Gov. Mitt Romney urged a nationwide focus on improving education, or else "we'll end up being the France of the 21st century."

The Republican governor told a gathering of school leaders Tuesday that while Massachusetts placed first nationally in a series of recent math and English tests, the United States itself ranks 25th out of 41 industrialized nations in math performance.

At the same time, the country is awarding roughly 4,500 doctorates in math and science each year, compared with about 24,000 per year in Asia.

"We cannot continue to have an excellence gap with the rest of the world and intend to remain the economic superpower and military superpower of the planet. That's just not going to happen," Romney said. "We're in a position where unless we take action, we'll end up being the France of the 21st century: a lot of talk, but not a lot of strength behind it in terms of economic capability."

In targeting France, the governor, who spent more than two years there as a Mormon missionary and speaks French, flogged a favorite target of conservatives. The French refusal to support military action in Iraq led to such responses as an effort to ensure Capitol Hill cafeterias retooled their menus to advertise "freedom fries" instead of french fries.

Romney has acknowledged he is weighing a 2008 presidential bid.

In his remarks, Romney pushed for a bill that would allow the state to seize control of underperforming schools after three years, rather than waiting six years. He also urged recruitment of and better pay for math and science teachers.

"I really believe that the failure of our urban schools and, in some cases our suburban schools, to help minority students achieve the levels that are necessary for success in the workplace is the civil rights issue of our time," the governor said.