The company is also understood to have held talks with several companies about buying a stake in their existing exploration blocks in the UK.

The enthusiasm of one of the world’s biggest energy companies to join the search for UK shale is the latest sign of the nascent industry’s growing momentum following the £160m deal for British Gas owner Centrica to buy a 25pc stake in Cuadrilla’s Bowland shale licence area.

Ministers are preparing to unveil details of incentives for communities affected by fracking in a further attempt to encourage swift exploration of Britain’s shale resources, which they believe have the potential to provide an important new source of gas to the UK.

Total is understood to have held talks with Cuadrilla over buying into its licence but is now focusing on other opportunities.

Simon Green, geosciences adviser for Total’s UK new business division, told a shale gas conference in Manchester yesterday that the company wanted to know further details of when ministers would hold the 14th onshore licensing round – promised next year – in which rights to drill new areas will be divided up.

“It is a bit frustrating if you have a technical team in preparation, commercial discussions and budgets to put together, and not knowing exactly when that might occur,” he told Shale Gas World UK.

Ministers began preparing for the licensing round in 2010 but suspended the process after fracking by Cuadrilla near Blackpool caused two small earthquakes.

A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman said the next round would take place in the “first half of next year”.

Licensing rounds in the UK do not involve companies bidding money and instead see them committing to carry out a programme of exploration work.

Companies such as Cuadrilla gained drilling access in the 2008 licensing round, in which companies such as Total took little interest.

But the French energy giant now has a Paris-based team assessing shale gas options across Europe and is understood to be considering all options in the UK.

The price paid by Centrica to buy into the Cuadrilla stake was seen by analysts as high, possibly because the British Gas owner has greater need to secure UK gas supplies.

However it is seen as helpful for other companies seeking partners, including Dart Energy, which has said it is in the final stages of agreeing a deal to sell a stake in its licences.

Once a deal is agree Dart will unveil a work programme that could include drilling within a year.

IGas, another operator, is thought to have held talks with Total after announcing it was seeking partners last year. However, it said in January it would hold off a deal until after it has conducted further exploration work itself later this year to help prove the potential of its licences.

Energy giant Shell has so far shunned the UK shale industry, however, saying earlier this year it did not want to be first in and in the headlines every day.