Background Notes: France 03/98
U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: France, March 1998
Released by the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs.
Official Name: French Republic
Area: 551,670 sq. km. (220,668 sq. mi.); largest West
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,
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
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
Union for French Democracy (a center-right conglomerate of
5 parties: Democratic Force, Republican Party, and Radical Party are
the three major components.) Socialist Party; Communist Party;
National Front; Greens; Ecology Generation; various minor parties.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP: $1.5 trillion.
Avg. annual growth rate: 2.2%.
Per capita GDP: $26,500.
Agriculture: Products--grains (wheat, barley, corn); wines
and spirits; dairy products; sugarbeets; oilseeds; meat and
poultry; fruits and vegetables.
Industry: Types--aircraft, electronics, transportation,
textiles, clothing, food processing, chemicals, machinery, steel.
Trade (est.): Exports--$287 billion: chemicals,
electronics, automobiles, automobile spare parts, machinery, aircraft,
Imports--$266 billion: crude petroleum, electronics,
machinery, chemicals, automobiles, automobile spare parts. Partners--
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.
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
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
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
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.
Current President Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17,
1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's
stubbornly high unemployment rate. The center of domestic attention
soon shifted, however, to the economic reform and belt-
tightening measures required for France to meet the criteria for
Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) laid out by the Maastricht Treaty. In
late 1995, France experienced its worst labor unrest in at least a
decade, as employees protested government cutbacks. On the foreign and
security policy front, Chirac took a more assertive approach to
protecting French peacekeepers in ex-Yugoslavia and helped promote the
peace accords negotiated in Dayton and signed in Paris in December 1995.
Chirac also took the major step of initiating discussions with
NATO on possible French reintegration into NATO's military structure.
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,
ministers-delegates, and secretaries of state. Parliament meets for one
nine month session each year. Under special circumstances an
additional session can be called by the president. 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--Lionel Jospin
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).
During his first two years in office, President Chirac's
prime minister was Alain Juppe, who served contemporaneously as
leader of Chirac's neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR)
party. Chirac and Juppe benefited from a very large, if rather unruly,
majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). Mindful
that the government might have to take politically costly
decisions in advance of the legislative elections planned for spring
1998, in order to ensure France met the Maastricht criteria for
the single European currency, Chirac decided in April 1997 to
call early elections. The Left, however, led by Socialist Party
First Secretary Lionel Jospin, unexpectedly won a solid National
Assembly majority (319 seats, with 289 required for an absolute
majority) in the two rounds of balloting, which took place May 25 and
June 1, 1997. President Chirac named Jospin prime minister on
June 2, and Jospin went on to form a government composed
primarily of Socialist ministers, along with some ministers from
allied parties of the Left, such as the Communists and the Greens.
Jospin stated his support for continued European integration and
his intention to keep France on the path of toward Economic and
Monetary Union, albeit with greater attention to social concerns.
The tradition in periods of "cohabitation"
(president of one party, prime minister of another) is for the
president to exercise the primary role in foreign and security
policy, with the dominant role in domestic policy falling to the prime
minister and his government. Jospin stated, however, that he would
not a priori leave any domain exclusively to the president.
With a 1995 GDP of more than $1.5 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 1995, France's economic growth rate
was 2.2%. The estimated growth rate for 1996 is 1.4%.
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 (1.8% in 1995) low compared with rates among the other
Group of Seven (G-7) industrial countries.
One main area of concern, however, continues to be an
unemployment rate that is well over 12%. France's well-developed and
diversified industrial enterprises generate over one-half of the GDP
and employ about one-fifth 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 80% of the country's
electrical energy. Nuclear waste is stored on site at reprocessing
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 1996, France achieved a record trade
surplus of over $20 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 1996, the country's trade surplus rose even
higher. Its total trade for 1995 amounted to more than $550
billion. Trade with European Union (EU) countries accounts for 60% of
In 1995, U.S.-France trade totaled about $40 billion. U.S.
exports accounted for 7.8% (or about $21 billion) of France's total
imports. U.S. industrial chemicals, aircraft and engines, electronic
components, telecommunications, computer software, computers and
peripherals, analytical and scientific instrumentation, medical
instruments and supplies, broadcasting equipment, and 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 luxury products.
France is the European Union's leading agricultural
producer, accounting for about one third of all agricultural land
within the EU. Northern France is characterized by large wheat
farms. Dairy products, pork, poultry and apple production are
concentrated in the Western region. Beef production is located in
Central France, while the production of fruits, vegetables, and wine
ranges from Central to Southern France. France is a large producer of
many agricultural products and is currently expanding its
forestry and fishery industries. The implementation of the Common
Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Uruguay Round of the GATT Agreement
have resulted in reforms in the agricultural sector of the
France is the world's second largest agricultural producer,
after the United States. However, the destination of 70% of its
exports are other EU Member States. Wheat, beef, pork, poultry, and
dairy products are the principal exports. The United States,
although the second largest exporter to France, faces stiff
competition from domestic production, other EU Member States and other
third countries. U.S. agricultural exports to France, totaling
some $600 million annually, consist primarily of soybeans and
products, feeds and fodders, seafood, and consumer oriented products,
especially snack foods and nuts. French exports to the United States
are mainly cheese, processed products and wine. They amount to
over $900 million annually.
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
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.
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 all Arab parties 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. In
those former colonies where the French presence remains
important, France contributes to political, military, and social
Asia. France has extensive political and commercial
relations with Asian countries, including China, Japan and Southeast
Asia as well as an increasing presence in regional fora. France
was instrumental in launching the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)
process which could eventually emerge as a competitor to APEC.
France is seeking to broaden its commercial presence in China and
will pose a competitive challenge to U.S. business, particularly
in aerospace, hi-tech and luxury markets. In Southeast Asia,
France was an architect of the Paris Accords, which ended the
conflict in Cambodia, and looks forward to reinforcing France's
influence in the region during the Francophone summit to be held in
Vietnam in the summer of 1997.
Latin America. France supports strengthening democratic
institutions in Latin America. It supports the ongoing
efforts to restore democracy to Haiti and seeks to expand its trade
relations with all of Latin America.
Security Issues. French military doctrine is based on the
concepts of national independence, nuclear deterrence and
military sufficiency. France is a founding member of the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and has worked actively with
Allies to adapt NATO--internally and externally--to the post-Cold
War environment. In December 1995, France announced that it
would increase its participation in NATO's military wing,
including the Military Committee (the French withdrew from NATO's
military bodies in 1966 while remaining full participants in the
Alliance's political councils). President Chirac has suggested that
France may return to NATO's integrated military structure,
depending on progress toward an increased European Security and
Defense Identity within the Alliance. Paris hosted the May 1997
NATO-Russia Summit for the signing of the Founding Act on on Mutual
Relations, Cooperation and Security.
Outside of NATO, France has actively and heavily
participated in recent peacekeeping/coalition efforts in Africa, the
Middle East and the Balkans, often taking the lead in these
France has undertaken a major restructuring to develop a
professional military which will be smaller, more rapidly deployable and
better tailored for operations outside of mainland France. Key
elements of the restructuring include reducing personnel, bases and
headquarters, and rationalizing equipment and the armament industry.
French active-duty military at the beginning of 1997 numbered
approximately 475,000, of which nearly 60,000 were assigned outside of
metropolitan France. The overall force is expected to decline by
approximately 25,000 per year through 2002.
France places a high priority on arms control and non-
proliferation. It supported the indefinite extension of the Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995. After conducting a final series of
six nuclear tests, the French signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
(CTBT) in 1996. France has implemented a moratorium on the
production, export and use of anti-personnel landmines and supports
negotiations leading toward a universal ban. The French are key players
in the adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces
in Europe (CFE) to the new strategic environment.
France is an active participant in the major supplier
regimes designed to restrict transfer of technologies that could
lead to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: the
Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Australia Group (for chemical and
biological weapons) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
France has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention
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
Ambassador--Felix G. Rohatyn
Charge d'Affaires--W. Robert Pearson
Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs--Michael Parmly
Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs--John Madeiros
Financial Attache--Stephen Donovan
Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs--Emilio Iodice
Counselor for Scientific and Technological Affairs--Jerome
Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs--Lawrence Colbert
Minister-Counselor for Administrative Affairs--William
Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs--Christopher Snow
Defense Attache--Col. Peter Herrly (U.S. Army)
Consulate General, Marseille--Joyce Leader
Consulate General, Strasbourg--Steven Wagenseil
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.
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 State Department 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, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in
the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to
disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and
other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose
significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of
this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular
Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-
3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are
available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page:
http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB).
To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it
will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications
program to N-8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal
emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the
password is info (Note: Lower case is required).
The CABB also carries international security information
from the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's
Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for
Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining
passports and planning a safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box
371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling
abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens
Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and
Passport Services information can be obtained
by calling the 24-hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35
per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-
Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-
Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call
Travelers can check the latest health information with
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in
Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives 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-95-8280) is available from the
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. (for
this country, see "Principal Government Officials"
listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling
in dangerous areas, are encouraged to register at the U.S.
embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy
Officials" listing in this publication). This may help
family members contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
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Collection, which also is accessible at gopher://gopher.state.gov.
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published
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USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign
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Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954,
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National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by
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of trade-related information, including Country Commercial
Guides. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov)
and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986
for more information.
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