Freedom in the World
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President Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity reached a low ebb during his first year in office as reform efforts stalled. However, during the middle and later part of 2008, his government revived its prospects somewhat with vigorous diplomatic efforts abroad and a renewed reform agenda at home.
After the French Revolution of 1789, republics alternated with monarchist regimes until the creation of the Third Republic in 1871. The Fourth Republic was established after World War II, but it eventually fell victim to domestic political turbulence and a series of colonial setbacks. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader, returned to create the strong presidential system of the Fifth Republic, which stands today.
Jacques Chirac, a right-leaning Gaullist, was first elected president in 1995. In the 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 reach the second round of voting. 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 in the first round. Chirac defeated Le Pen overwhelmingly in the second round.
In early 2003, France joined Russia in blocking UN Security Council 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. After the invasion, Chirac 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. However, in 2005, French voters rejected 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 the outcome. The charter kindled fears of immigration from poorer EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, and voters also linked the constitution to the question of Turkish membership, which many opposed.
In late 2005, France was traumatized by ethnic upheaval. The accidental deaths of two teenagers of North African descent who were fleeing police touched off weeks of violent riots. Most of the rioters were youths descended from immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. Despite their French birth and citizenship, many reported discrimination and harassment by police in recent anticrime operations. The violence provoked a major discussion about the failure to fully integrate minorities into French society.
In the 2007 presidential election, the candidate of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) was party leader Nicolas Sarkozy. He had suffered a drop in popularity during the riots of late 2005, having been the interior minister associated with the harsh policing tactics that helped inspire them. The PS nominated Segolene Royal, the first woman to be so chosen by one of the major political parties.
Sarkozy’s law-and-order message, pro-American foreign-policy views, opposition to Turkish EU membership, and other positions made him a controversial candidate. Royal focused on increasing social protections and social spending. However, her foreign-policy gaffes fed a perception of her as amateurish. Sarkozy won the May election in the second round, with 53 percent of the vote, and the UMP renewed its majority in subsequent parliamentary elections. Sarkozy appointed a popular Socialist, Bernard Kouchner, as foreign minister, and a North African–descended Muslim woman, Rachida Dati, as justice minister.
The president’s main domestic goal was to create jobs by liberalizing the economy. On foreign policy, the government took a tough line on Iran, with Kouchner proving conspicuously outspoken on the need to prevent that country from developing nuclear weapons. However, the government’s popularity took a blow when violence reemerged in the suburbs in November. After two teenagers of African descent were killed in a collision with a police car, riots erupted. Unlike in 2005, the riots seemed better organized, and scores of police were wounded. These developments hurt Sarkozy’s political position and credibility six months into his presidency.
At 12 months in office, in May 2008, the president’s popularity was the lowest of any first-year president. (His divorce in late 2007, and subsequent marriage to a former supermodel, contributed to the problem.) However, he began to recover with a revived foreign and domestic agenda. His foreign achievements included the spearheading of a new Mediterranean Union (consisting of the EU countries and all others with a Mediterranean coastline); the deployment of new troops to Afghanistan and talk of France rejoining NATO’s military command; a focus on migration during France’s six-month presidency of the EU in the second half of the year; and a central role in the mediation and monitoring of a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia after their August conflict. Sarkozy’s government also successfully pushed for economic liberalization (cutting bureaucracy for business creation, weakening the 35-hour workweek, and raising the retirement age, among other steps) without encountering the strikes that are a common part of French political life. But the world financial crisis that broke late in the year worried French voters, and Sarkozy criticized purely laissez-faire capitalism loudly and publicly. In November, the Socialist Party replaced Royal as leader with Martine Aubry, considered to represent the left wing of the party.
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. In addition to the center-left PS and the center-right UMP, 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 used his immunity as head of state to avoid prosecution on corruption allegations stemming from his time as mayor of Paris, and since he left office no charges have been brought, perhaps to avoid damaging respect for the presidency. His protege, Alain Juppe, was convicted in 2004 for 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, in which Dominique de Villepin is accused of seeking to procure evidence smearing Nicolas Sarkozy in a corruption scandal while the two were rival ministers under Chirac, has also tarnished the 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 23 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 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, journalists covering events involving the National Front or the Corsican separatist movement have been harassed, and come under legal pressure to reveal sources. Members of the press were also injured in the riots of 2005 and 2007, and they generally face difficulty covering unrest in the volatile suburbs. Journalists reporting on criminal cases have been pressured by courts to reveal their sources and for publishing material from confidential court documents. 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 law that took effect in 2004 bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools. Widely believed to be aimed at the hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women and girls, the controversial ban was supported by most voters. In 2008, a woman was denied citizenship for wearing the burqa, which covers the entire body, and thus failing to assimilate. The decision, upheld by France’s top administrative tribunal, was also supported by the official organization of French Muslims, on the grounds that this form of Muslim women’s dress was not mainstream even within Islam. 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 and after World War I. However, Chirac declined to sign the bill, which also has not passed the Senate. France does prohibit denial of the Nazi Holocaust.
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 and sub-Saharan 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 2005and 2007 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. Rachida Dati was named justice minister in 2007, making her the first Muslim, and the first person of non-European descent, to become a minister in the French cabinet.
The dispute over Corsican autonomy continues. In 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. Low-level attacks against property and government targets are frequent, though people are rarely harmed.
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. In 2007, women won 107 of 577 seats in the legislature, or 18.5 percent (up from 16.9 percent in 2002). However, many women have reached the pinnacle of French politics, serving as justice, defense, finance, and agriculture ministers, as well as prime minister; Segolene Royal made history in 2007 by reaching the second round of the presidential election. 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.