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COUNTRY: conventional long form: French Republic; conventional short form: France; local long form: Republique Francaise; local short form: France;


As a result of colonial policies during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France has helped to create the current shape of the Middle East. As the world’s sixth largest economy, as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a guiding voice in the European Union, France is still an instrumental actor on the world stage, including the Middle East.


LOCATION: Western Europe, bordering the Bay of Biscay and English Channel, between Belgium and Spain, southeast of the UK; bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Italy and Spain

AREA: total: 547,030 sq km; land: 545,630 sq km; water: 1,400 sq km; note: includes only metropolitan France; excludes the overseas administrative divisions

CLIMATE: generally cool winters and mild summers, but mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean; occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as mistral

TERRAIN: mostly flat plains or gently rolling hills in north and west; remainder is mountainous, especially Pyrenees in south, Alps in east

NATURAL RESOURCES: coal, iron ore, bauxite, zinc, uranium, antimony, arsenic, potash, feldspar, fluorospar, gypsum, timber, fish

Image:France_HIjab.jpg PEOPLE

POPULATION: 60,424,213 (July 2004 est.)

ETHNIC GROUPS: Celtic and Latin with Teutonic, Slavic, North African, Indochinese, Basque minorities

RELIGIONS: Roman Catholic 83%-88%, Protestant 2%, Jewish 1%, Muslim 5%-10%, unaffiliated 4%

LANGUAGES: French 100%, rapidly declining regional dialects and languages (Provencal, Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, Flemish)

LITERACY: definition: age 15 and over can read and write total population: 99% male: 99% female: 99% (1980 est.)

Note: As a result of the French colonial experience with North Africa, France is home to a large and diverse African population, especially Arab North Africans from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. These citizens, descendants of the old colonial system, have by no means been integrated smoothly into French society, and most live in poor suburban areas of metropolitan Paris. This group is predominantly Muslim and is becoming more vocal in asserting its rights in the face of marginalization at the hands of the government. All of this makes the French government very sensitive to affairs that influence the opinions of Muslims worldwide, many of which start in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.


TYPE: republic

The constitution of the Fifth Republic came into force in early 1959. The president is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term. Parliament comprises two chambers: the Senate (the upper chamber), members of which are elected by an electoral college and serve for nine years (with one-third retiring every three years); and the more important National Assembly (the lower chamber), to which deputies are elected by universal suffrage and which serves for a five-year term (although it may be dissolved by the president).


CHIEF OF STATE: President Nicolas SARKOZY (Since 16 May 2007)

HEAD OF GOVERNMENT: Prime Minister Francois FILLON (since 17 May 2007)

CABINET: Council of Ministers appointed by the president on the suggestion of the prime minister

ELECTIONS: president elected by popular vote for a five-year term (changed from seven-year term in October 2000); election last held 21 April and 5 May 2002 (next to be held, first round NA April 2007, second round NA May 2007); prime minister nominated by the National Assembly majority and appointed by the president

NOTE: In the past decade over 500 French politicians and businessmen have been investigated or convicted for corruption. Many of Les affaires, as the scandals are known, relate to illegal money-raising for political parties in the 1980s and 1990s. Jacques Chirac may have been among the worst culprits, though as France's president he is immune from prosecution.


OVERVIEW: France is in the midst of transition, from a well-to-do modern economy that has featured extensive government ownership and intervention to one that relies more on market mechanisms. The Socialist-led government partially or fully privatized many large companies, banks, and insurers, but the government retains controlling stakes in several leading firms, including Air France, France Telecom, Renault, and Thales, and is dominant in some sectors, particularly power, public transport, and defense industries. The telecommunications sector is gradually being opened to competition. France's leaders remain committed to a capitalism in which they maintain social equity by means of laws, tax policies, and social spending that reduce income disparity and the impact of free markets on public health and welfare. The current government has lowered income taxes and introduced measures to boost employment. The government is focusing on the problems of the high cost of labor and labor market inflexibility resulting from the 35-hour workweek and restrictions on lay-offs. The government is also pushing for pension reforms and simplification of administrative procedures. The tax burden remains one of the highest in Europe (43.8% of GDP in 2003). The current economic slowdown and inflexible budget items have pushed the 2003 deficit to 4% of GDP, above the EU's 3% debt limit. Business investment remains listless because of low rates of capital utilization, sluggish demand, high debt, and the steep cost of capital.

CURRENCY: euro (EUR) note: on 1 January 1999, the European Monetary Union introduced the euro as a common currency to be used by financial institutions of member countries; on 1 January 2002, the euro became the sole currency for everyday transactions within the member countries

GDP: purchasing power parity - $1.661 trillion (2004 est.)


UNEMPLOYMENT RATE: 9.7% (2004 est.)

INDUSTRIES: machinery, chemicals, automobiles, metallurgy, aircraft, electronics; textiles, food processing; tourism

EXPORTS: machinery and transportation equipment, aircraft, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceutical products, iron and steel, beverages

IMPORTS: machinery and equipment, vehicles, crude oil, aircraft, plastics, chemicals


BRANCHES: Army (includes Marines, Foreign Legion, Army Light Aviation), Navy (including naval air), Air Force (including Air Defense), National Gendarmerie

AGE AND OBLIGATION: 17 years of age with consent for voluntary military service (2001)

EXPENDITURES DOLLAR FIGURE: $45,238.1 million (2003); 2.6% (2003) of GDP

The French military is respected around the world as a modern fighting force capable of projecting French power effectively on sea, air and land. As a result, the French arms trade is a major component of the national economy, and many Middle Eastern states have stocks of French warplanes and surface to air missiles. The French military is also the only significant force in western Europe which operates outside the reach of the NATO alliance, although it does routinely operate in UN-sanctioned peacekeeping missions, especially in its old west African colonies. The French also maintain a large nuclear arsenal, the Force de Frappe, and next to the United States have the world's most developed aircraft carriers.



Although it never maintained an empire the size of Britain’s in the nineteenth century, France did pursue several policies during this period that have proved very important for the modern Middle East: firstly, in 1865 the French government established itself as a guarantor of the safety of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects living on the Mediterranean coast: this semi-autonomous safe zone closely matched the borders of modern Lebanon, and established the first ties between France and Lebanon’s Maronite Christian rulers. Secondly, in 1869 French engineers completed the Suez Canal, which has since become one of the world’s most important waterways, linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean and East Asia.


In 1914 Britain, France and Russia went to war with Germany and her allies in what later became known as the first world war. This war was a turning point in the history of the Middle East because its aftermath marked the destruction of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East from Istanbul (in modern Turkey) since 1453. Due to a secret pact between the French and British governments, the majority of this territory was divided up in 1920 into French and British colonies, with the British getting the better part of the deal: Iraq, Kuwait, and Palestine (modern Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Territories) while France got the areas of modern Lebanon and Syria. As a side effect, this maneuvering also created the modern borders of Saudi Arabia. France and Britain were confirmed as the colonial protectors of these new colonies by the League of Nations (the international organization that preceded the UN) until such time as Britain and France decided that the Arab colonies were ready for full independence. Once again, the opinions of the locals were not an important consideration in this imperial logic.


Image:France_Faisal.jpgImage:France_Syrian_Mandate_Flag.jpgMANDATORY SYRIA AND THE FAISAL REBELLION

Syria was cobbled together out of the combined regions of Aleppo and Damascus, two ancient Middle Eastern trading cities. The French occupation of this territory was initially complicated by the presence of Sharif Faisal ibn Abdullah, son of the ruler of Mecca and hero of the Arab Revolt, in which British agents had encouraged Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire by promising them an independent Arab state at the end of the war. Faisal had conquered Damascus and driven back Ottoman troops, but had no say in the secret agreement which gave the region of Damascus to the French. French troops drove Faisal out of Damascus in 1920 (he later became the first king of the new country of Iraq). After defeating Faisal the French combined several smaller territories in Syria, which they ruled until 1946.

Image:Lebanon_Church.jpgImage:France_Lebanon_Mandate_Flag.jpg MANDATORY LEBANON

After acquiring the territory around Damascus the French made the controversial decision to continue protecting the Christian around mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean, and went so far as to cut off part of the Syrian protectorate around the city of Beirut and declare it the independent protectorate of Lebanon. This outraged many Syrian politicians, as they saw the area of Beirut as an area with deep cultural links to Damascus. Nevertheless, the French, who distrusted Arabs in general and Arab Muslims in particular, decided to protect the Maronite Christians by creating a country explicitly designed to always remain majority Christian. The Lebanese constitution was modeled on the French system, and contained within it a focus on religious identity, whereby Maronite Christians would always retain dominance in the country, supported by the urban, “civilized” Sunnis of the coastal cities. This deeply problematic structure has since proven the root of most modern political problems in Lebanon. For more information, read the Lebanon entry.


In the early days of World War II the French were absolutely overwhelmed by the Nazi army, and the entire French government was forced to flee into exile, leaving a Nazi puppet government in its place. This government gave independence to both of the Mandates in 1941, but this was not acknowledged by the international community. Instead, when British and “Free French” forces liberated the eastern Mediterranean in 1943, Lebanon and Syria were both given their formal independence, though French forces did not leave the area until 1946. Humbled by their wartime experience and devastated economically, the French largely stayed out of direct Middle Eastern affairs after the war, with two notable exceptions, as described below.

Image:Britain_Suez.jpg THE SUEZ CRISIS

France was sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1956 over the fate of the Suez Canal. The charismatic Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal as part of a general policy of swinging Egypt away from the west and towards the Soviet bloc in the hopes of getting foreign support for the destruction of Israel. More specifically, the Canal was nationalized after the British and Americans withdrew all their funding from the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a massive irrigation project Nasser was constructing in southern Egypt. The British and French, who owned the majority of shares in what had previously been the private Suez Canal Company, were furious with the Egyptians, but initially attempted to solve the matter at the UN. This situation changed when they were encouraged to enter into a military alliance with Israel, which in 1956 was engaged in low-level economic warfare with Egypt and suffering desperately from a stringent Egyptian shipping embargo. The Israelis agreed to do the bulk of the fighting if the British and French would commit their own forces, thus giving the fight international credibility; the goal was to retake the Suez Canal, revert its ownership to the European shareholders, and overthrow Nasser, who all sides agreed was jeopardizing the flow of Gulf oil to Europe by nationalizing the Canal.

Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula in late October 1956, quickly overwhelming the Egyptian border force and speeding right for the Canal, which British and French paratroopers quickly secured in a well-executed assault. They could not imagine the scale of international outrage over their actions. Almost immediately, the Soviet Union threatened to launch full-scale attacks upon London and Paris if aggression did not cease against their Egyptian ally. Likewise, the Eisenhower administration in Washington D.C. was unwilling to risk a nuclear war with Russia just to help the British and French salve their wounded pride, so the Americans likewise threatened to bury the exchange-rate of British currency if the troops did not leave at once. The invaders left within a week, the Canal was now the property of Nasser’s Egypt, and it was clear that Britain and France had relinquished their regional authority to the new world powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. The French were not consulted when the British decided to unilaterally stop hostilities, and as a result of this seeming betrayal by her allies the French government resolved to pursue a more independent defense policy, which it has done ever since.

Image:France_Algeria.jpgNORTH AFRICA

As a result of colonial expansion during the nineteenth century, France after the war was still the master of modern Morocco and Algeria. Morocco eventually gained its independence through quiet diplomatic action, but Algeria took its own by force. Beginning in 1954, the Algerians began a devastating guerilla war against the French colonial occupiers, which involved vicious urban warfare and long campaigns in the mountainous wilderness of southern Algeria, on the fringes of the Sahara. Unlike in many colonial struggles after World War II, this war was not resolved quickly: the French had fully incorporated Algeria into the French provincial system, meaning that it was actually considered a full part of France, which obviously could not be shed as easily as a colony like Vietnam or Cambodia, both of which the French lost in 1954. Likewise, Algeria is located very close to France, just across the Mediterranean, so the French were able to continuously supply their troops, which ultimately lead to the prolongation and increasing deadliness of the war. At the same time, French treatment of Algerian Muslims, especially their women, spawned outrage in the heartland of the Middle East, in countries like Iran, Syria and Iraq, all of which had recently thrown off their own imperialist yokes. The war lasted until 1962, when Algeria successfully gained its independence. Disgust in the French heartland led to distaste for all further military actions in the Middle East: from this point forward, for a very long time France’s only interests in the region would be economic ones.


Lebanon was a chief supplier of weapons to Israel throughout the 1940s and 1950s, much of which owed to French feelings of guilt over the Holocaust. These arms sales included tanks, planes, artillery, and small arms. The French were criticized for their role in allegedly upsetting the regional balance of power via these sales, but for the cash-strapped postwar French governments, such accusations amounted to little. More seriously, in the 1960s the French began an independent nuclear weapons research program, and the Israelis surreptitiously gained access to much of this research. The French government agreed, shortsightedly, to build a nuclear reactor for the Israelis in the desert settlement of Dimona in 1961, which the Israelis claimed would be the site of a nuclear physics research facility and nothing more. Secretly, the Israelis used this reactor to gain further equipment from various European nations, which resulted in functional nuclear weapons some time in the late 1960s, though the Israelis had not acknowledged possession of these weapons until a recently slip-up by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. These nuclear ties were severed after the 1967 war, in addition to most normal arms sales to Israel. The French government thought the Israeli decision to occupy Gaza and the West Bank amounted to a recipe for perpetual war—a position they have held ever since.


In the 1980s France became active in regional affairs again due to the Iran-Iraq War and the Lebanese civil war. From 1980 onwards the French became a major arms supplier to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and even built Iraq a nuclear reactor in 1980, which was ironically soon destroyed by the Israeli air force. In Lebanon, the French provided a large portion of the UN forces that had been attempting to halt violence in Lebanon since 1982. in 1983 the French and American portions of this force were the victims of devastating suicide bombings, which severely weakened international support for this UN mission. The French nonetheless maintained a military presence in their former colony, which included a small force on the Israeli-Lebanese border that is still active today.


In 2005 the assassination of prominent Lebanese businessman Rafik Hariri led to massive demonstrations in Beirut against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which had been continuing in some form or another for almost 30 years at that point. Though Syria protested its innocence at the UN, France and the US used this opportunity to attempt to reassert the sovereignty of the Lebanese state—America acted to tweak the nose of a regional rival, while France acted out of a sense of obligation to their former colonial subjects, the Francophile Maronite Christians of northern Lebanon. Thanks to French and American pressure Syrian troops fully withdrew by the end of 2005, and a liberal, west-friendly government had taken power in Beirut.

In July 2006, this newfound sovereignty was challenged by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in pursuit of Hezbollah militants, which resulted in vast infrastructural damage to all pieces of Lebanon and a multi-billion dollar repair bill. The French led the fight in the UN to call off the Israeli invasion, which placed them in direct opposition to the Americans, who were tacitly siding with the Israelis in the interest of crushing Hezbollah, a perceived pawn of America’s arch-enemy Iran. After the end of this crisis in mid-August the French led the reconstruction effort, and have since used this as an opportunity to attempt to draw Lebanon further into the French orbit.

Image:Portrait sarkozy.jpgFOREIGN RELATIONS

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, France is an important player on the world stage. Since the American invasion of Iraq its diplomatic powers have increased greatly, as it is now seen as a relatively honest broker in the Middle East now that most regional powers have branded both Britain and America as imperialist aggressors.

Britain: Relations with Britain are generally very good, in a friendly-antagonistic way given the two nations’ long history of military rivalry. A noted exception is the Iraq war, which Britain joined on the American side and France has opposed from the very beginning. The two are also vying for power within the EU, since they have very different ideas of how the economics of the Union should be structured.

European Union: France intended to be the guiding power of the EU, but recently internal problems have forced it to take a back seat to Germany and Britain, notably the fact that in 2005 French voters refused to ratify the EU constitution, which is seen by many European lawmakers as one of the biggest steps towards creating a unified social body. At the same time, economic problems within France have made it take a backseat to Germany in financial matters, and the strong state of British currency, which remained outside the Euro market, have also challenged France for supremacy in this organization.

Iran: Iran is one of the larger export markets for French goods in the Middle East, but bilateral relations between these countries are hampered by the fact that France has come down firmly against Iran in the nuclear crisis, arguing that while France is very open to the idea of Iran possessing nuclear power stations, it cannot be allowed to maintain a program which could be used to produce nuclear weapons. It has also condemned Iranian activities in Lebanon, arguing that Iran has shown itself to be an irresponsible power by the way it has armed Hezbollah to unbalance Lebanon’s neighbors.


Israel: France and Israel have a complicated relationship, owing to their early history of military collaboration, but through Israeli eyes France is now seen as the most anti-Semitic state in Western Europe, due to France’s staunch opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the frequency of hate crimes within France. Recently Ariel Sharon actually told French Jews they needed to immigrate to Israel as soon as possible to escape persecution, which of course produced outrage within the French government. Sharon never apologized for the remark, and relations between these two countries have remained strained ever since. Generally, France has not had input into the Peace Process, but has adamantly used its authority in the UN to push for the implementation of Resolution 242, which calls for the complete withdrawal of territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

Lebanon: France maintains strong cultural ties to Lebanon as a result of their colonial relationship, as a result of which many upper class Lebanese still prefer to speak in French and emulate French fashions whenever possible. The French are proud of the role they have recently played in protecting the sovereignty of Lebanon from Syria, Israel and Iran. The new French president has declared that he wants to strengthen ties with the Lebanese government even further, in the hope of producing something like a unified Mediterranean trade body similar to the EU.


Palestine: since 1967 the French government has been a staunch protector of Palestinian rights, and was home to many exiled Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They continue to support the Palestinian Authority through Fatah and its allies, but they have cut off all aid to the current government of Hamas, which the French and other western governments have branded a terrorist organization since its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Since 2007, however, France has been arguing for the review of these restrictions, since it appears that they are no closer to rattling Hamas and have only proven damaging to Palestinians on the street.

Russia: relations with Russia are centered on economic issues, and improved steadily during the presidencies of Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac. France would like to see Russia develop into a less corrupt, democratic nation, but at present it is not pushing for reforms as aggressively as other governments, notably the United States.


Saudi Arabia: France has not had the depth of interaction with Saudi Arabia enjoyed by Britain or America, since its oil companies were late in penetrating Gulf markets. In the past two decades, however, French-Saudi relations have warmed as French specialists began assisting the development of the Saudi infrastructure, while the Saudis have emerged as a major investor in the French domestic economy. The French have maintained a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the Saudis, and have not pressured them on their internationally deplored human rights record.

Syria: France has emerged as a sharp critic of its former colony, mainly because France has attempted to preserve the sovereignty of Lebanon while the Ba’athist regime of Syria has tried for three decades to keep Lebanon squarely in its sphere of influence. France has been at the forefront of the international community’s efforts to force the Syrians into accountability for their actions in Lebanon, and while France would like to see Syria integrated into the world economy as a pupil of the EU, it demands first and foremost that Syria clean up its own human rights situation and become a more responsible neighbor.

United Nations: France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and therefore has a veto right on all important legislation, which it exercises rarely compared to most of the other permanent members. Since 2002 it has emerged, along with Russia and Germany, as the strongest critic of the American invasion of Iraq, and has used the world body as a public forum to air international grievances with the policies of the Bush administration.

United States: the Iraq war poisoned relations between these two countries, despite what had previously been more than two centuries of close cooperation on many social and military issues. Despite the vicious public debates and outright racism which has emerged between these two countries, their economic and social links are simply too strong to sever overnight. It is a given that French and US policy will never see exactly eye to eye, but on the vast majority of world issues these two countries pursue very similar agendas: most recently, they have cooperated at the UN to secure the independence of Lebanon from Syrian influence and to forestall Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weaponry.


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