France’s history is a tale of conquering nations, warring factions, and various people groups—all which contributed to French culture. Some of the first people who invaded France were the Celts, the Romans, and the Franks. Charlemagne’s three grandsons partitioned off west Europe after its unification under Charlemagne’s rule and established Christianity. Beginning with Charles the Bald and continuing through the Capetian and Valois lines, France became a powerful nation unrivaled in Western Europe with the exception of Great Britain. Since the era of the Sun King, Louis XIV, France has transferred power from the acien régime into the hands of the people. An explosion of radical reform came from the French Revolution from 1789 to 1802. The First Republic of France was established during the revolution but was quickly overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte. Three more republics met dismal fates until Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. Another turbulent thirty years passed until France finally became a stable liberal democracy in the 1990’s.
France’s economy is decreasing compared to other liberal democracies. With a per capita GDP of $32,800, France falls behind other comparable liberal democracies like the United States, Great Britain, and Germany (CIA). Further evidence shows that since 1990, France’s annual growth has decreased from 3.6% to 2.0% while unemployment has risen from 8.5% to 9.7% which is a higher unemployment rate than other liberal democracies (Banks, 449). France’s labor force resides in 71.8% services which is lower than the US at 76.8% and Britain at 80.4%, but her labor force is higher than Germany which has 67.8% (CIA). France’s major trading partners include the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Some of the products traded with these countries consist of wine, chemicals, grain, cars, food, fruits and vegetables, meat, crude petroleum, and machinery (Crompton, 368). The greatest benefit to France economically is tourism, because the money received from the traveling visitors helps offset France’s national debt which is 79.7% of the GDP (CIA).
France’s society is increasing in equality with the exception of immigration, specifically Muslims. Freedom of speech and the press is on the rise as one politician commented, “[The] long-standing restriction that offensive criticism may not be directed against the head of state and that the private lives of politicians may not be reported is now largely ignored” (Banks, 459). Following on the heels of these freedoms is the equality enjoyed by women among their peers. Women consist of 46% of the work force and 18% of legislators are women (Banks, 449). The influx of foreigners since the 1970’s, particularly those of Islamic beliefs, has caused France to reevaluate her political holdings on religious freedoms. France has proudly proclaimed herself as a secular country having divided church and state during the French Revolution. However, over 80% of her citizens claim to be Roman Catholics while a rising 10% claim to be Muslim (CIA). In 2004, an anti-religious law passed through legislature that banned the wearing of headscarves, turban, skullcaps, or large crosses in the public schools (Graham, 109).
The high political liberty of France is threatened by internal and external forces. Pressure from Muslim factions and socialist reforms has dominated the news in the last decade. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center started a ripple that spread across the Atlantic to touch Britain and France in particular. Since some of the terrorists were linked to European countries, France and Britain began to close their borders and tighten immigration laws. France passed laws that restricted the Muslims which set off riots in the fall of 2005 when parts of Paris burned (Graham, 109). While some Frenchmen wish equality for all, others like Jacques Dupaquier predicts that France “[will be] cut in two, its national identity threatened, with an aging majority, withdrawn into its values and acquired rights, and a young Islamic minority, poorly integrated and more or less aggressive” (Fetzer, 60-61). Currently, the French Muslims fight against the potential bans of full-body veils, claiming that such a ban would be a restriction on their religious freedoms.
On the political agenda, socialist parties are gaining legislative power by grouping together. France has twenty-one major and eight minor political parties. This fragmentation of power has caused problems in the past, but now the Socialist party falls second to the Union for a Popular Movement Party (UMP) (Banks, 460). Socialists apart from the Socialist Party are helping push for more reforms. Socialists want to modernize and liberalize French society by decentralizing the French state and administration. They also desire to introduce a social democracy where government takes over private industry—a practice which would require a huge labor force that France does not have (Kesselman, 219-220). Perhaps the best reflection of socialist influence is France’s tax rate. Currently, the tax rate in France is unusually high at 68.2% compared to the United States with 46%, Germany with 57.1%, and Great Britain with 35.4% (NationMaster). One thing that the socialists have not succeeded in changing is France’s franchise. Currently, France leads Europe in franchise through the 34,000 businesses that bring in €33 billion in profit; the majority of the franchise resides in retail (Franchise Selection).
The external forces that threaten France’s political liberty stem mainly from the European Union. While the forming of the EU has brought a peace to European that the continent has not known in centuries, some national liberties are being given up in exchange for that peace. Some scholars cite that the turning point of French politics was when France joined the EU in 1957 (Banks, 449). Scholars believe this because the European Union’s rules restrict and overrule French government, EU laws and treaties take precedent over France’s and the EU compromises some of France’s ties to other countries. There is a move in France to support the EU’s program over French government, but such a move results in a loss of national identity (Graham, 107).Another item on the EU agenda is the use of EU media versus French media, because the EU wants its own news broadcast through every nation instead of the national news (Graham, 115). France must find the answers to these internal and external pressures before her political liberty is lost.
France possesses a stable quality of life that is higher than other liberal democracies. Life expectancy in France is high with an average of 80.98 years. Infant mortality is the lowest of liberal democracies with only 3.33 children out of 1,000 dying. Part of France’s stable quality of life is its literacy rate: 99% of Frenchmen can read, a statistic that has not changed in decades (CIA). One of the leading contributors to the quality of life is the fact that France also has one of the lowest crime rates among liberal democracies with 62.18 crimes per 1,000 people (NationMaster). Two global issues playing into France’s quality of life that France currently battles are gay rights and abortion. Although a gay marriage law was passed in 1999 that gave gay couples more rights, there has been some recent reevaluation on how to deal with gay rights (BBC News). One gay man lost his French citizenship when he married a man from the Netherlands; his case is still being argued in court (Time). Abortion has been legal in France for thirty-five years, but now abortion is threatened by a new ruling by the French supreme court—parents can legally name an unborn fetus that was miscarried or stillborn. This law allows parents to reclaim their child after birth for a proper burial. Such a law revives the argument about when life begins.
– Hannah S. Bowers
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