A republic in western Europe; the largest country wholly in Europe.
Country in W Europe, bounded NE by Belgium and Germany, E by Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, S by the Mediterranean Sea, SW by Spain and Andorra, and W by the Atlantic Ocean.
Under the 1958 Fifth Republic constitution, amended 1962, France has a two-chamber legislature and a “shared executive” government. The legislature comprises a national assembly, with 577 deputies elected for five-year terms from single-member constituencies following a two-ballot, runoff majority system, and a senate, whose 321 members are indirectly elected, a third at a time, triennially for nine-year terms from groups of local councillors.
Twenty-two national assembly and thirteen senate seats are elected by overseas départements (administrative regions) and territories, and 12 senate seats by French nationals abroad. The national assembly is the dominant chamber. The senate can temporarily veto legislation, but its vetoes can be overridden by the national assembly.
France's executive is functionally divided between the president and prime minister. The president, elected for a seven-year term by direct universal suffrage after gaining a majority in either a first or second runoff ballot, functions as head of state, commander in chief of the armed forces, and guardian of the constitution. The president selects the prime minister, presides over cabinet meetings, countersigns government bills, negotiates foreign treaties, and can call referendums and dissolve the National Assembly.
The prime minister is selected from the ranks of the national assembly. According to the constitution, ultimate control over policy-making rests with the prime minister and council of ministers.
The president and prime minister work with ministers from political and technocratic backgrounds, assisted by a skilled and powerful civil service. A nine-member constitutional council (selected every three years in a staggered manner by the state president and the presidents of the senate and national assembly) and a Conseil d’Etat, staffed by senior civil servants, rule on the legality of legislation passed.
At the local level there are 21 regional councils concerned with economic planning. Below these are 96 département councils and almost 36,000 town and village councils. Corsica has its own directly elected 61-seat parliament with powers to propose amendments to national assembly legislation.
There are four overseas départements (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion) with their own elected general and regional councils, two overseas “collective territories” (Mayotte and St Pierre and Miquelon) administered by appointed commissioners, and four overseas territories (French Polynesia, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, and the Wallis and Futuna Islands) governed by appointed high commissioners, which form constituent parts of the French Republic, returning deputies to the national legislature.
For history before 1945, see France: history. A “united front” provisional government headed by de Gaulle assumed power in the reestablished republic before a new constitution was framed and adopted for a Fourth Republic Jan 1946. This provided for a weak executive and powerful national assembly. With 26 impermanent governments being formed 1946–58, real power passed to the civil service, which, by introducing a new system of “indicative economic planning”, engineered rapid economic reconstruction. Decolonization of French Indochina 1954, Morocco and Tunisia 1956, and entry into the European Economic Community 1957 were also effected.
The Fourth Republic was overthrown 1958 by a political and military crisis over Algerian independence, which threatened to lead to a French army revolt. De Gaulle was recalled from retirement to head a government of national unity and supervised the framing of the new Fifth Republic constitution, which strengthened the president and prime minister.
De Gaulle, who became president 1959, restored domestic stability and presided over the decolonization of Francophone Africa, including Algerian independence 1962. Close economic links were maintained with former colonies. De Gaulle also initiated a new foreign policy, withdrawing France from military cooperation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) 1966 and developing an autonomous nuclear deterrent force. The de Gaulle era was one of economic growth and large-scale rural–urban migration. Politically, however, there was tight censorship and strong centralization, and in 1967 the public reacted against de Gaulle’s paternalism by voting the “right coalition” a reduced majority.
In 1968, the nation was paralyzed by students' and workers' demonstrations in Paris that spread to the provinces and briefly threatened the government. De Gaulle called elections and won a landslide victory. In 1969, however, he was defeated in a referendum over proposed Senate and local-government reforms, and resigned. De Gaulle's former prime minister Georges Pompidou was elected president and pursued Gaullist policies until his death 1974.
Pompidou’s successor as president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, leader of the center-right Independent Republicans, introduced domestic reforms and played a more active and cooperative role in the EC. Giscard faced opposition, however, from his “right coalition” partner, Jacques Chirac, who was prime minister 1974–76, and deteriorating international economic conditions. France performed better than many of its European competitors 1974–81, with the president launching a major nuclear power program to save on energy imports and, while Raymond Barre was prime minister 1976–81, a new liberal “freer market” economic strategy. During this period the Union for French Democracy party (UDF) was formed to unite several center-right parties. However, with 1.7 million unemployed, Giscard was defeated by Socialist Party leader François Mitterrand in the 1981 presidential election.
Mitterrand’s victory was the first presidential success for the “left coalition” during the Fifth Republic and was immediately succeeded by a landslide victory for the Socialist Party (PS) and French Communist Party (PCF) in elections to the national assembly 1981. The new administration introduced a radical program of social reform, decentralization, and nationalization, and passed a series of reflationary budgets aimed at reducing unemployment.
Financial constraints forced a switch toward a more conservative policy of rigueur (“austerity”) 1983. A U-turn in economic policy was completed 1984 when Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy was replaced by Laurent Fabius, prompting the resignation of communist members of the cabinet. Unemployment rose to over 2.5 million 1985–86, increasing racial tension in urban areas. The extreme right-wing National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, benefited from this and gained seats in the March 1986 national assembly elections. The “left coalition” lost its majority, the PCF having been in decline in recent years. The PS, however, had emerged as France’s single most popular party.
From 1958 to 1986 the president and prime minister had been drawn from the same party coalition, and the president had been allowed to dominate in both home and foreign affairs. In 1986 Mitterrand was obliged to appoint as prime minister the leader of the opposition, Jacques Chirac, who emerged as the dominant force in the “shared executive”. Chirac introduced a radical “new conservative” program of denationalization, deregulation, and “desocialization”, using the executive’s decree powers and the parliamentary guillotine to steamroller measures through. His educational and economic reforms encountered serious opposition from militant students and striking workers, necessitating embarrassing policy concessions. Chirac was defeated by Mitterrand in the May 1988 presidential election.
In the national assembly elections June 1988, the socialists emerged as the largest single political party. Mitterrand duly appointed Michel Rocard, a moderate social democrat, as prime minister heading a minority PS government that included several center-party representatives. Rocard implemented a progressive program, aimed at protecting the underprivileged and improving the quality of life. In June 1988 he negotiated the Matignon Accord, designed to solve the New Caledonia problem, which was later approved by referendum. Between 1988 and 1990 France enjoyed a strong economic upturn and attention focused increasingly on quality of life, with the Green Party gaining 11% of the national vote in the European Parliament elections of June 1989.
The extreme-right National Front continued to do well in municipal elections, pressurizing the government into adopting a hard line against illegal immigration; new programs were announced for the integration of Muslim immigrants—from Algeria, Tunisia, and other areas with French colonial ties—into mainstream French society. Religious and cultural tensions increased. A commission set up to look at the problems of immigrant integration reported 1991 that France’s foreign population was 3.7 million (6.8% of the population), the same as in 1982. However, 10 million citizens were of “recent foreign origin”.
In Sept 1990, after Iraqi violation of the French ambassador's residence in Kuwait, the French government dispatched 5,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. Despite France's previously close ties with Iraq (including arms sales), French military forces played a prominent role within the US-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War. Defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevénement resigned Feb 1991 in opposition to this strategy, but the majority of people in the country—which has the largest Muslim population in W Europe—supported the government's stance.
decline in Mitterrand’s popularity
In April 1991 the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) and the Union for French Democracy (UDF), France's main, usually factious, right-of-center opposition parties, signed a formal election pact. In May, after disagreements over economic policy, Mitterrand replaced Rocard with Edith Cresson, citing her experience as a former member of the European Parliament and minister for European affairs as important for France's future in Europe. Mitterrand became the Fifth Republic's longest-serving president Sept 1991. However, with the economy in recession, racial tensions increasing, discontent among farmers, militancy among public-sector workers, and the reputation of the PS tarnished by a number of financial scandals, Mitterrand's popularity fell from over 50% in Sept 1991 to barely 35% in Jan 1992.
By the close of 1991 the popularity rating of Prime Minister Cresson was the lowest ever for a premier in the Fifth Republic and in the March 1992 regional council elections the PS captured only 18% of the national vote. Mitterrand appointed Pierre Bérégovoy to replace Cresson April 1992. As finance minister, he had been blamed by Cresson for the nation's economic troubles but was respected by the country's financial community. In a referendum Sept 1992 the Maastricht Treaty on European union was narrowly endorsed.
Socialists routed in assembly elections
The PS suffered a heavy defeat in the March 1993 national assembly elections, which were held during the midst of economic recession, with the unemployment rate exceeding 10%. The PS’s national poll share was its lowest since the parliamentary election of 1968. Mitterrand appointed Edouard Balladur of the conservative RPR as prime minister, to head the second “cohabitation” government of his presidency. In the aftermath of the Socialists’ defeat Pierre Bérégovoy committed suicide. Michel Rocard was chosen to replace him as PS leader, but resigned June 1994 after the Socialists polled poorly in the European elections. He was replaced by Emmanuelli Henri.
Balladur proved a popular prime minister but encountered opposition to his tight immigration and privatization policies and his proposals for local-government funding of private schools, which put him at odds with President Mitterrand. His employment legislation, reducing the minimum wage paid to young workers, was criticized by unions and the Socialists, but he easily defeated a no-confidence motion in the national assembly April 1994. With Mitterrand in failing health, Balladur emerged as the dominant force in the “cohabitation” administration, compounding his popularity by engineering a recovery in the French economy and overseeing a successful humanitarian mission in Rwanda. However, in the autumn of 1994 his popularity rating slumped after several of his ministers were implicated in corruption scandals and resigned.
Chirac elected president
Evidence of a split within the conservative RPR emerged in the run up to the 1995 presidential elections when it became clear that both Jacques Chirac, former premier and RPR leader, and Prime Minister Balladur intended to contest the presidency. Balladur dropped out of the contest after the first round of voting, and Chirac was elected president in May with a comfortable majority over the Socialists' candidate Lionel Jospin.