| U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: France, October 1995
Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: French Republic
Area: 551,670 sq. km. (220,668 sq. mi.); largest West European
country, about four-fifths the size of Texas.
GDP: $1.3 trillion.
Since prehistoric times, France has been a crossroads of trade, travel, and invasion. Three basic European ethnic stocks--Celtic, Latin, and Teutonic (Frankish)--have blended over the centuries to make up its present population. France's birth rate was among the highest in Europe from 1945 until the late 1960s. Since then, its birth rate has fallen but remains higher than that of most other West European countries. Traditionally, France has had a high level of immigration. About 90% of the people are Roman Catholic, less than 2% are Protestant, and about 1% are Jewish. More than 1 million Muslims immigrated in the 1960s and early 1970s from North Africa, especially Algeria. At the end of 1994, there were about 4 million persons of Muslim descent living in France.
Education is free, beginning at age two, and mandatory between ages six and 16. The public education system is highly centralized. Private education is primarily Roman Catholic. Higher education in France began with the founding of the University of Paris in 1150. It now consists of 69 universities and special schools, such as the Grandes Ecoles, technical colleges, and vocational training institutions.
The French language derives from the vernacular Latin spoken by the Romans in Gaul, although it includes many Celtic and Germanic words. French has been an international language for centuries and is a common second language throughout the world. It is one of five official languages at the United Nations. In Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the West Indies, French has been a unifying factor, particularly in those countries where it serves as the only common language among a variety of indigenous languages and dialects.
France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism into the era of the nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers, and French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and professional of their day.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis and his successors led to chronic financial problems in the 18th century. Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics were among the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789- 94).
Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times--the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
After the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940.
World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was defeated early in World War II, however, and occupied in 1940. The German victory left the French groping for a new policy and new leadership suited to the circumstances. On July 10, 1940, the Vichy Government was established. Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as the sending of French forced labor to Germany; in doing so, they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty.
The German occupation proved quite costly, however, as a full one-half of France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After four years of occupation and strife, Allied forces liberated France in 1944. A bitter legacy carries over to the present day. A nation-wide debate has emerged over how much responsibility France should bear for the crimes and collaborations of the Vichy regime.
France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government.
Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result of the tremendous opposing pressures generated in the divisive Algerian issue. A threatened coup led the parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and prevent civil war. He became Prime Minister in June 1958 (at the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected President in December of that year.
Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th century that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating Francois Mitterrand. In April 1969, President de Gaulle's government conducted a national referendum on the creation of 21 regions with limited political powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de Gaulle subsequently resigned.
Succeeding him as President of France have been Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), and neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (elected in spring 1995).
President Mitterrand's second seven-year term ended in May 1995. During his tenure, he stressed the importance of European integration and advocated the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European economic and political union, which France's electorate narrowly approved in September 1992.
President Jacques Chirac has vowed that fighting unemployment (more than 11% overall; 25% among younger, unskilled workers) will be his top priority.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic was approved by public referendum on September 28, 1958. It greatly strengthened the authority of the executive in relation to parliament. Under the constitution, the president is elected directly for a seven-year term. Presidential arbitration assures regular functioning of the public powers and the continuity of the state. The president names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties.
The president may submit questions to a national referendum and can dissolve the National Assembly. In certain emergency situations, the president may assume full powers.
Besides the president, the other main component of France's executive branch is the cabinet. Headed by the prime minister, who is the nominal head of government, the cabinet is composed of a varying number of ministers, minister-delegates, and secretaries of state. Parliament meets in regular session twice annually for a maximum of three months on each occasion. Special sessions are common. Although parliamentary powers are diminished from those existing under the Fourth Republic, the National Assembly can still cause a government to fall if an absolute majority of the total Assembly membership votes to censure.
The National Assembly is the principal legislative body. Its deputies are directly elected to five-year terms, and all seats are voted on in each election. Senators are chosen by an electoral college for nine- year terms, and one-third of the Senate is renewed every three years. The Senate's legislative powers are limited; the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses. The government has a strong influence in shaping the agenda of parliament. The government also can link its life to any legislative text, and unless a motion of censure is introduced and voted, the text is considered adopted without a vote.
The most distinctive feature of the French judicial system is that it is divided into the Constitutional Council and the Council of State. The Constitutional Council examines legislation and decides whether it conforms to the constitution. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, it only considers legislation that is referred to it by parliament, the prime minister, or the president; moreover, it considers legislation before it is promulgated. The Council of State has a separate function from the Constitutional Council and provides recourse to individual citizens who have claims against the administration.
Traditionally, decision-making in France has been highly centralized, with each of France's departments headed by a prefect appointed by the central government. In 1982, the national government passed legislation to decentralize authority by giving a wide range of administrative and fiscal powers to local elected officials. In March 1986, regional councils were directly elected for the first time.
Principal Government Officials
France maintains an embassy in the U.S. at 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 202-944-6000).
A charter member of the United Nations, France holds one of the permanent seats in the Security Council and is a member of most of its specialized and related agencies.
Europe. France is a leader in Western Europe because of its size, location, strong economy, membership in European organizations, strong military posture, and energetic diplomacy. France generally has worked to strengthen the global economic and political influence of the EU and its role in common European defense. It views Franco-German cooperation as the foundation of efforts to enhance European security.
President Chirac has declared his support for eventual implementation of economic and monetary union and is committed to maintaining France's central role in the EU. France remains a firm supporter of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other efforts at cooperation.
France has assumed a leading role in trying to resolve the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Its troops represent the largest contingent of the UN Protection Force stationed in the area.
Furthermore, a number of French organizations have played an active role in providing humanitarian assistance to victims of the war.
Middle East. France supports the Middle East Peace Process as revitalized by the 1991 Madrid peace conference. In this context, France backed the establishment of a Palestinian homeland and the withdrawal of Israel from all occupied territories. Recognizing the need for a comprehensive peace agreement, France supports the involvement of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians and Israel in a multilateral peace process. France has been active in promoting a regional economic dialogue and has played an active role in providing assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Africa. France plays a significant role in Africa, especially in its former colonies, through extensive aid programs, commercial activities, military agreements, and cultural impact. Key advisory positions are staffed by French nationals in many African countries. In those former colonies where the French presence remains important, France contributes to political, military, and social stability.
Asia. France has extensive commercial relations with Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan (which presents serious competition in automobiles, electronics, and machine tools). France has taken a leading role in efforts to achieve a settlement to the Cambodian conflict, and, at the Tokyo Conference in June 1992, French and American leaders met to discuss Cambodian reconstruction. France is also seeking to broaden its commercial influence in Vietnam and Laos.
Latin America. France supports strengthening democratic institutions in Latin America. It supports the ongoing efforts to restore democracy to Haiti and has agreed to participate in Phase II of the UN Mission in Haiti.
Security Issues. French military doctrine is based on the concepts of national independence, nuclear deterrence, and military sufficiency. France is a charter signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty and is a member of the North Atlantic Council and its subordinate institutions. Since 1966, it has not participated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) integrated military command structure, although it remains a member of some alliance military bodies.
The French army currently is undergoing a major reorganization which aims at reducing personnel, garrisons, and headquarters; enlarging a reduced number of corps and divisions; and modernizing equipment. In 1993, the French armed forces numbered about 270,000; in 1997, after restructuring, the level will be 227,000.
France's foremost arms control concern relates to the worldwide proliferation of ballistic missiles, nuclear technologies, and conventional weapons. In each of these areas, France has worked closely with the United States in a determined effort to preclude such advanced technologies from spreading to unstable regions. Moreover, it has actively participated in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) process and the Geneva Conference on Disarmament.
President Chirac announced in June 1995 his decision that France would complete a series of eight nuclear tests in 1995 and 1996. The French Government indicates that these tests are designed to ensure the safety and reliability of the French nuclear weapons force. President Chirac has underlined France's commitment to negotiate and sign a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the end of 1996.
Relations between the United States and France are active and cordial. Mutual visits by high-level officials are conducted on a regular basis. Bilateral contact at the cabinet level has traditionally been active. France and the United States share common values and have parallel policies on most political, economic, and security issues. Differences are discussed frankly and have not been allowed to impair the pattern of close cooperation that characterizes relations between the two countries.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Consulate General, Marseille--Jackson C. McDonald
The U.S. embassy in France is located at 2 Avenue Gabriel, Paris 8 (tel.  (1) 4312-2222). The United States also is represented in Paris by its mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
George C. Marshall
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
T H E W H I T E H O U S E