2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1

Trend Arrow ↑

France received an upward trend arrow for the introduction of a plan to devolve greater autonomy to Corsica.


France recast its national, political, and social identities during the year, challenging the concept of a unified, strong, and indivisible Fifth Republic in the process. A devolution plan was drafted for the French island of Corsica that would establish sweeping powers of autonomy for its inhabitants, many of whom harbor separatist leanings. The controversial autonomy proposal led to the resignation of France's interior minister, who protested the plan fearing it would inspire other separatist elements within the country. French voters approved a shorter presidential term during the year, and authorities faced widespread civil protests over high gasoline taxes that ground most commercial activity and transportation to a halt. Political scandals continued to dominate much of French political life throughout 2000, tainting President Jacques Chirac and Paris mayor Jean Tiberi. A series of violent attacks against Jews and Jewish establishments, including synagogues, took place in the fall, a spillover from the violence raging in the Middle East. A cabinet reshuffle in the fall left Prime Minister Lionel Jospin with the possibility of fresh challenges to his already controversial policy of a shorter workweek. Fears over mad cow disease, or BSE, increased among French citizens during the year, with five times as many head of cattle (153 cases) testing positive for the disease than in 1999. The disease can spread to humans.

After World War II, France established a parliamentary Fourth Republic, which was governed by coalitions and ultimately failed because of the Algerian war. The Fifth Republic began in 1958 under Prime Minister (and later President) Charles de Gaulle. Election of the president by popular suffrage began in 1965. In 1992, French citizens narrowly approved European political and economic union under the Maastricht Treaty.

Prime Minister Jospin began a government of "cohabitation" with President Chirac, a conservative, after winning an upset election in 1997. In October 2000, French voters went to the polls approving a referendum to cut short the presidential term from seven years to five, marking the most radical change to the French constitution in 40 years. The shorter term now puts parliamentary and presidential elections on the same schedule, reducing or potentially eliminating the awkward cohabitation arrangement, which often features a president and a prime minister from different parties, often at odds over policy planning.

In March, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), President Chirac's political party, suspended Paris mayor Jean Tiberi as head of the Paris branch of the party after the discovery of more than 1,000 ineligible names on party voter logs. All but 60 were dead or had moved out of Paris. By May, the scandal surrounding Tiberi had grown, with 15 more officials coming under investigation. The suspension followed a judicial probe last year into the 1995 Paris mayoral elections, which turned up evidence of fraud in two Paris districts, both traditional strongholds of Mayor Tiberi. Hundreds of pro-Tiberi ballots had been turned in from voters allegedly not living in the districts. In October 1999, President Chirac and Tiberi were named in the press in association with an electoral fraud scandal emanating from the 1989 Paris city elections, when Chirac was mayor and Tiberi his deputy. According to reports, Chirac's RPR plotted to ensure victory by registering hundreds of fake voters.

In September 2000, the president was implicated in a kickback scandal. A former official and member of the RPR, Jean-Claude Mery, who died in 1998, alleged in videotaped statements made in the 1990s that construction companies had made secret donations to the RPR in return for contracts to develop public housing. He said Chirac knew about the kickbacks and approved them. The scandal deepened when it was later revealed that former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn acquired the videotape from an attorney in return for a tax break for one of the lawyer's clients, rumored to be the well-known fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Strauss-Kahn, who served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jospin, the socialist political rival to Chirac, resigned from the cabinet in 1999 over a fraud scandal.

In October, Prime Minister Jospin suffered a political setback with the resignation from the cabinet of Minister of Employment Martine Aubry, who stepped down to run for mayor of Lille. Aubry was the chief architect of the 35-hour workweek, instituted last year to the chagrin of many employers. Speculation spread quickly that Jospin would be facing an uphill battle in negotiations with labor unions and employer federations in instituting the new workweek schedule more widely.

Despite the political scandals, the French economy performed robustly during the year. Tax cuts amounting to 40 billion Francs ($6 billion) were announced in March. The unemployment rate finally fell below ten percent. The government did, however, face vociferous public protest over the cost of gasoline. In September, nationwide protests and blockades of major French highways, seaports, borders, and rail links prompted the government to reduce gasoline taxes. France faced intense criticism from fellow European countries for caving in under the pressure of protests, which quickly spread across the continent in the wake of the French tax cut.

In recent years, the National Front, a far-right party led by the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, has exerted a strong influence in regional politics, but it suffered a series of setbacks in 1998. Most notable was the banning of Le Pen from politics for one year. In January 1999, the party split in two after Bruno Megret, leader of a rebel faction, claimed leadership of the National Front. The move touched off a series of legal proceedings to decide which faction had rights to the party name and symbol. In April 2000, Le Pen was prohibited from sitting on the European Parliament in the wake of a French court conviction of assault, which barred him from holding public office.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

French citizens can change their government democratically by directly electing the president and national assembly. The constitution grants the president significant emergency powers, including rule by decree under certain circumstances. The president may call referenda and dissolve parliament, but may not veto its acts or routinely issue decrees. Decentralization has given mayors significant power over housing, transportation, schools, culture, welfare, and law enforcement. The judiciary is independent.

In March 1999, the parliament passed a legal reform bill setting maximum limits on detention of suspects during a criminal investigation. Also included in the bill was the formation of "detention judges" to rule on the justification of incarceration. Additionally, those being held for interrogation must have immediate access to an attorney. Supporters of the reform bill, concerned over possible abuses of power by judges, had contended that old laws allowed for excessive detention periods during inquiries and had unfairly presumed guilt over innocence.

France has drawn criticism for its treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. Despite legal provisions authorizing refuge seekers to cross the border without visas or identity papers, border guards have occasionally used excessive force to discourage crossings.

The status of foreigners in France is confused by a succession of sometimes contradictory immigration laws. The National Front and other far-right groups have gained popularity by blaming immigrants for high unemployment. In fact, the jobless rate of immigrants is generally much higher than that of the native French.

Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Jospin eased the country's residency rules by giving illegal immigrants a one-year period to apply for legal residency. Approximately 150,000 of the country's estimated 1 million illegal residents applied for papers. Government officials stated that approximately two-thirds of the applicants would be allowed to remain in France. The government further eased residency requirements by allowing foreigners to remain in France legally if they are seriously ill, if they are joining family members who are legally present, or if they are single, financially self-sufficient, long-term residents.

During the fall, a wave of anti-Semitic violence swept the country. Synagogues were vandalized, including the Paris Great Synagogue, which was shot at by snipers during High Holy Day services. Others, located throughout France, were burned down and many others torched. Stones were thrown at Jews in several incidents, among other acts of harassment. The violence, mostly carried out by Muslims, took place during violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel.

The press in France is free, although the government's financial support of journalism and the registration of journalists have raised concerns about media independence. Publication of opinion polls results is prohibited in the week preceding any election. In May, a new press law banning photographs showing suspects in handcuffs or scenes that may jeopardize a victim's dignity, was introduced. The move prompted many complaints from French media outlets. Earlier in the year, in accordance with French anti-hate laws, the government banned Internet auctions of Nazi memorabilia. Also in May, Prime Minister Jospin issued a call for greater Internet controls to combat computer crime and online sabotage.

Amid continuing violence on the French island of Corsica – there were approximately 100 terrorist attacks in the first half of the year according to the interior ministry – Jospin unveiled a devolution plan for the island, addressing, in concrete terms for the first time, Corsican autonomy. During a transition period to last through 2002, the Corsican Regional Assembly would be granted limited self-government in the areas of education, culture, and the environment. A second phase, to take place throughout 2003 and 2004 would allow for the Corsican Assembly to pass its own laws, for the more widespread teaching of the Corsican language, and for the limited right to adapt some French laws. Implementation of the second phase, dependent on the success of the first and the total absence of violence, would necessitate reform of the French constitution.

Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement resigned in protest over the devolution plan. Opposed to conceding French sovereignty over the island, he warned against setting what he called a dangerous precedent that would embolden other separatist elements within France, specifically those in the Basque and Breton regions. In May, Breton separatists were investigated for the April bombing of a McDonald's restaurant that left one person dead.

Labor rights in France are respected in practice, and strikes are widely and effectively used to protest government economic policy. The government acted to further entrench the shortened workweek during the year, originally adopted in October 1999. French employers, claiming the law cuts efficiency and raises costs, continued to object and to lobby the government for a revision of the law. Women enjoy equal rights in France.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.