after two other French energy giants, EDF and Areva, controlled by the French state and with Chinese backing, clinched a contract to build a nuclear power station in Britain worth Â£16 billion (18.9 billion euros, $26 billion).
GDF Suez, in which the French state has an interest of 35.7 percent and is the main shareholder, is buying 25.0 percent of licences held by Dart Energy in the Bowland Basin, which straddles the border between England and Wales.
GDF Suez will pay $12 million and contribute $27 million to the costs of research.
In September, the head of GDF Suez Gerard Mestrallet said in an interview with the newspaper L'Opinion that Britain was one of six countries in which the group was thinking of beginning exploration for shale energy, mentioning also Germany, Poland, Brazil, Algeria and China.
Executive vice president Jean-Marie Dauger said on Tuesday: "We are very confident about the potential of shale gas in the UK, and its anticipated contributions to UK energy security."
'Highly prospective' area
Dart Energy said in a statement from its headquarters in Singapore that the agreement was "part of a broader strategic cooperation in relation to unconventional gas being implemented between the two companies at the same time."
It noted that GDF Suez already had a "signficant exploration and production presence in the UK in particular as operator of Cygnus, one of the largest undeveloped gas fields in the southern North Sea discovered in the last 25 years."
Calling GDF Suez "the number one independent power producer in the world", it said that the agreement concerned 13 of 31 licences held by Dart in Britain.
All of the so-called farmed-out licences were in England and Wales in the western and eastern parts of the Bowland Basin, "an area considered highly prospective for unconventional gas," it saidThe agreement involved about 38.0 percent of the total area covered by Dart licences in Britain.
Dart would continue to be the operator of each licence.
The chief executive at Dart, John McGoldrick said: "The level of interest in UK unconventional gas is growing almost daily. Dart holds one of the UK's largest unconventional acreage positions, and today's agreement represents a significant development for Dart."
GDF Suez said that the two partners intended to drill initially several exploratory wells, with up to four wells targeting shale gas in different areas of the Bowland Basin and several other wells targeting coal gas.