Flag of France

France country brief

Introduction

The Republic of France has a population of more than 65 million people, making it the second most populous nation in the European Union (EU) after Germany. Beyond Western Europe, France has overseas departments and collectivities in the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans that account for 20 per cent of its total territory and nearly five per cent of its population.

As a founding member of the EU and host to a seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France is an influential member of the EU and attaches a high priority to European integration. France last held the EU Presidency in the second half of 2008. France is a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and is a nuclear weapons state. It has demonstrated a capability and willingness to project force in a significant way. It is a member of the Group of Eight (G8) and Group of 20 (G20) major economies and held the Presidency of both the G8 and the G20 in 2011. Beyond its territory, France takes a leading role in contributing to the Middle East peace process and development and security issues in Africa.

Political overview

System of government

The French political system is governed by the Constitution of 1958, which established the 'Fifth Republic', a semi-Presidential system. The President is elected by universal suffrage and serves a five-year term. French Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms. Under the 1958 Constitution the President is the head of the armed forces, guarantor of national independence and responsible for signing international treaties.

The government, headed by the Prime Minister, determines and implements national policy. Alongside the President, the Prime Minister is also responsible for national defence. The Prime Minister and all other Ministers are appointed by the President, who also has the power to dismiss them.

The national legislature, which may be dissolved by the President, is composed of two Houses: the Upper House or Senate (348 members who serve six year terms) and the Lower House or National Assembly (577 members). There is a clear separation of executive and legislative powers – ministers are not allowed to serve concurrently as parliamentarians. Elections for the National Assembly are held every five years, with the most recent elections having taken place in June 2012.

The most recent presidential elections were held in May 2012 during which the Socialist candidate, Mr François Hollande, defeated the incumbent, Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, of the conservative UMP party. President Hollande was sworn in on 15 May 2012 and a new Government was formed under Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Mr Laurent Fabius was appointed as Foreign Minister, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian as Defence Minister, and Mr Pierre Moscovici as Finance Minister. The Socialist Party's victory during the legislative elections one month later cemented its domination of the French political landscape. For the first time in modern French history, one party controls the presidency, both houses of Parliament, 21 of the 22 French regions and most of the large French cities, départements and municipalities.

However, President Hollande announced the first major reshuffle of his Government in April 2014, following substantial losses by his party in local French elections.  He appointed Mr Manuel Valls as Prime Minister, and expanded the portfolio responsibilities of Mr Fabius to include international development, as well as overall responsibility for the portfolios of three Secretaries of State (European affairs; Foreign Trade/Tourism Promotion/French Community Abroad; and Development/Francophonie.

Economic overview

France is a leading industrialised country with a mature and sophisticated market economy. The services sector, particularly tourism, is a cornerstone of the French economy. France is the world's fifth largest exporter and the EU as a bloc is its most important trading partner. Paris is a leading financial market in the Eurozone.

The French economy is expected to grow by under 1 per cent in 2014 (it grew by 0.4 per cent in 2013). Unemployment in France currently stands at nearly 11%. Youth unemployment and under-employment remains particularly pervasive, with the Hollande Government highlighting education and retraining as a priority for future employment growth.

Key economic challenges for France include the size of its budget deficit and high levels of public debt. At the end of 2013, public debt stood at 93.4 per cent of GDP, despite the Hollande Government's austerity program. While the government had committed to reducing the deficit to the target of 3 per cent in 2013, it accepted that it would be unable to do so and was accorded an extension by the European Union to reach the target by 2015.

Bilateral relationship

Australia's relations with France are positive and friendly. The bilateral relationship is underpinned by strong and enduring historical links – consular and diplomatic engagement since 1842, and cooperation in both the First World War and the Second World War. Dialogue and practical cooperation between the two countries on key global issues have been strengthening on many fronts in recent years, including through our common membership of major forums such as the G20 and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Australia also serves alongside France as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the period 2013-2014. Our participation in these and other multilateral fora has increased the scope for high-level bilateral engagement.

Australia-France relations are broadly and comprehensively defined by the bilateral Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership signed in January 2012. The Statement encourages both countries to strengthen engagement - including in the Pacific where both countries have direct interests - through two-way visits, and cooperation in political, defence, security, economic and development fields. Regular contact between Australian and French ministers and senior officials since the signature of the Strategic Partnership has helped advance implementation of Partnership objectives.

High level contact

High level contact and visits are important in promoting cooperation and understanding between the two countries. Senior Australian visits to France in recent years include:

Pacific engagement

France has direct strategic and economic interests in the region through its Pacific entities of New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna. France is a member of the Pacific Community (formerly the South Pacific Commission — SPC) and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and has been a dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum since 1989.

France is a valuable partner for Australia in the Pacific, cooperating through such initiatives as the joint Australia-France HIV and STI programs for Pacific Islands. Cooperation is well established in some defence areas, including disaster relief coordination under the trilateral FRANZ arrangement with New Zealand (activated in 2009 in response to the tsunamis in the Pacific), and maritime fisheries surveillance, also under trilateral arrangements with New Zealand.

Defence cooperation

Australia's defence relationship with France is solid and continues to grow in terms of personal contact at high levels, frequent exchanges, single Service and Joint meetings, and major equipment procurement programs. Negotiations continue on a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA) which will facilitate our work together in coalition operations, exercises and other activities, such as regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Australia and France regularly participate in combined force training exercises, particularly in the Pacific and Southern Oceans, including for emergency and disaster relief and operations against illegal fishing.

Australia and France have developed a good working relationship in the counter-terrorism field, including as founding members of the Proliferation Security Initiative to combat the trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. France is a valuable partner in this area, with significant expertise and experience in combating and prosecuting terrorism, a system of specialist counter-terrorism judges, and global reach, including in regions where Australian representation is limited, such as the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel, and francophone Africa.

Australia works closely with France in arms control regimes such as the Australia Group, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Missile Technology Control Regime and the Proliferation Security Initiative, to strengthen export controls and non-proliferation norms. As the fourth largest contributor to the UN and a P5 Member, France's positive approach to reform of the Security Council is important. The UN Peace Building Commission and Democracy Fund are reform initiatives where Australia and France share common views and together play a leading role.

Commercially, the French company Thales has a major investment stake in Australian defence industries. France is currently the world's fourth largest exporter of defence materiel with a 6 per cent share of the international market.

World War commemorations

The legacy of Australian involvement on French soil in the First and Second World Wars plays an important role in the bilateral relationship. 46,000 Australians lost their lives on the Western Front during the First World War. Each year many Australians travel to the Western Front to participate in commemorative activities and visit the grave sites. The Government's decision in 2008 to hold an annual ANZAC Day Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux has further increased that interest. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP,  represented Australia at the 2014 Service.

Ms Bishop also awarded the 2014 Australia-France Foundation Sadlier-Stokes Prize to schools in the Somme and Nord Pas-de-Calais regions. The scholarship commemorates the courage of two Australian soldiers, Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier and Sergeant Charlie Stokes, during the battle to liberate Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. These events reinforce Australia's historic ties with France, particularly those relating to Australia's military commitment during the First World War and the scale of our sacrifice. These links are warmly remembered and commemorated, and underpin broader French perceptions of Australia as a country with a tradition of engagement and a strong contribution to make to shared global challenges.

Joint commemorative activities, such as the annual ANZAC Day ceremonies at Villiers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt, and the anniversary of the battle of Fromelles at the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery continue to be important elements of our bilateral engagement, particularly in the Centenary of World War I period (2014-18). The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front, will see seven key sites developed in France and Belgium in partnership with local authorities as part of the Centenary. The trail honours the courage and sacrifice of the more than 295,000 Australians who served on the Western Front.

Bilateral trade and investment

Trade and investment links between Australia and France are substantial but with the balance firmly in France's favour. France is Australia’s 18th largest merchandise trading partner overall (A$5.3 billion in 2013). In 2013, Australia exported A$610 million in services to France. Services imports were valued at nearly A$1.1 billion, with the bulk of exports and imports comprising personal travel services. France is the most tourist-visited country in the world; Australia receives close to 100,000 French visitors every year. Total Australian investment in France in 2013 was valued at A$34 billion (A$1 billion of which was FDI). Total investment by France in Australia was valued at A$15.7 billion in 2013 (A$5.5 billion of which was FDI). France is Australia’s 14th largest source of FDI. More than 70,000 Australian jobs are attributed to France’s FDI in the country.

The arts

Australia and France have a dynamic relationship in all fields of the arts, with Australian artists enthusiastic to work within the French cultural tradition, and many French counterparts keen to explore Australia's vibrant culture. Institutional links are encouraged within the framework of the 1977 Australia-France Agreement on Cultural and Scientific Cooperation. The Australian Embassy in Paris administers the Australia-France Foundation, which promotes cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Cultural Awards Scheme has also helped promote cultural relations between Australia and France.

The National Gallery of Australia presented masterpieces from the collection of the Musée d'Orsay from December 2009 to April 2010. Australia was the first country to exhibit the chosen works together outside France. Australia has made a significant contribution to the Musée du Quai Branly, a major international museum dedicated to the world's indigenous arts and cultures that opened in Paris in 2006. In June 2013, the Musée de Quai Branly installed a major piece of indigenous art installed on the roof of the museum.

Education and other people-to-people links

France is the third largest source of international students from Europe studying in Australian universities, English language colleges and vocational education and training institutes, with 4,072 enrolments in 2013. France is an important academic, research and exchange agreements partner – some 38 Australian universities have over 300 active international agreements with French institutions.  In 2012 the Australia-France Alumni Network (A-FAN), administered by the Australian Embassy in Paris, that facilitates links between French graduates of Australian institutions.

The Working Holiday Maker Agreement signed between Australia and France in 2003 has also contributed to advancing the bilateral relationship. France is Australia's fastest growing source of working holiday makers. Approximately 24,000 young French citizens visited Australia under this scheme in 2012-13, enhancing cross-cultural exchange and interpersonal links between the two countries.

Updated July 2014