Freedom in the World
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In May 2012, François Hollande defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of the presidential election, becoming France’s first Socialist president since François Mitterrand left office in 1995. The Socialists also won control of the National Assembly in June legislative elections. After a self-proclaimed jihadist killed seven people in and around Toulouse in March, the government intensified its antiterrorist measures.
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. De Gaulle served as president until 1969, but the right remained in power until 1981, when socialist François Mitterand became president.
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. 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. Sarkozy’s law-and-order message and pro-American foreign-policy views 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.
The government considered a number of reforms in 2010 to reduce 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, despite weeks of protests and strikes.
In the 2011 Senate elections, parties on the left won control of the upper house for the first time in the history of France’s Fifth Republic.
Sarkozy ran for reelection in 2012 amid public dissatisfaction with the weak economy. He promised a tougher immigration policy, in an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters. His main opponent was PS candidate François Hollande, who pledged more growth-oriented economic policies and less austerity. On April 22, Hollande won the first round with 28.6 percent of the vote, ahead of Sarkozy, who took 27.2 percent. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his successor as head of the National Front, placed third, with 17.9 percent. Hollande won the election in a runoff against Sarkozy on May 6, with 51.6 percent of the vote, to Sarkozy’s 48.4 percent. Hollande named Jean-Marc Ayrault of the PS as prime minister.
On June 10 and 17, the PS and its allies won an absolute majority of 314 seats in the National Assembly, while the UMP and its allies took 229 seats.
Shortly after taking office, Hollande on June 6 announced that he would fulfill a campaign promise and reverse the increase in the retirement age for those who had started working at 18 or 19, lowering it back to 60. In September, Hollande presented a budget that would raise the tax rate for those earning more than €1 million ($1.3 million) a year from 41 percent to 75 percent. Lawmakers approved the budget on December 20. However, on December 29, the Constitutional Council struck down the 75 percent tax rate, ruling that it would have been applied unevenly to different household earing the same combined annual income.
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. Since 1986, there have been periods lasting several years in which the president and prime minister were 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 far-right National Front party receives significant support.
In 2010, Labor Minister Éric Woerth was accused of corruption for allegedly accepting illegal donations from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt on behalf of Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign in 2007. After Sarkozy lost the presidency and his immunity from prosecution in 2012, police on July 3 searched his home and office in connection with the Bettencourt affair. He was questioned in the case in November as a witness under caution, a status that left him open to prosecution. Corruption charges had been brought against former President Jacques Chirac in 2009 for events that dated back to when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. In December 2011, he was found guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public trust, and received a two-year suspended sentence. France was ranked 22 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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 with large immigrant populations. Reporters covering criminal cases or publishing material from confidential court documents have occasionally come under pressure by the courts to reveal sources. In November 2011, the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo were burned and its website hacked the day the magazine’s cover featured a cartoon depiction of the prophet Muhammad. In September 2012, Charlie Hebdo published more Muhammad cartoons, prompting the government to temporarily close its embassies, consulates and other facilities in about 20 countries to avoid anti-French violence.
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 ostensible purposed was to prevent child pornography, free media advocates called it unnecessary censorship. A separate March 2011 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 (US$215) or ordered to take citizenship lessons, and a man who forces a woman to wear a niqab can be fined €30,000 (US$43,000). The first fine, for €150, was issued in April to a woman in the northwest of Paris. As of September 2012, according to the Interior Ministry, 425 women had been fined and 66 had been warned for violating the headscarf ban, though it reportedly was rarely enforced by police. However, a riot broke out in Marseille in July 2012 when a woman refused to remove her veil. 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. In August 2012, youth riots erupted in the northern city of Amiens, where unemployment is high; some residents said that the unrest was in response to heavy-handed policing methods. 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 strikes generally gain wide public support.
France has an independent judiciary, and the rule of law is firmly established. 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. Prisons are overcrowded, and suicides are common. The country’s antiterrorism campaign has included surveillance of mosques, and terrorism suspects can be detained for up to four days without charge. In March 2012, police killed self-proclaimed jihadist Mohamed Merah in Toulouse after he killed seven people, including three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school and three soldiers. In December, the government implemented new antiterrorism legislation that made it a crime to receive terrorist training or recruit terrorists abroad, or to promote terrorism online.
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 more than 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 of thousands continued in 2011. Police in August 2012 demolished Roma camps in Paris and other cities and the government deported hundreds of people to Romania, despite François Hollande’s previous criticism of Sarkozy’s policy. However, the government that month said that it would ease restrictions on hiring and residency for Roma.
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, and constitutional reforms in 2008 institutionalized economic and social equality. However, in the 2012 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 gender. After the 2012 elections, women held a record 27 percent of seats in the National Assembly. Women hold 22 percent of Senate seats, and have served in key cabinet posts, as well as serving as 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. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in June 2012 said that the new government would legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by gay and lesbian couples by the first half of 2013. The cabinet approved a draft bill in November, sending it to parliament.