France | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Despite official support from the two main parties and the president, Jacques Chirac, French voters rejected the draft constitution for the European Union (EU) in 2005. This (along with a no vote on the same referendum in the Netherlands days later) put the constitution on hold. The crisis weakened Chirac's ruling party, leading to the installation of a new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin was subsequently partly successful in restoring the government's popularity and initiative, though by year's end the country had experienced riots by immigrant youth stemming from France's failure to integrate North African immigrants into the country's economic and social mainstream.

After the French Revolution of 1789, republics alternated with Bonapartist and Bourbon monarchies until the creation of the Third Republic in 1871. 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.

Jacques Chirac was first elected president 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 the 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 worked to strengthen the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to American power. In negotiations during 2003 and 2004, France sought to include a strong "common foreign and security policy" in the EU's new draft constitution. However, under the final draft document, any EU foreign policy would be subject to a veto by each EU member.

With the economy fairly weak after the 2002 polls, the government, led by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, began 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 the 2004 elections. In March, the UMP was humiliated at regional elections, losing 20 of 21 mainland regions. This was followed in June with a decisive defeat 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.

Political events in 2005 hinged on the May vote on the EU constitution. The yes campaign was supported by both major parties-Chirac's Gaullist center-right UMP and the center-left Socialist Party. However, dissidents on both sides, including a popular former Socialist Party prime minister, Laurent Fabius, and a former Gaullist interior minister, Charles Pasqua, opposed it, as did the Communist left and the xenophobic far right. Many voters thought that the constitution would make it easier for foreign workers to take skilled jobs in France (incorrectly conflating the constitution with a "services directive," a proposed EU law that was not directly related). In addition, many took the constitution as a referendum on the (also unrelated) question of Turkey's EU application, which most French voters oppose.

The yes campaign weakened in the months before the vote, and almost 55 percent voted against the document. Days later, the Netherlands also rejected the constitution in a referendum. These two countries were founding members of the original European Community, and their rejection of the document has likely doomed this version of the constitution permanently.

France has long been a dominant member-perhaps the single most powerful one-of the EU, and its failure to win support for a constitution among its own people had great political reverberations. Among talk of "no more politics as usual," Chirac, as expected, finally replaced Raffarin as prime minister. Unexpectedly, he replaced him with Dominique de Villepin, an aristocratic former interior minister and foreign minister. To some surprise, De Villepin was popular in his first few months on the job, saying he would focus on the economy and jobs. Growth in the gross domestic product was expected to be slow-as little as 1 percent in 2005. The government proposed a flattening and simplification of the tax code and relaxed some provisions of the mandatory 35-hour workweek in 2005, recognizing its cost to small businesses in particular.

In November 2004, a popular former minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, left the cabinet to become the head of the UMP. He was reappointed interior minister in June 2005. His tough law-and-order policies won him acclaim with many French voters. He is expected to run for president in 2007, where he might face De Villepin as a rival to be the candidate from the center right.

However, Sarkozy's policies were unpopular with many ethnic minorities in France, mainly North African Arabs and blacks, who felt unfairly targeted. The accidental deaths of two North African-descended teenagers, electrocuted in a power substation while fleeing police, touched off weeks of riots, including massive property damage, especially car-burnings, at least one death, and many injured. The violence caused the government to invoke a state of emergency and a rarely used curfew law. The disturbances provoked a major discussion in France about the failure to integrate minorities successfully into French society.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 upper house, the Senate, is an indirectly elected body. 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, and the president has been the most powerful figure in the country. However, there have been several periods, such as that which preceded the 2002 elections, in which the president and prime minister were 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 made in Paris.

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 as 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 18 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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, the media 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. There was a failed attempt to murder a journalist for the newspaper Le Figaro in Corsica in 2003. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution, and strong antidefamation laws prohibit religiously motivated attacks. Not all branches of the Church of Scientology and the Jehovah's Witnesses are recognized as religious associations for tax purposes. A new law that took effect in 2004 bans "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 that year. Academic freedom is generally respected.

Freedom of assembly and association are respected. Civic organizations and non-governmental organizations can operate freely. Trade unions are strong in France, although membership has 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 largely treated equally under the law. However, France's stiff antiterrorism campaign has included surveillance of mosques, and raids for unrelated reasons (such as tax inspections) sometimes target places where Muslims in particular are found (such as halal butchers). Terrorist suspects can be detained for up to four days without being charged. France is more willing than other European countries to deport radical Muslim clerics for speech considered incitement to extremism or terrorism. The police are frequently criticized for aggressiveness in random personal checks, which often target youths of North African and African descent. Such police checks have 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 violence of late 2005 has fueled concerns about Arab and black immigration and the failures of integration policy in France. 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. In 2005, the government supported the beginning of talks on Turkish accession to the EU, but there is strong popular opposition in France to Turkish membership. 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.

Gender equality is protected in France, and 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. The rights of homosexuals are protected in France, and a type of nonmarriage civil union, the PACS, or civil solidarity pact, is recognized.