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The year 2015 was flanked by several horrific attacks in France. On January 7, two French-born brothers of Algerian origin terrorized the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Two days later, an accomplice took several hostages at a kosher market in the capital, taking four lives before he was killed by police. In the aftermath of these events, the government enacted a law granting security agencies extensive new surveillance powers.
On November 13, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) militant group carried out coordinated attacks at a concert hall and cafés in central Paris as well as outside of a stadium in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis, killing 130 people in shooting sprees and suicide bombings. The stadium attack took place during a game attended by President François Hollande. Nine assailants died either during the attacks or in later confrontations with police, and most suspects identified by year’s end were French or Belgian nationals. Several had traveled to Syria to join IS and then returned; some had been on international security watch lists.
Following the November attacks, Hollande declared a state of emergency, under which security forces conducted thousands of raids and detained hundreds for questioning without judicial oversight. The attacks exacerbated anti-immigrant sentiment, contributing to the early lead of the far-right National Front (FN) in regional elections held in December. The FN was later defeated in all races through a coordinated effort by the political center.
Political Rights: 38 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The French 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, who is elected by direct, universal suffrage in a two-round system. In the 2012 presidential election, Hollande—a Socialist Party (PS) candidate—won the first round with 28.6 percent of the vote, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), who took 27.2 percent. Marine Le Pen of the FN placed third, with 17.9 percent. Hollande won the election in the runoff, taking 51.6 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 48.4 percent to become France’s first Socialist president since François Mitterrand left office in 1995.
In 2012, the center-left PS and its allies won an absolute majority of 314 seats in the National Assembly, while the UMP and its allies took 229 seats. In the 2014 Senate elections, the PS lost its majority to the UMP and the center-right Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), while the FN won two seats—its first ever in the upper chamber.
In regional elections held in December 2015, the FN led the first round of voting in 6 of the 13 regions at stake. The PS then withdrew from some races to encourage its supporters to vote for the Republicans—the successor of the UMP, which changed its name in May—in order to block the FN, which failed to win any regions in the second round.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Parties organize and compete on a free and fair basis. The PS and the Republicans are the largest parties. Since taking over the FN in 2011, Le Pen has sought to rebrand it as a mainstream party, albeit a strongly anti-immigration and anti–European Union (EU) one. In April 2015, Le Pen moved to oust her father, who held the position of honorary president of the FN, after he publicly reiterated anti-Semitic views. The party’s executive board voted in August to expel him. The 2015 regional elections demonstrated the lengths to which the traditionally dominant parties of the center will go to keep the FN out of power.
The 2012 parliamentary elections yielded a record eight new members from immigrant backgrounds. However, they comprised less than 2 percent of the National Assembly, prompting renewed calls from minority rights groups for a law ensuring ethnic diversity in politics.
C. Functioning of Government: 11 / 12
A number of governmental corruption cases linked to Sarkozy’s presidency continued in 2015. In an ongoing probe into alleged illegal financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign by former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, Sarkozy’s former chief of staff and interior minister Claude Guéant was charged in March 2015 with tax evasion and forgery. In December, France’s Court of Justice of the Republic ordered International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde to stand trial for negligence over a €404 million ($436 million) government payment to businessman Bernard Tapie, which she had authorized as Sarkozy’s finance minister in 2008. Earlier in December, an appeals court had ordered Tapie to repay the amount with interest. At year’s end, authorities were investigating whether the compensation was a quid pro quo for Tapie’s support for Sarkozy’s campaign. France was ranked 23 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
French law provides for public access to government information. France ranked 7 out of 102 countries in the 2015 Open Budget Index, indicating very high levels of budgetary transparency and financial disclosure. In December 2015, the government declassified hundreds of thousands of official documents from the World War II–era Vichy regime, which had collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Civil Liberties: 53 / 60 (−4)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 14 / 16 (−1)
While the media operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinions, the events of 2015 had a wide impact on press freedom. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo in January, killing 12 people—including a number of the magazine’s cartoonists and writers as well as two police officers. Charlie Hebdo is known for its controversial cartoons and has published several caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, which in 2011 provoked a firebombing of the magazine’s office. The assailants claimed to be members of an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, and at least one had reportedly trained at a camp run by the group there in 2011. The brothers were killed by police two days after the attack. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the killings made France the second deadliest country for journalists in 2015.
A 2014 counterterrorism law empowered authorities to block websites or bring criminal charges for incitement or glorification of terrorism, with penalties reaching seven years in prison. In January 2015, in the wake of the Paris attacks, more than 250 people were charged with condoning or provoking terrorism; some received prison sentences after accelerated court proceedings. In March, five websites were blocked under the law. The same month, a court used the law to convict comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala for a Facebook post that allegedly sympathized with Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the Kouachis who carried out the January attack on a kosher market in Paris. Dieudonné, as he is popularly known, received a two-month suspended prison sentence.
In December 2015, a court in Lyon acquitted Le Pen of charges of inciting hatred with a 2010 campaign speech in which she had likened public Muslim prayer to the Nazi occupation of France.
In May 2015, the French data regulation agency ordered Google to comply with requests to remove objectionable or outdated search results from its global search engine, not just its French website, under a 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice that affirmed the “right to be forgotten.” The order was upheld on final appeal in September.
The constitution protects freedom of religion. Strong antidefamation laws prohibit religiously motivated attacks, and Holocaust denial is illegal. France maintains the policy of laïcité, whereby religion and government affairs are strictly separated, though the government has relationships with organizations representing the country’s three major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). A 2004 law bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools; Muslim girls’ headscarves were widely seen as the main target of this law. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld France’s ban on clothing that covers the face, including the burqa and niqab, in public spaces.
Such restrictions remained the subject of controversy in 2015. In April, a 15-year-old Muslim girl in northeastern France was sent home from school twice for wearing a skirt that school officials found to be too long and in violation of the religious symbols ban. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France reportedly documented nearly 130 similar incidents in 2014. In November 2015, the ECHR rejected a challenge to the ban filed by a Muslim social worker who lost her job at a hospital in 2000 after refusing to remove her headscarf at work.
Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that authorities had closed three mosques—two in the Paris area, one in Lyons—and four “clandestine” Muslim prayer rooms in Nice due to alleged “Islamist radicalization.” This marked the first time that French officials closed Muslim houses of worship on these grounds.
Academic freedom is respected by the government. Private discussion is open and vibrant. However, in May 2015, the parliament approved a new law granting the government expanded powers to conduct domestic surveillance, including monitoring and bulk collection of communications data, as well as expanded authority to use hidden cameras and microphones. The law authorizes the use of sophisticated intelligence technology to intercept all telephone, text message, and email conversations in targeted areas. Only limited judicial oversight of these activities is prescribed.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 11 / 12 (−1)
Freedoms of assembly and association are normally respected, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can operate freely. However, the state of emergency imposed in response to the November 2015 terrorist attacks included a ban on demonstrations, which was applied during a major UN climate conference in Paris. Similar conferences have sparked large public protests in the past.
After racially and religiously charged riots erupted in Ajaccio, Corsica, in December, the island’s prefect banned public gatherings in the affected neighborhoods. The prohibition remained in effect through the end of the year, but demonstrations took place in other areas of the capital city.
Trade unions are strong despite declining membership and a lack of legal protections relative to more corporatist European countries. In October, Air France workers angered by planned layoffs stormed the airline’s headquarters, assaulting security and executive personnel.
F. Rule of Law: 13 / 16 (−2)
France has an independent judiciary, and the rule of law generally prevails in court proceedings. In June 2015, an appeals court in Paris ruled that five individuals of Arab and African descent had been illegally detained and searched in instances of racial profiling by police. The judgment, the first of its kind in France, stated that police may only stop and search people on the basis of objective criteria not related to race. However, the court also ruled that this standard did not apply in so-called dangerous areas that merit heightened scrutiny, an exception criticized by rights advocates.
The state of emergency imposed after the November 13 attacks in Paris allowed authorities to take extraordinary measures, including conducting raids, detentions, and house arrests of suspects without warrants or judicial oversight. On November 19, the National Assembly voted to extend the state of emergency for three months. In December, the government proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow a state of emergency to last for an unlimited period. It would also empower authorities to strip dual nationals of French citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism or an attack on national interests.
Migrants and refugees in France suffer both from societal discrimination and abuse by government officials. Surging immigration and refugee flows from Muslim-majority countries have exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment, which has been potent in France for years. Observers reported significant increases in bias-related crimes such as mosque vandalism, verbal assaults, and xenophobic graffiti in 2015. In May, French police were filmed assaulting a number of migrants near the port city of Calais without provocation, deploying pepper spray against them as they fled. During the December riots in Corsica, crowds vandalized a Muslim prayer room and burned copies of the Koran.
Thousands of migrants, largely of African and Middle Eastern origin, remained in an informal camp on the outskirts of Calais at year’s end. In July and August, groups of migrants attempted to evade security at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel in order to reach the United Kingdom while hiding in trucks and freight trains. Several died as a result of traffic accidents.
In September, Hollande announced that France would accept 24,000 refugees over the course of two years under a proposed EU quota. However, following the November attacks and revelations that the perpetrators had traveled through Europe in the planning stages, France successfully pushed for tighter border controls across the Schengen Area, and implementation of the quota agreement was in doubt at year’s end.
Police in Paris demolished the country’s oldest Roma camp in August, evicting 300 people without warning. According to the European Roma Rights Centre, there were more than 11,000 evictions in 2015, down from 13,000 in 2014 and nearly 20,000 in 2013. In September 2015, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on France to end its “punitive and destructive policy” of eviction.
Anti-Semitic sentiments became pronounced following the January attack on a kosher market in Paris. Jewish rights groups reported more than 500 anti-Semitic incidents in the first four months of 2015, an increase of more than 80 percent over the same period the previous year. This climate contributed to record numbers of French Jews relocating to Israel, with some 8,000 moving in 2015. In April, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a three-year government campaign against “racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Muslims, hatred of foreigners, and homophobia.” The campaign will include increased monitoring of hate speech online and tougher penalties for hate crimes.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by law. French law forbids the categorization of people according to ethnic origin, and no official statistics are collected on ethnicity.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
There are normally no restrictions on freedom of travel or choice of residence or employment in France, but a number of exceptions have been made in recent years. A 2014 counterterrorism law imposed a travel ban on anyone suspected of planning to become a jihadist; the passports of such individuals can be confiscated for a period of six months to two years. The law was first used in February 2015, when the Interior Ministry seized the passports of six people suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join terrorist groups; hundreds of French citizens have reportedly traveled to Syria and Iraq for that purpose. Separately, under the state of emergency imposed in late 2015, authorities were empowered to place individuals under house arrest, require them to report to police stations, and confiscate their passports without prior judicial authorization. Hundreds of individuals were confined to house arrest in the aftermath of the November attacks.
Private businesses are free to operate. In July 2015, the government pushed through measures to liberalize multiple sectors of the economy; these measures aim to ease entry to certain professions, facilitate the firing of employees, and allow stores to open on Sundays in areas frequented by tourists.
Gender equality is protected in France, and constitutional reforms in 2008 institutionalized economic and social equality. However, in the 2015 Global Gender Gap report, France ranked 132 out of 145 countries in perceptions of the wage gap between women and men, despite its overall strong ranking. After the 2012 elections, women held a record 27 percent of seats in the National Assembly.
France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. In September 2015, a court in Marseille gave one of the city’s deputy mayors a five-month suspended sentence for her refusal to conduct a marriage ceremony for two women.
Civil rights groups and scholars have reported evidence of labor market discrimination against women, French Muslims, immigrants of North African decent, and others outside the traditional elite. While France’s government takes actions against human trafficking, the problem persists in the commercial sex trade; other victims are forced into domestic labor.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year