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Freedom in the World 2012

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Control of the Senate was captured by the left in September 2011 elections for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic. Reforms regarding police custody were approved in January to grant suspects the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. France continued to face criticism for a controversial ban on full facial coverings, which came into effect in April, and restrictions on internet freedom.

After the French Revolution of 1789, France experienced both republic and monarchist regimes until the creation of the Third Republic in 1871. The Fourth Republic was established after World War II, but eventually fell victim to domestic political turbulence and a series of colonial setbacks. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime leader, created 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 first round of the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen—head of the far-right, xenophobic National Front—unexpectedly received more votes than Lionel Jospin, the prime minister and head of the center-left Socialist Party (PS). However, with Socialist support, Chirac defeated Le Pen overwhelmingly in the second round.

In late 2005, 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 anticrime operations. The violence provoked a major discussion about the failure to fully integrate minorities into French society.

The ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) nominated party leader Nicolas Sarkozy as its candidate for the 2007 presidential elections. However, Sarkozy’s law-and-order message, pro-American foreign-policy views, opposition to Turkish European Union membership, and other positions made him a controversial candidate. Sarkozy defeated the PS candidate Ségolène Royal in the second round, with 53 percent of the vote, and the UMP renewed its majority in subsequent parliamentary elections.

The government’s popularity declined in late 2007 when riots erupted after two teenagers of African descent were killed in a collision with a police car. Unlike in 2005, the riots were better organized, and scores of police were wounded.

By May 2008, Sarkozy’s popularity was the lowest of any first-year president in 50 years. His reputation recovered somewhat with a revived foreign and domestic agenda, including economic liberalization, though it declined again with the arrival of the global economic crisis. The economic downturn caused an increase in already high unemployment and incited many protests in 2009.

The government considered a number of reforms in 2010 to decrease the country’s debt, the most significant of which was an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62, which became law in November. The controversial proposals touched off weeks of protests and strikes throughout the summer and fall.

On September 25, 2011, indirect elections for some half the seats in the Senate gave control to parties on the left for the first time in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. Jean-Pierre Bel was also elected the country’s first Socialist Senate president on October 1, 2011.

During the year, the government imposed a series of controversial legal measures, such as restrictions on internet freedoms, and a ban on full facial coverings. However, measures were taken to improve the rights of suspects in police custody.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

France is an electoral democracy. The president and members of the lower house of Parliament, the 577-seat National Assembly, are elected to five-year terms. The upper house, the 348-seat Senate, is an indirectly elected body whose members serve six-year terms. The prime minister is appointed by the president. Until 1986, the president and prime minister were always of the same party, and the president was the most powerful figure in the country. However, since 1986, there have been periods lasting several years in which the president and prime minister hailed from 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. The center-left PS and the center-right UMP are the largest parties, though the largely unreformed French Communist Party on the left and the far-right National Front party receive significant support. The National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, is opposed to immigration and advocates an increasingly eurosceptic position; the party’s popularity has risen as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s support has declined.

Members of the French elite, trained in a small number of prestigious schools, often move between politics and business, increasing opportunities for corruption. In 2010, Labor Minister Éric Woerth was accused of corruption for allegedly accepting illegal donations from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt on behalf of Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007; however, no direct connection to Sarkozy has been found in investigations that were ongoing at year’s end. Formal corruption charges were brought against former president Jacques Chirac in 2009 for events that dated back to when he was mayor of Paris. On December 15, 2011, he was found guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public trust, and received a two-year suspended sentence. Furthermore, in September, a former aide accused Chirac and potential presidential candidate Dominique de Villepin of receiving $20 million in cash from leaders of former African colonies to finance elections. An official inquiry into the allegations was dropped in November, however, due to lack of evidence. Meanwhile, two of Sarkozy’s political allies, Thierry Gaubert and Nicolas Bazire, were arrested in September on charges of misuse of public funds in an arms sale to Pakistan in 1994; the investigation was ongoing at year’s end. France was ranked 25 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinions. 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 they have also faced difficulty covering unrest in the volatile suburbs. Reporters covering criminal cases or publishing material from confidential court documents have occasionally come under pressure by the courts to reveal sources. In 2010, daily newspaper Le Monde filed a complaint against the government after a public prosecutor was ordered to obtain a list of calls made by two of its journalists in connection with the Bettencourt case. In September 2011, the government confirmed that its intelligence agency had requisitioned the reporters’ telephone records, claiming that its actions were legal as they were in defense of national interests. In November, the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo were burned and its website hacked the day the magazine’s cover was due to feature a cartoon depiction of Mohammed.

While internet access is generally unrestricted, a new domestic security law, which came into effect in March 2011, allows the filtering of online content; while this is ostensibly to prevent child pornography, free media advocates call it unnecessary censorship. A separate March decree requires internet companies to provide user data, including passwords, to authorities if requested; several major companies including Google and Microsoft have protested.

Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution, and strong antidefamation laws prohibit religiously motivated attacks. Denial of the Nazi Holocaust is illegal. France maintains the policy of laïcité, whereby religion and government affairs are strictly separated. A 2004 law bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools. In October 2010, the Senate nearly unanimously passed a bill banning clothing that covers the face, including the burqa and niqab, in public spaces. The ban went into effect in April 2011. Violators of the ban can be fined up to €150 (approximately US$215) or ordered to take citizenship lessons, and a man who forces a woman to wear a niqab can be fined €30,000 (approximately US$43,000). The first fine, of €150, was issued in April to a woman in the northwest of Paris. In addition, a controversial September 2011 directive bans street prayer, affecting thousands of Muslims in Paris who had previously prayed in the street due to a lack of space in local mosques. Academic freedom is respected by French authorities.

Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations can operate freely. Trade union organizations are weak, and membership has been declining since 1980. Nevertheless, civil service unions remain relatively strong, and strike movements generally gain wide public support.

France has an independent judiciary, and the rule of law is firmly established. The country’s antiterrorism campaign has included surveillance of mosques, and terrorism suspects can be detained for up to four days without charge. In response to repeated challenges from the European Court of Human Rights, the National Assembly adopted new rules in January 2011 that extend the right to suspects to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. In February, members of the judiciary went on strike in cities throughout the country to protest executive interference after Sarkozy publicly criticized the handling of a well-publicized murder case. Prisons are overcrowded, and suicides are common.

French law forbids the categorization of people according to ethnic origin, and no official statistics are collected on ethnicity. However, the riots and violence in 2005 and 2007 fueled concerns about Arab and African immigration and the failure of integration policies in France, where minorities are underrepresented in leadership positions in both the private and public sectors. Discrimination against immigrants and religious and ethnic minorities remains a problem.

During 2010, France deported at least 8,000 Roma to Bulgaria and Romania and dismantled over 400 camps on the outskirts of French cities. Although the government claimed that the deportations were part of a larger crackdown on illegal immigration, a leaked memo from the interior ministry revealed that officials had been instructed to prioritize the dismantling of Roma camps, thus constituting illegal discrimination. Deportations continued during 2011, with official statistics reporting nearly 5,000 deportations in the first three months alone. Close to 6,000 were evicted between April and October according to the nongovernmental European Roma Rights Center.

Corsica continues to host a sometimes violent separatist movement. Low-level attacks against property and government targets continue to occur, though people are rarely harmed. In 2001, the government devolved some legislative powers to the island and allowed teaching in the Corsican language in public schools.

Gender equality is protected in France. Constitutional reforms in 2008 institutionalized economic and social equality. However, in the 2011 Global Gender Gap report, France ranked the lowest of 131 countries that responded to a question on wage equality. Some electoral lists require the alternation of candidates by sex. Women hold only 18 percent of seats in the legislature and 22 percent of Senate seats, but have served as key ministers, as well as the prime minister. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by law. While a type of civil union for same-sex partners is recognized, the Constitutional Council upheld a ban on same-sex marriage in January 2011.