Capital: Paris
Population: 62,621,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free


Several commissions reviewed a range of issues in France in 2009, including those related to the judiciary, measuring the country's ethnic composition, the French administrative system, and the wearing of burqas. Meanwhile, a month-long general strike in Guadeloupe and Martinique led to a governmental increase in payments to low-wage workers.

After the French Revolution of 1789, republics alternated with monarchist regimes until the creation of the Third Republic in 1871. The Fourth Republic was established after World War II, but it eventually fell victim to domestic political turbulence and a series of colonial setbacks. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle, France's wartime leader, returned to create 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 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the far-right, xenophobic National Front, stunned France and the world by receiving more votes than Lionel Jospin, the prime minister and head of the rival center-left Socialist Party (PS), in the first round. Chirac, with Socialist support, defeated Le Pen overwhelmingly in the second round. Support for the National Front has since declined but continues to impact politics in the form of certain law-and-order policies.

In early 2003, France joined Russia in blocking UN Security Council authorization for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. France's stance severely strained its relations with the United States, but bolstered Chirac's popularity at home. After the invasion, Chirac moved to strengthen the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to U.S. power.

A strong EU foreign policy was a key French goal in the drafting of a new EU constitutional accord. However, French voters rejected the proposed constitution in a 2005 referendum. Its successor, the Lisbon Treaty, which incorporated many of the key institutional changes of the failed constitution, was signed by the government in February 2008without a referendum. In April 2009,France rejoined NATO's integrated military command, from which de Gaulle had withdrawn in 1966 because he believed it constrained French sovereignty.

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 recent 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. Sarkozy had suffered a drop in popularity as interior minister following the 2005 riots, as he was associated with harsh policing tactics. Sarkozy's law-and-order message, pro-American foreign-policy views, opposition to Turkish EU membership, and other positions made him a controversial candidate. The PS nominated Segolene Royal, the first woman to be chosen by a major political party. Sarkozy won the May election in the second round, with 53 percent of the vote, and the UMP renewed its majority in subsequent parliamentary elections. Sarkozy appointed a popular Socialist, Bernard Kouchner, as foreign minister, and a North African-descended Muslim woman, Rachida Dati, as justice minister. Dati, who had always been a controversial figure, stepped down when she was elected to the European Parliament in June 2009.

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, the president's popularity was the lowest of any first-year president in 50 years. While Sarkozy's reputation recovered somewhat with a revived foreign and domestic agenda, including economic liberalization, his popularity again declined with the global financial crisis, when Sarkozy began vocally criticizing laissez-faire capitalism. The economic downturn has caused an increase in already high unemployment and incited many protests in 2009, including some militant demonstrations.The UMP won European Parliament elections in June despite Sarkozy's continuing unpopularity.

Sarkozy in 2009 proposed a plan to improve administrative efficiency by redrawing local and regional administrative boundaries. Socialists have criticized the plan, alleging that the reforms aim to reduce their influence in regions where they dominate. The proposals were still under review at year's end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

France is an electoral democracy. The president and members of the key house of Parliament, the 577-seat National Assembly, are elected to five-year terms; the upper house, the 321-seat Senate, is an indirectly elected body. The prime minister must be able to command a majority in Parliament. 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 (such as 1997-2002) in which the president and prime minister belonged to 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, but others with significant support range from the largely unreformed French Communist Party on the left to the anti-immigrant and anti-EU National Front on the right. France remains a relatively unitary state, with some political and administrative powers devolved to regions, departments, towns, and cities, but with key decisions made in Paris.

Members of the French elite, trained in a small number of prestigious schools, often move between politics and business, increasing opportunities for corruption. President Jacques Chirac used his immunity as head of state a number of times to avoid prosecution on corruption allegations stemming from his time as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. However,formal corruption charges were brought against the former president in 2009 though no trial had begun by year's end. In October 2009, Chirac's interior minister, Charles Pasqua, was sentenced to a year in prison for involvement in arms trafficking to the Angolan government in the 1990s. France was ranked 24 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media operate freely and represent a wide range of political opinion. 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 have come under legal pressure to reveal sources. Journalists generally face difficulty covering unrest in the volatile suburbs, including several injuries during the 2005 and 2007 riots. An intern for Le Monde was arrested in July 2009 and held overnight for covering demonstrations against police violence in Montreuil, even after he had identified himself as a journalist to authorities. Journalists have been pressured by courts to reveal sources when they report on criminal cases and when they publish material from confidential court documents. In March 2009, the government raided the offices of a TV production company in search of the incriminating footage of an interview with a top Martinique businessman, although nothing was taken. While internet access is generally unrestricted, a controversial law passed by the National Assembly in September and approved by the Constitutional Court in October sanctions users who are found illegally downloading music and films. Under the new law, three warnings will be issued before internet access is disconnected, with suspensions lasting up to a year. Repeat offenders could face heavy fines of up to $43,900 or two years in prison.

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 laicite, whereby religion and government affairs are strictly separated.A 2004 law bans "ostentatious" religious symbols in schools. While widely believed to be aimed at the hijab – a headscarf worn by some Muslim women and girls – the controversial ban was supported by most voters, including many Muslims. In 2008, a woman was denied citizenship for wearing the burqa, which covers the entire body, and thus failing to assimilate. A commission to investigate the wearing of burqas in France is due to publish its report in early 2010, although reportedly less than 400 women – mostly French converts – wear them. Academic freedom is generally 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 declined over the past two decades. 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. Citizens are generally treated equally.However, the country's antiterrorism campaign has included surveillance of mosques, and unrelated government raids, such as those involving tax violations, have appeared to target businesses owned or frequented by Muslims, like halal butcher shops.Terrorism suspects can be detained for up to four days without being charged. Amnesty International accused French authorities in April 2009 of failing to investigate alleged police abuse, which the group claimed typically targets ethnic minorities. France has some of the most overcrowded prisons in Europe and suicides are common, prompting a new penitentiary law in 2009 that includes alternatives to prison, such as parole and electronic bracelets. In August a committee on penal reform controversially recommended theabolition ofthe investigative judge, a post that has been responsible for many corruption and other high-level investigations of French officials.

French law forbids the categorization of people according to ethnic origin, and no statistics are collected on ethnicity. However, the violence of 2005and 2007 fueled concerns about Arab and African immigration and the failure of integration policies in France, where minorities are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions in both the private and public sectors. From 2007 to 2009, Rachida Dati served as the first Muslim justice minister and the first person of non-European descent to become a top minister in the French cabinet under the Fifth Republic. In 2007, legislation was passed that would have permitted the collection of certain kinds of ethnic data, though the Constitutional Council ruled that the law was unconstitutional. In anticipation of 2010 regional elections, the government initiated a "debate" on national identity in the fall of 2009, which quickly evolved into a political discussion of Islam and diversity by year's end. In September 2009, authorities evicted hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers living in makeshift encampments near Calais, detaining many and bulldozing the camps.

Corsica continues to host a sometimes violent separatist movement, and low-level attacks against property and government targets are frequent, 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. In August 2009, the car of Enrico Porsia, an Italian investigative reporter for the Amnistia news website, was bombed in Corsica, but no injuries were reported.

In early 2009, major protests broke out in Guadeloupe and Martinique, two French overseas departments equal in status to those in mainland France. A month-long general strike began over the cost of living but also reflected tensions between the black majority and the ruling whites. French riot police were sent in and ultimately reached a deal whereby the government agreed to increase payments to low-wage workers.

Gender equality is protected in France. Constitutional reforms in 2008 institutionalized economic and social equality, though women still earn approximately 25 percent less than men with similar qualifications. Some electoral lists require the alternation of candidates by sex. In 2007, women won 18.5 percent of the seats in the legislature (up from 16.9 percent in 2002). Women have served as key ministers, as well as prime minister. The rights of homosexuals are protected in France, and a type of nonmarriage civil union, the PACS, or civil solidarity pact, is recognized.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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