Freedom in the World
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The French government weakened over the course of 2006, likely delaying any major initiatives until after presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2007. A major reform of the labor market failed in the face of massive protests by students and workers, undermining the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. Attention turned later in the year to expected contenders in the 2007 presidential election.
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 section and the collaborationist Vichy regime in the south. The Fourth Republic was established after the war, but eventually fell victim to domestic political turbulence and a series of colonial setbacks. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle, Free France’s wartime leader, returned to create the strong 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 center-left Socialist Party (PS), 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), later renamed the Union for a Popular Movement, won a comfortable majority of seats in Parliament for Chirac.
In early 2003, France joined Russia, another permanent veto-holder on the UN Security Council, to block UN authorization for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which nevertheless proceeded in March of that year. France’s stance severely strained its relations with the United States, but bolstered Chirac’s popularity at home. Since the invasion, Chirac has worked to strengthen the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to U.S. power.
A strong EU foreign policy was a key French goal in the drafting of a new constitution for the bloc. Both the UMP and the PS backed the charter, giving it a broad base of support among the political leadership. However, in 2005, French voters dealt a blow to their country’s standing in the union by rejecting the proposed constitution in a referendum. The “no” vote by France, a founding member of the EU, helped to suspend progress on the constitution for well over a year.
Economic concerns had been central to France’s rejection of the draft constitution. After the UMP’s victory in the 2002 national elections, a weak economy has caused it to suffer in subsequent voting, including polls for regional councils and for the European Parliament in 2004. Though the EU constitution did not deal extensively with the economy, it kindled fears of immigration from poorer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe. Voters also linked the constitution to the question of Turkish membership, which many opposed, and to a directive that would make it easier for workers from other EU countries to take certain service sector jobs in France.
France had long been one of the most dominant members of the EU, and its failure to win support for the constitution among its own people caused great political reverberations. Amid talk of “no more politics as usual,” Chirac finally replaced Jean-Pierre Raffarin as prime minister. His unexpected choice to fill the post was Dominique de Villepin, an aristocratic former interior minister and foreign minister. De Villepin enjoyed a degree of popularity during his first few months on the job, saying he would focus on the economy and unemployment. Growth in the gross domestic product remained slow, however: 1.2 percent in 2005, and 2.0 percent in 2006.
In late 2005, France was traumatized by weeks of ethnic upheaval. The accidental deaths of two teenagers of North African descent, electrocuted in a power substation while fleeing police, touched off weeks of riots. The violence caused massive property damage, especially car-burnings, as well as at least one death and many injuries. Most of the rioters were youths descended from immigrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Despite their French birth and citizenship, many reported economic discrimination and harassment by police in recent anticrime operations. The violence caused the government to invoke a state of emergency and a rarely used curfew law. It also provoked a major discussion about the failure to fully integrate minorities into French society.
Economic anxiety returned to the fore in 2006, when the government proposed legislation creating a new form of job contract, known as the contrat première embauche, or CPE. The reform would have made it easier to lay off young workers in their first two years of private sector employment. It provoked massive demonstrations led by students and trade unionists, drawing well over a million people across the country on March 28 and April 4. The contract law was eventually withdrawn by the government, and both Chirac and de Villepin suffered politically as a result.
In 2006, the so-called Clearstream scandal further weakened the government. The complex affair included accusations that de Villepin had used government intelligence assets to falsely connect a rival within the UMP, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and other politicians to offshore bank accounts.
With the president and prime minister in decline, French voters’ attention turned to contenders for the 2007 presidential election. The likely UMP candidate was Sarkozy, the party leader. He suffered in popularity during the riots of late 2005, having been associated with the harsh policing tactics that helped inspire them. However, many voters reportedly admired his forthright talk about the need for change in France. In November, the Socialist Party chose Segolene Royal as its presidential candidate, marking the first woman to be so chosen by one of the major political parties.
France is an electoral democracy. The president is elected for a five-year term, reduced from seven years as of the 2002 election. Members of the key house of Parliament, the 577-seat National Assembly, are also elected to five-year terms; the upper house, the 321-seat 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 1997–2002, in which the president and prime minister belonged to rival parties. In such circumstances, the prime minister has the dominant role in domestic affairs, while the president 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 immunity as head of state to avoid prosecution on corruption allegations stemming from his time as mayor of Paris. However, his protege, Alain Juppe, was convicted in 2004 of allowing UMP party workers to be paid out of Paris’s municipal treasury when he was the city’s treasurer and Chirac was its mayor. The more recent Clearstream affair (see above) has also tarnished the French political class. 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 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The French media operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinion. Though an 1881 law forbids “offending” various personages, including the president and foreign heads of state, 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. Two reporters were arrested on December 30, 2002, after filming the deportation of a Malian immigrant, and there was a failed attempt to murder a journalist working for the newspaper Le Figaro in Corsica in 2003. Members of the press were also assaulted in the riots of November 2005. Internet access is unrestricted in France.
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 law that took effect in 2004 bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools. Widely believed to be aimed at the hijab , a 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 that the ban be overturned; the journalists were freed in December that year, but the law remained in place. Academic freedom is generally respected by French authorities.
In October 2006, the National Assembly passed legislation making it illegal to deny that Turkey committed genocide against the Armenians during World War I. The offense would be punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros (US$56,000). However, the bill would not take effect until signed by the president, who had expressed opposition. A number of European countries forbid denial of the Nazi genocide of the Jews during World War II, but the French bill was the first of its kind to address other historical events, raising questions about freedom of speech and historical research.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Civic organizations and nongovernmental 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 firmly established. The legal system is based on Roman law, and French citizens are for the most part treated equally. However, France’s antiterrorism campaign has included surveillance of mosques, and apparently unrelated government raids, such as those involving tax violations, have appeared to target places where Muslims in particular are found, like halal butcher shops. Terrorism 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 that is 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 African immigration and the failure of integration policies 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 and the influx of Muslim migrants it could bring. Separately, the dispute over Corsican autonomy continues. In December 2001, the government devolved some legislative powers 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 authority to local Corsican institutions in June 2003.
Gender equality is protected in France, and a law governing the 2002 legislative elections threatened to reduce public funding for political parties whose candidate lists for the National Assembly consisted of more men than women. No party fully complied; women made up 37 percent of the list run by the Socialists, who had introduced the parity bill. 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.