France -- Geography --
Official Name: The French Republic
Capital City: Paris (1990 pop. 2,152,423)
Area: 543, 965 sq km
Country Population: 63 718 187 (2008)
Languages: French (official)
Official Currency: Euro
Religions: Catholic (major), others
Land forms: 2/3 of the area consists of plains. Major ranges: Alps, Pyrenees, Jura, Ardennes, the Massif Central. 5,500 km of coastline and the largest beach in Europe (12 km, La Baule, Loire-Atlantique department)
Land division: Metropolitan France is divided into 22 regions and 96 departments. 4 overseas departments: Guadalupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion. 4 overseas territories: French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna Islands, the French Southern and Antarctic Lands ( comprising Adelie Land), the Crozet and Kerguelen archipelagos and the islands of Amsterdam and Saint-Paul. 2 possessions with the status of collectivet territoriale: Mayotte and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
France -- History --
In the past France is inhabited of Gaul tribes and is known as Gallia. In the first century B.C. it is conquered by Rome, in V century – by German tribes – Visigoths, Burgundy and Franks. In the end of V century it is a part of The Frank State and after its decay (843), it is established as a separate country – France. In IX – XI century there is a feudal disunion in the country. In the end of XII – the beginning of XIII century the authority of the king increases. In 1302 the States General are convoked for the first time; France become a class monarchy. The clash of the French and the English interests in Europe leads to the outbreak of The Hundred-year war (1337-1453). The intensified feudal tyranny provokes The Paris Rebellion (1356-58), The Village Anti-feudal Rebellion “Jackerie” (1358) and others. France forms as a centralized feudal country in the end of XV century and as an absolute monarchy in the beginning of XVI century. After The Huguenot wars (1562-94) there is economic progress and consolidation of the absolutism during the reign of Henrich IV, Ludovic XIII together with Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarini, and Ludovic XIV with the minister Colbert. France rises to a big commercial country with a strong commercial and military fleet and a colonial expansion begins. For imposing the French influence in Western Europe France wages long wars on The Habsburgs, takes part in The Italian wars (1494-1559), The Thirty-year war (1618-1648) etc. The French colonists are approved in Canada, Louisiana, West India and India. After the war for the Spanish heritage (1701-1714) France loses its hegemony in Europe, and after The Seven-year war (1756-63) – the North-American colonies and India. The French Bourgeois Revolution (1789-94) removes the feudal-absolute system. In 1792 France becomes republic. After the regime of the Convent and the Directory, the Bourgeoisie establishes a military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. With the defeat of the Napoleon Empire, the monarchy or the Bourbons is reestablished, closed by the July revolution (1830); Louis Philip is declared as a king of France. After the February revolution (1848), the Second republic is founded. With the utter defeat of the proletariat in the June rebellion (1848), the Bourgeois contra-revolution establishes the military-bourgeois dictatorship of Louis Napoleon (1851), who declares himself as an emperor Napoleon III in 1852. During the French-Prussian war (1870-71), a rebellion bursts out (4th September 1870), which liquidates the Second republic and initiates the Third. On 18th March 1871 a Proletarian Revolution breaks in Paris, which leads to the settlement of the Paris Commune, which is however defeated. In 1875, the Constitution of the Third Republic (1870-1940) is approved. About the end of XIX century France is formed as a strong imperialist country. The French-Russian union from 1893 and the Anglo-French agreement from 1904 are an important stage in the setting of the Entante. The First World War ends with the favorable for France the Treaty of Versailles (1919). In the thirties of the XX century France is caught in the world economic crisis. In the beginning of the 1934 there is an unsuccessful attempt for a fascist take-over in the country. In 1936-37 Socialists, which rely on the popular front, take the lead of the French government. The government of E. Deladie signs the Munich agreement (1938). After the attack against Poland (1st September 1939) France declares war to Germany (3rd September). In May and June 1940 the German army occupies 2/3 of the French territory. In the non-occupied territory a pro fascist regime is established by the government “Vichy”. In November 1942 this territory is also occupied by German and Italian armies. A wide resistance movement is spread out. In 1943 in Algeria a French committee for national liberation is formed (renamed in June 1944 in Temporary government), with General De Goal in the lead. Under his guidance in April- June 1944 a national rebellion begins, which culminating point is The Paris Rebellion. In October 1946 the democratic constitution of the Fourth republic is approved. The one-party right-wing socialist government of L. Blum (December 1946 – January 1947) begins a colonial war in Vietnam. France joins “The Marshall plan” (1948). In 1949 it enters NATO. After the defeat in the Vietnam War, France signs the agreements of the Geneva Conference and ratifies the Paris agreements in 1954. The same year France begins a colonial war in Algeria. In March 1956 France acknowledge the independence of Morocco and Tunisia, and in 1960 – of another 12 African countries, former French colonies. In 1956 it participates in the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt, and in 1957 – in the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) – “The Aggregate market”. In June 1958 the government is headed by De Gaulle, who becomes a President after the pass of the constitution of the Fifth republic (January 1959). In March 1962, the Evian agreements for cessation of hostilities and for self-determination of Algeria are signed. In 1966 France leaves the military organization of NATO, keeping its membership in its political organs. After the failure in the referendum (April 1969) for administrative reform and for modification of the Senate, General de Gaulle resigns. In June 1969 J. Pompidou is elected for President. From July 1972 a prime-minister is P. Mesmer. In 1972 French communist party and the socialist party conclude an agreement for joint program of government. The left radicals also enter the agreement. The country is a member of UNO from 1945.
In recent decades, France's reconciliation and cooperation with Germany have proved central to the political and economic integration of Europe, including the introduction of the Euro in January 1999. France has been at the forefront of European states seeking to exploit the momentum of monetary union to advance the creation of a more unified and capable European political, defence and security apparatus. However its population vote against ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty in May 2005.
France -- Economy --
Until the early 20th century, France was still largely a nation of small farms and family-owned businesses. After World War II (1939-1945) the French government nationalized numerous business enterprises—especially in energy, finance, and manufacturing—and it introduced a series of development plans intended to modernize the economy. These reforms, along with European economic integration, helped secure a period of sustained economic growth in the quarter century following the war. Today, France is one of the world’s leading economic powers. A member of the Group of Eight forum of highly industrialized nations and of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), France is home to the world’s fifth largest economy, behind the United States, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It is also the leading agricultural producer in western Europe. In 2003 France’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $1.76 trillion, and per capita income was $29,410.
The postwar economic integration of western Europe had a powerful influence on the French economy. France was a charter member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a cooperative organization founded in 1951 to establish a free-trade area for coal and steel products. This organization merged with the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) in 1967 to form the European Community (EC).
Today, France is a member of the European Union (EU), a successor of the EC that promotes economic and political cooperation among European nations. European Union members share a common economic area composed of some 400 million consumers. The creation of a single market required France and other EU members to remove national barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. French businesses long protected by trade barriers have been forced to become more competitive to withstand foreign challengers and to take advantage of new opportunities. In many sectors of the economy, the single market has spurred businesses to restructure and modernize their operations. France, like many other EU members, uses the euro, the EU’s common currency.
Successive French governments have encouraged varying levels of intervention in the economy, including state ownership and control of key industries. In 1982 the Socialist-led government of president Francois Mitterrand initiated a program of extensive nationalization. At the peak of this program, 13 of the 20 largest firms in France were owned by the state. The election of a center-right parliamentary majority in 1986, however, led to a reduction of state ownership. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the government continued the process of privatization, selling off a variety of state-owned enterprises and reducing its holdings in others. Despite these measures, the public sector as a share of GDP remains higher in France than in any other country to adopt the euro. In addition, France’s progress in opening its domestic markets to foreign competition as required by the EU, especially in the energy sector, has been slow, inviting criticism and legal challenges from the EU.
France faces several pressing economic problems in the early 21st century. One is the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate. By the mid-1970s, as the postwar economic boom slowed, the unemployment rate began to rise steadily, surpassing 10 percent in 1985. From 1991 to 1999 the unemployment rate never fell below 10 percent. The unemployment rate stood at 9 percent in 2002. Efforts to lower unemployment, including government legislation implemented in 2000 to reduce the official working week from 39 hours to 35 hours, had limited success. As a result, in 2004 the government announced plans to ease the rules to give employers and employees more flexibility. The lack of vigorous economic growth has also made it more difficult for France to maintain the traditionally generous social welfare benefits available to the country’s citizens. Reforming the welfare state in a socially equitable manner remains a major challenge for France in the decades ahead.
France -- Culture --
The culture of France has profoundly influenced that of the entire Western world, particularly in the areas of art and letters, and Paris has long been regarded as the fountainhead of French culture. France first attained cultural preeminence in Europe during the Middle Ages; later, the wealth of the French crown in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries provided a subsidization of art on a scale comparable to that of the papacy in Rome, attracting to Paris many of Europe’s most talented artists and artisans. Wealth also created a leisure class, which had both the time and the means for developing elegance in dress, manners, furnishings, and architecture. French styles still pervade much of Western culture. In the 20th century French cinema assumed a leading world position, particularly in the 1960s with the “new wave” group of film directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Francois Truffaut.
France has produced many world-famous painters, and several influential schools of painting, including impressionism, were developed here. 17th-century baroque artists included Georges de La Tour, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. The most renowned French rococo masters of the 18th century were Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, Jean Fragonard, Jean Chardin, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Paris became the chief art center of Europe in the 19th century. Jacques-Louis David, whose highly influential career began in the last quarter of the 18th century, was most active in the early 19th century, as were the romantic painters Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, and Theodore Gericault. Noted realist artists of the mid-19th century were Gustave Courbet, Honore Daumier, Jean Francois Millet, and Camile Corot. The impressionist school, influenced by Edouard Manet, emerged around 1872; its most important members were the painters Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Auguste Renoir. Major French postimpressionist painters of the late 19th century were Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin; also active in this period were Henri Rousseau and Gustav Moreau. Internationally known French artists of the 20th century include Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Bonnard, and Jean Dubuffet. The artist Pablo Picasso was born in Spain but settled in Paris in the early 1900s.
France has also produced many influential sculptors. The most important 19th-century sculptor, was Auguste Rodin.
French literature is considered one of the richest and most varied national literatures, noted especially for its examination of human society and the individual’s place within society. French literature does not include francophone literature—works written in the French language but originating in other countries, such as Canada or Senegal.
French literature reflects the cultural and political history of France. Until the French Revolution of 1789, France had a social and political system that was arranged by rank or class, with rules governing how members of one class interacted with members of another. Every aspect of culture and society followed a hierarchical structure, including literary genres and literary styles. The hierarchy of genres had epic poetry at the top and the more common prose genres, such as the novel, at the bottom.
The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, was a crucial time in French history, and it signaled a change in the French literary landscape as well.
Since the time of the Revolution, French writing has been characterized by creative freedom and innovation, culminating in such 20th-century movements as dada, surrealism, existentialism, theater of the absurd, the new novel, and postmodernism. Paradoxically, despite these experiments and innovations, French literary traditions have endured, as have the values of the old order. Thus, the inventive and rebellious Albert Camus saw himself in the tradition of classical novelist Madame de La Fayette, and the 20th-century exponent of existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre claimed kinship with 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille.
Generally, French writers and poets are too many, that is why there can be made a list of the writers and poets who had the greatest influence upon the world culture. Listed in a chronological order, they are: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere (1622-1673), Voltaire (1694-1778), Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Jules Verne (1828-1905), Emile Zola (1840-1902), Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893).
France is renowned for its great Gothic churches, built from the 12th to 15th century. Particularly significant are the abbey church at Saint-Denis, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and the cathedrals at Amiens, Chartres, Paris, and Reims. Splendid Renaissance structures include the palace at Fontainebleau and the famous chateaux of the Loire River valley. The outstanding baroque buildings in France are the neoclassicized enlargements of the enormous royal palace at Versailles and the Louvre, in Paris. Among the outstanding structures of the 19th century are the Second Empire Paris Opera (1861-1875) of Charles Garnier and the wrought-iron Eiffel Tower (1889), the symbol of Paris.
France has a long and distinguished musical tradition. From the 11th to the 13th century, “song of deeds”, epic poems sung by minstrels, were produced in northern France, and the troubadours, aristocratic poet-musicians who composed famous songs that dealt chiefly with courtly love, war, and nature, were active in southern France.
The most influential French composer of the 14th century was Guillaume de Machaut, who contributed to the polyphonic form of composition. In the 15th and 16th centuries songs and motets were among the leading French musical compositions.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Italian-born composer Jean Baptiste Lully created a French operatic style by combining traditional court spectacle with plots of contemporary French dramas, set to musical forms from ballet, dance, and Italian opera. In the early 18th century noted works for harpsichord were composed by Francois Couperin and Jean Philippe Rameau; the latter is also known for his operas.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, many foreign-born opera composers were active in Paris; these included Christoph Willibald Gluck, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Jacques Offenbach. French-born opera composers of the 19th century included Jacques Halevy, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, and Jules Massenet.
The chief French composer of orchestral music in the early 19th century was Hector Berlioz. Camille Saint-Saens became active in the 1850s, and he later taught Gabriel Faure, who composed in a wide variety of forms. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Claude Debussy composed noted works in new styles influenced by trends in literature and painting.
In the early 20th century Maurice Ravel produced works with more formal outlines. “Les Six”, a group of neoclassic composers formed in 1918 and 1919, included Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Georges Auric. The influential Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky worked in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.
Most provincial cities in France have municipal libraries and museums. The largest concentration of such facilities is, however, in Paris. Major libraries in Paris include the Bibliotheque Nationale, with more than 9 million books, and the libraries of the Universities of Paris. The Louvre, also in Paris, contains one of the largest and most important art collections in the world. Other Parisian museums of note include the Musee Nationale d’Art Moderne in the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou (see Pompidou Center); the Musee d’Orsay; and the Musee Picasso with its collection of works by Pablo Picasso. Some of UNESCO cultural monuments in France are: Palace and Park of Versailles (1979), Roman Theatre and its Surroundings and the "Triumphal Arch" of Orange (1981), Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau, Reims (1991), Historic Centre of Avignon (1995), Historic Site of Lyons (1998). Many of the great masterpieces of French architecture, such as churches, cathedrals, castles, and chateaux, are maintained as national monuments.
France -- Life style --
Since the era of Jules Ferry, the prime minister and Minister of Education, all state-funded schools before university are free, obligatory and laique, meaning separate from the church.
At the beginning of the 20th century, France was a largely rural country with somewhat conservative Catholic morals. However, in the course of the century, major changes have occurred: the countryside has become largely depopulated, and the population has largely become de-christianized. This has led to important changes in social morals. fvdA
Traditionally a predominantly Roman Catholic country, with anticlerical leanings, France is since the 1970s a very secular country. However, public holidays are still largely traditional Catholic holidays; and knowledge of facts about the history of Catholicism (for instance, the attribute of saints) is considered normal for an educated person. The French generally consider that since the 1905 law of separation of Church and State, they have struck an excellent balance between the rights of religious people and the neutrality of public institutions with respect to religious matters, summarized in the concept of laicite.
The French maintain a strong gap between civilian life and religion. Religion is considered as private as possible, and it is considered offensively inquisitive to enter religious discussions in most contexts. Communautarisme — that is, the forming of ethnic or religious communities separate from mainstream life —, though present, is considered undesirable. French people in general are opposed to clerical power and its influence in policy; the separation of religion from government power is legally referred to as laicite. French politicians, with the exception of a few right-wing politicians such as Christine Boutin, generally do not discuss their religious positions, and do not use religious arguments in political advocacy.
Islamic fundamentalism is considered as a real threat for the cohesion of the French society. Reasons for tensions include the desire of certain imams or other Muslims not to abide by French laws, regulations and customs. Following cases of conflicts about Muslim girls breaching school dress regulations or refusing to attend certain classes, the French government adopted a statute prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools; see French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. These tensions echo earlier quarrels with respect to the influence of the Catholic church in French society (clericalism vs laicite) and the influence of the Pope in French public affairs (gallicanism vs ultramontanism).
The French public and government pay attention to certain minority religious groups, considered as "cults" (sectes). This is particularly the case since a much-publicized 1995 of mass murders and suicides inside the Order of the Solar Temple. Public concerns include the well-being and education of children in cults that isolate themselves from the community; the advocacy of medical practices generally considered hazardous; the defrauding of members by greedy leaders; and sexual abuse. Such concerns have resulted in the foundation of commissions charged with the monitoring of possibly dangerous "cults", as well as the enactment of legislation easing the prosecution of criminal organizations. See French legislation for the prevention and repression of cultic groups that infringe on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Following from the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France guarantees freedom of religion as a constitutional right and the government generally respects this right in practice. A long history of violent conflict between religious groups led the state to break its ties to the Catholic Church early in the last century and adopt a strong commitment to maintaining a totally secular public sector. Of the country's 10 national holidays, 5 are Christian holidays.
A 1905 law instituted the separation of Church and State and prohibited the government from recognising, salarying or subsidising any religion. In the preceding situation, established 1801-1808 of the Concordat, the State used to support the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church and the Jewish religion and provided for public religious educations in those religions. For historical reasons, this situation is still current in Alsace-Moselle, where the national government salaries clergy from those four religions as state civil servants, and provides for non-compulsory religious education in those religions in public schools and universities. Also, for similar historical reasons, in French Guiana, Catholic priests are civil servants of the local government.
Religious buildings built prior to 1905 at taxpayers' expenses are retained by the local and national government, but may be used at no expense by religious organizations. As a consequence, most Catholic churches are owned by the government. The government, since 1905, has been prohibited from funding the building of any newer building; accordingly, newer churches and synagogues are built from private funds.
Islam, mostly practiced by immigrants from former French colonies in Northern Africa and their descendants, is now the second religion in France. An ongoing problem is the lack of adequate prayer facilities for Muslim inhabitants. Muslims have no pre-1905 publicly built edifices, and thus must build and support all religious buildings at their own expense. Some local governments de facto subsidize prayer rooms as part as greater "cultural associations". An ongoing topic of controversy is whether the separation of Church and State should be weakened so that the government should be able to subsidize Muslim prayer rooms and the formation of imams. Advocates of such measures, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, declare that they would incite the Muslim population to better integrate into the fabric of French society. Opponents contend that the state should not fund religions. Furthermore, the state ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as the islamic female headscarf, in public schools has alienated some French Muslims, provoked minor street protests and drawn some international criticism.
Religious organizations are not required to register, but may if they wish to apply for tax-exempt status or to gain official recognition. The 1901 and 1905 laws define two categories under which religious groups may register: "associations cultuelles" (associations of worship, which are exempt from certain taxes) and "associations culturelles" (cultural associations, which are not exempt from these taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, loosely defined as liturgical services and practices. A cultural association may engage in profit-making activity. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations, such as schools. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories; the Mormons, for example, run strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operate a school under its cultural association.
Under the 1905 statute, religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and receive tax-exempt status. The prefecture reviews the submitted documentation regarding the association's purpose for existence. To qualify, the group's purpose must be solely the practice of some form of religious ritual. Printing publications, employing a board president, or running a school may disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and approximately 30 of 1,050 Muslim associations have tax-free status. Approximately 100 Catholic associations are tax-exempt; a representative of the Ministry of Interior reports that the number of nontax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately. More than 50 associations of the Jehovah's Witnesses have tax-free status.
According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture may decide to review a group's status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status may be changed, and it may be required to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on the present and past donations that fall within a legal category close to that of inheritance. (original text from a report from the US Department of State)
France -- Political system, law and government --
France is a presidential republic with a centralized national government. France’s current system of government, known as the Fifth Republic, is based on a constitution that was adopted by popular referendum in 1958. This constitution significantly enlarged presidential powers and curtailed the authority of parliament. The president, elected by direct popular vote, is head of state. This official appoints the prime minister, who is head of government. The French parliament consists of two chambers: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is more powerful than the Senate, although both chambers share legislative authority. The Constitutional Council, established by the 1958 constitution, has authority to supervise elections and referenda and to decide constitutional questions.
Until the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, governed by famous kings such as Henry IV and Louis XIV. The revolution abolished the monarchy but failed to establish a durable democracy. Power fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, and he eventually created an empire. Upon Bonaparte’s military defeat in 1815, the countries arrayed against him restored the French monarchy. The revolution of 1848 abolished the monarchy once again, and in 1852 Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, established a new empire. This regime crumbled in 1870 when Napoleon III was taken prisoner by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
Democracy returned to France under the Third Republic, a system of government formally established by the constitution of 1875. A president, elected by a two-chambered parliament, replaced the emperor, and a cabinet responsible to the parliament exercised legislative powers. Governing during the Third Republic often proved challenging: Parliamentary coalitions shifted continually between elections, and cabinets fell frequently. The Third Republic survived until 1940, when German troops occupied France during World War II and an authoritarian collaborationist regime was established at Vichy.
In 1946, after the war ended, French voters approved the constitution of the Fourth Republic. The new constitution included several revisions intended to ensure a stable government, but it did not resolve the nation’s recurrent cabinet crises. France had 26 different governments during the Fourth Republic’s 12-year existence. In 1958 an insurrection in Algeria, then under French control, created fear of a coup d'etat in France itself. General Charles de Gaulle, a French resistance leader during World War II, was invited to form a new government and draft a new constitution. De Gaulle favored a presidential system with a strong, stable executive at the center of power. His constitution was overwhelmingly approved by popular referendum and established the legal basis of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle took office as the first president of the Fifth Republic.
The constitution gives executive authority to both the president and prime minister. The former is head of state; the latter, as leader of the Council of Ministers, is head of government.
The president of France is the official head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The president appoints the prime minister and Council of Ministers and presides over council meetings. One of the president’s most important powers is the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call new legislative elections. Article 16 of the constitution permits the president to assume special emergency powers during a national crisis. In doing so the president must consult the Constitutional Council and may not dissolve the National Assembly or prevent it from meeting. The president is also authorized to take certain policy matters to the people in national referenda, such as the referendum authorizing ratification of the 1992 Treaty on European Union.
The president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of five years. The president’s term of office was originally seven years, as established in the 1958 constitution, but voters approved a referendum in September 2000 to reduce the term of office to five years. The shorter term took effect with the presidential election in 2002. The constitutional revision was the most significant since 1962, when a referendum backed by de Gaulle established direct election of the president by popular vote. (Before 1962, presidents were elected by an electoral college of government bodies.) There is no limit to the number of terms a president can serve.
In general, the president works with the government to define policy goals and seeks to achieve these goals with the help of a parliamentary majority. The government is primarily responsible to parliament, which can check the actions of the government in several ways. Members of parliament can submit written and oral questions to the government and organize investigative committees. When the National Assembly adopts a motion of censure, or when the assembly refuses to approve the prime minister’s program, the prime minister must tender the government’s resignation to the president.
Presidential power is tied to the president’s support in the parliament. 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 parliamentary minority, however, the president still appoints a prime minister from a party in the majority coalition. In this power-sharing arrangement, known as cohabitation, the prime minister and president may disagree about policy goals and work to limit each other’s influence.
The French parliament is divided into two houses - the National Assembly and the Senate. As the legislative branch of government, parliament is engaged primarily in the debate and adoption of laws. Legislation relating to government revenues and expenditures is especially important. The other principal duty of parliament is to oversee the government’s exercise of executive authority, although this oversight capacity was restricted somewhat by the 1958 constitution.
The 577 members of the National Assembly are directly elected for five-year terms. Candidates for the National Assembly are elected by majority vote in single-member electoral districts. 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 second round.
The 321 members of the Senate are elected indirectly by an electoral college. A law approved in July 2003 introduced a number of reforms in senatorial elections. The law specified that senators would henceforth be elected to six-year terms, with one-half of the Senate elected every three years. Previously, senators were elected for nine-year terms with one-third of the Senate elected every three years. In addition, the law increased the number of Senate seats from 321 to 346, to take effect in 2010.
In principle, the National Assembly and the Senate share equal legislative power. In practice, however, legislative authority is tilted to the National Assembly, since the Senate may delay, but not prevent, the passage of legislation. If the two chambers disagree on a bill, final decision rests with the National Assembly, which may either accept the Senate’s version or, after a specified period, readopt its own. The Economic and Social Council acts in an advisory capacity on economic and budgetary matters to the National Assembly and the government. It consists of representatives from groups of workers and employers and from professional and cultural organizations.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic introduced two distinctive measures intended to streamline the legislative process. The first measure granted the government the authority to demand an up-or-down vote on an entire bill or any portion of a bill, in either chamber. This reduces the opportunity for members of parliament to propose endless amendments to bills they oppose. The second measure authorizes the government to win adoption of a bill in the National Assembly without an actual vote. To do so, the government announces that it considers rejection of the bill to be tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the government. If opponents of the bill fail to submit and win a majority vote on a motion of no confidence, the bill is adopted.
Laws must be promulgated by the French president to take effect. The president may ask parliament to reconsider a law or any of its articles, and parliament must honor the request. The president may also request the Constitutional Council to rule on the law’s constitutionality. In such cases the law may not be implemented until the court has rendered its judgment. Prior to the Fifth Republic, laws adopted by parliament were not subject to judicial review.
The parliamentary year was traditionally restricted to two separate sessions that ran from October to December and from April to June.
Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, judges in France exercised significant legislative and administrative powers. The revolution stripped judges of much of their power and independence. An extensive collection of laws drafted under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte, known as the Code Napoleon, affirmed the importance of limiting judicial power. The code, based largely on Roman, or civil, law, directs judges to apply legal rules passed by legislative bodies to specific cases. This civil law tradition contrasts with the English common law tradition in which judges rely on precedents—customs and decisions in previous cases—to resolve cases. The succeeding French republics maintained the ideal of a subordinate judiciary with little independent authority.
The judiciary regained some of its independence and power under the constitution of 1958. The constitution established a new body, the nine-member Constitutional Council. The council is authorized to rule on the constitutional validity of national elections, referenda, legislation, and parliamentary procedures. Members of the council are appointed for staggered, nonrenewable, nine-year terms; the president, National Assembly, and Senate each appoint three members. All former presidents also have seats on the council.
The French judiciary has two main branches. One branch of courts hears administrative cases (cases involving disputes over government regulations); another branch hears civil and criminal cases. Jurisdictional disputes between the two judicial branches are resolved by the eight-member Tribunal of Conflicts. Sitting judges in the criminal, civil, and administrative courts cannot be reassigned or terminated without cause by the executive or legislative branches of government.