Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System Overview: The French Republic, known as the Fifth Republic, has a hybrid form of government with elements of both presidential and parliamentary systems. The French system features a prime minister and a president who are both active participants in the day-to-day functioning of government. The system differs from a typical parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected president who is not a ceremonial figurehead, and it differs from a presidential system in that it has an executive prime minister who has some answerability to the legislature. France’s current institutions are governed by the constitution of the Fifth Republic, which was approved by popular referendum in 1958. This constitution significantly strengthened the power of the executive authorities (the president and the government) and curtailed the authority of the legislature. Prior to 1958, France had a weak executive and suffered from government instability; during the Fourth Republic’s 12-year existence, there were 26 different governments.

Executive Branch: Under the system forged by Charles de Gaulle, which remains largely in place, France has a strong, stable executive at the center of power. The French constitution gives executive authority to both the president and the prime minister. The president, who presides from the Elysée Palace, is the official head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The president is elected by direct universal suffrage to a five-year term of office, a term shortened by two years in 2002. The president is not term-limited. The prime minister, the head of government, is nominated by the National Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, and appointed by the president. The prime minister leads the Council of Ministers or cabinet, whose members are not necessarily parliamentarians. The president appoints the cabinet on the recommendation of the prime minister. According to the power division that has evolved as a politcal convention, the president is mainly responsible for foreign policy and national defense and the prime minister for domestic policy. The governing process can be complicated in periods of so-called “cohabitation,” in which the prime minister and president, who are elected separately, are from rival parties.

One of the president’s most important powers is the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call new legislative elections. The president is also authorized to submit certain policy matters, e.g., European Union treaties, to national referenda. The prime minister retains significant authority as the leader of the majority party or coalition in the National Assembly. The balance of power between the president and prime minister depends on which party holds sway in the legislature. When the president has the strong support of a parliamentary majority, the prime minister tends to serve as a deputy of the president. When the president’s party is in the minority, the president still appoints a prime minister from a party in the majority coalition. This results in a power-sharing arrangement⎯cohabitation⎯in which the president and prime minister tend to check each other’s influence. The first episode of cohabitation occurred under Socialist president François Mitterrand, from 1986 to 1988, after the Socialist Party lost its majority in the National Assembly. In 1997 President Jacques Chirac lost his conservative majority in the National Assembly, leading to a period of cohabitation with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Legislative Branch: France has a bicameral legislature, with a National Assembly of 577 members and a Senate of 321 members (296 for metropolitan France, 13 for overseas departments and territories, and 12 for French nationals abroad). Under a 2003 law, to reflect demographic changes, the number of senators will increase to 346 by 2010.

Members (deputies) of the National Assembly, the principal legislative body, are directly elected to five-year terms in single-member electoral constituencies by a two-ballot system; all seats are voted on in each election. Senators, whose term was shortened from nine to six years in 2004, are elected indirectly through an electoral college consisting of elected officials in each department (roughly, state). The system introduces a rural, conservative bias in the composition of the Senate. However, the Senate’s legislative powers are in practice limited. When the two houses of the legislature disagree, the final decision rests with the National Assembly.

Under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, the legislature’s powers were reduced compared to those existing under the Fourth Republic. The agenda of the legislature is strongly influenced by the government, which can demand an up-or-down vote on legislation or even win its adoption without an actual vote. The president can dissolve the National Assembly before the end of its five-year term, as has happened five times since the inauguration of the Fifth Republic. At the same time, despite its diminished powers, the National Assembly can cause the government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure.

Judicial Branch: The most distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that it has two main branches, each with a hierarchy of appellate courts. One branch⎯the administrative order of courts⎯hears administrative cases (litigation involving disputes over government regulations or against public bodies). Another branch⎯the judicial or ordinary order of courts⎯hears civil and criminal cases.

Most cases involving administrative bodies or rules are heard initially by administrative tribunals. Appeals of decisions can move up through a series of courts, at the apex of which is the Council of State, a tribunal founded by Napoléon Bonaparte. The Council of State, which sits in the Palais Royal, is the final court of appeal on the legality of administrative acts or executive decisions. The council has the power to quash governmental decisions and regulations if they do not conform to applicable constitutional or statutory law, or to general principles of French law.

In the judicial or ordinary order of courts, the lower courts are of two main types, the civil courts and the criminal courts. The civil courts judge conflicts between persons or between persons and corporations. The criminal courts judge minor legal infractions (contraventions) and graver offenses (délits). Felonies are tried in assize courts (cours d’assises), the only courts with trial by jury. From the lower civil and criminal courts alike, appeals may be taken to appeals courts (cours d’appel), of which there were 27 in 2003. Judgments of the appeals courts and the assize courts are final, except that appeals on the interpretation of the law or points of procedure may be taken to the highest of the judicial courts, the Court of Cassation or the Supreme Court of Appeals in Paris.

Several specialized courts also exist. In the ordinary order of courts are, for example, commercial courts, industrial courts, and social security courts. In addition, there are high courts empowered to try crimes of a political nature by the president or misconduct by members of the government.

Administrative Divisions: Traditionally a strongly centralized state, France had two levels of subnational government dating back to the French Revolution, municipalities and departments. Each of the departments was headed by a prefect appointed by the central government. Since the mid-1980s, France has been decentralizing authority, creating a third, regional level of administration and providing for the first time for the direct election of regional councils. The three levels of administration now include 36,763 municipalities (communes), 100 departments, and 26 regions. The regions, which often roughly correspond to France’s prerevolutionary provinces, group the departments and have jurisdiction over planning, development, vocational training and upper secondary educational institutions (lycées). The departments⎯96 in metropolitan France and four overseas (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion, and French Guiana)⎯have authority over health care, social entitlements, and lower secondary education (collèges). Each department has both a prefect and an elected assembly. Each municipality has an elected council and a mayor. The mayor is elected locally but also represents the French state.

Judicial and Legal System: France has a system of civil law, which, in the tradition of coded Roman law, calls for applying statutes as written, rather than relying on case law and legal precedent. The legal system is a descendant of an extensive collection of laws drafted under the direction of Napoléon Bonaparte, the Code Napoléon. Current legislation must conform to the Constitution of the Fifth Republic of 1958 and to treaties, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights (accepted by treaty).

France’s Constitutional Council, a new body established by the 1958 constitution, is the country’s forum for constitutional review of legislation. Constitutional challenges may be raised to legislation during the period between its passage and promulgation (signature of the president). Such challenges may be brought by the president, the prime minister, the president of the Senate, the president of the National Assembly, 60 senators, or 60 deputies. Once promulgated, French legislation is not subject to judicial review. In recent years, challenges have been raised to aspects of France’s antiterrorism legislation.

The core of the legal system is a body of civil servants, the magistrates. Trained and selected at the national school for magistrates, the magistrates are mainly of two groups, judges (and assisting lawyers) and prosecutors. Judges, although civil servants, enjoy special statutory protection from the executive. They may not be transferred without their consent. Their careers are overseen by the High Council of the Magistracy. Prosecutors, on the other hand, respond to the minister of justice in the executive branch. This organizational position of prosecutors regularly arouses the suspicion that they have been pressured to drop litigation against politicians suspected of corruption.

Legal tradition since the Napoléonic era has always given prosecutors strong powers. In 2004 the National Assembly passed a sweeping anticrime law that decreased the powers of judges and further augmented those of prosecutors, whose job is to convict, as well as the powers of the police. The controversial law’s hundreds of revisions to the penal code enhanced police and prosecutorial powers to conduct surveillance and to detain and question suspects without charges and legal counsel. The exceptional powers for the police and prosecutors under the law are said to be aimed not at common crime but at organized criminal activities related to drug trafficking, terrorism, assassination, pimping, money laundering, illegal immigration, and torture. The new law has been seen as a political move on the part of the center-right to neutralize the far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which takes a hard line on crime.

Notwithstanding the growing stringency of France’s penal system and code, the death penalty, abolished in 1981, is not among the sentencing options that mainstream politicians contemplate.

Electoral System: Suffrage in France, extended to women in 1944, is now universal at age 18. The country has a two-round voting system for the National Assembly and president. Runoff elections are required if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Candidates who win at least 12.5 percent of the first-round vote are eligible to run in the second round. The next presidential election will be in April and May 2007, followed by the next election for deputies of the National Assembly in June 2007.

As a requirement of European Union (EU) membership, the French parliament approved a constitutional amendment allowing citizens of EU member countries who are residents in France to vote in elections for seats on France’s municipal councils. The same group may also vote to fill France’s seats in the European Parliament, the representative assembly of the EU. Citizens of any EU country can be elected to a French municipal council or to a French seat in the European Parliament, but they may not serve as mayors.

Politics and Political Parties: For the past 25 years, France’s government has alternated between two relatively stable party coalitions. On the left is a coalition led by the French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste—PS) and including minor members such as the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français—PCF), as well as The Greens (Les Verts) and the Left Radical Party (Parti Radical de Gauche—PRG). On the center-right is the current ruling coalition led by the Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire—UMP)⎯called Union for a Presidential Majority when first formed in 2002. The UMP was formed from a merger of the main center-right party, Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République—RPR), and a minor partner, the bulk of the Union for Democracy (Union pour la Démocratie Française—UDF), as well as the small Liberal Democracy (Démocratie Libérale—DL) party.

Other minor parties have some representatives, for example, Rally for France and the Independence of Europe (Rassemblement pour la France et l'Indépendance de l'Europe—RpFIE) and Citizen and Republican Movement (Mouvement Républicain et Citoyen—MRC). However, it is difficult for parties outside the major coalitions to make significant electoral inroads. Despite these difficulties, the far-right National Front (Front National—FN) has periodically had sizable successes in elections since 1983. In the mid-1980s, because the incentives of France’s two-ballot electoral system favor inter-party alliances, the mainstream center-right parties flirted with a strategic alliance with the FN, but finally rejected it. Instead, the moderate right co-opted the FN’s positions by taking a harder line on immigration and law and order.

Prominent figures of the center-right parties at present are President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the center-right’s candidate for president in the 2007 election. Prominent figures on the left are the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who would be France’s first woman president, and François Hollande and Lionel Jospin, respectively, present and past heads of the Socialist Party.

Mass Media: French television is partly state-controlled and partly in private hands, with all television channels carrying advertising. Three channels—the flagship TF1, privatized in 1987, and the state-owned France 2 and France 3—typically account for about three-quarters of the total television audience. The growth of satellite and cable TV has led to a proliferation of channels, with the largest controlled by media giant Vivendi Universal. Other channels include the entertainment outlet Métropole 6 (M6), and the Franco-German channel, Arte, which broadcasts in both countries and languages. The international French-language channel TV5, co-financed by Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland, is available globally. French domestic TV channels have many viewers in Maghreb countries.

The leading radio outlets are RTL (Radio Télédiffusion Luxembourgoise) and Europe 1, both popular nationwide commercial stations, and France-Inter, the major French public radio network, and the all-news France Info, both part of Radio France. These radio outlets together account for more than one-third of the total radio audience. There are also numerous FM stations throughout the country. In addition, France’s international broadcasters have significant audiences abroad. Radio France Internationale is one of the world’s leading international stations⎯a kind of French World Service⎯with a widely heard Arabic-language offshoot, Radio Monte Carlo Moyen Orient.

France has more than 100 daily newspapers, most privately held and unaffiliated with political parties. The leading publications include the quality national daily newspapers, the highly regarded and best-selling Le Monde, with a center-left outlook (circulation 360,000); Le Figaro, with a right-of-center outlook (circulation 350,000); Libération, to the left of Le Monde; and La Croix. The two daily business newspapers are Les Echos (circulation 124,000 in 2001) and La Tribune (86,000). The sports daily, the famous L’Equipe, is also widely read (360,000 in 2001). The weekly news magazine with the largest circulation is Paris-Match (762,000 in 2000). Other major newsweeklies include L’Express and Le Point. France also has a strong regional daily press, the total circulation of which dwarfs that of the national press. The largest regional daily is Ouest-France in Rennes (773,000 in 2001). Another notable publication is the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, published in English.

Foreign Relations: Since World War II, France has played a leading international role, transforming itself from an major colonial power to the earliest and strongest advocate of European integration, as well as a strong supporter of broader international cooperation. France’s most important bilateral tie since the 1960s has been with Germany. France views Franco-German cooperation, as well as the development of an independent European defense capability, as the keys to enhanced European security. In the mid-1990s, relations between Paris and Berlin became somewhat strained when German reunification altered the two countries’ balance and Germany’s leaders were less prepared than their predecessors to subordinate Germany’s interests to French political leadership. Germany also sought to reduce its contributions to the European Union (EU) budget, a large share of which goes to subsidizing French agriculture. The two countries, leaving aside such frictions, took a common stand in opposing U.S.-led military action against Iraq in 2003.

France and the United States pursue parallel policies on most economic, political, and security issues and have a history of close cooperation, along with occasional strains. During the Cold War, tensions arose when France attempted to arbitrate between the United States and the Soviet Union. France also insisted on maintaining control of its nuclear arsenal, removing itself from the military leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to do so. Recent tensions arose in 2003 when France, unlike in the 1991 Gulf War, refused to back the use of force in Iraq. However, although France did not join the second U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, it joined the action in Afghanistan, contributed financially through the EU to Iraq reconstruction in 2003, and offered the Iraqi Interim Government assistance in the form of police training and debt relief. These actions have somewhat assuaged U.S. pique, as has the central role France has been playing in international efforts to combat terrorism. Some central figures in the Chirac administration, most notably, France’s first female defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, have made improved Franco-American relations a priority since the Iraq War.

In other regions of the world, France plays a significant role through commercial activities, extensive development assistance programs, and defense agreements. French influence is especially strong in francophone Africa and to a lesser extent in the Arab world. In the Middle East, France has been active in urging the establishment of a Palestinian state through a multilateral peace process and has provided significant assistance to the Palestinian Authority. France also has significant commercial and political relations in East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as growing participation in regional organizations there. In Southeast Asia, France was an architect of the 1991 Paris Accords, which ended the conflict in Cambodia. In China, France is currently stepping up commercial competition with U.S. business. In Latin America, France has actively backed efforts to restore democracy to Haiti.

Membership in Major International Organizations: A charter member of the United Nations (UN), France has held one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council since 1945 and is a member of most of the UN’s specialized and related agencies. France was a founding member of European Union (EU) in 1992 and of its several predecessor organizations, including the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Community (EC). France is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) or World Bank, and the International Labor Organization (ILO). The country initiated the annual meetings of the seven leading industrial countries, the Group of Seven (G7), and has often held the top posts in the international organizations to which it belongs. In the first half of the 1990s, French nationals served simultaneously at the head of the European Commission, the IMF, the OECD, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the secretariat of the Council of Europe (CE). In 2003 the presidency of the European Central Bank (ECB) also passed into French hands.

In addition to the main international organizations, France is a member of scores of others, including, to name a few categories, many organizations in regions where France was once a colonial power and organizations dedicated to cooperation in, for example, space, human rights, environmental protection, policing, and standard-setting for particular economic sectors. Placing a high priority on arms control and nonproliferation, France actively participates in the major supplier regimes that aim to restrict the transfer of essential technologies for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), e.g., the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group (for chemical and biological weapons), and the Missile Technology Control Regime. France takes an active part in the Proliferation Security Initiative and is engaged with the United States, both bilaterally and at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to curb WMD proliferation from North Korea, Iran, Libya, and elsewhere.

Major International Treaties: France is party to most of the major international treaties, accords, and conventions in many areas, for example, the environment, human rights, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. The environmental agreements include global and regional accords on the atmosphere, hazardous substances, marine resources, and living resources of the sea, freshwater, and land. In the area of human rights, France has acceded to most of the significant international treaties, for example: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Civil and Political Rights; Discrimination against Women; Torture; and Rights of the Child. France is also a state party to some 11 terrorism-related conventions, including on financing, bombing, plastic explosives, hostages, diplomatic agents, and the safety of air and maritime craft. France is a signatory to most accords on arms control and nuclear safety, for example, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; the Chemical Weapons Convention; the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction; the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; the Partial Test Ban Treaty; and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the case of the last three treaties, France was slow to become a signatory. France signed the last in 1996 only after completing the final one of its 210 nuclear tests. France is a key player in the adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe to the new strategic environment.


Armed Forces Overview: Possessing an independent nuclear deterrent capability since the early 1960s, France is perhaps second only to the United Kingdom (UK) as West Europe’s most powerful military force. France is also one of only three European countries, including the UK and Greece, that spend more that 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military. Like other Western countries in the aftermath of the Cold War, France has undertaken a major restructuring of its armed forces to develop a professional military that is smaller, more rapidly deployable, and better tailored for operations distant from France. Key elements of the restructuring included phasing out conscripts by 2002 in favor of an all-volunteer, technologically more intensive military force. In moving to a professional force, the French military was downsized by one-third between 1996 and 2002.

A total of 428,000 people work for the French Ministry of Defense (2005). This number includes 81,000 civilians and 347,000 military professionals in four main branches. The army comprises 39 percent (134,000 active military); the navy, 12 percent (43,000 active military); the air force, 17 percent (61,000 active military); and the Gendarmerie Nationale (a branch of the national police under military statute), 22 percent (about 100,000). The joint services and strategic nuclear forces make up another 10 percent. The reserves number about 100,000.

As France scales back and modernizes its force, it remains a key member of the Western system of alliances and institutions, and one of the largest contributors to the military capabilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. France also remains the strongest advocate of a credible, independent European defense capability.

Despite its reduced size, the French military has participated in numerous United Nations–mandated peacekeeping operations, most notably, in former Yugoslavia, as well as in humanitarian relief operations in, for example, Darfur and tsunami-ravished parts of Asia. It also maintains garrisons and naval bases around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Foreign Military Relations: In 1949 France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a regional defense alliance led by the trans-Atlantic partners. France has relied on NATO ever since, while also insisting on a degree of independence in military affairs. In 1966 France, wanting sole control of its nuclear weapons, withdrew its forces from NATO’s integrated military command structure, while remaining a member of NATO’s political councils. In 1995 France rejoined the military structure and has since worked actively to adapt NATO⎯internally and externally⎯to the post-Cold War environment. France is one of the major contributors to the NATO Reaction Force and, with about 4,000 troops, is the second largest member-state contributor to NATO operations, on a par with Italy and after Germany. Two French generals recently took command of the two major NATO forces, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and Kosovo Forces (KFOR).

France’s involvement with NATO has not prevented French leaders from formulating plans to create an exclusively European integrated military force as a security supplement to relieve NATO from participating in some regional crises. France and the European Union (EU) in general do not currently have the capabilities necessary to create forces independent of NATO. However, France firmly backs strengthening the security arm of the EU and is a strong advocate of the 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), to which France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) are to be the major contributors. France also supports the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other efforts at cooperation. In order to advance the creation of a European defense identity, France seeks to enhance the coordination of the French defense industry within a European framework and to give a more European dimension to nuclear deterrence, still the cornerstone of French defense strategy. Working with other European countries, most notably Germany and the UK, France has long supported naval cooperation and agreed in 2004 to set up joint battle groups. Outside of NATO and Europe, France has numerous military agreements with former colonies, especially nations in Africa.

External Threat: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation and expansion of the European Union, France has little reason to expect any state-led form of military aggression against its mainland. France’s main foreign intelligence service is the General Directorate for External Security (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure—DGSE).

Defense Budget: Among the larger European economies, France and the United Kingdom are the only significant spenders on defense. The two together account for 40 percent of European Union (EU) defense spending. Each spends well over 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), while most other EU countries spend less than 1.5 percent of GDP. In fiscal year 2007, France’s defense budget is expected to reach US$45 billion, a modest dollar increase from 2006 that will represent 2.6 percent of GDP. A declining share of France’s defense budget⎯now less than 10 percent⎯goes toward its nuclear force. For comparision with France’s military expenditiures, the U.S. defense budget in 2007 will reach about 3.2 percent of GDP and dollar figures that dwarf the spending of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners.

Major Military Units: As of 2006, France’s army had 14 brigades, including two armored, two mechanized infantry, and two light armored, and one each of artillery, mountain infantry, airborne, air mobile, engineering, signal, international/electronic warfare, and French/German brigades. The army also includes regiments of the Foreign Legion, Marines, and Special Operations Forces. The navy, organized into commands, has the nuclear command, five territorial commands, and six organic commands for different kinds of ships. The navy also includes ground security and aviation units. The air force is divided into four commands: air signals and ground environment, air combat, air mobility, and air training.

Major Military Equipment: In 2006 the army had 926 main battle tanks; 1,809 reconnaissance vehicles; 601 armored infantry fighting vehicles; 4,413 armored personnel carriers; 787 artillery pieces; 1,195 antitank guided weapons; 455 air defense guns; 393 helicopters; and 68 unmanned aerial vehicles. The navy had six tactical and four nuclear submarines, one aircraft carrier (the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle), one helicopter carrier, 13 destroyers, 20 frigates, 36 patrol and coastal vessels, 21 mine warfare vessels, 10 amphibious vessels, and 23 support vessels. The navy also had 84 combat aircraft, including 30 armed helicopters. The air force had 478 combat aircraft, including 340 Mirage fighter aircraft; 28 helicopters; and four unmanned aerial vehicles.

France remains committed to the maintenance and continuous modernization of a relatively strong nuclear deterrent capability. In its strategic nuclear forces, France currently has roughly 350 nuclear warheads in two nuclear weapons systems, air-based and sea-based. The third, land-based system was removed from service after the Cold War-era threat from the Eastern Bloc dissolved. In the sea-based system, there are four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) equipped with 64 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with six warheads each. The air-based system consists of 60 Mirage 2000N and 28 Super Étendard aircraft equipped with a total of 60–90 medium-range air-to-surface missiles with single warheads. France intends eventually to replace all of its Mirage aircraft with the Rafale, its new multipurpose fighter-bomber, whose roles will include the delivery of both conventional and nuclear weapons. The Rafale program calls for 234 aircraft for the air force and 60 for the navy.

Military Service: Conscription, a feature of French life for more than a century, was phased out and finally ended in 2002, when France completed its move to all-professional armed forces. Despite the end of conscription, young people⎯both males and females⎯must still register for possible conscription. The age for voluntary military service is 17 years of age with parental consent or age 18. In 2005 males in the age cohort of 17 to 49 numbered 13,676,509, and those judged fit for military service numbered 11,262,661. Males who reached military age during 2005 numbered 389,204.

Paramilitary Forces: In addition to the regular armed forces, France maintains its paramilitary Gendarmerie Nationale, one of the police system’s two branches. The gendarmerie is an integrated part of the national military organization and supported by the defense budget. The gendarmerie exercises police authority in rural and small urban areas, while the non-military branch of the police, the National Police, has jurisdiction over urban areas with more than 10,000 people. The gendarmerie, 101,399 strong, including 7,250 women, is the only part of the military that has recently increased in size. From 1990 to 2004, France’s regular military forces lost nearly 43 percent of personnel, while the gendarmerie gained more than 13 percent. Increasing the relative weight of the gendarmerie in the overall array of the uniformed armed forces reflects the growing priority that the government places on the nation’s internal security and, in particular, on combating terrorism. The paramilitary gendarmerie is the organization in France ultimately responsible for homeland security. Much of the increase in the military budget of 2003–8, an increase slated to reinforce the French military’s capacity to fight terrorism, was devoted to bolstering the gendarmerie. The extra funds for the gendarmerie will be applied to renewing the vehicle fleet⎯with the replacement of 122 VBRGs (gendarmerie wheeled armored vehicle)⎯and additional surveillance, intervention, and rescue helicopters, as well as improved computer systems.

Military Forces Abroad: France has traditionally had a large military presence abroad. Currently, about 34,000 troops are assigned outside of metropolitan France. Somewhat more than half of these troops are deployed to meet prepositioning requirements, maintaining garrisons and naval bases around the world, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. France maintains permanent military bases in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, and Senegal. The remaining 13,000 to 16,000 troops deployed overseas take part⎯often in leading roles⎯in peacekeeping/coalition operations under international or defense agreements. As one of five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, France is a frequent volunteer for peacekeeping operations. French troops participate as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or of coalitions in stabilization efforts mandated by UN resolutions, or, on occasion, operate under the Eurocorps flag. Such actions are currently taking place in Africa, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, with some addressing humanitarian crises, such as in Darfur. To address crises, France deployed military forces to Côte d’Ivoire in 2002, to the Central African Republic in 2003, and, with European Union (EU) partners, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003. In 2004 it deployed military forces to monitor the Chad–Sudan border.

The French have been among the strongest supporters of NATO and EU policy in the Balkans. France is the largest contributor of troops in Kosovo, with 2,380 troops, or almost 14 percent of Kosovo Forces (KFOR). France has been the second largest partner of the United States in Afghanistan after Germany. French contributions include its Charles de Gaulle carrier battle group and 1,800 troops.

Despite foreign policy disagreements over Iraq, France and the United States remain strong partners in advancing security throughout the world. For example, 10,000 French forces in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific monitor sea-lanes. In another example, 7,000 French troops in the Caribbean area and French Guiana work closely with the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South to counter drug trafficking. France is also a full partner in the U.S.-initiated Proliferation Security Initiative and offers numerous training exercises.

Police: France is one of the most policed states in the world, with approximately 394 public personnel per 100,000 inhabitants. The French system of policing, like many others in Europe, differs significantly from that of the United States, which features city police departments. The French police are a national force led by chiefs in Paris. In the provinces, police forces answer not to mayors but to the regional administrators known as prefects. The policing system is composed of two separate organizations, the civilian National Police and the military gendarmerie, as well as one further component, the Directorate of Territorial Security (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire—DST). The minister of interior controls the National Police and the DST and exercises operational control over the gendarmerie.

The National Police, with its 180,000 employees, operates mostly in large cities and towns as a general-purpose police force. It conducts security operations, such as patrols and traffic control, and, under the supervision of the judiciary, its “judiciary police” carries out criminal inquiries. The gendarmerie, when operating in civil contexts, conducts general policing in rural areas.

The intelligence arm of the police, the DST, which has no real U.S. equivalent, descended from the political police of Napoléonic times. Once engaged in spying on leftists and other suspect groups, it now conducts election analysis, monitors hooligans and casinos, and, most importantly, collects information on the interconnected threats of Islamist extremism and organized crime.

France’s anticrime law, passed in 2002, increases police numbers and expands police powers, lowering thresholds for stop-and search and for recording personal information in law enforcement databases. The law, although billed as aimed against serious crime, such as terrorism and organized crime, construes the latter broadly enough to include petty offenses such as begging.

Internal Threat: France’s current concerns about domestic security ⎯a central theme of elections in 2002⎯focus mainly on common crime and antisocial behavior, organized crime, and terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism. Since late 2005, the prospect of urban unrest also has become a matter of concern. At that time, widespread rioting erupted in France’s city outskirts and reached a scale not seen in France since the student-worker riots of 1968. In the several weeks of rioting in 2005, the children of mainly North African immigrants burned some 10,000 cars and community centers and schools in 300 urban areas—areas where unemployment is rampant among young males. The property destruction was extensive and led to nearly 3,000 arrests and an official state of emergency lasting until January 2006. These riots aroused more consternation than the usual politically charged actions arising out of France’s tradition of wildcat strikes, street demonstrations, and mass mobilization. Many interpreted the 2005 riots as evidence of the failure of French policies of immigration and integration, particularly of Muslims. A few even saw the riots as fueled by religion and hostile teachings in mosques. Others dismissed any causal connection to religion, blaming the mayhem simply on small numbers of gang leaders competing in destruction and in exploiting the social disaffection of other underclass youth. Whatever the interpretation, the riots ensured that law and order will be a central theme in the electoral campaigns of 2007, recalling the dominance of security concerns in the 2002 presidential election, when the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen polled a startling 17 percent in the first round of voting.

Another of France’s security concerns, crime, includes both ordinary crime and organized crime. The rate of common crime in France is about on a par with Europe’s generally low rates. However, the perception is widespread that crime is increasing, perhaps because, in urban areas, the level of reported crime involving guns is rising. A disproportionate share of common crime is committed by minority youth⎯Muslim and black⎯who make up half of the prison population. Organized crime also continues to plague France’s Mediterranean coast, with hotspots in Nice and Marseille for drug trafficking, robbery, and prostitution. Criminal activities, especially by organized groups, in turn have linkages with another major security concern, terrorism. Criminal activities such as the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and women and various forms of financial crime are sources of funding for radical Islamist groups.

France’s response to its security concerns has involved significant recent reforms in both its immigration and integration policies and in its legal regime and law enforcement apparatus. France continues to tighten its requirements for entry, stay, and naturalization in the country, while at the same time stepping up affirmative action for the underprivileged section of its population. In 2004 France passed a bill that makes it possible to deport non-citizens for inciting “discrimination, hatred, or violence” against any group. This law has been used to deport radical Muslim clerics. The country has also increased the already strong powers of the police and prosecutors under the law and reinforced the capabilities and interoperability of its intelligence agencies and counterterrorism units.

Terrorism: France’s concern with countering terrorism is of long standing. Since 1980, terrorist acts have been perpetrated on French soil by three types of groups, French radical leftists, European regional separatists (i.e., Corsican and Basque nationalists), and internationally linked Muslim militants. The radical leftists, never as threatening as similar groups in Germany and Italy, ceased to pose a problem by the late 1980s. Separatist terrorism made its latest major showing in the 1998 assassination of the highest French government official in Corsica and continues in small-scale attacks on vacation homes there. At present, international terrorism, specifically Middle Eastern and Muslim fundamentalist terrorism, remains the chief concern.

Over the course of the 1980s, France became the European country most affected by such international terrorism, with a dozen bombings in 1986 by Palestinian groups demanding the release of political prisoners. Since the 1990s, the international terrorist threat has evolved into a religious extremist threat. France became the target of radical Islamist networks linked with Algeria’s internal conflict and the most notorious Algerian terror faction, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé—GIA), part of Osama Bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based network. These Algerian Islamists attacked France for supporting the military-backed Algerian government, which abrogated the Islamists’ 1992 electoral victory in Algeria. Between 1993 and 1996, the GIA network assassinated 42 French expatriates (including Christian religious figures) in Algeria. In 1994 the GIA hijacked an Air France flight in Algiers with plans to crash it into the Eiffel Tower. In 1995 and 1996, the network detonated 10 bombs in public places.

In response to such threats, the French government has developed perhaps the strictest counterterrorism system in Europe, with antiterrorism laws that support preemptive arrests and an efficient intelligence apparatus that aggressively gathers and pools information on suspicious people and activities. Through this apparatus, France has played a central role in the world’s antiterrorism efforts since September 11, 2001.

France has three main services responsible for investigating terrorist threats, the Directorate of Territorial Security (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire—DST), under the Interior Ministry; the Central Directorate of General Information (Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux—DCRG or RG); and the National Antiterrorist Division (Division Nationale Antiterroriste—DNAT). The DST, formed in 1944 to counter espionage and political threats, is now the central security agency charged with countering the interconnected threats of organized crime and Islamist terrorism. Since 1995, the DST has deployed extensive wiretaps and used various human intelligence-gathering methods⎯some controversial⎯to keep informed of threats. The DST and the other intelligence services have built a large network of perhaps 10,000 informants throughout Muslim communities in France and abroad. The informants may receive money and legal favors, such as immigration papers and reduced prison sentences, in exchange for information about, for example, hate speech in mosques. The intelligence services feed a massive database of suspects or “persons of interest,” whose movements, acquaintances, and trips abroad are monitored. In an effort to quantify the threat that France faces, the DCRG developed a formula, as follows: in a given Muslim population in Europe, an average of 5 percent are fundamentalists, and up to 3 percent of those fundamentalists should be considered dangerous. By that calculation, France’s Muslim population of 6 million includes 300,000 fundamentalists, 9,000 of whom are potentially dangerous.

Through the data collection and clandestine monitoring of its various intelligence services, France has uncovered and dismantled Islamist networks on its soil, such as several groups that recruited terrorists for Iraq. From 2000 to 2005, the DST has been credited with thwarting terrorist acts in various stages of planning, with the arrests of several hundred involved militants.

Thwarted plots included planned attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Paris, on French tourist sites on Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and on other targets. Following the 2005 bombings in London, French officials worked closely with their British counterparts. They have also regularly aided counterterrorism investigators in other countries, including the United States. France also plays an active role in the United Nations Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee and the Group of Eight’s Counterterrorism Action Group.

Human Rights: The main human rights issues that currently arouse concern in France stem from the legal, judicial, and intelligence reforms that target terrorism. France’s antiterrorism regime now supports constant operational surveillance of Islamic groups, defines the intent to commit terrorism as already a crime, provides wide scope to decide what constitutes terrorism, sets a low threshold for preemptive arrests and detentions without prompt counsel, and provides for wide latitude in judicial decision making. The entire system for monitoring and pursuing terrorists arguably outstrips the systems of most other democratic societies, including the United States, in both the system’s effectiveness and invasiveness.

Human rights groups, such as the Human Rights League, as well as large numbers of France’s defense magistrates have raised concern about French antiterrorism laws, charging an erosion of civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism. According to such critics, the legislation that makes “conspiracy to commit terrorism” a crime opens the door to arbitrary enforcement because a number of acts, which are not otherwise illegal, become illegal when a magistrate decides they occur in the context of intent to commit terrorism. Critics also charge that antiterrorist magistrates have excessive scope to decide what constitutes terrorism or the intent to commit it.

Another prominent human rights concern in recent years centers on the French government’s 2004 ban on the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” in public schools. The law, whose primary target is the wearing of Muslim headscarves in school, is viewed by many in France and abroad as incompatible with the principle of freedom of religion. The law is also criticized as an official manifestation of anti-Islamic prejudice.

Index for France:
Overview | Government


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