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France belongs to the group of the highly developed countries in Europe. It has the largest territory in the European Union (with 543,965 km2), and it ranks third as regards population size. It is one of the economically and technologically leading countries of Europe and the world, although the old industrial zone of the north-east is on the decline. France is a country characterized by high "stateness", i.e. a highly centralized state structure with only few regional centres apart from the capital (mainly Lyon, Marseille, Lille). It is a unitary state without federal elements. The administrative system which still is in existence was introduced by Napoléon I and is characterized by strong hierarchical elements.

France was a founding member of the EEC in 1957 and is one of the leading countries regarding European unification. After 1945 France also became a centre of intergovernmental organizations, with the UNESCO, the OECD and others becoming located in Paris.

Table: Statistical comparisons1

Geography and history

In the terminology of Stein Rokkan the territory of France is characterized by a monocephalic structure: a central region and several seaward western peripheries. Using this expression he refers to the position of such regions as Brittanny, or the Atlantic coastal regions.

A second important characteristic is that over the centuries, since the Middle Ages, the King has been able to unify the country for the crown by taking different mesasures aimed at territorial growth (war, inheritance, purchase). This laid the basis for the monocephalic territorial structure of France, with the Île-de-France having gained predominance over the other French territories. In contrast to other European continental countries, France developed towards a unitary state with little ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity. Nevertheless, linguistic minorities survived on the peripheries of France in Brittany, in the Alsace and in the Basque region. Moreover, the linguistic cleavage between the langue d’oc and the langue d’oîl still exists in the population. Some authors therefore speak of the "two nations of France". Norbert Elias’ theory on the process of civilization is empirically based on the French historical development, the creation of a rather homogeneous and unitarian political system due to military campaigns and the successful outcome of critial periods (as e.g. the Hundred Years' War).

Another characteristic of France is homogeneity in terms of religion; catholicism was preserved by military power, although after the French revolution a laic system separating church and state was introduced.

The late medieval success regarding the unification of the country for the king, the successful outcome of the war against England and the successful religious unification (crusade against the Cathars in the Langedoc-Roussillon) laid the foundation for the development of absolutism in the 17th century. The French king was able to break the centrifugal power of the landed aristocracy by drawing the nobility to Paris and Versailles and using them as army officers and civil servants.


The unitary and absolutist historical tradition also made possible the introduction of a centralized and hierarchical administrative system by Napoléon Bonaparte, which is more or less still characteristic for state administration in France.

As late as the 1980s attempts were made to decentralize the administrative system. The main aim was to give local and regional governments competences in several fields.

The republican tradition of France was established during the French Revolution. After World War II, in 1946, the Fourth Republic was constituted, and in 1958 the Fifth Republic was declared through the constitution of 1958. The political system of the Fifth Republic is a presidential system. The president of the republic is elected directly, and therefore the president has great political power. That is the reason why the relationship between the president on the one hand and the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers on the other hand is in a permanent state of conflict over a sensible division of labour.

The party system during the Fifth Republic is more or less polarized into a "bourgeois" and a "leftist" camp. However, in contrast to other party systems, it became possible for political leaders to install parties on the extreme right and left of the party spectrum.

The election outcomes during the Fifth Republic showed the predominance of bourgeois parties for a long time, but in 1981 it was possible for François Mitterrand to bring the socialists to power. In the 1993 elections to the National Assembly, the Socialist Party (PS) suffered a defeat. In 1995 the presidential elections brought Jacques Chirac to power, whose seven-year term of office will last until 2002. He held new elections in 1997, 10 months earlier than required, hoping to strengthen the position of the centre-right RPR. Unexpectedly, the socialists came to power again.

While parliamentary democracy is often said to have a weak status, the role of the bureaucracy is considered to be rather important. Especially the bureaucratic elite has considerable power in the country. Position holders are recruited from the highly esteemed "Grandes Ecoles" and the ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Admini-stration), and the interchange bet-ween bureaucratic positions and positions in the economy and in the government is easy.


The French economy is one of the strongest in Europe, with the GDP per capita being higher than the EU average (106 per cent). France has developed towards a post-industrial society, with agricultural employment being low, lower than the EU average. Industrial employment is also below the EU average. Employment in the services is strongly developed, with over two thirds of the labour force being employed in the third sector.

The public sector is rather strongly developed in France and provides work to approximately 20 per cent of the total workforce. There have been attempts to privatize, especially in the telecommunication sector (France Telecom), but the reduction in public sector employment was rather low compared to other countries (e.g. Britain, Sweden). France remains a country where state enterprises play a predominant role.

The economic activity rate of the population corresponds with the EU average, but unemployment is higher than the EU average for all groups, especially for women and young adults below the age of 25.

One reason for high unemployment is the deindustrialization in the mining and metal industry of the north-west (Nord - Pas-de-Calais). Unemployment has reached extraordinary levels in this region. The second reason is the ongoing migration from rural areas (and employment in agriculture) (Western France) to other regions and industries.

The sectors profiting from this situation are obviously the services, with the tourist industry maintaining a very prominent position. This is evidenced by high migratory gains of the Mediterranean coastal regions. Another region with migration gains is the East of France with Lorraine and Alsace, having below-average unemployment rates and the highest proportion of industrial employment of all French regions.

Under the government of Georges Pompidou investments in high technology were started: the Airbus, Ariane, nuclear industry, the TGV; furthermore, the motorway system was constantly improved.

Demography and family

France’s population history of the last two centuries is exceptional compared to other Western European countries. During the demographic transition of the 19th century population growth was very low due to a rather low birth rate. At a time when other European countries experienced a population explosion with all its social and economic consequences, France’s population growth fell behind. The population question around 1900 led to the introduction of the first family and population policy measures.

Figure 1: Demographic Transition, France and Europe

Figure 2: Out-of-wedlock Birth Rate, France and Europe

Figure 3: Divorce Rate, France and Europe

It was possible to give family policy a strong position in the institutional structure of the French state, and it now represents one central element of French social policy. Public policies are highly influenced by the family dimension in France, and the family dimension is an issue in nearly all political discussions and policy measures.

The successful implementation of the family dimension obviously had effects on the demographic behaviour of the population. Fertility in France is now above the EU average, while net migration is lower. High fertility results in a population growth which is higher than the EU average. Nevertheless, the family has developed towards a "post-modern" family type. Nearly 40 per cent of all children are not born within a legal marriage; instead, most of them are born within consensual unions. The labour force participation of women is rather high and above the EU average. The marriage rate is below the European average (since the 1880s), but the difference to the European average has increased because the marriage rate has declined considerably since the 1970s. Divorces have increased strongly, and the divorce rate is now above the European average. It is interesting that in France in the decades before and after World War I, the divorce rate was higher than in the rest of Europe. Thus, the deinstitutionalization of marriage is characteristic for France as well as for other European countries; it is even stronger than the European average but is obviously compatible with a comparatively high fertility rate.

Other factors indicate that the family structure participates in the general family trends; however, there are elements of strong "traditionalism". Thus, the proportion of the population living in a nuclear family is still very much higher than it is in Scandinavia (59 per cent in 1990/91); the proportion of childless women (at the end of the reproduction period) is rather low (11 per cent for the birth cohorts 1950/55), and the share of single parents is also rather low in comparison.

Thus, contrary to her historical heritage, during the last century France developed towards a country that combines new and old elements of family traits: integrating women into the labour market, and at the same time guaranteeing family formation and the birth of children. One main factor shaping the French family system is the structure of the educational system, which supplies sufficient child care in pre-schools. The school system, consisting mostly of full-day schools, furthers women’s work as well.

Social morphology

After World War II France developed into a strong welfare state where expenditures for social security made up for over 30 per cent of the GDP, thus being slightly above the EU average. It is characteristic for the French social security system that it is centred around the family and that family support is considered to be very important.

Reforms in the field of social security became necessary in the last decade due to strongly rising expenditures, the demographic pressure (ageing of the population), high unemployment and therefore decreasing tax and social contributions.

In France, minorities do not exist, with the exception of immigrants and "guest workers", the former coming mainly from the former colonies (Algeria), the latter mainly from the Mediterranean regions (e.g. Portugal).

Regional diversity

Since the middle ages France has developed into a monocephalic system, with Paris becoming the all-dominating centre of the country. With 11 mill. inhabitants, the Île-de-France accounts for more than one sixth of the French population in a rather small area. Besides this region, the north-western, eastern and the Mediterranean coastal region are also densely populated, while the west (Britanny) and especially the south-west (Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, Limousin) are peripheral regions with a rather low population density.

These regional disparities have reached this extent since the last century and have mainly been caused by internal migration to the North and to the tourist centres of the Mediterranean.

With the exception of the Île-de-France, regional variations are not as extreme as one might think. One could exaggerate and say that there is homogeneity outside the Île-de-France: thus, the GDP per capita does not vary strongly from region to region. The same is true with respect to sectoral employment, the age structure and several demographic indicators.

Only one region faces severe economic problems: Nord – Pas-de-Calais. The west and south-west of France still suffer strong emigration to the urban centres and other regions due to a still strong rural orientation of the region.

Social data production

The institutional structure of the French system of information production on socio-economic topics differs form those of other European countries. In some respect the construction is unique. In the centre of the system there is the INSEE (with the ENSAE), which is surrounded by the statistical departments of the ministries: the SESI, DARES, DEP, etc. Decision-making bodies are the Planning Agency, the ministries, social organisms, trade unions and employers’ organizations. Several research organizations are located between the INSEE and the field of decision-making (the CRÉDOC, CREDES, IRES). Social research is organized in different thematically specialized research institutes: the INED (demography), INSERM (health), INRP (education). Several social security (and insurance) agencies, such as the CNAF (family allowances), the CNAMTS (health insurance), the CNAVTS (old age insurance), the ANPE (employment insurance) and the UNEDIC (employment) produce statistics and social data. Research done at universities is mainly qualitative, while quantitative research is carried out within the statistical system and the social research centres mentioned above.

In France, an explicit tradition of social reporting does not exist in the same way as, e.g., in the Nordic countries. Social indicators research or social reporting have not been introduced as fields of research or statistical activities. The production of social data is considered to be a normal task of official statistics. Thus, the triannual social report "Données Sociales" is produced in co-operation between statisticians and social scientists. And INSEE has started to publish a series of specialized social reports on population groups. CRÉDOC has specialized in research on living conditions. Neither can the French "Enquête sur les Conditions des Ménages" be considered to be a comprensive survey on social well-being. Thus, in France social reporting has not been institutionalized as a demarcated field of knowledge, and social data are produced by various actors, with the national statistical institute playing the central role.

National Statistical Institute: Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (INSEE), Direction Générale, 18 Bd Adolphe Pinard, F-75675 Paris Cedex 14, France. ( +33-1-41175050, Fax +33-1-41176666, Internet: Publications are directly available from the INSEE. INSEE publishes an annual "Catalogue des Publications" and specialized catalogues on electronic products. Each regional office publishes its own catalogue of publications.

Social Science Research Institutions: Centre d’Étude de la Vie Politique Française (CEVIPOF), 10, rue de la Chaise, F-75007 Paris.
Centre de Recherche pour l’Étude et l’Observation des Conditions de Vie (CRÉDOC), 142, rue du Chevaleret, F-75013 Paris, ( 01 40 77 85 01, Fax: 01 40 77 85 33.
Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM), Dep. of Scientific Information and Communication, 101, rue du Tolbiac, F-75654 Paris Cedex 13, Internet:
Centre d’Études des Revenues et des Coûts (CERC), 3, Bd de Latour-Maubourg, F-75007 Paris.
Institut de Recherches Économiques et Sociales (IRES), 16, Bd du Mont d’Est, F-93192 Noisy-LE-GRAND CEDEX, ( 0148151890, Fax: 0148151918, E-mail:
LASMAS, c/o Iresco, 59-61 rue Pouchet, F-75849 Paris Cedex 17, ( (33/1) 40251003, Fax: (33/1) 40251247, Internet:
Institut National d’Études Démographiques (INED), 27 Rue du Commandeur, F-75675 Paris Cedex 14, ( (33) 0142182000, Fax: (33) 0142182199, Internet:
Caisse Nationale des Allocations Familiales (CNAF), 23 rue Daviel, F-75634 Paris cedex 13. ( 01 45 65 52 52.

Social Science and Political Journals: Revue Française des Affaires Sociales (quarterly ISSN 0035-2985); Population. Revue Bimestrielle de l’INED (bimonthly ISSN 0032-4663); La Revue de l’IRES (4monthly ISSN 1145-1378); Annales. Histoires, Sciences Sociales (bimonthly ISSN 0395-2649); FORS – Recherche Sociale (quarterly FR ISSN 0034-124 X); Espace, Populations, Sociétés (4monthly ISSN 0755-7809); Travail et Emploi (quarterly ISSN 0224-4365); Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales (quarterly ISSN 0335-5322); Modern & Contemporary France. The Review of the Association for the Study of Modern & Contemporary France (quarterly ISSN 0963-9489).

Further Reading

Cross, Máire and Sheila Perry (eds.) 1997: Population and Social Policy in France. London and Washington: Pinter.

European Commission, EUROSTAT, Directorate General for Regional Policy 1994: Portrait of the Islands. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Forsé, Michel et al. 1993: Recent Social Trends in France 1960-1990. Frankfurt a.M.: Campus; Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Hewlett, Nick 1998: Modern French Politics. Analysing Conflict and Consensus since 1945. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques 1996: Données Sociales 1996. La Société Française. Paris: INSEE.

Mendras, Henri with Alistair Cole 1988: Social Change in Modern France. Towards a Cultural Anthropology of the Fifth Republic. Cambridge: University Press.

Norton, Alan 1994: International Handbook of Local and Regional Government. A Comparative Analysis of Advanced Democracies. Aldershot, Hants/Brookfield, Vermont: Edward Elgar (chapter 2).

Price, Roger 1993: A Concise History of France. Cambridge: University Press.

Schultheis, Franz 1988: Sozialgeschichte der französischen Familienpolitik. Frankfurt/New York: Campus.

Abbreviations and acronyms
ANPE Agence Nationale pour l’Emploi
CNAF Caisse Nationale des Allocations Familiales
CNAMTS Caisse Nationale de l’Assurance Maladie des Travailleurs Salariés
CNAVTS Caisse Nationale de l’Assurance Vieillesse des Travailleurs Salariés
CREDES Centre de Recherche d’Étude et de Documentation en Économie de la Santé
CRÉDOC Centre de Recherche pour l’Étude et l’Observation des Conditions de Vie
DARES Direction de l’Animation de la Recherche, des Études et des Statistiques (Ministry of Labour, Employment and Vocational Training)
DEP Département des Études et de la Prospective (Ministry of Culture)
ENSAE Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Économique
INED Institut National d’Études Démographiques
INRP Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique
INSEE Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques
INSERM Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale
IRES Institut de Recherches Économiques et Sociales
SESI Service des Statistiques, des Études et des Systèmes d’Information (Ministry of Social Affairs, Health and Cities)
UNEDIC Union Nationale pour l’Emploi dans l’Industrie et le Commerce

Notes to figures 1 to 3

Figure 1: Crude birth rate=Live births per 1,000 mean population; Crude death rate=Deaths per 1,000 mean population;

Figure 2: Illegitimate Children Ratio=Live births out-of-wedlock per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44;

Figure 3: Divorce Ratio=number of persons divorcing per 10,000 married population aged 15 and over. The European rates are calculated in the same way as the national rates, i.e. the European divorce rate=all divorces in Europe related to the married population 15+ in Europe. Europe is defined as all European countries without the states of the former Soviet Union, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and former Yugoslavia. - The time series have been smoothed by moving averages of 3 years.