Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Allegations of corruption continued to taint the French political establishment in 2001. Among several cases of reported impropriety, new evidence emerged implicating President Jacques Chirac in an alleged kickback scandal while he served as Paris mayor. A high court ruled against a magistrate's request to have President Chirac testify in the case, thereby preventing possible impeachment proceedings. France's right-wing parties registered significant gains in municipal elections in March. More powers were devolved to Corsica, granting greater autonomy to the separatist-leaning French island. New security laws came into effect in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, granting police sweeping new search and seizure powers. French-British relations suffered a setback as increasing numbers of illegal immigrants sought entry into Great Britain through the Channel Tunnel. Disabled people earned the right to sue doctors over having been born.
After World War II, France established a parliamentary Fourth Republic, which was governed by coalitions and ultimately failed because of the Algerian war. The Fifth Republic began in 1958 under Prime Minister (and later President) Charles de Gaulle. Election of the president by popular suffrage began in 1965. In 1992, French citizens narrowly approved European political and economic union under the Maastricht Treaty. Prime Minister Jospin, of the Partie Socialiste (Socialist Party), entered a government of "cohabitation" with President Chirac, a conservative, after winning an upset election in 1997. In October 2000, French voters went to the polls approving a referendum to cut short the presidential term from seven years to five, marking the most radical change to the French constitution in 40 years. The shorter term now puts parliamentary and presidential elections on the same schedule, reducing or potentially eliminating the awkward cohabitation arrangement, which often features a president and a prime minister from different parties, often at odds over official policy.
Municipal elections held in March saw significant right-wing inroads in many towns and cities, while a left-leaning government remained in Paris.
A mounting corruption scandal dogged President Chirac throughout the year, albeit not at the expense of his popularity. In June, the National Assembly debated a bill that would have stripped Chirac of his presidential immunity after new evidence arose implicating him in an alleged kickback scandal. A judicial probe preceded the National Assembly debate examining why Chirac paid cash for twenty personal foreign trips, made while mayor of Paris in the mid-1980s. Speculation abounded that the cash was drawn from a substantial slush fund setup to funnel bribes from public works contracts. While Chirac admitted to paying cash for the trips for him and his family, he maintained he did so for security reasons. The fund, he explained, was legal, and not part of a vast bribery system in which illegal commissions were channeled to his RPR party. Chirac steadfastly refused to testify before a magistrate, citing presidential immunity. In October, France's highest appeals court ruled the president remained immune from questioning while in office.
In November, in what was seen as a calculated political counterpoint to Chirac's refusal to face authorities, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin offered to appear as a witness in a separate illicit funding case. Evidence emerged that his Socialist Party allegedly received illegal funding from supermarket chains ten years ago.
France was rocked by other corruption scandals throughout the year, including an illegal arms trafficking scandal involving Jean-Christophe Mitterand, the son of the late president, Francois Mitterand. Another involved the formerly state-run Elf oil company, from which government appointees allegedly siphoned more than $250 million. In May, former foreign minister Roland Dumas received a six-month jail sentence in the case. He had illegally benefited from a $9 million-a-year job he had arranged for his mistress with the giant oil concern.
In October, Transparency International ranked France 23rd on its corruption index, far behind most northern European countries. Toward the end of the year, the government moved to abolish the secret cash funds available to government ministers to use at their discretion.
French citizens can change their government democratically by directly electing the president and national assembly. The constitution grants the president significant emergency powers, including rule by decree under certain circumstances. The president may call referenda and dissolve parliament, but may not veto its acts or routinely issue decrees. Decentralization has given mayors significant power over housing, transportation, schools, culture, welfare, and law enforcement. The judiciary is independent.
Municipal elections held in March were conducted under new parity legislation. Towns with more than 3,000 people must now present candidate lists with equal numbers of men and women.
A 1999 law sets maximum limits on detention of suspects during a criminal investigation. Also included in the bill was the formation of "detention judges" to rule on the justification of incarceration. Additionally, those being held for interrogation must have immediate access to an attorney. However, public security laws allow police far-reaching powers to tap telephones, carry out searches, and jail terror suspects without trial for up to four years.
In October, following the terrorist attacks on the United States, French police arrested nine people with reported links to the Al-Qaeda terror network on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in France. In November, Parliament adopted new anti-terror legislation. Police are now able to search cars with the authorization of a prosecutor, a right previously prohibited. Police can also search private property without warrants. They also have greater access to private telephone conversations and e-mail. Judges can now demand that phone and Internet companies save messages for up to one year. teaching of the Corsican language. In December, the French Parliament approved an autonomy bill, which granted Corsica's regional assembly the right to amend some national legislation. The bill also permitted using the Corsican language in the curriculum of all schools. Implementation of the second phase, to take place throughout 2003 and 2004, is dependent on the success of the first phase and the total absence of violence, and would necessitate reform of the French constitution.
Despite open suspicion toward Muslims and prohibitions against wearing religious garb or symbols in state schools, religious freedom is protected. In June, Parliament adopted a bill allowing courts to ban groups considered sects.
Labor rights in France are respected in practice, and strikes are widely and effectively used to protest government economic policy. The government acted to further entrench the shortened workweek during the year, originally adopted in October 1999. Women enjoy equal rights in France.
A dramatic December ruling in France's highest appeals court granted children with Down syndrome the legal right to have never been born. Doctors are subject to lawsuits if they do not sufficiently inform mothers of prenatal warning signs, thus denying them the opportunity to have an abortion.