French Culture: Politics & Society

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
France loves politics and politics loves France. Things happen in the French political system that would seem shocking to some Americans. Read about French politics and its influence on French society that was born out of a revolution.

Wild but Intelligent Politics

French politics is such a part of French society that without them, France would not be France. While France is a democracy, and the creator of many ideas and traditions Americans hold dear since the French Revolution (1789-1799), things happen in the French system that would seem outrageous to some Americans.

French society loves politics. Most people watch and read the daily news, and arguing about politics is an accepted and encouraged form of conversation. Voter participation is usually very high (voting is compulsory for the Senate only). It may seem to outsiders that France is constantly in a state of elections. Politicians are allowed to hold more than one office. This is called cumul des mandats (plurality of mandates). The French believe that even if you are Prefect (similar to a governor) of Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean, you should have a connection in Paris. Debates are vicious but not impassioned affairs. They don't usually involve things like taxes, but grand ideas about changing society in not just France but the world. France likes to think of itself as important.

Palais du Luxembourg, Seat of the French Senate

France has a presidential system with a Senate, that meets at the Palais du Luxembourg, and the National Assembly, similar to the American Congress, that meets at the Palais Bourbon, both in Paris. There is also a Prime Minister, who is appointed by the President. Usually the Prime Minister is also a member of the President's party, but sometimes, if another party is larger or stronger, he or she may be from another party. This is called cohabitation and it makes for wild theater in politics. While the major national parties are PS (left socialist), UMP/Les Republicains (right), Modem (Christian Democrats), and the FN (far-right National Front), what matters in France is droite et gauche (left and right). Where you are on the political scale is more important than the party.

Palais Bourbon, Seat of the National Assembly

In France, politics is a game. Winner takes all, and there is no such thing as bipartisanship (different political parties working together to accomplish something), or checks and balances (one part of the government having power over another to ensure all parts are equal). You do not vote for your opponents ideas, no matter how good they are. When someone loses office, you do not show you're a good sport by congratulating the winner. It is completely acceptable to make life very difficult for the incoming politician by destroying any paper and documents that you legally can.

Religion, Equality, Scandal and Unions

Religion has no place in politics, even if it debated in public conversation. Laicite (secularism) is the linchpin of French society. In recent years, Muslim women wearing headscarves was not an issue of religious freedom but viewed as an attack on the secularism of the French state. Before the French Revolution, religious authority was the third part of the French government (First Estate was clergy, the Second Estate was nobility and the Third Estate was everybody else). Now the Catholic Church and other religions are funded by the French state and in a sense are employees of the French government. Many foreigners are surprised to meet retired nuns and priests who are entitled to a pension like all French government employees.

In a society that prides itself on liberte, egalite, fraternite (liberty, equality and fraternity) women are under-represented in politics. Nearly all politicians come from the grandes ecoles system (graduate school similar to the Ivy League in the United States) and even more surprisingly, one school, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (the National School of Administration). Created by Charles de Gaulle, the creator of the modern French state and Gaullism, the school is mostly based in Strasbourg, France. This is also home of the European parliament, and shows that France believes strongly in the European Union. It is a surprise to French society when a president or prime minister does NOT come from this school, like President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. Gaullism, a type of French nationalism, is an important part of French politics. It means a strong state and also a France that is powerful and well-represented, that protects and promotes France, in world society.

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