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.
Cities: Capital--Paris. Other cities--Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse,
Strasbourg, Nice, Bordeaux.
Climate: Temperate; similar to that of the eastern U.S.
Population: 58 million.
Annual growth rate: 0.5%.
Ethnic groups: Celtic and Latin with Teutonic, Slavic, North African,
Indochinese, and Basque minorities.
Religion: Roman Catholic 90%.
Education: Years compulsory--10. Literacy--99%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--7/1,000.
Work force (25 million): Services--66%. Industry and commerce--28%.
Constitution: September 28, 1958.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state); prime minister (head
of government). Legislative--bicameral parliament (577-member National
Assembly, 319-member Senate). Judicial--Court of Cassation (civil and
criminal law), Council of State (administrative court), Constitutional
Council (constitutional law).
Subdivisions: 22 administrative regions containing 96 departments
(metropolitan France). Four overseas departments (Guadeloupe,
Martinique, French Guiana, and Reunion); five overseas territories (New
Caledonia, French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and French
Southern and Antarctic Territories); and two special status territories
(Mayotte and St. Pierre and Miquelon).
Political parties: Rally for the Republic (Gaullists/conservatives);
Union for French Democracy (center-right); Socialist Party; Republican
Party (center-right); Communist Party; National Front; Greens; Ecology
Generation; various minor parties.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP: $1.3 trillion.
Avg. annual growth rate: 2.4%.
Per capita GDP: $24,900.
Agriculture: Products--wine, cheeses, cereals, sugar beets, potatoes,
Industry: Types--aircraft, electronics, transportation, textiles,
clothing, food processing, chemicals, machinery, steel.
Trade (est.): Exports--$235 billion: chemicals, electronics,
automobiles, automobile spare parts, machinery, aircraft, foodstuffs.
Imports--$219 billion: crude petroleum, electronics, machinery,
chemicals, automobiles, automobile spare parts. Partners--EU, U.S.,
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-
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
President Jacques Chirac has vowed that fighting unemployment (more than
11% overall; 25% among younger, unskilled workers) will be his top
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
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
Prime Minister--Alain Juppe
Ambassador to the United States--Francois Bujon de l'Estang
Ambassador to the United Nations--Alain Dejammet
France maintains an embassy in the U.S. at 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW,
Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 202-944-6000).
France held presidential elections in the spring of 1995. The victor,
Jacques Chirac of Rally for the Republic (RPR), assumed the presidency
on May 17, 1995. It was the third presidential race for Chirac, the
former mayor of Paris and a 30-year fixture on the French political
scene. Shortly after the final results were announced, Chirac selected
his long time RPR ally, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, to be the next
Prime Minister. Chirac's other cabinet choices reflect his emphasis on
economic recovery, combating unemployment, and repairing the welfare
France's political system combines a strong executive--in the person of
the president--with a parliamentary system that includes a powerful
prime minister. This hybrid system can result in the president and
prime minister being from different parties, a situation known in France
as a "cohabitation government." Chirac's assumption of the presidency
marked an end to the two-year cohabitation government of Socialist
President Francois Mitterrand and the center-right government headed by
Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. Thus, the Chirac victory completes the
turnover of the government to the conservatives that began with the
March 1993 landslide (80%) victory for the conservative coalition in the
parliamentary elections (484 out of 577 Assembly seats).
Chirac's margin of victory over his Socialist opponent, Lionel Jospin,
in the second and final round of the presidential elections was much
smaller (53% to 47%) than conservatives' margin in the 1993 legislative
elections, leading to optimism on the part of the French left that it
will improve its representation in the National Assembly in the next
round of parliamentary elections, which must be held before April 1998.
With a 1994 GDP of more than $1.3 trillion, France is the fourth-largest
Western industrialized economy. It has substantial agricultural
resources, a diversified modern industrial system, and a highly skilled
labor force. In 1994, France's economic growth rate was 2.4%. The
estimated growth rate for 1995 is 3.1%.
Government policy stresses investment promotion and maintenance of
fiscal and monetary discipline. It seeks to ensure the franc's
stability and strength within the European Monetary System. The
government continues to exert considerable control over the industrial
sector both through planning and regulatory activities and through
direct state ownership, although a modest privatization program has been
implemented. This policy has helped keep France's inflation rate (1.6%
in 1994) low compared with rates among the other Group of Seven (G-7)
One main area of concern, however, continues to be an unemployment rate
that is now over 11%. France's well-developed and diversified
industrial enterprises generate about one-third of the GDP and employ
about one-third of the workforce. This distribution is similar to that
of other highly industrialized nations. The most important areas of
industrial production include steel and related products, aluminum,
chemicals, and mechanical and electrical goods.
France also has been very successful in developing dynamic
telecommunications, aerospace, and weapons sectors. With virtually no
domestic oil production, France has relied heavily on the development of
nuclear power, which now produces about 75% of the country's electrical
energy. Nuclear waste is stored on site at reprocessing facilities.
Membership in France's labor unions accounts for about 10% of the
workforce. Included in the composition of the several competing union
confederations are the largest, oldest, and most powerful unions: the
Communist-dominated General Labor Confederation, the Workers' Force, and
the French Democratic Confederation of Labor.
France is the second-largest trading nation in Western Europe (after
Germany). In 1993, France achieved a record trade surplus, about $15
billion. The surplus was partly attributable to the surge in exports
due to greater competitiveness of French products, which, in turn, was
partly due to low domestic inflation and wage costs. For 1994, the
country's trade surplus rose even higher, to about $16 billion. Its
total trade for 1994 amounted to more than $450 billion. Trade with
European Union (EU) countries accounts for 60% of French trade.
In 1994, U.S.-France trade totaled about $33 billion. U.S. exports
accounted for 8.5% (or about $18 billion) of France's total imports.
U.S. electronic production and testing equipment, electronic components,
telecommunications, computers and peripherals, analytical and scientific
instrumentation, medical instruments and supplies, broadcasting
equipment, and film programming and franchising are particularly
attractive to French importers.
Principal French exports to the United States are aircraft and engines,
beverages, electrical equipment, chemicals, cosmetics, and pet-care
Good climate, fertile land, and modern technology have combined to make
France the leading agricultural producer in Western Europe.
It is one of the world's leading producers and exporters of dairy
products, wheat, and wine. Although more land is devoted to pasture and
grain, some of France's best land is planted in wine grapes.
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
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
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
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Avis T. Bohlen
Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--William Bellamy
Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs--John Medeiros
Financial Attache--Sara Paulsen
Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs--Peter Frederick
Counselor for Labor Affairs--Vacant
Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs--Jerome J. Bosken
Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs--James L. Ward
Minister-Counselor for Administrative Affairs--Charles R. Allegrone
Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs--Christopher Snow
Defense Attache--Col. Daniel Larned (U.S. Army)
Consulate General, Marseille--Jackson C. McDonald
Consulate General, Bordeaux--Alan Eastham, Jr.
Consulate General, Strasbourg--Shirley E. Barnes
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
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are
issued when the Department of State recommends that Americans avoid
travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security
information, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S.
embassies and consulates in the subject country. They can be obtained by
telephone at (202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a
modem with standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications
on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available
from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, D.C. 20402, tel. (202) 783-3238.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
While planning a trip, travelers can check the latest information on
health requirements and conditions with the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559
provides telephonic or fax information on the most recent health
advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on
food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet
entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication
number CDC-94-8280, price $7.00) is available from the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (see "Principal Government
Officials" listing in this publication).
Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to
register with the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials"
listing in this publication). Such information might assist family
members in making contact en route in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the CABB
provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and helpful
information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of charge to
anyone with a personal computer, modem, telecommunications software, and
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet,
DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy
information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch,
the official weekly magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press
briefings; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc.
DOSFAN is accessible three ways on the Internet:
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly basis
by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Priced at
$80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs (MSDOS and
Macintosh compatible) and are available from the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 37194, Pittsburgh,
PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S. Government
Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387. For general BBS
information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information,
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet
(gopher. stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202)
482-1986 for more information.
Background Notes Series -- Published by the United States Department
of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public
Communication -- Washington, DC -- Series Editor: Marilyn J.
France -- Department of State Publication 8209 -- October 1995
This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without
permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402.
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