Printer Frendly Version

Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies - France

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)


France is Western Europe's largest country by area and the 48th largest in the world, excluding its overseas territories. It has a population of about 61 million people, ranking 21st in the world. By economic measurements, France is among the world's most successful countries. With a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.231 trillion, it had the world's sixth-largest and Europe's third-largest economy (after Germany and Britain) in 2006. By purchasing power parity (PPP), which accounts for local price differences to get a more accurate picture of living standards, France's GDP ranked seventh in the world in 2006, at $1.942 trillion. Nominal gross national income (GNI) per capita was 22nd in the world ($36,550), and PPP GNI was 23rd ($32,130).


France is a republic with a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government. As with many countries, it has a history filled with division, intolerance, absolutism, and empire. But France also has a strong tradition of republicanism, popular revolution, human rights, and resistance to Nazi occupation. The seminal event in its modern history was the Revolution of 1789, which toppled the absolute monarchy and ushered in the country's first republican government. Today, France's democracy is among the world's strongest. Its powerful presidency is unusual for Europe, where the parliamentary system is more common, but its constitutional limits are clearly established. The National Assembly has decisive powers to approve or censure the government and pass laws and budgets, and the system is further protected by two constitutional courts, independent news media, and a vibrant intellectual class that exercises its rights of speech, conscience, and thought without hindrance.


The area that later became France was conquered in the first century BC by the Romans, who knew it as Gaul. After the collapse of the Roman Empire five centuries later, the territory formed part of the larger Frankish kingdom established by Clovis I. However, the realm was repeatedly divided by feuding princes and Viking raids, and it eventually became a patchwork of estates ruled by powerful noblemen. France emerged as a distinct political unit only in the late 10th century, when kings based in the Paris area began to assert royal authority over the surrounding lands. Over the subsequent centuries, the French kings also had to contend with the rulers of England, who claimed sovereignty over large parts of the country. But by the reign of Francis I (1515–47) of the Valois dynasty, the royal government had extended its control almost to the borders of modern France.

Painting of "Combat Quiberon 1795" by Jean Sorieul, illustrating a Battle during the French Revolution

Wars of Religion

The rise of Protestantism among the French nobility and townsmen, combined with opposition to growing royal authority in many parts of the country, helped to plunge France into a series of bloody civil conflicts beginning in 1562. During this time, the minority who converted to Protestantism (known as Huguenots) were subject to repression and massacres. Henry IV, the first king of the Bourbon dynasty, was himself a Protestant. He defended his succession to the throne, winning military victories over his Catholic enemies, but converted to Catholicism to gain the acceptance of his overwhelmingly Catholic subjects. To prevent further unrest, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, providing Protestants with freedom of worship and civil equality (see also "Freedom of Religion").

Renunciation of the Edict of Nantes

Henry's son and successor, Louis XIII (1610–43), together with his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, undermined the Edict of Nantes through restrictive interpretation and brutally suppressed the Huguenot rebellion of 1625–29. France nevertheless intervened on the Protestant side during the last part of the Thirty Years War (1618–48) due to its rivalry with Spain and Austria. In doing so, it gained a number of neighboring German territories. France agreed to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which confirmed the right of states to determine their own religion and the more general principle of state sovereignty. For France's next king, Louis XIV (1643–1715), this meant further repression of Protestant worship and the full revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Many Protestants, if they did not convert to Catholicism, left the country. France today remains predominantly Catholic.

The Absolutist State

Louis XIV is also known for centralizing the state and economy through his principal financial minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert. Appointed in 1665, Colbert introduced a more efficient system of public accounts and debt management, and offered state support to invigorate maritime trade and domestic industries. Through his combination of state direction of the economy and promotion of trade, Colbert is considered a father of mercantilism, which emphasized the national accumulation of gold and silver through increased exports and internal self-sufficiency (see "Economic Freedom).

Over the course of the 18th century, attempts at reform were hampered or undone by costly foreign wars and lingering feudal institutions. The government was plagued by fiscal crises even when the wider economy was performing well, and extensive aristocratic privileges frustrated both royal officials and society at large. At the same time, the philosophical Enlightenment of the era spread new ideas among French intellectuals, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who promoted ideas of popular sovereignty and equality. Most important, Enlightenment thinkers drew attention to the irrationality and cruelty of the existing French system.

The Revolution

In 1789, financial difficulties forced King Louis XVI to call a gathering of representatives of the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners, known collectively as the Estates-General. In June, the "third estate" rejected the authority of nobles and clerics, declared itself a National Assembly, and sought to impose a constitution on the king. After the monarch began to resist this action, the citizens of Paris revolted on July 14 and stormed the Bastille, a major prison and armory. Their uprising quickly took the form of a national revolution. The National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which went further even than the American Declaration of Independence or Constitution in asserting citizens' democratic rights. Despite the document's republican rhetoric and the people's repudiation of royalty, most delegates of the Assembly still hoped to maintain a constitutional monarchy.

The constitution establishes the rights and freedoms of the citizenry and proclaims the people’s "attachment" to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

However, the Revolution grew more radical after Louis attempted to flee the country and a devastating war began with Austria and other royalist European powers. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished by a new National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage. The king was beheaded the following year, and the most extreme factions, led by the Jacobins, established a dictatorship ruled by a group of revolutionary committees. The period from 1793 to 1794, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, is known as the Reign of Terror. Citing the ideas of Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers, Robespierre and his allies insisted that their actions were necessary to save the Revolution from its internal and foreign enemies. Thousands of people—the royal family, nobles, bourgeoisie, intellectuals, peasants, and workers—were arrested, sentenced to death by obedient courts, and executed by guillotine. Foreshadowing similar actions by 20th-century totalitarian regimes, the radical government adopted a new revolutionary calendar, with the first year set to mark the founding of the republic.

The Thermidorian Reaction and the Rise of Napoleon

The National Convention finally deposed Robespierre and turned against the extremes of the Terror in what became known as the Thermidorian reaction, named for the month in the revolutionary calendar in which it occurred. A new constitution was adopted, creating a bicameral legislature and a five-member executive Directory. However, the ideologically moderate regime was buffeted by opponents on the left and right, and it was dependent on the support of the increasingly powerful military. Napoleon Bonaparte, an army general, took power in a coup in 1799, becoming "first consul" of the republic. He proclaimed himself emperor in 1804 and engaged in years of warfare with the European monarchies before his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon's legacy was long-lasting. He transformed France by introducing a uniform legal code and system of bureaucracy, and spread the core ideas of the Revolution across Europe through his military conquests.

While monarchist elements continued to play an influential role in national affairs for many years, the economic, social, and political transformation wrought by the Revolution and its aftermath grew increasingly entrenched.

A Tumultuous 19th Century and the Founding of the Third Republic

The Bourbon dynasty was restored in 1815, although this time with a constitution and elected legislature. When the king attempted to reassert elements of absolutism, a revolt led by the upper middle class placed Louis Philippe, the duc d'Orleans, on the throne in 1830. The electorate remained limited under the new monarchy, and disenfranchised groups rose up in 1848 to establish the Second Republic. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the former emperor's nephew, won election as president of the new republic later that year. He staged a coup as his single term in office drew to a close, and in 1852 a plebiscite confirmed him as Emperor Napoleon III. In the course of France's crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the emperor was deposed and a Third Republic was proclaimed. A leftist Paris Commune—in the tradition of the radical Paris Commune that arose following the 1789 Revolution—was organized to oppose both the Prussians and the relatively conservative new regime, but it was defeated by government forces in 1871. The Third Republic went on to become the longest-lasting constitutional system in France's history. While monarchist elements continued to play an influential role in national affairs for many years, the economic, social, and political transformation wrought by the Revolution and its aftermath grew increasingly entrenched.

Vichy: A Shameful Era

The Third Republic survived World War I (1914–18) but quickly collapsed in the face of a Nazi German invasion in 1940. Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, the republic's last prime minister, agreed to an armistice that allowed German forces to occupy and administer much of the country, including Paris. Meanwhile, the constitution was suspended and Petain became the leader of a Fascist puppet regime based in Vichy, in central France. In 1942, the Germans occupied the whole country. But for the rest of World War II, the Vichy government cooperated fully with the Germans, hunting down and executing resistance fighters, contributing French labor and resources to the German war effort, and helping to round up tens of thousands of Jews for deportation and mass murder.

During the war, many French took part in the resistance movement against German occupation, engaging in spying, sabotage, and guerrilla fighting. General Charles de Gaulle escaped to London and helped establish a Free French army and government in exile. But large numbers of businessmen, civil service workers, and police collaborated with the occupiers. The Vichy regime came to an end after the successful Allied invasion of France in June 1944. A provisional government headed by de Gaulle gave way in 1946 to the Fourth Republic, which was similar in constitutional structure to the Third. The Communist Party, which had been active in the wartime resistance, gained prominence immediately after the war, raising fears that France would align itself with the Soviet Union. However, American aid through the Marshall Plan and France's other political parties helped to rebuild the country on a democratic footing. France later emerged as one of Europe's strongest economies and a leading force in the creation of the European Union (EU).

French Colonialism

France had been an active participant in the European race to build colonial empires around the world. Although it lost its North American possessions at the end of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War) in 1763, it retained a number of Caribbean islands and French Guiana. Napoleon I briefly regained a section of North America from Spain, but sold it to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Over the course of the 19th century, France extended its control over parts of Southeast Asia, North and West Africa, and islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It also joined Great Britain in dividing the Middle East after World War I, taking responsibility for Syria and Lebanon in a last bid at imperial expansion. However, in the decades following World War II, all European countries came under pressure to dismantle their colonial empires and leave independent states in their place. Under the Fourth Republic, France's overseas empire was reorganized as the French Union, which ostensibly granted more equity and autonomy to the colonies. Nevertheless, Vietnamese forces compelled the French to withdraw from Southeast Asia in 1954, and many other countries gained independence over the next decade.

The most consequential anticolonial struggle for France was that of Algeria, where many French colonists had settled since the first French invasion in 1830. Years of brutal violence and political turmoil—in which the French government contended with both Algerian nationalists and, toward the end, militant colonists and army factions—finally resulted in independence in 1962, but only after a constitutional overhaul in France itself. Meanwhile, a number of former colonies, mainly small island territories, have remained part of France as overseas departements (French administrative regions), and the country retains close relations with most of its former empire in a community not unlike the British Commonwealth.

Constitutional Limits

The Fourth Republic, established immediately after World War II, had restored many of the Third Republic's characteristics, including a constitutionally strong but politically divided Parliament and a relatively weak executive. As the Algerian crisis came to a head and right-wing elements threatened to rebel, Charles de Gaulle was recalled from retirement in 1958 and set about establishing a Fifth Republic that included his vision of a strong presidency. The new constitution was approved by public referendum in September 1958 and amended in 1962.

The Fifth Republic: A Semi-Presidential System

Today, France is a republic with a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government, also known as a semi-presidential system. The president, the head of state, is elected directly to a five-year term (until 2002 it was seven years), with the possibility of reelection. He or she appoints the prime minister and cabinet, sets overall government policy, and plays an especially prominent role in national security and foreign policy, with formal command of the armed forces and responsibility for concluding treaties. The president can dissolve Parliament before the end of its term and may rule by decree in emergency situations. The prime minister and other ministers handle the implementation of government policy, making more detailed, day-to-day decisions.

The Parliament's Role

Parliament, which is bicameral, meets for a nine-month session each year, although the president may call an emergency session in the three-month interim period. The lower house, the National Assembly, has 577 deputies directly elected to five-year terms and is the principal legislative body. All seats are open in a general election. In addition to approving budgets and laws, it has the power to bring down a prime minister and cabinet through a vote of censure. Therefore, the government must retain the approval of a majority of the Assembly.

Members of the upper house, the Senate, are chosen by an electoral college made up of the elected officials from their respective departments or territories. Twelve senators represent French nationals living abroad. Senators (who numbered 331 as of 2007) serve for six years, with one-half of the seats up for election every three years. The Senate can offer amendments to bills and initiate some forms of legislation, but the more powerful National Assembly can overrule it in any disagreement.

Since Parliament and the president are elected separately, they sometimes represent different parties, as in the United States. However, in France such cases of divided government are called cohabitation, since the president must work—within the executive branch—with a prime minister and cabinet members from a rival party. Since 1980, there have been periods of cohabitation pairing a Socialist president (Francois Mitterrand) with a majority conservative National Assembly, and a conservative president (Jacques Chirac) with a Socialist majority in the Assembly. More often, the president has a unified government, with a cabinet and legislative majority from his own party.

The Foundation of the Constitution

The constitution establishes the rights and freedoms of the citizenry and proclaims the people's "attachment" to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Institutional safeguards include the Constitutional Council, which examines the constitutionality of legislation referred to it by Parliament, the prime minister, or the president before it is signed into law; and the Council of State, which hears constitutional questions or claims against the government brought by individual citizens. The constitution is less clear on the status of immigrants, an issue that has gained prominence in recent years. Roughly 10 percent of the population is foreign-born, and many others were born in France to immigrant parents. A series of urban riots in 2005 highlighted the problem of their rights, social status, and economic conditions.

The strength of the constitution and the country's vigorous intellectual tradition are among the most important checks on governmental power in France. They foster and protect an independent media and a culture of commentary and criticism in which individuals fully exercise their rights of free inquiry, expression, thought, and conscience. France's media outlets often have political orientations but operate independently of any political party. Several of today's newspapers and magazines have their roots in the period of resistance to Nazi rule, during which independent journalists put out daily and weekly papers at great risk to their lives and liberty.


France was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community (1952), which eventually grew into the European Union, and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO (1949). These institutions established strong treaty obligations, including commitments to uphold peace, human rights, and democracy. France withdrew from NATO's military command structure in 1966, but agreed to rejoin the alliance's Military Committee in 1995; it has since participated in joint NATO actions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. France has played a leading role in the European Union, especially in supporting steps toward greater economic, monetary, and political integration. In recent times, however, French presidents have resisted EU requirements to adopt specific budget changes and efforts to alter farm subsidies that benefit French agriculture. In 2005, French referendum voters rejected a proposed EU constitution due to perceived encroachments on sovereignty and other concerns. The vote was also seen as an expression of dissatisfaction with the French government, which supported the constitution plan.


France, although it has adopted a system with a strong presidency, has constitutional limits including the legislature's powers to bring down a government; two judicial oversight bodies, the Constitutional Council and Council of State; substantial constitutional protections for civil and human rights; and treaty obligations under the EU and NATO. France also possesses vibrant independent media and an outspoken intellectual class.