France country brief

Introduction

The Republic of France has a population of almost 67 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.

France is a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and is one of the five "Nuclear Weapons States". It has demonstrated a capability and willingness to project force in a significant way. It is a member of the Group of Seven (G7) and Group of 20 (G20) major economies. Beyond its territory, France takes a leading role in contributing to the Middle East peace process, and development and security issues in Africa.

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.

Political overview

France is a representative republic with strong democratic traditions. The French political system is governed by the 1958 constitution, which established the 'Fifth Republic' as 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. The most recent presidential elections were held in May 2017, during which Emmanuel Macron defeated the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in a second round run-off vote. President Macron’s centrist party, La République En Marche, holds a majority in the National Assembly. On 15 May 2017, President Macron named the Mayor of Le Havre, Edouard Philippe, as Prime Minister. Former Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was named Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. Other key ministers include Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy and Finance, Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, and Gérard Collomb, Minister of the Interior.

Minister Le Drian has had regular contact with the Australian Government over the past year, including with the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne and the Minister for Defence Industry, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP.

Economic overview

France is a leading industrialised country with a mature and sophisticated market economy. France is the world’s sixth largest economy and the third largest in Europe (after Germany and the UK). 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.

Germany was France’s top individual trading partner in 2016. At USD$78.9 billion, Germany accounted for 16.7 per cent of France’s total exports. France’s main import partner in 2016 was also Germany, which accounted for 19.5 per cent of its total imports.

Economic performance in France was broadly stable in 2016, with GDP growth of 1.2 per cent, and forecast to reach 1.5 per cent in 2017. France faces some key economic challenges, including low growth in recent years, high unemployment, the size of its budget deficit (3.4 per cent of GDP in 2016) and high levels of public debt (around 96 per cent of GDP in 2016). With continuing lower rates of growth in Europe, French businesses are seeking new trade and investment opportunities in higher growth markets, including in the Indo-Pacific. The French government is promoting economic diplomacy initiatives to support President Macron's push for increased growth and jobs.

Bilateral relationship

Australia's relations with France are positive and friendly. The bilateral relationship is underpinned by strong and enduring historical links. There has been consular and diplomatic engagement since 1842, and cooperation in both the First World War and the Second World War. Australia and France work together in many fields, such as security and environment, and have shared interests in our region. We both support a rules-based international order. 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 fora such as the G20 and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Australia also served alongside France on 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 Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership between Australia and France signed on 3 March 2017. The statement encourages both countries to strengthen engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. The statement promotes two-way visits and cooperation in the following priority areas: political; defence; security and intelligence; economic; energy and resources; transport and infrastructure; education, science, technology and culture; innovation; shared memory of the First World War; environmental and climate issues; international development; and consular and crisis management. Regular contact between Australian and French ministers and senior officials in recent years has helped advance the implementation of partnership objectives.

High level contact

High level contact and visits are important in promoting cooperation and understanding between the two countries. Recent senior visits include:

  • Prime Minister Turnbull visited France in July 2017. He met President Emmanuel Macron and formally opened the Australian Future Submarine Office.
  • Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, HE Jean-Marc Ayrault, visited Australia in March 2017. He met Prime Minister Turnbull, and with Minister Bishop signed the Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership between Australia and France. He also met the Minister for Trade and Tourism, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP.
  • The Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, visited France in December 2016. He met former Defence Minister Le Drian to discuss security issues and to sign an agreement on enhancing information-sharing between the two countries, including strengthening existing protections.
  • The Governor-General, HE General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), visited France for ANZAC Day in April 2016, undertaking the first ever state visit to France. He also attended Bastille Day celebrations in July 2016, where Australian troops marched with New Zealand troops along the Champs-Élysées as guests of honour. He also visited the Sir John Monash Centre near Villers-Bretonneux in September 2017.
  • Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Australia in May 2016 to meet Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister Bishop, following the announcement that France’s Naval Group (formerly DCNS) had been selected as the preferred international partner for Australia’s Future Submarine Program.
  • Former Defence Minister Le Drian visited Australia in February 2016 to meet with Minister Payne and Minister Bishop.
  • Prime Minister Turnbull took part in the 21st UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Paris in late 2015 where he met then Prime Minister Valls.
  • Former President Hollande made a state visit to Australia in November 2014 in the lead up to Australia hosting the G20 Summit.

Pacific engagement

France is committed to playing a substantive role in the Pacific. 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 and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and has been a dialogue partner of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) since 1989. In 2017, Secretary of State Sébastien Lecornu participated in the 29th Post-Forum Dialogue of the PIF as part of the 48th Leaders’ Meetings in Samoa. In April 2016, former Prime Minister Valls visited New Caledonia for independence referendum discussions.

France is a valuable partner for Australia in the Pacific, cooperating on health initiatives such as the Franco-Australian Pacific Regional Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Sexually Transmitted Infections program. Cooperation is well established in some defence areas, including disaster relief coordination under the trilateral FRANZ arrangement with New Zealand (activated most recently in response to Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji), and maritime fisheries surveillance, which is also under trilateral arrangements with New Zealand. Australia is keen to continue working with France in the Pacific bilaterally, as well as through the Quadrilateral Coordinating Group (QUADS), and the South Pacific Defence Ministers’ Meeting (SPDMM). On 3 September 2015, then Minister for Education and Training, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, signed an arrangement between Australia, France and New Caledonia to advance education ties.

Under the Nouméa Accord, New Caledonia will hold an independence referendum in 2018. Voters will choose whether New Caledonia will remain a part of France or become an independent country. Australia supports the Nouméa Accord process, and encourages all parties to engage through that process to determine the future governance and institutional arrangements for New Caledonia.

Defence and security cooperation

Australia's defence relationship with France is solid and based on shared values and a commitment to maintaining the rules-based global order. It continues to grow with frequent exchanges, single service and joint meetings, and major equipment procurement programs. The Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the Republic of France regarding the Provision of Mutual Logistical Support between the Australian Defence Force and the French Armed Forces is expected to be signed by ministers later in 2017. The Agreement 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. The importance of our defence relationship with French forces in the Pacific was highlighted in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.

Prime Minister Turnbull and Defence Minister Payne announced on 26 April 2016 that France’s Naval Group (formerly DCNS) had been selected as the preferred international partner for Australia’s Future Submarine Program (FSP). Australia’s FSP is now the key cooperation activity in the defence relationship with France, representing a significant, long-term strategic partnership between the two countries. On 20 December 2016, Australia and France signed the Framework Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic Concerning Cooperation on the Future Submarine Program that formally establishes the framework which will support Australia’s FSP. The agreement entered into force on 5 May 2017.

The Australian and French Government also signed an agreement to improve the sharing of classified information between the two countries and to strengthen existing protections. The Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic regarding the exchange and reciprocal protection of classified information was signed in Paris on 7 December 2016 by the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, and former Defence Minister Le Drian. The agreement was a significant milestone in the development of a strategic partnership between France and Australia, and directly supports delivery of the FSP.

Australia and France have developed a good working relationship in the counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism fields, including as founding members of the Proliferation Security Initiative to combat the trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. France is a valuable partner in these areas, with significant expertise and experience in combating terrorism, prosecuting terrorists and dealing with returning foreign fighters and radicalised lone actors.

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 fifth largest contributor to the UN, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, 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.

Australia is working with France on cyber security on the development of norms for responsible behaviour by states in cyberspace. We are working to establish rules and to strengthen global responses when states disregard those rules. These efforts seek to maintain an open, free and secure cyberspace as an environment for international cooperation and mutual benefit.

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. Some 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 furthered interest. The Governor-General, HE General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd), represented Australia at the 2016 service. Awarded annually, the 2015 Australia-France Foundation Sadlier-Stokes Prize commemorates the courage of two Australian soldiers, Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier and Sergeant Charlie Stokes, during the battle to liberate Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

Joint commemorative activities, such as the annual Anzac Day ceremonies at Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt, continue to be important elements of our bilateral engagement. During the Centenary of World War I period (2014-18), there will be additional commemorations to mark the Battle of Hamel (July 2018) and the Centenary of the Armistice (November 2018). The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front includes 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 more than 295,000 Australians who served on the Western Front. In April, former Prime Minister Abbott unveiled plans for the new Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, which is expected to be opened on 24 April in 2018.

Bilateral trade and investment

There are substantial trade and investment links between Australia and France. In 2016, two-way trade in goods and services was worth over A$8 billion. In 2016, total merchandise trade was worth around A$5.8 billion. Total merchandise imports from France were $4.5 billion, and Australian exports to France $1.2 billion. Tourism and other services trade was worth over A$2.7 billion. Australia’s services imports from France were $1.9 billion in 2016, compared with services exports to France of $841 million.

In 2016, France’s total investment in Australia was valued at $28 billion, and Australian investment in France totaled $55 billion. Almost all of France’s largest companies from the CAC40 index are present in Australia. Over 500 French companies operate in Australia employing approximately 60,000 people. As the FSP progresses, there will likely be further investment opportunities for French companies in Australia.

The Australian Government is committed to securing a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, of which France is a member. Both the EU and Australia are currently undertaking preparations before negotiations commence.

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. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Cultural Diplomacy Grants’ Program has helped promote cultural relations between Australia and France. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also supported the inaugural French Festival, which will next be held in Adelaide in January 2018. Australia has made a significant contribution to the Musée du Quai Branly, a museum dedicated to the world's indigenous arts and cultures, which has a major piece of indigenous art installed on the roof of the museum.

As a result of a memorandum of understanding between the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre and six Australian museums, including the National Museum of Australia, illustrations by French artists made during Nicholas Baudin’s early 1800s exploration of Australia are touring Australia. The exhibition opened in 2016 at the South Australian Maritime Museum, and will continue touring Australia until 2018. The exhibition is supported through the Australian Government’s National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program.

Education and other people-to-people links

Australia and France people-to-people links in the area of education continue to grow. In 2016, France was the fifth largest source of international students from Europe studying in Australian universities, English language colleges and vocational education and training institutes. France is an important academic, research and exchange agreements partner, and there are some 440 current agreements or memoranda of understanding between Australian and French universities. In 2012, the Australia-France Alumni Network (AFAN) was established to facilitate links between French graduates of Australian institutions. The network is administered by the Australian Embassy in Paris.

There are over 100,000 French students, working holiday makers and tourists visiting Australia each year. On any given day, on average, there are around 15,000 French nationals in Australia on visitor visas, and over 37,000 French nationals are in Australia on temporary visas. France receives more than 1.2 million Australian tourists every year.

The Working Holiday Maker Agreement, signed between France and Australia in 2003, has contributed to advancing the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Over 200,000 French citizens have visited Australia under this arrangement since it commenced, contributing to enhancing cross-cultural exchange and interpersonal links between the two countries.

Last Updated: 1 November 2017