Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
France’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to infringements on personal autonomy, particularly controls on dress and religious symbols, that disproportionately focus on women, following earlier deterioration related to terrorist attacks and aggressive counterterrorism measures.
The French political system features vibrant democratic processes and generally strong protections for civil liberties and political rights. However, due to a number of deadly terrorist attacks in recent years, the government has been increasingly willing to curtail constitutional protections and empower law enforcement to act in ways that impinge on personal freedoms. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have also become features of the political community.
- Multiple incidents of terrorist violence, including a July attack in Nice that killed 86 people, led to repeated extensions of a state of emergency, in place since November 2015.
- Beginning in late July, around 30 municipal governments issued short-term bans on the burkini, a full-body swimsuit, citing fears about the garment’s links to Islamist extremism; the bans, as well as continuing concerns about terrorism, fueled public debate about French policies toward immigration and Islam.
- In November, the Republican Party conducted its first primary campaign ever, and voters selected former prime minister François Fillon to be the party’s nominee for president in the 2017 election.
Several terrorist attacks took place in France in 2016, and security concerns continued to influence political discussions and decisions. In June, a man claiming allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) killed a police commander and his wife in Magnanville. In July, a man drove a truck through a crowd that had gathered for a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring more than 300. Although IS claimed responsibility for the attack, police had not uncovered definitive evidence of operational links between the driver and the terrorist group at year’s end. Also in July, two men claiming affiliation with IS stormed a Catholic church in Normandy during a mass, taking multiple hostages before brutally murdering the priest.
These and other attacks led the government to repeatedly extend France’s state of emergency, first declared in November 2015 after a string of coordinated attacks in Paris. Local and international rights groups have criticized the extensions, voicing concerns with the French authorities’ power to conduct raids, make arrests, block websites, and restrict free expression with little judicial oversight under the state of emergency. As part of its international campaign against terrorism, France continued its participation in a military coalition against IS, conducting air strikes and ground operations against targets in Iraq and Syria.
Political parties began laying the groundwork for the 2017 presidential election. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN) and a strong proponent of anti-immigration and Euroskeptic views, was widely expected to perform strongly in the vote. In December, incumbent president François Hollande announced he would not seek reelection, creating an open contest for the Socialist Party (PS) nomination. Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks, continuing migration flows from the Middle East and North Africa, and preparations for the election, public discussion was dominated by concerns about security, religion, and immigration during the year. In July and August, the mayors of more than two dozen towns issued short-term bans on the burkini based on security concerns, citing fears about the garment’s links to Islamist extremism. In August, the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country, ruled that the bans violate fundamental freedoms.
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 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. Le Pen, leading the FN, placed third with 17.9 percent of the vote. Hollande won the election in the runoff, taking 51.6 percent of the vote to Sarkozy’s 48.4 percent, and became 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 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.
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 normalize the party by toning down its more extreme rhetoric, but its politics remain anchored in anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti–European Union (EU) sentiments.
In November 2016, the Republicans organized a primary to choose their candidate for the 2017 presidential election. Fillon beat Bordeaux mayor and former prime minister Alain Juppé decisively in the second round, after Sarkozy was eliminated in the first round. The PS scheduled its primary for January 2017.
In August, Emanuel Macron announced his resignation from the position of economy minister in order to mount a bid for the presidential election. Macron is set to run under the banner of his newly established political party, En Marche! (Forward!).
The 2012 parliamentary elections yielded a record of eight new members from immigrant backgrounds. Nevertheless, 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.
A number of corruption cases linked to Sarkozy’s presidency continued in 2016. In February, prosecutors brought charges against him for exceeding the legal spending limits on his 2012 reelection bid. The charges alleged that Sarkozy colluded with a public relations firm, Bygmalion, to falsify invoices that hid the extent of the company’s spending on his campaign. Thirteen others, including Bygmalion executives and former Sarkozy aides, were also charged in connection to the case. In September, prosecutors recommended that the charges proceed to a full trial, though a final decision was not reached by year’s end. Separately, in December, Christine Lagarde, a managing director at the International Monetary Fund and France’s finance minister under Sarkozy, was convicted of negligence in the use of public funds. However, the court did not impose a sentence, leaving Lagarde without a penalty or a criminal record.
France was ranked 23 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. In December 2016, Transparency France released a positive assessment of the country’s anticorruption efforts under Hollande, including the establishment of new anticorruption bodies and a special prosecutor’s office focusing on tax evasion. Many of these efforts were inaugurated following revelations in 2013 that France’s budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, had engaged in tax fraud. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in December 2016.
French law provides for public access to government information. France ranked 7 out of 102 countries assessed in the 2015 Open Budget Index, indicating very high levels of budgetary transparency and financial disclosure.
The media operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinions. Though a law from 1881 forbids “offending” various personages, including the president and foreign heads of state, the press is lively and critical in practice.
A 2014 counterterrorism law empowered authorities to block websites and bring criminal charges for incitement or glorification of terrorism, with penalties reaching seven years in prison. France’s state-run privacy commission reported that between November 2015 and April 2016, French authorities used the law to take down more than 1,000 pieces of content from the internet, delist nearly 400 web addresses from search results, and block 68 websites. By the end of 2016, France had blocked more than 800 websites and delisted nearly 2,000 from search results, mostly over alleged support for terrorism.
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 state affairs are strictly separated, though the government maintains relationships with organizations representing the country’s three major religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). France’s relationship with its Muslim community has grown increasingly fraught in the wake of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. Islamophobic rhetoric from prominent politicians on both the left and right is not uncommon. Domestic monitors recorded numerous offenses against Muslims in 2016. These included more than 400 cases of discrimination, nearly 40 physical assaults, 25 attacks on mosques and other religious buildings, and nearly 100 instances of verbal harassment. However, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a domestic organization, noted that the total number of recorded incidents was lower in 2016 than in previous years.
There are no restrictions on academic freedom in France. Private discussion is open and vibrant. However, in 2015, Parliament approved a new law granting the government expanded powers to conduct domestic surveillance, including bulk collection of communications data as well as wider authority to use hidden cameras and microphones. The law authorizes the use of sophisticated intelligence technology to intercept all telephone conversations, text messages, and emails in targeted areas. The law only prescribes limited judicial oversight of these activities.
Freedoms of assembly and association are normally respected, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can generally operate freely. However, in September 2016, the FN mayor of the town of Hayange ordered the local branch of the major NGO Secours Populaire Français (French Popular Relief) to vacate its offices for allegedly engaging in pro-immigrant political activities. The group refused and continued to operate despite the eviction order, prompting the town to cut off utilities to the premises. The standoff had not been resolved at year’s end.
Trade unions are strong despite declining membership and a lack of legal protections relative to more corporatist European countries. Beginning in March, thousands protested at recurrent demonstrations against changes to the country’s labor code, which would have reduced protections for workers. Violent clashes with police led to a number of individuals receiving serious injuries, including a student who lost an eye in April and a man who was put into a coma in May. Only 48 cases of misconduct were opened against officers in subsequent months, a figure that watchdogs judged to be too low given the scale of the police response.
France has an independent judiciary, and the rule of law generally prevails in court proceedings. However, the state of emergency imposed after the November 2015 attacks in Paris has allowed authorities to take extraordinary measures, including conducting raids, detentions, and house arrests of suspects without warrants or judicial oversight. The order was extended multiple times in 2016. In December, Parliament voted to keep it in place until the conclusion of the 2017 presidential election. According to Amnesty International, by the end of 2016, authorities had conducted more than 4,000 raids, upwards of 600 house arrests, and nearly 1,700 identity checks or car searches under the state of emergency. The report noted that these efforts have produced only 20 judicial investigations of terrorism-related crimes, leading many to criticize the maneuvers as too expansive.
In May 2016, the UN Committee against Torture criticized France over its use of excessive force during police operations conducted under the state of emergency. It also condemned the difficulty victims encountered in filing complaints, the failure to collect statistical data related to excessive force complaints, and inadequate consequences for officers who commit such actions.
Migrants and refugees in France continue to suffer both from societal discrimination and abuse by government officials. In October, authorities dismantled the makeshift migrant camp at Calais, which had grown notorious for its squalid conditions. The camp’s residents—who by some estimates numbered as high as 9,000—were transported to alternative shelters. Surging immigration and refugee flows from Muslim-majority countries have exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment, vandalism of mosques, verbal assaults, and xenophobic graffiti.
French law forbids the categorization of people according to ethnic origin, and no official statistics are collected on ethnicity. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by law. New legislation, passed in October 2016, scrapped the requirement that transgender people undergo sterilization in order to legally change their gender.
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. Separately, under the state of emergency still in force, authorities are 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 have been confined to house arrest since the order was first implemented
Private businesses are free to operate. In 2015, the government pushed through measures to liberalize multiple sectors of the economy; these measures aim to ease entry to certain professions, simplify the firing of employees, and allow businesses to open on Sundays in areas frequented by tourists. In August 2016, major reforms to the labor code were enacted, further shifting power over hiring, firing, and working conditions to businesses and away from labor.
Gender equality is protected in France, and constitutional reforms in 2008 institutionalized economic and social equality. After the 2012 elections, women held a record 27 percent of seats in the National Assembly. France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.
A number of French laws on dress disproportionately affect women. A 2004 law bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools; Muslim girls’ headscarves were widely seen as the main target of this law. In July 2016, more than 30 municipalities instituted short-term bans on burkinis, a type of full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women. In August, the country’s highest administrative court struck down one town’s ban on constitutional grounds. However, some mayors have refused to abide by the ruling, claiming that the decision does not apply to towns that were not parties in the suit.
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; some victims are also forced into domestic labor.