U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - France

  France is a democratic republic with constitutional provisions for human rights, freely functioning political parties, regular elections, and universal suffrage. The military and security apparatus consists of the three traditional military services, a 91,000-strong gendarmerie (national police/paramilitary force), and police forces in major cities. These forces are under civilian control and generally are highly professional. France has a developed and diversified economy and a skilled labor force. It has substantial agricultural resources and a modern industrial system based on a mixture of public and private enterprises. The authorities generally respect human rights and civil liberties, which are provided for by the 1958 Constitution. Instances of individual wrongdoing by police or other officials are generally investigated and dealt with according to law. Responsibility for encouraging respect for human rights in France and its overseas departments and territories is shared among several senior officials, including the Minister of State for Social and Urban Affairs; the Minister of Foreign Affairs; and the Minister-Delegate for Humanitarian Action and Human Rights. The Government has consistently condemned and pursued perpetrators of sporadic acts of violence against ethnic and religious minorities and of discrimination against such groups. In 1993 a lively debate arose over how best to control illegal immigration while preserving fundamental human rights and civil liberties. The final text of the constitutional amendment (ratified in November) to accomplish this reform preserves the basic right to political asylum. However, under its terms the Government will no longer be obligated to review requests from individuals whose applications have already been reviewed and rejected by other European Community members that have signed the intergovernmental Shengen Accord, aimed at promoting the free movement of people among the signatory countries. Some human rights groups, including the French chapter of Amnesty International, criticized the removal of the obligation to consider all requests for political asylum.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

French authorities do not engage in political killing. In instances of extrajudicial killing from excessive use of force, there are well-established means for legal redress. In April there were three instances in which police officers apparently used excessive force in the shootings of three minority suspects, two of which resulted in fatalities. In these cases, one policeman was charged with involuntary manslaughter, one with voluntary manslaughter, and the other remains under investigation. None of these three cases was concluded by year's end.

b. Disappearance

French authorities do not engage in abduction or secret arrests.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are forbidden by law and are generally prosecuted. In the occasional instances of alleged police brutality, administrative and judicial mechanisms exist for determining guilt and punishing transgressors. The Council of Europe Commission on the Prevention of Torture released a report in January urging the Government to tighten its procedures to protect those in custody. The study, conducted in 1991 with the Government's cooperation, found that suspects ran a "not inconsiderable risk of being mistreated" while in police detention. According to the report, mistreatment included such abuse as detainees being struck by fists, subjected to psychological pressure, and denied food or medicine. At the same time, the Commission said that it found no indications of serious mistreatment or torture. The report also criticized two prisons, at Nice and Baumettes, for being overcrowded and lacking activity programs. It concluded that prison conditions were inhuman and degrading. The Government responded that, since the report's release, it had reduced overcrowding at both prisons and had opened a new prison near Nice.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

French law provides for freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. No direct equivalent of habeas corpus exists in the legal system, but cases must be referred to a magistrate for investigation within 4 days; 2 days for drug and terrorism cases. A Penal Code introduced in 1993 is intended to strengthen the rights of the defendants. Under the Code, suspects are required to be informed of their rights in a language they understand. The Government published an explanatory brochure in eight languages to be given to those in custody. The Code guarantees a suspect the right of immediate access to a physician and access to an attorney within 20 hours, immediately in the case of those below the age of 16. Pretrial confinement in the case of felonies is not limited. This pretrial period can be lengthy, depending upon the seriousness and complexity of the case. Evidence is gathered and assessed by an independent examining judge. Defendants are free to request and present evidence during this investigatory period. The judiciary plays a determining role in the detention process. French authorities are not reported to have detained any person for political reasons. No provisions for exile exists. French judicial practice in narcotics cases commonly assesses a "customs fine" in addition to a jail sentence. These fines are based on estimates of the "value" of the contraband and tend to exceed by far any financial assets of the convicted smuggler. Upon conclusion of the mandated jail sentence, a prisoner is not released unless he has paid the fine. Those who cannot pay the fine – the bulk of those affected – are then kept in detention under a legal stipulation that might reasonably be considered arbitrary. The length of the detention is not specific but depends on the whims of customs officials, who use the threat of continued detention to extract the largest possible partial settlement from the detained prisoner and his or her family. The upper limit of such detention is 2 years.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The right to fair public trial is provided by law and respected in practice. The new Penal Code reinforced the presumption of innocence by introducing several major innovations. The concept of indictment, which in France was often incorrectly viewed as synonymous with guilt, was abandoned. Further, should the State determine that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges, a suspect may demand publication of that decision in newspapers or on television. For misdemeanors, pretrial confinement – which is very rare – is limited normally to 4 months, with extensions in special circumstances of approximately 8 to 12 months. Although all drug-related crimes are technically classified as misdemeanors, those convicted of serious narcotics offenses are subject to penalties otherwise reserved for felonies. Those found guilty of some drug offenses may be sentenced to up to 20 years' imprisonment. Trials are normally open and public, but provisions exist for the defense to request a closed proceeding. All felonies are tried before juries, and a defendant does not have the right to refuse a jury trial. The press has free access to records of court proceedings, although the prosecutor may not disclose information about cases being tried or investigated. French law provides for the right of appeal for those convicted of misdemeanors. Those convicted of felonies may appeal to the Court of Cassation only on procedural grounds. The 1992 Country Report cited a case in which the former National Assembly President was accused of influence peddling in his former capacity as Socialist Party treasurer. The official subsequently filed suit against the judge, claiming that the indictment was politically motivated. That case had not been heard at year's end; the official was reelected to public office. France has no political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

French law provides for freedom from invasion of privacy, and this freedom is respected in practice. The search of a private residence may be carried out by police if there is reason to believe a crime is taking place within. The search may be carried out only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., except in special circumstances, such as in drug cases, when the search may be undertaken at any time. Telephone conversations may be monitored by authority of a court order in conjunction with criminal proceedings. However, no court order is required in national security cases.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Freedom of speech and press are guaranteed by law and respected in practice. Newspapers and magazines are free of government control and present views ranging across the political spectrum. Under French law, high government officials may seek to sue media representatives for defamation. In practice, this provision is rarely invoked and does not interfere with free expression. There are three state-owned and three private television networks, in addition to private cable channels. Hundreds of private radio stations offer a wide array of independent, uncensored programming in French and several other languages. No censorship of books or other publications occurs. Academic freedom of expression is respected in both public and private academic institutions.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of peaceful assembly and association is widely respected, although – except for a specific reference to trade unions – it is not mentioned in the Constitution. Groups wishing to organize public meetings, protest marches, or demonstrations must declare their intent to do so to local authorities. Normally these authorities raise no objection to either political or nonpolitical gatherings. While the decision to deny permission for a demonstration rests within the discretion of local officials, a denial may be appealed to the Council of State. Private associations, whether political or apolitical, must register with the prefecture in the department in which they are established, but they do not require the prefecture's authorization to exist. Such registration is considered routine in France. Informal associations, such as those without officers, bylaws, or dues, need not register.

c. Freedom of Religion

All religions are tolerated. Roman Catholics are by far the largest religious group. Separation of church and state is guaranteed by law, although both private and parochial schools receive substantial subsidies from the Ministry of National Education. In keeping with the secular nature of French public school, it is forbidden to wear religious symbols. This law conflicts with the desire of some Muslim girls to wear headscarves, and four girls were denied entry to one school for insisting on wearing the scarves. Some Muslim groups consequently claimed that the girls were being denied the right to practice their religion.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. All lawful resident aliens, including refugees, may undertake foreign travel and, in most instances, return to France. France has a long history as a haven for refugees and political asylum seekers. Thus, there was considerable debate concerning a proposed law designed to control illegal immigration. A key element of the law would have permitted France to refuse asylum requests from individuals whose cases had previously been reviewed and found without merit by other European Community signatories of the Schengen Accord. After the Constitutional Court ruled in August that this measure was unconstitutional, the Government decided to initiate a revision that will preserve the basic right of political asylum while bringing the Constitution in line with the Schengen Accord. The revision was adopted by the French Government in November. In another action reflecting France's growing concern about illegal immigration and asylum abuse, the Government approved a law in May amending France's nationality code. The measure restricts the right of those born in France of non-French parents to claim French citizenship. Previous law provided that citizenship be immediately accorded to those born in France when they turned 18. Under the new law, which applies retroactively to those born before its enactment, applicants will have to apply for citizenship when they are between 16 and 21 years of age. It is expected that the new provision will be largely a bureaucratic formality, except for those applicants who have been convicted of major crimes and could thereby be ruled ineligible for citizenship.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

French citizens have the right and ability to change their government by peaceful means, not only through the election of the President, the National Assembly, and local officials, but also through amendment of the Constitution by means of national referendum. While the French do not entirely accept the notion of "indigenous" peoples, an attempt is made to take local traditions into account within the administration of some French overseas territories where distinct ethnic groups have preserved such traditions and customs. Varying special statutes – applicable to all citizens resident within the respective territories, regardless of ethnic origin – govern the "collective territory" of Mayotte and the territories of French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia. The citizens of these territories determine their legal and political relationships to France by means of referendums. In spite of differences in their respective administrative statutes – and resulting differences in local government entities – French citizens within the territories participate fully in the political process, electing both deputies and senators to the French Parliament. All French citizens who have reached the age of 18 may vote, except for most convicted criminals, bankrupt persons, and persons certified to be mentally incompetent. These provisions are fully respected in practice. Within France itself, the Government has over the years granted greater local autonomy to the Basques and to Corsica, while resisting isolated calls for independence. The French President (who serves as Head of State) is directly elected every 7 years through a system of universal suffrage. France has a bicameral parliamentary system with a National Assembly and a Senate. Representatives to the National Assembly are directly elected every 5 years, unless the Government is dissolved, in which case elections may be called sooner. Senators are elected through a system of indirect elections and serve 9-year terms. Voting is by secret ballot. The Prime Minister (Head of Government) is selected from the parliamentary majority by the President. France has an open multiparty system. National legislative elections in March replaced the Socialist government, elected in 1988, with a center-right coalition. A wide variety of political parties compete freely in regularly scheduled national and local elections. Many special interest groups – business, labor, veterans, consumer advocates, ecologists, and others – organize freely and regularly support candidates for elective office. There are no restrictions in law on the participation of women in government and politics. Women are active in all facets of French politics but political and social tradition has resulted in lower percentages of women than men being elected to public office, especially at the national level. In 1993, 3 of 30 cabinet members, 16 of 320 senators, and 35 of 573 deputies in the lower house were women. In an effort to advance women's political prospects, some parties have established quotas to guarantee women a certain number of positions on electoral lists or in party management.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of local and international human rights organizations operate freely in France. The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, which monitors complaints and advises the Government on policies and legislation, is an independent body within the Prime Minister's Office.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

Statutes ban discrimination based on race, religion, sex, ethnic background, or political opinion.


The Government strongly condemns and vigorously attempts to prevent violence and abuse against women, and such violence, including wife beating, is prohibited under the Penal Code. In 1992 a law was added to the Code providing penalties of up to 1 year in prison and up to approximately $20,000 in fines for supervisors convicted of sexually harassing employees. While the law requires that women receive equal pay for equal work, this requirement is not met in many cases. Women's rights groups actively lobby for full implementation of equal rights statutes and seek solutions to the increasingly publicized phenomenon of violence against women.


The Government devotes a significant portion of its expenditures to children's welfare. In addition to direct expenditures for health and education, it assists families with children through a number of allowances. Some, but not all, allowances are based on family income. There are strict laws against child abuse, particularly when committed by a parent or guardian. Associations exist to help minors seek justice in cases of mistreatment by parents. Under a law that prohibits harming children, the Government has brought criminal charges against those who perform female genital mutilation, Over the past 10 years, there have been 15 trials involving more than 30 families. In November the Government launched a public information campaign against the practice, which included hanging posters in maternity clinics, doctors' offices, social centers, and public housing that warned female sexual mutilation is punishable by imprisonment.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Anti-immigrant sentiment continued to provoke incidents of racism, including occasional attacks by "skinheads", directed at the large Arab/Muslim and black African immigrant communities, as well as at the Jewish population. The Government and a wide spectrum of public opinion have consistently condemned such incidents. The law since 1991 has required that the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights publish an annual report on "The Struggle Against Racism and Xenophobia." According to the latest report, issued in March, that polls indicated that 89 percent of French citizens interviewed believed that racial discrimination was a "fairly" or "very" widespread problem in France. The report also found, however, that the actual number of racial and anti-Semitic attacks had fallen in comparison with the previous year. In September the Minister of Interior announced the creation of a national organization charged with fighting racism. Coordinated by the Interior Ministry, the group is to include government Cabinet ministers and members of the National Assembly as well as representatives from churches and antiracist organizations. The effort is to include similar organizations at the department level. The Minister of Interior at the same time called for a ban on neo-Nazi and other racist organizations. At year's end, no governmental action had been taken on this recommendation. Arbitrary identity checks by French police officers of members of minority groups sometimes have a tendency to transform blacks and people from the Maghreb countries into "suspects." While any individual in France is subject to identity checks, some human rights groups claim that members of minorities are stopped for questioning more frequently than those of nonminorities. The Government seeks to encourage immigrants to adopt French traditions, laws, and language. Anything that emphasizes cultural and religious differences, e.g., the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls (see Section 2.c.) is seen as working against integration and French cultural homogeneity. The French assert the primacy of the French language in the educational system.

Religious Minorities

A number of Muslim and Jewish graves were desecrated during 1993. Approximately 20 arrests were made. In February President Mitterrand issued a decree establishing a National Remembrance Day in memory of anti-Semitic persecution committed under the Vichy Government of 1940-44. President Mitterrand resisted calls to issue an apology to French Jews on the grounds that the Vichy regime was not the "true" French government during the war, but he decided this year no longer to lay an Armistice Day wreath at the grave of World War I hero and Vichy leader Marshal Petain. Addressing questions relating to France's Vichy past remains difficult for many government officials and much of French society. Former French police official Rene Bousquet was assassinated on June 8 while awaiting trial for "crimes against humanity." In 1942 Bousquet organized the roundup of more than 12,000 French Jews and their deportation to concentration camps. His assassin was an apparently unbalanced publicity-seeking Frenchman who was arrested shortly thereafter. No Vichy official has yet been tried and condemned in French courts for crimes against humanity, but the courts cleared the way in October for Paul Touvier, a pro-Nazi militia officer accused of ordering the murder of Jewish prisoners in 1944, to stand trial in 1994. There are approximately 3 million Muslims in France, nearly one third of whom are French citizens. The Government created the Council for the Reflection of Islam in France in 1990 to help integrate Muslims into French society.

People with Disabilities

A wide range of legislation provides protection for people with disabilities. An extensive program exists to provide special education to those with physical or mental disabilities and to assist those with emotional problems. Financial aid is provided to families with students who need daily care. Handicapped persons over the age of 20 are eligible to receive support payments from the Government as well as reductions in their income tax. Since 1988 France has mandated that disabled persons make up at least 6 percent of all public and private enterprises with 20 or more employees. The Government will in some cases reimburse employers up to 20 percent of the costs of employing someone who is handicapped. A recent government study found that many firms are not complying with this requirement and recommended strict enforcement mechanisms. In 1991 the Government legislated that new public buildings be made accessible to the physically handicapped. However, the great majority of existing buildings were constructed before that date, and it remains difficult or impossible for people using wheelchairs to enter them.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Freedom of association for all trade unions and workers is provided by the Constitution. Although less than 10 percent (12 to 15 percent for the public sector; 5 to 6 percent for the private sector) of the total work force is unionized, trade unions exercise significant economic and political influence. They do so primarily through professional works councils and legally mandated roles (shared with employers) in administering social institutions. These include social security (health care and most retirement systems), the unemplyment insurance system, labor courts, and the Economic and Social Council, a constitutionally manadated consultative body. Most unions pride themselves on not being aligned with any political party, and all are careful to avoid being stigmatized as government influenced. However, many of the leaders of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and its unions belong to the Communist Party. Tradition prevents union officials from holding office in political parties, but leaders of most non-CGT unions are supporters of the Socialist Party. Supporters of other parties are also active in the labor movement. The unions' international activities are not restricted, and all three world trade union confederations have French affiliates. French workers, including civil servants, are free to strike, with a few exceptions in cases where strikes are determined to be a threat to public safety. Given that one-fourth of the salaried population works for the Government, the numerous public sector strikes receive extensive coverage. Following a 2-week Air France strike in November, the airline was forced to cancel plans to implement a restructuring program that reportedly would have cost 4,000 jobs. Legal prohibitions exist against retribution toward strikers or strike leaders and are effectively enforced. In fact, the Government last year did not even censure prison guards who struck illegally.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers, including those in the three small export processing zones, have the right to organize and bargain collectively. French law strictly prohibits antiunion discrimination. Amendments added in 1982 require at least annual bargaining in the public and private sector on wages, hours, and working conditions at both plant and industry levels. The 1982 law does not require that negotiations result in a signed contract. Outside mediators, drawn from the upper ranks of the civil service, may impose solutions that are binding unless formally rejected by either side within a week. If no new agreement can be reached, the contract from the previous year remains valid. Over 80 percent of France's private sector work force is covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated at national or local levels. Trilateral consultations also take place on such subjects as the minimum wage, temporary work, social security, and unemployment benefits. Labor tribunals of worker and employer representatives are available to resolve complaints. Employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The law requires that businesses with more than 50 employees have a works council, in which workers are consulted on training, working conditions, profit-sharing, and similar issues. Works councils, which are open to both union and nonunion employees, are elected every 2 years. Trade union rights, as provided for in the Constitution, extend to France's overseas departments and territories. Social benefits, such as the minimum wage or supplemental retirement payments, may be reduced in the overseas departments and territories to take into account the local economies.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law, and this prohibition is effectively enforced. In its 1993 report, however, the International Labor Organization's Committee of Experts questioned the French practice of obliging French prisoners to work for private enterprises at less than the national minimum wage.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

With a few exceptions for those enrolled in recognized apprenticeship programs, children under the age of 16 may not be employed. Generally, work considered arduous or work between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. may not be performed by minors under the age of 18. Laws prohibiting child employment are effectively enforced through periodic checks by labor inspectors.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

France has an administratively determined minimum wage, revised whenever the cost-of-living index rises 2 percentage points, and it is sufficient to provide a decent standard of living to a worker and family. The wage was administratively adjusted to 34.83 francs in July, approximately $5.90 at the end of the year. The legal workweek is 39 hours. In an effort to increase employment, overtime is restricted to 9 hours per week. The previously discriminatory law prohibiting women from performing arduous or night work, except in certain exempted categories such as hospitals and a few service industries, was revoked in 1992. In this regard, France joined other European Community signatories in denouncing the ILO Convention 89 banning night work for women, and in adhering to the new nondiscriminatory ILO Convention 171 on night work. The Ministry of Labor has overall responsibility for policing occupational safety and health laws. Standards are generally high and well enforced. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous work situations. To assist the Ministry, the law requires that any enterprise with 50 or more employees have an occupational health and safety committee; 78 percent of all enterprises, covering 80 percent of employees, had such committees as of 1991.

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