Capital: Paris
Population: 62,621,000

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

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France received a downward trend arrow due to a continued pattern of political and societal discrimination against ethnic minorities, manifested in policies including a government-sponsored debate about national identity, the passage of a ban on facial coverings in public places, and the systematic deportation of some 8,000 Roma.


France was censured by the European Commission in September for the deportation of over 8,000 Roma to Eastern Europe, as well as for the failure to properly transpose European Union law on internal migration into domestic law. The government also came under criticism for banning full facial coverings, including the burqa and niqab, in public spaces.

After the French Revolution of 1789, France experienced both a republic and 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, created 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 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). With Socialist support, Chirac defeated Le Pen overwhelmingly in the second round.

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.

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 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. However, Sarkozy's law-and-order message, pro-American foreign-policy views, opposition to Turkish EU membership, and other positions made him a controversial candidate. In the May election, Sarkozy defeated the PS candidate Segolène Royal 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, Sarkozy's popularity was the lowest of any first-year president in 50 years. His reputation recovered somewhat with a revived foreign and domestic agenda, including economic liberalization, though it declined again with the arrival of the global economic crisis, particularly after he began vocally criticizing laissez-faire capitalism. The economic downturn caused an increase in already high unemployment and incited many protests in 2009, including some militant demonstrations.

The government considered a number of reforms in 2010 to decrease the country's debt, the most significant of which was an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 that became law in November. The controversial proposals touched off weeks of protests and strikes throughout the summer and fall, attracting as many as 3.5 million people on some days and leading to occasional violence.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

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 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 hailed 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 largely unreformed French Communist Party on the left and the anti-immigrant and anti-EU National Front on the right receive significant support. While the National Front saw a decline in popularity following the 2002 elections, the party – now led by Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter, Marine – has rebounded as President Nicolas Sarkozy has become increasingly unpopular. 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. In 2010, Labor Minister Éric Woerth was accused of tax evasion and involvement in accepting illegal donations from L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt on behalf of Sarkozy's campaign in 2007; no direct connection to Sarkozy has been found though. After formal corruption charges were brought against former president Jacques Chirac in 2009, he remained in negotiations throughout 2010 over paying compensation instead of going to trial. In April, Chirac's interior minister, Charles Pasqua, was handed a one-year suspended prison sentence in connection to arms trafficking to the Angolan government in the 1990s, though the Constitutional Court acquitted him of two other corruption-related charges. France was ranked 25 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 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 have also faced difficulty covering unrest in the volatile suburbs. Reporters covering criminal cases or publishing material from confidential court documents have occasionally come under pressure by the courts to reveal sources. In September 2010, the domestic intelligence agency was allegedly used to uncover a Le Monde journalist's sources concerning leaks in the Woerth-Bettencourt case. Le Monde filed a complaint in November – which a judge rejected – after a public prosecutor was ordered to obtain a list of calls made by two of its journalists in connection with the Bettencourt case.

While internet access is generally unrestricted, a controversial 2009 law sanctions users who are found illegally downloading music and films. Those found in violation of this law will receive three warnings before their internet access is disconnected, with suspensions lasting up to a year. Repeat offenders could face heavy fines of up to EUR 300,000 (approximately $430,000) or three years in prison. The first warnings were issued in October 2010, with second warnings scheduled to begin in January 2011. According to the French record industry, 70 percent of people who received a first warning ceased to download illegally.

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 September 2010, the Senate nearly unanimously passed a bill banning clothing that covers the face, including the burqa and niqab, in public spaces. The ban, which was upheld by the Constitutional Council in October, was scheduled to go into effect in April 2011. Reportedly less than 400 women – mostly French converts – wear the full veil. Academic freedom is 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 been declining since 1980. 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 terrorism suspects can be detained for up to four days without charge. France has some of the most overcrowded prisons in Europe and suicides are common. To address such problems, a 2009 penitentiary law included alternatives to prison, such as parole and electronic bracelets.

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 woefully underrepresented in leadership positions in both the private and public sectors. Recent studies have shown that applicants with foreign (and especially Islamic) names remain disadvantaged in the hiring process. The government initiated a "debate" on national identity in the fall of 2009, which quickly evolved into a political discussion of Islam and diversity. The debate led to several new measures in April 2010, such as distributing a "citizens' handbook" to every schoolchild, requiring that all schools fly the French flag, introducing classes for immigrant parents, and increasing language and civic commitment requirements for immigrants.

During 2010, France deported at least 8,000 Roma to Bulgaria and Romania and dismantled over 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. The European Commission strongly criticized the deportations and began infringement procedures for failure to properly implement EU law related to internal migration.

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. 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. Women hold only 18 percent of seats in the legislature, and 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 (civil pact of solidarity, or PACS) 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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