The French political system features vibrant democratic processes and generally strong protections for civil liberties and political rights. However, successive governments have responded to deadly terrorist attacks in recent years by curtailing constitutional protections and empowering law enforcement to infringe upon personal freedoms. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment continue to be rife throughout the country.
- Restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were disproportionately enforced upon members of marginalized groups. During the first lockdown from March through May, Amnesty International reported fines for breaching lockdown rules were given at a rate three times higher in Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in mainland France, than elsewhere in the country, even though residents in Seine-Saint-Denis followed the rules at the same rate as others in the country. According to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 2,578,000 people tested positive for the virus and more than 64,000 people died by year’s end.
- In October, the schoolteacher Samuel Paty was murdered after displaying cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad in his classroom. The government subsequently drafted the Reinforcing Republican Principles Law, which it claimed sought to combat “religious separatism.” However, the legislation increases surveillance of mosques and Muslim associations, and would require Muslim organizations to sign a contract of “respect for Republican values” when applying for state subsidies.
- In November, four police officers brutally assaulted Michel Zecler, a Black music producer, inside the entrance of his recording studio; Zecler was initially detained for allegedly breaking COVID-19 rules by not wearing a mask in the street. The officers involved were charged with assault.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The French president is chief of state, and is elected to five-year terms by direct, universal suffrage in a two-round system. The prime minister is head of government and is appointed by the president. Emmanuel Macron, a centrist newcomer to politics, won the second round of the 2017 presidential election against Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front (FN).
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe expressed confidence in the integrity of French elections.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Members of the lower house of Parliament, the 577-seat National Assembly, are elected to five-year terms in a two-round system. The upper house, the 348-seat Senate, is an indirectly elected body whose members serve six-year terms. In the June 2017 legislative elections, Macron’s La République en Marche! (LREM) and its centrist ally won a majority 350 seats in the National Assembly.
The government adjusted polling practices for the 2020 local elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Controversially, the first round of voting took place on March 15 (at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak), and the second round was held on June 28. Voter turnout reached 44.7 percent for the first round, and 41.6 percent for the second round, record lows.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
France’s electoral laws and framework are fair and implemented impartially. Legislation passed in June 2020 to facilitate proxy voting and mail voting were not applied to the year’s local elections.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Parties are generally able to organize and operate freely. Elections in recent years have been competitive and less dominant parties have gained more visibility.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The recent elections have demonstrated that parties outside the political mainstream can gain power through elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally free from domination.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
No laws restrict the political participation of women, LGBT+ people, and other marginalized groups. However, far-right parties and their nationalist ideologies have become more mainstream and have emboldened racist commentary in public discourse, further excluding marginalized groups from the political sphere.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government. However, the government has increasingly used Article 49.3 of the constitution—the ordonnance process— to forego parliamentary debate and change government policy.
In 2020, Parliament twice declared a “health state of emergency,” enabling the prime minister to implement restrictions to respond to the public health crisis.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Despite a 2017 law seeking to reduce conflicts of interest, corruption allegations have been lodged against several high-level government officials in recent years—including against Alexis Kohler, general secretary of the Elysée Palace, for unlawful conflicts of interest.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally operates with openness and transparency, although it has increasingly used the ordonnance process and an accelerated procedure—which limits Parliament’s discussion of draft legislation—to enact policies without parliamentary debate or public scrutiny. These powers were used to push through a contentious pension reform proposal in February 2020 (though it was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the controversial Reinforcing Republican Principles Bill, and the much-criticized Global Security Bill.
The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was inconsistent and lacked transparency. An April 2020 investigation by the news outlet Mediapart found that the government withheld information about its shortage of personal protective equipment. A December 2020 report from parliament’s investigative committee on the management of the pandemic criticized the health sector’s lack of preparedness and its chaotic and erratic decision-making processes.
In January 2020, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) raised concerns over a lack of transparency around relationships between the French executive and lobbyists.
|Are there free and independent media?||4.004 4.004|
The media generally operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinions. There were some incidents of violence against journalists in 2020.
The 2020 National Law Enforcement Doctrine stipulates that there are no exceptions for journalists covering protests when police disperse public demonstrations. This doctrine was formalized in Global Security Bill, adopted by the National Assembly in November, which controversially outlawed the spread of identifiable images of police “when aimed at the physical or mental integrity of police officers.” However, the government promised to rewrite this provision (Article 24) after video recordings of two incidents showed police misconduct; video of the brutal dismantling of a refugee camp in Paris in November; and footage of the violent arrest of Michel Zecler, a Black music producer.
In December 2020, two journalists initiated legal actions for having been prevented access to refugee camp evacuations in the North and Pas-de-Calais departments.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of religion. Antidefamation laws penalize religiously motivated abuse, and Holocaust denial is illegal. The government maintains the policy of laïcité (secularism), whereby religion and state affairs are strictly separated, though it also has official relationships with organizations representing the country’s three major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
The government drafted the Reinforcing Republican Principles Law, which was still in discussion at the end of 2020, after the October murder of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher who had shown caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in his class when teaching about freedom of expression. The law ostensibly would combat “religious separatism.” However, the legislation would increase surveillance of mosques and Muslim associations and would require Muslim organizations to sign a contract of “respect for Republican values” when applying for state subsidies. Critics have warned that the law stigmatizes Muslims and could increase Islamophobic sentiments.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
There are no formal restrictions on academic freedom in France.
A December 2020 draft bill passed by the Senate includes provisions that criminalize on-campus gatherings that “trouble the tranquility” of the university and that enable increased government scrutiny over the ideological basis of scholarly research in France. University staff strongly pushed back against the draft law.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
A law aiming at tackling hate speech on the internet has been largely rejected by the Constitutional Council in June 2020, after critics raised that it would pose a serious threat to freedom of expression.
In December 2020, three government decrees extended the compiling of information for three public security files that will enable authorities to keep records on political militants and activists, including on their families and underage children, on their health, or on their activities on social media.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||3.003 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is normally respected. However, the government’s restrictions on public gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was declared unconstitutional by the Council of State in June 2020, after the Council deemed the restrictions disproportionate to the public health risk at the time.
Throughout 2020, police frequently and unnecessarily used excessive force against protesters. Police violently dispersed a feminist march in March; a demonstration by health care workers in June; and Black Lives Matter protests in June against police violence and racism, following the murder of George Floyd in the United States.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely. The National Law Enforcement Doctrine has complicated and obstructed NGO reports around protests and police actions.
The Reinforcing Republican Principles Bill eases the government’s ability to dismantle associations that do not respect the “values of the Republic.” After the October 2020 murder of Samuel Paty, authorities ordered the dissolution of the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) in November, claiming the organization had taken actions to provoke terrorist acts, and defended and promoted an overly broad notion of Islamophobia.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Trade unions are free to operate without any undue restrictions.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
France has an independent judiciary, and the rule of law generally prevails in court proceedings.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, antiterrorism legislation passed in 2017, which replaced a state of emergency instituted after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, enshrined controversial administrative control measures into law.
A March 2020, decree extended the maximum amount of time allowed for pretrial detentions, with little oversight.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The threat of terrorism exists in France. In October 2020, the schoolteacher Samuel Paty was murdered after displaying cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad in his classroom. Police shot Paty’s killer shortly thereafter, though two of his students and five others were charged for being complicit in what was declared a terrorist murder. The same month in Nice, a man killed three people outside of the city’s Notre Dame Basilica. The killer had entered France a month earlier, and had no clear connections to known terrorist groups, though authorities claimed the attacker was likely motivated by extremist ideology.
The number of complaints of police violence sent to the police’s internal disciplinary body (IPGN) has sharply increased since 2018, as have suspicions that the IGPN is too lenient on police forces.
Instances of unnecessary and excessive police violence continued to be documented throughout 2020. In November and December, police violently dismantled and evacuated refugee camps in Paris, Calais, and Grande Synthe (North), pulling up tents and leaving people thrown to the ground. Also in November, four police officers brutally assaulted Michel Zecler, a Black music producer, inside the entrance of his recording studio; Zecler was initially detained for allegedly breaking COVID-19 rules by not wearing a mask in the street. The officers involved were charged with assault.
The Interior Ministry announced in June 2020 that it would ban police from using the chokehold technique—which led to the death of Cédric Chouviat in January 2020—and later stated that it would reform the IPGN. However, it reversed the decision on chokeholds after police unions expressed discontent.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Migrants and refugees in France continue to suffer both from societal discrimination and abuse from authorities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they received reduced aid, were heavily policed, and experienced dangerous sanitary conditions.
Anti-Muslim sentiment, attacks against mosquegoers, reports of vandalism of mosques, and verbal assaults have increased in recent years. A variety of antisemitic conspiracy theories surged after the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. The far-right has become increasingly successful in shaping French public discourse, using racist language toward minority ethnic groups.
Restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were disproportionately enforced upon members of marginalized groups. During the first lockdown, Amnesty International reported that the number of fines for breaching lockdown rules was three times higher in Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in mainland France, than elsewhere in the country, even though residents in Seine-Saint-Denis followed the rules at the same rate as others in the country.
Research published in October 2020 by the European Trade Union Confederation revealed that the French gender pay gap has only narrowed by 0.1 percent since 2010. The efficacy of government efforts to address gender inequality is unclear. Sexual harassment of women is a prominent issue.
French law forbids the categorization of people according to ethnic origin, and no official statistics are collected on ethnicity. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by law.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
While there are normally no restrictions on freedom of travel or choice of residence or employment in France, the COVID-19 pandemic led to exceptional restrictions on freedom of movement. The French government instituted two lockdowns to prevent the virus’s spread during 2020, one from March to June, and a second one from late October to December. Authorities were criticized for discriminatory enforcement of the rules, as police restricted the movement of marginalized groups far more than the rest of the population.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Private businesses are free to operate.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals generally enjoy personal social freedoms—including choice of marriage partner and size of family. In September 2020, the National Assembly voted to double the duration of paternity leave to 28 days. Though the National Assembly had voted to legalize medically assisted procreation for all women, the Senate rejected it for single women and lesbian couples in July 2020.
During the two COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, reports of domestic violence rose sharply, despite government measures to prevent this. Authorities implemented mechanisms to report violence and set up safe zones, for which legislation was adopted in June 2020. However, the appointment of Gérald Darmanin, who is being criminally investigated for rape, as Interior Minister in July 2020 caused shock and anger among feminist activists and government critics.
Muslim women remain the target of several laws enacted in recent years preventing them from wearing clothing that involves religious practice, forcing some women to dress against their will.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Employment discrimination against women, French Muslims, immigrants of North African descent, and others outside the historical elite hinders equality of opportunity. While France’s government acts against human trafficking, the problem persists in the commercial sex trade; some victims are also forced into domestic labor.
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Global Freedom Score89 100 free
Internet Freedom Score78 100 free