Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — France

 France Country Study 

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1.



France is a republic with a mixed presidential-parliamentary system of government. It has a history filled with division, intolerance, absolutism, and imperialism, but also one with strong traditions of popular revolution, republicanism, and human rights. The key event in its modern history was the Revolution of 1789, which toppled an absolute monarchy and formed the country's first republican government, but it took nearly a century for a stable democratic political system to be established. In 1958, the constitution of the country’s Fifth Republic was approved by referendum. France today has one of the world's strongest democracies and largest economies. Its powerful presidency, unusual for Europe where a parliamentary system is more common, is balanced by its constitutional limits. The National Assembly has powers to approve or censure the government and pass laws and budgets; an upper house reviews and approves Assembly actions. The system is strengthened by two constitutional courts, an independent media, a vibrant civil society, and an intellectual tradition of free speech and critical debate. 

France’s political and social system, as well as its constitutional protections of human rights, has been challenged in recent years, especially by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by members or supporters of the Islamic State. In response, President Francoise Hollande proposed constitutional changes enhancing presidential powers against terrorist threats.

France is Western Europe's largest country by area. Including overseas regions, it ranks 41st in the world in size. Its total population in 2015 (also including overseas departments and territories) is about 67 million people. By economic measurements, France is among the world's most successful countries. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it had Europe's third largest economy (after Germany and the United Kingdom) in 2014. Its nominal GDP ranked sixth largest in the world at more than $2.8 trillion in total output. In 2015, nominal per capita gross national income (GNI) ranked 20th in the world at approximately $38,000. France has a mixed economy that combines a high degree of state spending (the highest in Europe at 57.2 percent of GDP) with a vibrant free market economy. Out of 167 countries, France ranked 23rd in Transparency International’s corruption index for 2015. 


Gaul, the area that later became called France, was conquered in the first century BC by the Romans. After the collapse of the Roman Empire five centuries later, the Frankish kingdom established by Clovis I gained control over large parts of the territory. That kingdom was expanded by Charlemagne in the mid-eight century AD (the Carolingian Empire). France emerged as a broader political unit later, in the 10th century, when kings based in the Paris area began to assert royal authority over the surrounding regions. Over the subsequent centuries, French kings also had to contend with the rulers of England, who claimed sovereignty over large parts of the northeast of the country. By the reign of Francis I (1515–47), 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 and the Edict of Nantes

The rise of Protestantism among French nobility and townsmen brought France into a series of bloody civil conflicts beginning in 1562. The minority who converted to Protestantism (known as Huguenots) were subject to repression and massacres. Henry IV, a Protestant and the first king of the Bourbon dynasty, defended his succession to the throne with military victories over his Catholic enemies, but then converted his religion to gain the acceptance of his overwhelmingly Catholic subjects. To prevent further unrest, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which provided Protestants with freedom of worship and civic equality. Henry's son and successor, Louis XIII (1610–43), and his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, undermined the Edict of Nantes and brutally suppressed the resulting Huguenot rebellion of 1625–29. Due to its rivalry with Catholic Spain and Austria, however, France intervened on the Protestant side during the Thirty Years War (1618–48). The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the wars of religion, asserted the principle of state sovereignty and thus the right of states to determine their own religion. 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. 

The Absolutist State and The Revolution of 1789 

Louis XIV is also known for centralizing the state and economy. His principal financial minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, is considered the father of mercantilism, which emphasized the national accumulation of gold and silver through increased exports and internal self-sufficiency (see also Economic Freedom). Over the course of the 18th century, the government was plagued by fiscal crises as a result of foreign wars and extensive aristocratic privileges. In this period, many French intellectuals were influenced by the Enlightenment and its criticism of arbitrary monarchical rule and its lack of representative institutions. 

In 1788, economic difficulties caused by the country’s severe national debt led King Louis XVI to call a rare gathering of the Estates-General, which brought together representatives of the nobility, the clergy, and lower gentry. When it met, in June 1789, the "third estate" rejected the authority of nobles and clerics, declared itself a National Assembly, and sought to introduce a constitution. When Louis XVI rejected any limitations on his authority, the citizens of Paris revolted on July 14 and stormed the Bastille, a major prison and armory. The 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 than the original US Constitution in asserting citizens' basic rights. Yet, despite the document's republican language, most delegates of the Assembly still hoped to establish a constitutional monarchy, not a popular democracy. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen went further even than the original US Constitution in asserting citizens’ basic rights.

The Revolution grew more radical after Austria and other European powers launched a war to restore Louis XVI. In 1792, the new National Convention, elected by universal male suffrage, abolished the monarchy and established a republic. The king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were apprehended trying to flee the country and beheaded. The French Revolution, however, did not create a stable political system. The most extreme factions of the National Convention, led by the Jacobins, established a dictatorship of revolutionary committees. The period of 1793–94, when Maximilien Robespierre was the dominant leader, is known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre and his allies, justifying their actions as necessary to save the republic from its internal and foreign enemies, had thousands of people arrested, tried, and then executed by guillotine.

The National Convention finally turned against the Terror, deposing and executing Robespierre. A new constitution was adopted creating a bicameral legislature and a five-member executive called the Directory. Challenged by opponents on the left and right, the Directory became dependent on the support of the military. Army general Napoleon Bonaparte then seized power in a coup in 1799, calling himself the “first consul” of the republic. Assuming absolute powers, he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 and engaged in a grandiose military campaign to establish a French empire over all of continental Europe. He was forced to retreat from Moscow in 1812 after an unsuccessful and costly siege and was finally defeated by the British in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. 

The Second and Third Republics 

Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 resulted in the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, albeit with a constitution and elected legislature to limit royal power. When the king attempted to reassert elements of absolutism, an 1830 revolt placed Louis Philippe, the Duc d'Orleans, on the throne. The electoral franchise remained limited under the new monarchy and disenfranchised groups rose up in 1848 to establish a Second Republic. It, too, proved brief. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the former emperor's nephew, won election as president of the new republic later that year, but as his constitutionally limited single term in office drew to a close he also staged a coup and in 1852 had himself confirmed by plebiscite as Emperor Napoleon III. He (like his uncle) was deposed following a failed military campaign, this time France's crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). A Third Republic was established. One of the first actions of the Third Republic’s political and military leaders was to brutally suppress a challenge by the leftist Paris Commune — which represented the radical tradition of the French Revolution — in 1871. Despite its violent beginnings, the Third Republic went on to become the longest-lasting constitutional system in France's history, surviving until 1940.

Vichy: A Shameful Era

The Third Republic, weakened by economic depression and political division in the 1930s, collapsed in the face of the Nazi German invasion in 1940. Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I and the republic's prime minister, agreed to an armistice whose terms allowed German forces to occupy and administer the north of the country, including Paris, but established Pétain as the “chief of state” of a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy to administer France’s southern regions and its overseas territories. When the Nazis militarily occupied all of France in 1942, the Vichy government continued to function and cooperate fully with the Germans. Vichy authorities hunted down and executed resistance fighters, contributed French labor and resources to the German war effort, and helped to round up hundreds of thousands of Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps, where they were murdered. French citizens, however, risked their lives to resist the German occupation and aid the Allies’ war effort through sabotage and guerilla action.

Many French citizens, however, risked their lives to resist the German occupation and aid the Allies’ war effort through sabotage and guerilla action. General Charles de Gaulle established a government-in-exile in London and a “Free French” Army, which participated in the liberation of northern Africa and Europe. The Vichy regime collapsed following the successful June 6, 1944 Normandy invasion and Allied conquest of France. A provisional government headed by de Gaulle was succeeded in 1946 by the Fourth Republic, which was similar in constitutional structure to the Third. The Communist Party, active in the wartime resistance, gained strength immediately after the war, raising fears that France would align itself with the Soviet Union. However, France's other political parties helped to rebuild the country on a democratic footing, bolstered by American aid through the Marshall Plan. France emerged as one of Europe's strongest economies and led in the creation of the European Economic Community.

French Colonialism, the Struggle for Decolonialization, and the Establishment of the Fifth Republic

France was an active participant in the European race to build colonial empires around the world. Although it lost its North American possessions to the British in 1763, France retained a number of Caribbean islands as well as French Guiana in the Western Hemisphere. Napoleon I briefly regained a section of North America after conquering Spain, but, in need of money to finance his conquest of continental Europe, he sold much of it to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Over the course of the 19th century, France colonized 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 the two decades following World War II, European countries dismantled their colonial empires, leaving independent states in their place. Under the Fourth Republic, France's overseas empire was reorganized as the French Union, which ostensibly granted more autonomy to the colonies, but this failed to satisfy the desires for independence on the part of France’s colonial subjects. Vietnamese forces compelled the French to withdraw from Southeast Asia in 1954 and nearly all other French colonies gained independence over the next decade.

After losing control over neighboring Tunisia and Morocco in North Africa, however, France made a last colonial stand in Algeria, where many French colonists had settled since the first French invasion in 1830. After years of brutal violence and political turmoil in which the French government contended with both Algerian nationalists and also militant colonists and intransigent French army factions, Algeria gained independence in 1962. In the face of open threats by right-wing elements to the constitutional system during the Algerian war, a Fifth Republic was established in 1958 under a new constitution that created a stronger presidency to assert control over the security forces (see below). Under the new constitution, the French Union was reformed into a looser political association called the French Community, similar to the British Commonwealth. This association allowed many colonial territories to declare independence (but not, at first, Algeria), but a number of territories remained part of France as overseas departments, collectivities, or sui generis territories. Residents of all these parts of the French Community are French citizens who vote in French elections.

Constitutional Limits

Unlike Great Britain, where the power of the monarchy had been limited by the evolution of a more representative political system, France’s monarchy remained absolute. The French Revolution introduced strong republican traditions and a sweeping declaration of citizens’ rights, but, as shown in the brief history presented above, it did not create a stable democratic or representative system. France’s next 82 years experienced two republics, two empires, two monarchies, and multiple constitutions. Only with the introduction of the Third Republic in 1871 did a more stable political system with more stable constitutional limits and democratic representation emerge. Both the Third Republic and its re-establishment as the Fourth Republic after World War II had a constitutionally strong but politically divided parliament and a relatively weak executive branch. During the war for Algerian independence in the 1950s, right-wing elements within the military and security forces threatened again to undermine the state. Charles de Gaulle, whose national authority was preeminent as the leader of the Free French army, returned from political retirement in 1958 to set about establishing a more stable Fifth Republic, which he led for the next decade as president. The constitution, which was approved by public referendum in September 1958, included a stronger presidency with greater control over state functions. The new constitution was amended in 1962 to provide for direct election of the president and again in 2000 to reduce the term of the presidency from seven to five years (in each case with a two-term limit).

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. Both the president and members of the National Assembly are elected in a two-round electoral system. Under it, candidates must win by a majority vote in the first round or in a second-round run-off of the two top candidates from the first round. The president, serving as the head of state, is elected directly to a five-year term (until 2002 it was seven years), with the possibility of one re-election. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet, but since the legislative branch retains the right of censure to overthrow a government, the Prime Minister is usually from the majority party in parliament even if the president is from another party. The president sets overall government policy and has responsibility for national security and foreign policy, including direct command of the armed forces. The president has the power to dissolve Parliament before the end of its term and order new elections as well as to rule by decree in emergencies. The prime minister and other ministers are responsible for the implementation of government policy, making more detailed, day-to-day decisions.

The Parliament, which is bicameral, meets for a nine-month session each year. The lower house, the National Assembly, is the principal legislative body. It has 577 deputies who are directly elected by constituencies to five-year terms (including 11 deputies from overseas territories, which total 2.7 million residents). All seats are open in a general election. In addition to the power to vote in (or bring down) a prime minister and cabinet, the National Assembly approves the national budget and all laws. Members of the upper house, the Senate, numbering 348, are chosen by an electoral college made up of the elected officials from administrative départements or regions (12 senators represent French districts abroad). Senators serve six years, with one-half of the seats up for election every three years. The Senate may amend bills and initiate some forms of legislation, but the National Assembly can overrule in any disagreement. The National Assembly and Senate together may amend the constitution.

The Other Foundations of the Constitution

The current French constitution establishes the rights and freedoms of the citizenry and proclaims the people's "attachment" to the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen from 1789. Institutional safeguards of those rights include two formal institutions. One is the Constitutional Council, made up of former presidents and nine appointed members (three each appointed by the president, the National Assembly, and the Senate). It examines the constitutionality of all legislation referred to it by Parliament, the prime minister, or the president before being allowed to be signed into law. Since 2010, it may also hear appeals brought by individuals as to the constitutionality of decisions of lower courts, making its role as a guarantor of human rights more important (see Current Issues below). The second institution is the Council of State, made up of government officers and legal experts, which advises the government and parliament on constitutional questions or claims brought by individual citizens.

While there are some notable restrictions on free speech, including a seldom-enforced prohibition against insulting the president, the constitution’s protections of human rights and the country's vigorous intellectual tradition are among the most important checks on governmental power in France. These two factors foster a strong independent media, civic institutions, and a culture of commentary and criticism in which individuals exercise their rights of free inquiry, expression, thought, and conscience. France's media, while often having definite political orientations, operate independently of any political party.

The constitution is less clear on the equal status of immigrants, an issue that has gained prominence in recent years due to high immigration from former French colonies, especially those of Northern Africa.  Roughly 10 percent of the population is foreign-born, mostly from Muslim countries. Many others were born in France to immigrant parents. A series of urban riots in 2005 and 2007, prompted by accidental killings of youth by police, highlighted the problem of immigrants’ rights, their social status, and their economic conditions. Protesters complained that police anti-crime campaigns targeted immigrants and were marked by pervasive acts of discrimination. In response, the government announced increased efforts to ensure education, job training, employment and social services for immigrants.

Political Parties, Elections and Cohabitation limits are undergirded by elections and France’s multiparty system, which has established a regular alternation of power between the more conservative Gaulist party and the more liberal and socialist non-Gaulist parties.

Constitutional limits are undergirded by elections and France’s multiparty system, which has established a regular alternation of power between the more conservative Gaulist party and the more liberal and socialist non-Gaulist parties. After Charles De Gaulle served from 1958 to 1969 and was succeeded by a hand-picked successor, the next three presidential elections were won by non-Gaulists (in 1974, by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, leading a centrist party, and in 1981 and 1988 by the Socialist Party leader François Mitterand). Jacques Chirac, leading the Gaulist Rally for the Republic (RPR), won back the presidency from the Socialists in 1995. In 2002, he defeated the far right National Front candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, who came in a surprising second in the first round. Chirac won the second round with the highest percentage of the vote in French history (82 percent). The RPR’s Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded Chirac in the 2007 election (the first with a five-year term), but the Socialist Party’s Françoise Hollande, the current president, defeated Sarkozy in 2012, again alternating power between parties. While the president has mostly presided over a parliament controlled by the same party, the mixed presidential-parliamentary system led to periods of split government, which the French call cohabitation, with majorities in parliament being from different political parties than that of the president. This happened in Mitterand’s presidency (from 1986 to 1988 and from 1993 to 1995) and in Chirac’s first presidency (from 1997 to 2002). Since then, the president’s party and the party in control of parliament have coincided.

Alliances and Their Constraints

France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO (1949) and the European Coal and Steel Community (1952), which eventually grew into the European Union. These institutions established strong treaty obligations. Membership in the Council of Europe requires adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Human Rights). President Charles De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's military command structure in 1966, but France rejoined NATO’s Military Committee in 1995 and has since participated in joint NATO actions in the Balkans and Afghanistan and it took the leading role in the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya to thwart the threat by its leader Muammar Gadhafi to carry out mass slaughter of his own people (Gadhafi was later overthrown and executed by opposition Libyan forces.)

France has also played a leading role in the European Union, especially in supporting steps toward greater economic, monetary, and political integration. In recent times, French presidents have resisted EU requirements to adopt specific budget changes or to alter farm subsidies that benefit French agriculture. In a 2005 referendum, French voters rejected a proposed EU constitution due to perceived encroachments on sovereignty, among other concerns. Nevertheless, France, under both the Gaulist Sarkozy and his Socialist successor Hollande, continues to back a strong EU in partnership with Germany.

Current Issues

Since the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, François Hollande has lost popularity due to corruption scandals and the failure of seemingly contradictory policies that mixed austerity, high taxes, and greater state-interventionist policies. In response to laggard growth and low approval ratings, in early 2014 Hollande adopted a more economically liberal plan to increase investment, lower taxes on business, and cut public spending. (France has the EU’s highest level of taxation, at 45 percent of GDP, and state spending, at 57 percent of GDP, and faces EU penalties if it does not reduce its budget deficit.) To address high unemployment, Hollande also approved legislation to ease employment requirements for hiring contract workers, who now constitute a majority of French employees.

Although there is a strong tradition of freedom of expression in France, laws stemming from France’s experience in World War II aim to limit public hate and anti-Semitic speech as well as the denial of the Holocaust. Newer laws outlaw the denial of the Armenian genocide and propagation of child pornography. A new domestic security law, in effect since March 2011, allows the filtering of online content on the basis of these restrictions on speech and a separate decree requires internet companies to provide user data, including passwords, to authorities if requested to prosecute violators. State authorities claim that they focus mainly on prosecuting the propagation of child pornography, but in 2013 Twitter was obliged to give prosecutors data that identified users who posted anti-Semitic comments following a court order in suits filed by Jewish and anti-racism organizations.

The French authorities have frequently used the country’s anti-hate speech laws to prosecute the former leader of the National Front Party, Jean Marie Le Pen, for denial of the Holocaust and anti-Semitic statements; he has been repeatedly found guilty, fined, and given suspended jail terms. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, succeeded him as party leader and has gained greater popularity by tamping down more extreme and discriminatory statements from party officials and tying the party’s anti-immigrant platform to economic issues. She herself, however, was indicted for hate speech offenses in 2010 and now faces these charges in court after her immunity as a member of the European Parliament was removed by a vote of her colleagues in July 2013. Such prosecutions, however, have not affected the National Front’s growth in popularity under Marie Le Pen. The National Front outpolls both the RPR and Socialist Party nationally and led all parties with 26 percent in the June 2014 European Parliament vote. It reached near majorities in many regions in local elections in 2015 and failed to win a majority in any region in the election’s second round only by an informal alliance of the RPR and Socialist Parties. Presidential elections to be held in the spring of 2017 will pit the increasingly popular Marine Le Pen against the conservative anti-immigrant politician of the RPR, François Fillon, and the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon.

The French state’s treatment of immigrants, especially those from North Africa who practice Islam, remains a dominant national issue. One law has pitted religious traditions of Muslim immigrants against the French state’s longstanding practice of laïcité, the principle of strict separation of religion and the state that dates to the French Revolution and France’s previous repression of Protestantism. In general, laïcité bans religious displays in state-funded settings, such as public schools. In 2010, reacting to a perceived growth of religious extremism, then-President Sarkozy introduced a bill to ban the wearing by women of full-face veils (niqabs) and full-body coverings (burqas). Although not common in France, such coverings are used among more traditional Muslims and generally considered by non-Muslims to be an expression of religious fundamentalism and oppression of women. A bill passed overwhelmingly in parliament in 2011 that established relatively small fines for women wearing niqabs or burqas and much higher fines for men who force their wives or relatives to wear them (up to 30,000 Euros). While the law was not aggressively enforced, there were reports of violent attacks by citizens on women with more commonly worn head scarves. In late June 2014, the European Court for Human Rights held that the law was “a legitimate attempt to preserve the norms of France’s diverse society” and did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In another case, however, a young woman who was fired from a day care center for refusing to remove her head scarf on the job site successfully appealed to France’s highest appeals court, which reversed a lower court ruling and held that the woman’s discharge was discriminatory and contrary to France’s employment laws. The two cases demonstrate the conflicting constitutional interpretations regarding the practice of religion within France.

Multiple terrorist attacks in Paris and other cities in 2015 and 2016 carried out by supporters or members of the fanatical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have created a general atmosphere of suspicion of France’s Muslim communities, since most of the attackers were French residents or citizens who had been radicalized in support of violent jihad. While overall the organized Muslim community and the great majority of Muslims express support for the French constitution, there has been an increase in adherents of radical jihad within France in recent years. In response to mass shootings in multiple locations in November 2015 that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more, France’s President Hollande ordered a temporary state of emergency and suspended several constitutional provisions (allowed under the constitution) in order to allow police to carry out warrantless searches at hundreds of locations, close down mosques, hold individuals in custody without charge, carry out generalized searches of vehicles and individuals, and monitor telecommunications of French citizens. The National Assembly is considering constitutional amendments requested by the President to make these expanded police powers more permanent to respond to the threat of terrorism.