France country brief


The Republic of France has a population of more than 64 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 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.

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

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 controlled the presidency, both houses of Parliament, 21 of the 22 French regions and most of the large French cities, départements and municipalities. The Socialist Party lost its dominance of the Senate in Senate half-elections in September 2014.

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 in August 2014. In a further reshuffle in February 2016, former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was appointed Foreign Minister.

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.

Key economic challenges for France include low growth in recent years, high unemployment, the size of its budget deficit (3.4 per cent of GDP predicted for 2016) and high levels of public debt (just over 97 per cent of GDP). With continuing lower rates of growth in Europe, French businesses are seeking new trade and investment opportunities in higher growth markets, including in the Asia-Pacific.

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 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 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:

  • The Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) undertook the first ever state visit to France on 23-27 April 2016.
  • Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, took part in the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Paris in late 2015 where he met with Prime Minister Valls. Australia was also represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, and the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt MP.
  • Minister for Foreign Affairs the Hon Julie Bishop MP visited France in June and April 2015, undertaking bilateral programs of appointments in Paris including a meeting with her then French counterpart Former Foreign Minister Fabius. Minister Bishop also visited France in April 2014, to represent the Government at the 2014 Anzac Day Dawn Service at Villers-Bretonneux.
  • Former Prime Minister the Hon Tony Abbott MP visited France in April 2015. He met President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls. Mr Abbott participated in French 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations in northern France in June 2014.
  • Former Minister for Defence, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP visited France in April 2015 to represent the Government at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at Villers-Bretonneux. He also met his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.
  • President Hollande made a state visit to Australia on 18-19 November 2014 in the lead up to Australia hosting the G20 Summit.
  • Former Trade and Investment Minister, the Hon Andrew Robb MP visited Paris in May 2014 for the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting and to undertake a bilateral programme of meetings.

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. President Hollande visited Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia on 21 and 22 February 2016. 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 (PIF) since 1989. Minister for Overseas France, Ms George Pau-Langevin, attended the September 2015 PIF Post Forum Dialogue in Papua New Guinea.

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 most recently in response to Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji), and maritime fisheries surveillance, also under trilateral arrangements with New Zealand. The then Minister for Education and Training, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, visited New Caledonia in September 2015 to advance bilateral education ties.

Defence and security cooperation

Australia's defence relationship with France is solid and continues to grow with frequent exchanges, single Service and Joint meetings, and major equipment procurement programs. Negotiations are close to completion 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.

Prime Minister Turnbull and Defence Minister Payne announced on 26 April 2016 that DCNS of France had been selected as the preferred international partner for Australia’s Future Submarine Program.

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.

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.

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 further increased that interest. The Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) represented Australia at the 2016 Service. Former Minister for Defence, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP awarded the 2015 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.

Joint commemorative activities, such as the annual Anzac Day ceremonies at Villiers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt, continue to be important elements of our bilateral engagement. During the Centenary of World War I period (2014-18) additional commemorations will mark the Battles of Fromelles (July 2016), Pozieres (July 2016), and Hamel (July 2018), as well as the Centenary of the Armistice (November 2018). The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front, has seen 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. In April, then Prime Minister Abbott unveiled plans for the new Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre to be constructed at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux.

Bilateral trade and investment

Trade and investment links between Australia and France are substantial. Total merchandise trade with France in 2015 was A$5.6 billion. In 2015, Australia exported A$881 million in services to France. Services imports were valued at nearly A$1.8 billion, largely 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 2015 was valued at A$45.6 billion. Total investment by France in Australia was valued at A$22 billion in 2015 (A$5.4 billion of which was FDI).

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.

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. In June 2013, the Musée de Quai Branly installed a major piece of indigenous art on the roof of the museum.

Illustrations by French artists made during Nicholas Baudin’s early 1800s exploration of Australia will come to Australia as a result of an MOU between the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre and six Australian museums, including the National Museum of Australia. The exhibition will open in July 2016 at the South Australian Maritime Museum, before touring Australia until May 2018. The exhibition is supported through the Australian Government’s National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach Program.

Education and other people-to-people links

France is the fourth largest source of international students from Europe studying in Australian universities, English language colleges and vocational education and training institutes, with 4,979 enrolments in 2015. France is an important academic, research and exchange agreements partner – some 39 Australian universities have 439 active international agreements with French institutions. In 2012 the Australia-France Alumni Network (A-FAN) was established, administered by the Australian Embassy in Paris, to facilitate 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 25,000 young French citizens visited Australia under this scheme in 2014, enhancing cross-cultural exchange and interpersonal links between the two countries.

Last Updated: 1 March 2016