The electoral process is fair at all levels, and controls by ad hoc commissions or the judiciary ensure a smooth running of elections. There are some restrictions to assure that only serious candidates stand for the presidential election. These include a requirement that each potential candidate has to obtain 500 signatures of support from elected persons, such as mayors or senators, from a third of French “départements,” or counties, to prove his or her political relevance. In addition, candidates must pay a deposit of €15,000. But these restrictions do not limit the political pluralism of candidates. Fraud is exceptional and limited to a few places such as Corsica or overseas territories. Some limitations are also imposed on anti-constitutional parties espousing terrorist or violent means to power. Obviously these restrictions are exceptional and checked by administrative tribunals.
During the official electoral campaign – which starts approximately 30 days before the date of the presidential election and 20 days before the parliamentary election – the public media (radio and TV) are obliged to report on political parties and candidates in a fair and impartial way. Financial expenditures during electoral campaigns are regulated to provide all candidates with equal opportunity in campaigning; rules on the fairness of electoral campaigns are determined by independent bodies (Commission nationale du controle; Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel). This provides a reasonable framework, which is constantly being improved; for instance, the judiciary has recently decided that the time used by the president in the public media should be accounted as time allocated to the majority, which had not been the case up to now.
The right to participate in elections as candidate or as a voter is fully guaranteed not only by the law but also in practice. There is no evidence of restrictions or obstruction in applying the law. Every citizen enjoys the rights provided by the constitution, including the right to abstain from voting, as it happened for instance on the occasion of the European elections in 2009 or of the regional elections in 2010. On both occasions one citizen out of two decided not to vote.
The only, but crucial, reservation is of a sociological nature. Lower class citizens or those with immigrant backgrounds – even when they are French citizens – often do not register to vote as does the average French-born citizen. They are also badly represented in political parties whose endorsement is needed for having some chance of being elected.
Lacking a sufficient legal framework, party financing has been a source of recurrent scandals related to illegal practices. Nearly all parties, notably the parties of government, used to finance their activities by charging private companies working for local public entities or by taxing commercial companies requesting building permits. Only recently has a decent regulatory framework been put in place. It includes the funding of political campaigns by public resources paid according to the votes attracted by each party or candidate. The system favors large organizations to such an extent that they might have serious financial problems in the case of a major political setback. This happened to the extreme-right party National Front (Front National, or FN) after its defeat in the presidential elections in 2007, as it was forced to sell its headquarters as the partial reimbursement of its expenses did not cover the full cost of its electoral campaign. However, individual candidates are not overlooked as many elections are organized according to a single constituency system. In fact, one side effect of this legislation has been the mushrooming of candidates attracted by the possibility to voice their concerns at a low cost.
Ceilings have also been put on the maximum amount that candidates in an election can spend. In the end all candidates must present a detailed account of their spending during the campaign to an ad-hoc commission. There have been several cases of elections to be held again as initial winner was accused of overspending. Candidates might appeal the commission‘s decisions to the administrative courts. In the case of national or presidential elections, the control is ensured by the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel).
There is still progress to be made, however, in particular concerning the control of hidden support that elected officials may receive from local authorities. The tradition of cumulating different elective mandates is a powerful instrument of indirect support to incumbents, which discriminates against challengers.
In principle, the independence of media from public authorities is guaranteed by a complete set of constitutional, legislative and administrative rules. There is not much more that can be done to improve the legal status of the press.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition of government interference in the media, and many presidents and governments of the Fifth Republic have been accused of manipulating or improperly using the media. There are several channels of influence, reflecting certain structural weaknesses of the media system in France.
The perceptible dependency of the media on public authorities derives from factors such as the lack of a strong tradition of investigative journalism (leaving to a satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, the role of leaking information that other journalists or editors do not wish to publish in their own papers), the deferential attitude of some or the excessive partisan attitude of others. Moreover, most newspapers are facing financial difficulties. No daily newspaper could survive without the multifaceted subsidies provided by the state; however, these aids seem to be given according to objective criteria and are not linked with political pressure. Having to cope with weak resources from advertising and publicity, combined with the challenge from Internet publications, the print media are in a difficult position, making them more and more dependent on the generosity and good will of the state or from wealthy private investors. These latter are tempted to influence the line of their newspapers; moreover, they are sometimes closely linked to powerful politicians. Under President Sarkozy, several cases of intervention have occurred.
The division between the national press, which is very much embedded in the Parisian political milieu, and the local press, which usually survives by avoiding any potential conflict or polemics with local politicians, does not contribute to the strength of the printed media. In conclusion, the lack of a strong civil society and independent private media business tends to weaken the fundaments of real independence of the media.
The situation is obviously different in television and radio, which has fewer financial concerns. The competition between the public and private sector tends to ensure a better balance of coverage and on the whole, radio and television act relatively independently. However, it is remarkable that in 2008 on the occasion of the reform of the sector, Nicolas Sarkozy reclaimed the power of directly nominating the heads of public media, a tradition that the presidents of the Fifth Republic had used in full since 1958, before the nomination power was given to an independent body in 1986.
Media pluralism is reasonably guaranteed in France. There are more than 1,800 radio stations and no fewer than six television channels with programs that reach approximately 75% of the French population. The diversity of newspapers and opinions mirrors rather well the political diversity of the country. The weaknesses of the system are to be found in the oligopolistic ownership structure of the print press, a result of the presence of financially strong industrial groups, which own a large number of media. For these groups, investing in the media is a secure way to lose money but to gain influence. Pluralism is still alive thanks to the relative autonomy that journalists have managed to safeguard throughout negotiated agreements with the owners, but this situation is fragile.
Faced with Internet competition, rising costs and a shrinking readership, the print media have had to rely more and more on the benevolence of wealthy entrepreneurs or on the state. Given the multiple ties between political and business elites in France, this is not a particularly favorable situation for the maintenance of vibrant media pluralism.
Access to official information is provided by a law adopted in 1978 in the wake of the American Freedom of Information Act. An ad hoc commission (Commission d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs, CADA) oversees this legislation and might take a stand in case of conflict between the administration and citizens. In case of a rejection of citizens’ demands, it is possible to appeal to administrative courts. Once remedies are exhausted it is still possible to put a request to the French ombudsman, or “médiateur.” On the whole, access to information is made easy. However, confidential information is too often covered up by using the loose concept of “secret defense.” Quite often, sensitive information is not provided through official channels but through leaks in the media and in particular, in Le Canard Enchaîné, a weekly newspaper which is known for printing information that public authorities would prefer to keep far from the public’s eyes.
Nevertheless, the development of new technologies, such as e-government and e-administration, has increased the possibility and outlets for citizens to obtain important information. The diffusion of public statistical surveys, public reports and other documents from different public bodies has been largely facilitated by Internet sites allowing the downloading these documents without cost or restriction.
Civil rights were at the core of the French Revolution and since that period, the French have a strong sense of ownership about “their” rights. Nonetheless, the somewhat dependent position of the judiciary vis-à-vis the executive has too often impeded the full protection of rights. The separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary has never been fully implemented in France. In spite of recent improvements, the executive and the police are often treated better by the courts than are ordinary citizens. This has been a permanent source of conflict and frustration, particularly with “second-generation” migrants who are technically French citizens but sometimes are still considered and treated as foreigners.
The sensitivity of public opinion to any infringement of political liberties or attempts to limit them is such that their violation would provoke popular outrage. Freedom of opinion, freedom of speech and freedom of protest are perceived as vital by the people. However, it is important to underline that some measures which are supported by a vast majority of the population, such as the ban of the Islamic headscarf at school, would be considered as an infringement on political liberties in some other legal systems or cultures.
In principle, any discrimination based on gender, race, ethnic origin, religion and so on is banned by the constitution and fundamental principles of law. The principle of equality and the refusal to admit specificities of certain community minorities goes as far as excluding positive discrimination measures. For the same reasons, the attempt by parliament to authorize mild forms of ethnic or minority statistics in France has been struck down by the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel). The persisting culture of formal legal equality conflicts with real differences and inequalities. For instance, gender equality is more a dream than a hard fact. The most spectacular problem is the discrimination of immigrants. While predominantly French citizens, many immigrants face discrimination with respect to housing and work. Access to the labor market is a key issue for minority or racial groups, in particular for the younger, better-educated generation. To address these concerns, a high authority was established in 2004. It deals with individual cases and makes general recommendations. Several thousand cases are brought to this body every year.
Usually public authorities act in line with the existing legal framework. However, government discretion remains high, even if France has been moving toward a “rule of law state” since the 1970s. The legal system suffers of at least two defects. First, many pieces of legislation cannot be enforced or are delayed due to the lack of implementing measures, such as government decrees or by-laws. This tactic is sometimes deliberately used by the government, in particular when active lobby groups manage to put a brake on reforms voted by parliament. Second, it is not infrequent that the executive branch’s interpretation of legislation restricts, changes or extends the meaning of the initial legislation. Interpretations might change over time through the publication of internal directives or “circulaires” which actually become more important than the initial law. In addition, in the Fifth Republic, the supremacy of the executive allows many successive changes to be made over short periods of time.
The French judicial system is characterized by a dual structure: Civil and penal courts act under the control of the Supreme Court of Appeals (Cour de Cassation); administrative courts are headed by the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat).
Historically, civil and penal courts have acted in the shadow of the executive and their autonomy has always been a matter of concern and conflicts. On the opposite, administrative courts, in spite of being born out of the advisory councils of the ancien régime, have been able to secure little by little full independence. Since 1958, a quasi-constitutional court, the Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel), has been added to the edifice. Over the last years, this Council has seen its role extended and has gained more autonomy and impact. The last constitutional reform further increased its powers. Formerly, the Council was only entitled to check legislation immediately after its adoption at the request of the opposition, but had no possibility to examine the constitutionality of past laws. This changed with a 2008 revision: Since March 1, 2010, any citizen can raise the issue of unconstitutionality before any lower court. The request is examined by the Supreme Court of Appeals or the Council of State and might be passed to the Constitutional Council. Several dozens of requests have immediately been introduced, in particular with relation to the issue of police custody.
The appointment of Justices at the Constitutional Council has often been an issue but has not yet found a proper solution. Members are nominated in a discretionary decision by the president of the Republic (who also chooses the president of the Council), and the presidents of the Senate and of the National Assembly. The former presidents of the Republic (presently Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Chirac) are de jure members of the Council as well.
Since the last constitutional reform, the appointees are subject to a hearing by ad hoc committees in both chambers of parliament. This procedure was used for the first time in 2010, but it was a rather superficial check and a simple formality, a process which had little to do with the thorough investigations of the American Senate, for instance. The process of selection and nomination is totally discretionary and depends on the vagaries of political domination at the time of appointment. Presently, the three appointing politicians belong to the same political family, and preference has been given to active or former politicians rather than to experienced lawyers.
Today, the Council is characterized by political imbalance (domination of the right), male domination (eight men out of nine total members) and supremacy of elderly persons (most are in their 70s). As a result, the improvements in the functioning and the competences of the Council are not matched by parallel improvements in the appointment of justices.
Up to the 1990s, corruption plagued France. The problem was linked to secret party financing, because political parties are often lacking sufficient resources from member fees and/or public subsidies. On the local level corruption is a major issue, where cases linked to public purchases and the awarding of long-term concessions for local public services have occurred. Illegal payments from the firms which were favored served to obscure party financing. Spectacular cases have been revealed by judges’ investigations, which ended with the imprisonment of industrial and political leaders, and were a factor for growing awareness of the issue. This has led to substantive action to establish rules both on party financing and transparency in public purchases and concessions. But once the momentum had passed, the ad hoc committees put in place to secure checks and controls lost part of their influence and authority and/or have not received the necessary means to assure their mission (for instance the control of assets detained by elected officials is rather formalistic due to the lack of human resources). Corruption is certainly much less important than it was 30 years ago, but it is still more important than in many other OECD countries, as France is only ranked 24th in Transparency International’s 2009 ranking. Evidently, necessary checks are still not sufficient, in particular in areas where corruption is difficult to ascertain (for instance, in building zoning). The concept of conflict of interest still remains a vague and superficial reference, as it is not really part of the French political and administrative culture.
After his election, President Nicolas Sarkozy promoted a number of radical and immediate policy changes across the board. Recommendations were sourced from a special commission made of national and international experts headed by Jacques Attali, a former advisor of François Mitterrand. This was a serious attempt to introduce long-awaited reforms potentially capable of fostering France’s international competitiveness. The targets were correct, but the reform process was negatively affected by several issues, including a lack of political pedagogy, a lack of prioritization, an unequal distribution of costs and benefits and a somewhat superficial, or badly designed, set of reforms.
Many reforms have been adopted but the magnitude and depth of change has been rather modest, not least due to the global economic crisis. Far from diminishing, the role of the state in the economy has increased; public debt and unemployment have reached highs while the country’s trade balance and its industrial basis have deteriorated. Reforms were urgently needed, but the way they were implemented and the timing overall has largely compromised their potential beneficial effects. The presidential impetus was initially decisive and has permitted the government to adopt many reforms, but the general lack of priorities has blurred the perspective of, while Sarkozy’s governing style has rebuffed, a growing part of the population. Too many reforms have become synonymous with irritation and punishment, a feeling which obviously does not contribute to reform success.
Despite high overall spending and an impressive number of measures, labor market policy has shown rather poor results. Special problems concern youth unemployment, which is notoriously high in France; the employment rate of workers past the age of 55, one of the lowest in the OECD (38% compared to the OECD average of 51.5%); and the difficulties of (especially young) French citizens with a migrant background to integrate into the labor market.
The reasons for such failure are many and complex. The French job-training system relies heavily on public schools, yet diplomas from such training are not really accepted in the industry at large, which hinders a potential worker’s transition from school to a job. As for senior workers, a retirement age set at 60 and various early retirement schemes have led to the present situation. Heavy labor market regulation is another issue. All successive governments have added new layers of regulations and employment programs, with the result of creating a costly, highly complex system. According to the OECD index on employment protection, the French labor market is one of the most strictly regulated in the OECD.
The new government under Prime Minister François Fillon (since 2007) set out with the promise to break with old policies. Putting forward the value of work and individual effort alongside workfare arguments (“work more to gain more”), it promised to render the labor market more flexible, reduce regulations and improve incentives for jobless citizens to actively seek employment. Three years later, only few reforms have been realized. Public employment services have been reorganized by the creation of a unified labor service center, destined to have a more “activating” policy toward recipients of unemployment benefits. A special social benefit was created which offers complementary benefits to the unemployed who return to (often badly paid) work. As for the abolishment of the 35-hour work week, which played a major role in Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, the new regulation does not really affect the law of former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. A 35-hour week is still in effect, but the government added new freedoms to work longer, with heavy (and highly expensive) incentives, such as tax-free surplus wages for hours worked above 35 and discounts in social security taxes paid by the employer. Finally, the president has abandoned the promise to simplify or soften labor market regulations.
There is no lack of initiatives, fiscal or financial incentives, and regulatory frameworks put in place by successive governments to support innovation and entrepreneurship. The problem is rather the jungle of policy instruments put in place by the national government but also by regions, provinces or even communes. Some have barely any impact except contributing to red tape while others have been extremely successful, at least at first glance. This is illustrated by the case of the newly created statute of self-employed persons (statut de l’auto-entrepreneur) which allows individuals to set up easily a small, independent business. Not only employed people but also pensioners, civil servants or young students can create a small business. No taxes are paid until a minimum of financial revenue has been secured. In less than one year, 600,000 people have established such new “start-ups.” But most of them have no capital. In many ways, it is telling example of the challenging economic situation of individuals, many of whom use this opportunity as a kind of last-resort solution. But at the same time, this framework can allow the blossoming of new initiatives and the emergence of independent activities. If it fails, the costs are practically none while it can be expected that from so many grassroots initiatives, some successful ventures might emerge.
Research and development is mainly concentrated within few large multinational companies.
The fiscal incentives put in place by the Fillon government have been widely used, but it is too early to assess their real impact. On the whole, the present government has been favorable to measures capable of contributing to the improvement of competitiveness. The decision taken in 2007 not to tax additional hours worked by employees or the scrapping of the unpopular local business tax (taxe professionelle) paid by companies at the local level can be judged from that viewpoint. Nonetheless, the French statutory corporate tax rate is still one of the highest in the OECD.
Giving incentives to consumers to encourage them to hire proper contractors rather than rely on the informal market by lowering VAT has also been a positive move that has been highly valued by small businesses. However, the lowering of VAT from 17.9% to 5.5% in the restaurant industry had little effect on both employment and prices. It is considered rather as a windfall benefit for the industry and a costly move for the budget (a loss of €3.5 billion). Other measures, such as the possibility to pay less wealth tax by investing in medium-size companies or by financing research in lieu of paying the wealth tax have also been perceived positively but are likely to have only moderate effects.
Taxes and social contributions amount to 47.3% of French GDP, one of the highest levels within the OECD, but public spending is even higher (52.5% of GDP in 2008). These are the consequences of extraordinarily generous political and budgetary commitments taken without any consideration of the country’s actual fiscal capacity.
To alleviate part of the financial pressure, the central government has en masse transferred public investments to local and regional governments as well as social expenditures without, however, compensating properly for these additional costs. Local governments have chosen to increase taxation sometimes by double-digits; in any case such a jump has been much higher than inflation rates. This factor, combined with a narrow income tax base and a wide range of fiscal niches and exemptions, makes the French fiscal system opaque, confusing and not very equitable. The entire system needs overhaul but the political cost would be such that most governments have preferred a policy of constant and somewhat incoherent adjustments rather than well-thought out reform to span over a number of years. The tax measures of the Fillon government instituted the following principles in 2007: cuts to income, inheritance and wealth taxes; plus a general clause that limits individual tax contributions to 50% of income. Specific measures (reduction of VAT paid by restaurants; tax reductions for individuals pursuing artisan professions) and the scheduled abolishment of the local business tax (which will need financial compensation for local governments) add to the impression that tax policy continues to follow short-term political, or clientelistic, aims.
The present budgetary situation is unsustainable in the long run. In recent years, budgetary policy has suffered from the absence of a reorientation of public expenditure. Over the last years, the political elite, with the support of the voters, has made the implicit choice of shifting present costs to future generations. As a result, all indicators are in the red: the public deficit, the public debt, the social security deficit and the pension systems. When he came to power, President Nicolas Sarkozy, while engaging some structural reforms (e.g., cuts in the number of state employees) which should reduce public expenditure in the long run, was opposed to all forms of “austerity” and promised to meet debt problems with more economic growth rather than with less expenditure. Faced with the effects of the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and with growing deficits in social security (mainly pensions and the health system), which have led to a public deficit of 8.2% of GDP in 2009 (significantly above the OECD average), the government is forced to cut public spending and/or raise taxes but has no clear strategy so far. Therefore, its commitment to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP by 2013 is met with skepticism by most experts.
France has a high-quality health system, which is also largely inclusive. Since its establishment, it has remained a public system based on a compulsory, uniform insurance for all French citizens, with employers’ and employees’ contributions calculated according to wage levels. Together with widespread complementary insurances, they cover most individual costs. About 10% of GDP is spent on health, one of the highest ratios in Europe. The problem is cost efficiency and containment of deficits (in 2009: €12 billion).
To face rising problems, the choice has been to keep the public system and not to privatize, even in part. Measures of modernization, rationalization and better efficiency of the system and the treatments on offer (e.g., hospitals) have been undertaken, as well as measures of limited cost sharing by individuals. Since 1996, the parliament has voted on an annual expenditure target for the whole system but, in practice, this target has been exceeded regularly. The government has found it difficult to impose its targets for the evolution of expenditures, pharmaceutical prices, medical treatment and remuneration.
The current government has not put forward dynamic measures to contain the financial evolution of the health system. A measure of cost sharing for medical treatment has been announced; the idea of transferring part of the financing from social contributions (which should be cut for reasons of competitiveness) to an increased VAT has been discussed but finally was abandoned.
By international and European standards, the French welfare state is very generous and covers all possible dimensions affecting the collective and individual welfare, not only of nationals but also of foreign residents and keeps poverty at a comparatively low level.
Nonetheless, the fact that very few aspects of life escape social policy coverage both at the local and national level also has drawbacks, as high benefits for a long period of time create negative employment incentives. The problem has been present for years in public debate and in action. The debate has mainly focused on social cohesion and on fighting social exclusion, seen as a cumulative process of material poverty and inability to take part in social and political life. This is linked to the double effect produced by social policies: on the one hand, they prevent individuals and families from falling into situations of extreme poverty; on the other, the status of quasi-permanent unemployment is a crucial factor of social exclusion and demoralization. There is a striking contrast between the considerable financial effort made by public authorities and the long-term failure to bring back the unemployed into the labor market. In 2009, the government initiated a new scheme (Revenu social d’activité) which complements low wages, giving people better incentives to go back to work, offering better coverage while trying to avoid the pitfalls and drawbacks of the former system. Its implementation is too recent to draw conclusions about its potential effects. In any case, the economic crisis has struck again the weakest groups, for example, youth and workers over the age of 55.
Family allowances as well as fiscal rebates for families (based on the number of children) have been in place since the 1930s. In addition to the family allowances, which form an important part of the income of small families, collective facilities (nurseries, kindergarten, infant schools, schools open in the afternoons, and canteens) have been since the 1960s widely available, allowing child care from an early age and at a low cost or even free of charge. Consequently, pre-primary education has been fostered; France shows one of the best performances in international surveys. This network of allowances and facilities, together with other parts of social security, social housing and so on, seems to successfully prevent child poverty. These policies have been very effective, contributing to a rather satisfactory demographic situation, in particular in comparison with other European countries. Such policies also have enabled women to enter the labor market, where they represent nearly half of the workforce.
The pension system in France is composed of very different regimes, depending on their public or private status, but also according to sectors and professions. Pensions are more generous for public servants. In any case, all regimes are built up according to the “pay as you go” rule, while private pension funds barely exist. Whereas the pension system is quite generous, with the pension age fixed at 60 years, and shows a good capacity for preventing old age-poverty, it faces growing problems of long-term financial sustainability.
In spite of multiple piecemeal reforms, the pensions system will not be able to face the challenges of the future. Payments are higher than contributions, resulting in a deficit of more than €7 billion in 2009, and the situation will be even worse in 30 to 40 years when the number of pensioners will equal those of contributors. Over the past 10 years, governments have tried to introduce reforms on several fronts: an increase of contributions; an increase in the number of years of contribution, up to 42 years; and in 2008, a reduction of peculiarities or privileges granted to “special regimes.” But in parallel, young people enter the labor market late while only 38% of people over 55 are still working. Further reforms are needed. Therefore, President Sarkozy and his government have decided to come back again to this issue. A new reform bill presented in June 2010 and adopted in October 2010 increased the pension age from 60 to 62 years.
Traditionally, France has an open policy toward immigrants acquiring French nationality; every person born in France is considered French, or eligible to obtain French citizenship. This rhetoric as well as concrete policy objectives have been applied to migrants rather successfully up to the 1970s. Education, labor market policy and naturalization were the key instruments of that integration process.
In recent years, however, the model has produced more and more problems and conflicts, even if it still works for the majority of immigrants. The cultural awareness of young French citizens with north African background, together with the social phenomena of racism and discrimination, have created explosive situations, mainly in the problematic suburban zones where these populations are concentrated. Rising unemployment has hit migrant young people particularly hard; France shows a particular poor performance considering foreign-born unemployment. The declining integrative power of republican institutions, such as schools, has been illustrated by the “headscarf” conflicts (young Muslim female pupils wearing headscarves) when the authorities were torn between strict prohibition (in the name of the separation between church and state, which interdicts all religious symbols in public institutions) and a more liberal attitude (postulated by some factions of the public in the name of respecting cultural identity). Entire families have been living on welfare benefits for long periods of time while trafficking is becoming a profitable business for gangs of young people. Petty criminality has become more attractive than badly paid jobs. Those better educated have the feeling of being rejected from the labor market for ethnic or racial reasons.
Any judgment on the success or failure of integration policy is difficult. On the one hand, France has a long past (and present) record of success in integrating large group of immigrants. It has been calculated that a quarter of the French population has a least one grandparent of foreign origin. The acquisition of nationality also testifies of that success since every year, as more than 100,000 people become French through naturalization. On the other hand, the integration of the so-called second generation (in fact, often the third!) is very difficult, resulting from many combined factors: a failure of the education system, concentration of social ghettos at the periphery of large cities, high unemployment, identity problems and so on.
During the Fifth Republic, all governments including those of the left have insisted on the necessity of an autonomous security and defense policy. This attitude reached its climax in 1966 with the withdrawal of France from the NATO military command. This period ended in 2009, when France was reintegrated in NATO. A substantial budgetary effort has been made over the past 50 years to combine the build-up of a nuclear force and an intervention capacity abroad, particularly in Africa. France comes second after Greece in the European Union for the amount of resources spent on defense; its equipment sophistication is high. In addition, its security policy is based on active diplomacy and a dedicated and comprehensive (political, economic, cultural) foreign policy in world affairs. There seems to be no major exterior threat to France. More widely (and also more recently), French governments have committed themselves to protect citizens against any potential risk (natural disasters, diseases, etc.). They have gone as far as introducing the “precautionary principle” in the constitution in particular in relation to environmental issues. While there is strong social pressure in favor of such an approach, more and more voices are claiming that one has gone too far by promoting a risk-adverse society.
Concern about internal security has been high in recent years. Attention has focused on repeated outbreaks of urban violence in the suburban zones or other spectacular cases. Following the increasing level of petty criminality and several terrorist attacks on French territory and abroad, citizens have been more and more vocal about the need to be better protected by enforcing “law and order” measures.
Internal security has also been an issue of partisan competition since the early 2000s. Since then, every major outcry following a serious crime, a violent protest or social disorder has triggered new legislation, new measures or new enforcement policies. The issue has remained at the top of the agenda but, for the time being, the results have been disappointing.
On the whole, domestic security policy is able to protect citizens; problems of urban violence are linked to social problems and have to be managed by actions beyond security policy.
France shows a mediocre performance with respect to environmental targets. Its good performance on CO2 emissions is due to the importance of nuclear power, whereas other fields, such as isolation, energy economies and so on, have been neglected. Although a national strategy for sustainable development was set up in 2003, environmental policies continued to be subordinated to sectoral policies which are considered as more important.
Things changed when President Sarkozy launched an ambitious plan after his election in 2007 to build consensus between various environmental stakeholders. He took major initiatives at the international, European and national level. After some initial successes, the momentum has been lost in particular after the failure of the Copenhagen summit. On the national level, a carbon tax adopted in December 2008 faced many criticisms both from consumers (supported by the left) and from the business community and farmers (supported behind the scenes by a large percentage of the majority party). The final straw was inflicted by the Constitutional Council which ruled the bill as unconstitutional for not distributing in a fair way the additional costs related to the new tax. The government first declared that a revised version would be applicable in June 2010, but following the bad results in the regional elections it declared that the carbon tax would have to be European or not at all, a way of burying its initial ambitions. This major blow has contributed to downgrade environment from the top of the agenda. The economic crisis and the meager political gains have played their role in this new assessment of priorities.
France has a rather good overall performance concerning research and innovation. According to the EU Innovation Policy Report, France is ranked tenth (out of 27 EU countries) with respect to innovation capacity; as for the global innovation index, France performs above the EU average but is put in the group of “innovation followers,” behind the group of “innovation leaders.” The report says that “over the past five years, France has been above the EU average in two such dimensions: enablers i.e., the main drivers of innovation that are external to the firm and in particular to human resources, and finance and support; outputs, specifically in terms of innovators and economic effects indicators. On the other hand, France is below the EU average in the firm activities dimension (firm investments, linkage, entrepreneurship and throughputs).” The main weaknesses are seen in a relatively low private resource mobilization for R&D, a low innovative behavior of companies, especially small- and medium-size businesses, as well as a rather weak collaboration between the private and the public sectors.
Since 2007, the government has taken several measures to facilitate and promote innovation: fiscal rebates for companies and citizens have been introduced; major projects have been financed; private funds have been mobilized through the creation of foundations; and a €30 billion public loan has been launched to support “innovative” ventures. Some procurement policies (such as the commitment by public authorities to order up to 100,000 electric cars for the use of public services or administrations) have also been put in place. In many ways the traditional French model of state support for large technological projects (Airbus, Arianespace, high speed trains, and so on) has been revamped. However, given the new environment of globalization, it remains to be seen if this traditional model can efficiently work.
French education is centralized and mainly state-run (however, private, mostly Catholic, schools make up approximately 20% of the total). France is rated rather well in the PISA study (tenth rank out of 30). Spending on preschool level (nearly all children from three years on attend preschools, or école maternelle) is exemplary and still above the OECD average at the primary level. Generally, the education branch transfer to professional training has been deficient. Organized by the state schools, it has lacked alternate training in cooperation with business, and diplomas are not accepted by firms. This is one of the reasons for high youth unemployment in France. However, in recent times, new formulae of joint training programs with businesses have been established and proven successful.
There is a dualism in tertiary education: between a “selective” sector (comprising some elite schools, other shorter, three-year training programs), which generally is in good financial health and the “non selective” sector (comprising mainly universities), which lacks sufficient resources. France’s performance on tertiary education spending is rather poor. The attrition rate in French universities is high. Some 40% to 50% of students (circa 90,000) leave the system before acquiring a diploma. To make matters worse, the degrees acquired do not assure students of employment (more than half of students are still jobless one year after having left university).
University reform has been a permanent topic on the political agenda but change has been slow in coming. Education is a highly sensitive matter in France; together with corporatist attitudes this tends to inhibit reforms. The new government passed a law in 2007 leading to more autonomy and freedom for universities up to 2010, and strengthening their internal management; moreover, €39 billion has been earmarked in the legislature (2007-2012) to finance universities, and curricula should be revised to be more adaptable to the labor market. But it seems that France is only at the beginning of a profound modernization of its tertiary system.
Social inequality in access to education and qualifications is a sensitive topic. There are persisting inequalities that effectively penalize students of working-class families at the level of university degrees, and flagrantly in access to the elite schools (“grandes écoles”). Social, ethnic and territorial inequalities are very often linked (as a result of massive concentration of poor immigrant families in the suburban zones).
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Reimut Zohlnhöfer University of Bamberg
Prof. Yves Mény European University Institute, Florence