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)
In 2004, France pushed for the creation of a strongly "federalist" - or centralized - constitution for the European Union (EU), in which it has long been a key member. However, these views were largely thwarted in the draft constitution. Domestically, difficult reforms cost the center-right ruling party in both regional and EU polls, despite an economy that gathered strength over the course of the year.
After the French Revolution of 1789, democratic development was uneven. Republics alternated with Bonapartist and Bourbon monarchies until 1871, with the creation of the Third Republic. Invaded and defeated by Germany in World War II, France was split into an occupied northern part and the collaborationist Vichy regime in the South. After the war, democracy was restored and Charles de Gaulle, Free France's wartime leader, became president with the creation of the presidential system of the Fifth Republic, which stands today.
President Jacques Chirac was first elected in 1995. In the first round of the May 2002 presidential election, it was expected that he and Lionel Jospin, the prime minister and head of the rival Socialist Party, would receive the most votes and move to the second round. However, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the far-right, xenophobic National Front, stunned France and the world by receiving more votes than Jospin. Chirac defeated Le Pen overwhelmingly in the second round, and in subsequent June parliamentary elections, the newly created Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) won a comfortable majority of seats in parliament for Chirac.
In late 2002, France supported UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which threatened "serious consequences" against Iraq if it did not comply with weapons inspectors. However, France clearly never supported an early war and fought to prolong inspections. When the United States sought a second resolution explicitly declaring Iraq in breach of its obligations and paving the way to war, France stated that it would veto any such resolution. Along with the opposition of Russia, another permanent veto-holder on the Security Council, France effectively blocked UN authorization for the war in early 2003, in a move that severely strained French relations with the United States but which bolstered Chirac's popularity at home.
Since the war, Chirac has sought to strengthen the EU as a counterweight to American power, including proposing in early 2003 an EU-only military planning cell with Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg. In negotiations during 2003 and 2004, France also sought to include a strong "common foreign and security policy" in the EU's new draft constitution. However, in the final draft document, EU foreign policy will be subject to a veto by each EU member. Ten countries joined the EU on May 1, which brought the membership to 25, and made it unlikely that France will easily be able to rally Europe around any controversial foreign policy, including any that is hostile to the United States.
With the economy fairly weak after the 2002 polls, the government, led by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, had begun a bold series of reforms aimed at trimming pensions, loosening labor-market restrictions, and shaking up health care. These moves quickly disillusioned the voting public, and Chirac and his party suffered in elections in 2004. In March, the UMP was humiliated at regional elections, losing 20 of 21 mainland regions. This was followed in June with a drubbing at the European Parliament elections. Like most ruling parties across the EU, the UMP did badly, winning just 16 percent of the vote; the opposition Socialist Party took 29 percent. Unexpectedly, Raffarin survived in his post as prime minister.
In 2004, the attention of voters was also on the position of Nicolas Sarkozy. Long a rival to Chirac in the UMP, he had become highly popular in his crime-fighting role as interior minister, and had even maintained this popularity through a stint as finance minister, a difficult job given that France's deficits have exceeded EU limits for several years. He is known to have his eyes on the presidency, and his way seemed to be cleared when Chirac's own protege, Alain Juppe, was convicted of corruption in January. In the fall, Sarkozy agreed with Chirac that he would quit the government; in exchange, Chirac did not fight Sarkozy's successful bid to take over the UMP, making him the obvious center-right candidate for the 2007 presidential election. This year's strengthening economic growth may, correctly or not, be attributed by voters to Sarkozy's work as finance minister and boost his prospects.
French citizens can change their government democratically. The president is elected for a five-year term (reduced from seven years as of the 2002 election). The key house of parliament, the lower National Assembly, is also elected to a five-year term. The prime minister must be able to command a majority in parliament. For most of the Fifth Republic's history, the president and prime minister have been of the same party; as a consequence, the president was the most powerful figure in the country. However, there have been several periods, like that which preceded the 2002 elections, in which the president and prime minister are of rival parties. Under these circumstances, the prime minister has the dominant role in domestic affairs, while the president retains control over the armed forces and largely guides foreign policy.
Parties organize and compete on a free and fair basis. Political parties with significant support range from the largely unreformed French Communist Party on the left to the anti-immigrant and anti-EU National Front on the right. France remains a relatively unitary state, with some administrative powers devolved to regions and smaller prefectures, but with key decisions being made in Paris. The issue of Corsica continues to fester. In December 2001, the government devolved some legislative autonomy to the island and allowed teaching in the Corsican language in public schools. However, voters on the island, which hosts a sometimes violent separatist movement, rejected a government proposal for devolution of more power to local Corsican institutions in June 2003.
President Jacques Chirac has used his office to head off allegations of corruption stemming from his time as mayor of Paris, claiming immunity as head of state to prevent prosecutions so long as he remains president. However, his protege, Alain Juppe, was convicted in January of allowing UMP party workers to be paid out of Paris's municipal treasury when Juppe was the city's treasurer and Chirac was its mayor. Members of the French elite, trained in a small number of prestigious schools, often move between politics and business, increasing opportunities for corruption. France was ranked 22 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The French media operate largely freely and represent a wide range of political opinion. An 1881 law forbids "offending" various personages, including the president and foreign heads of state, but the press remains lively and critical. However, they are not entirely free of harassment. Journalists covering events involving the National Front have been attacked by supporters of the party. Seven reporters had their phones tapped between 2000 and 2002 as part of a government investigation into Corsican separatist violence. Two reporters were arrested on December 30, 2002, after filming the deportation of a Malian immigrant.
Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution, and strong anti-defamation laws prohibit religiously motivated attacks. However, 2004, like previous years, was marred by numerous incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism believed to be connected to the ongoing Palestinian intifada (uprising) in Israel, and Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, caused controversy by recommending that French Jews emigrate to Israel. Not all branches of the Church of Scientology and the Jehovah's Witnesses are recognized as religious associations for tax purposes. A new law took effect in 2004 banning "ostentatious" religious symbols in schools. Believed by most to be aimed at the hijab (headscarf worn by Muslim women and girls), the controversial ban was supported by most voters. Militants kidnapped two French journalists in Iraq in August 2004, demanding unsuccessfully that the ban be overturned (the journalists were freed in December). Academic freedom is generally respected.
Freedom of assembly and association is respected. Trades unions are strong in France, although their memberships have declined over the past two decades.
France has a well-qualified judiciary, and the rule of law is well established. The legal system is based on Roman code law, and French citizens are treated equally under the law. However, the police are frequently criticized for aggressiveness in random personal checks, which often target youths of North African and African descent. This has deepened resentment between minorities and the authorities. A Council of Europe delegation reported in 2004 that French prisons suffer from overcrowding and poor conditions, though no prisoner maltreatment was found.
The rise of the National Front has tempted the government to tighten immigration and asylum rules, which are perceived to be abused by economic migrants. The governing UMP (though not the president) opposes Turkish membership in the EU, largely because of fears of Muslim economic migration.
Gender equality is protected by law. A law governing the 2002 legislative election threatened to reduce public funding for political parties that ran fewer than 50 percent women candidates for the National Assembly. No party fully complied; the Socialists, who introduced the parity bill, ran 37 percent women. Despite equal legal status and well-established social liberty, women earn about three-quarters of what men earn. Gay rights are protected, and a type of nonmarriage civil union, the PACS, or civil solidarity pact, is recognized.