The French society: law, organization, etc... (#3)
 Women in political life    Powers and territorial organization of the country
  • In France, women were only given the vote in 1945

  • .A French law ( June 6, 2000) demands that in any political party, the proportion of women running for office is 50%. If it is below, the party is penalized and the grant it receives from the state is reduced accordingly. In 2002, the UMP (Center-Right) was penalized 4,26 million Euros, the Socialist Party 1,65 million, etc....

  • The proportion of women in politics is growing since 2000 (Law on parity men-women) but is still too low : 26,9 % in the National Assembly (2012) vs. only 10,9% in 1997, 22,1% in the Senate (2011) vs. 5,9% in 1998, 44,4% of the French members of the European Parliament (2009) vs. 40,2% in 1999, 48% of the members of Regional Councils (2010) vs. 27,5% in 1998, 13,9% at the Departement (county) level (2011) vs. 9,6% in 1998 and 34,8% of City Counsellors (2008) vs. 21,7% in 1995 but only 13,8% of mayors (2008, but only 7,9% in 1995) (Source : La Documentation Francaise 2014)

  • Regarding women in the national Parliament, France ranked 21rst in Europe (before 2012) : 12,8% compared to Sweden 45%, Finland and Denmark 38%, Netherlands 37%.

  • The "Observatoire de la Parity" in an official body in charge of monitoring the progresses of parity men/women in political life ; the situation in France is improving, but there is still a long way to go....

  • Popular women in French politics include : Simone Veil (who legalized abortion in the 1970s), Martine Aubry, Ségolène Royal, Rachida Dati, ...

  • In 2008, the "Conseil d'Etat" (the French Supreme Court) ruled that a condition to claim French nationality is to fully acknowledge equality between men and women : read more about it.

  • Read more about the French woman

DID YOU KNOW THAT.... In France, women are legally entitled to wear pants ! Among the thousands of laws that the French enjoy, some are so absurdly obsolete that nobody remembers they still exist. Among them, a law of 1800 forbids women to disguise themselves as men i.e. to wear pants ! This law has been amended twice (by adding "unless they hold the handlebars of a bike" in 1892 and "unless they hold the rein of a horse" in 1909) but was still valid until January 31, 2013, when it was abrogated. A (recent) success for women in France !


(credit) Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) is the first French feminist. A writer and the author of the Declaration of the Rights of the Woman and of the Citizen, she was sentenced to death on the guillotine.

DID YOU KNOW THAT.....? Americanization through TV : in French courts, you call the judge "Monsieur le Président" (Mr.President) but many young offenders now use the word "Your Honor", because they have seen so many American series on TV. It is not very good for their case because French judges hate it... That is considered part of the "americanization" of the French society.

  • Local structures are incredibly complicated.
    • The basic organisation is the " commune ", with its " maire " (mayor) : for the Frenche he/she is the most important incarnation of democracy in the country. The number of "communes " is astonishing : more than 36,000 (more than in all other European countries together).
    • Above the " commune ", there are 3 other levels of local authorities : " intercommunalités " (association of communes), " départements " and regions (see : French regions at a glance).
    • Constitutionally, they must balance their budget and if they don't, the Prefects takes control of it.
    • Then, there is of course the national level (with two chambers : " deputés " and senators) and the European level.
    • Most of these authorities levy taxes, have constitutional competences and an administrative and technical staff of civil servants. Most people agree that there are too many layers, too many elected officials (half a million !), too many civil servants but nobody agrees when it comes to suppressing a layer (for instance the " departement ") or reducing the staff. This is another (spectacular) form of the traditional reluctance to change of the French.
    • However there are now (2014) Good News about local institutions and things might change!
    • See a detailed chart of the French organization of powers.
  • Such a complex organization, where the final say belongs to local politicians, is not a factor of efficiency and financial seriousness. French local authorities are not well-managed. A few examples ( Source : Capital, Aug. 2014) :
    • They keep hiring staff (+3.2% in 2013, in year where reduction of public expendidures was the main objective of the government) and maintain thousands of useless organizations (134 economic development agencies in the Rhone Alpes region)
    • They keep granting their staff excessive social benefits, with no effcicient monitoring (in Beziers, civil servants have one half-day a week of "additional rest-time", in Marseille, garbage collectors enjoyed the "fini-parti" policy, i.e. when they considered they has finished the job, they could go back home (this "tradition" was abolished only in 2017), in Montpellier the % of days of absence, excluding vacation and RTT, is 17.5%, etc.)
    • More to come
  • French institutions include (roughly) :

    • Executive : the President (5-year term) appoints the Prime Minister who proposes a Cabinet of around 40 "ministres" and "secrétaires d'Etat" (junior ministers)
    • Legislative : the National Assembly (5-year term) votes the law ; the Senate (elected by mayors and other local politicians, 6-year term) can demand a second vote of the Assembly
    • Judiciary : the French equivalent of the US Suprem Court is a mix of the Conseil d'Etat (for implementing laws), the Conseil Constitutionnel (for their conformity to the constitution)
    • Several regulatory bodies, among them : Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA, regulator of media), Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés (CNIL, regulating data files), Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature (CSM, regulating the apointment of judges), etc.

DID YOU KNOW THAT...? In France, the most popular politician is, by far, the Mayor. Mayors are important and they have much more power than their American colleagues (building permits, money allowance to help people or families, etc...). People who could spend hours dumping on their Deputy, Senator, Members of the Cabinet, Prime Minister or President generally declare that the only politician they like and trust is their Mayor. If you decide to settle in a French village, the very first person to meet is the mayor! In a nutshell, the French love (or hate) their local politicians, love (or hate) their President and tend to consider with skepticism and cynicism any form of political life between. More about French politics.

 Surprising facts about France and the French society    The French judicial system
  • In France, if your former employer collapses (like Enron), your pension does not vary one cent and it has no impact on your health plan

  • On maternity leave (16 to 18 weeks), you get your full salary

  • The French health coverage system is NOT paid by the State but by organizations managed on a paritary base by employers and employees associations

  • Credit cards for everyday expenses hardly exist and most French people think that it is a dangerous and useless concept (read why I think it's crazy to have a credit card). Peeople use only debit cards and there is no credit scoring for individuals : loans are negociated on a case by case basis

  • Whatever your income and your job situation, if you suffer a serious illness, your expenses are reimbursed 100%

  • If you are an employer, you cannot fire an employee without a serious reason, which can be challenged in court

  • More to come...

USEFUL TIPS ....The French love to wear a decoration and you can see it on their jackets. Apart from purely military decorations, the four most prestigious decorations are :
- Légion d'honneur (red ribbon), the most prestigious, created by Napoleon for military (mostly) or civil services (3,000 to 5,000 awarded a year, 112,000 bearers)
- Ordre du Mérite (blue ribbon), for civil services (3,000 to 5,000 awarded a year, 195,000 bearers) (the webmaster is the proud bearer of it !)
- Palmes Académiques (purple ribbon), mostly for teachers
- Médaille des Arts et Lettres (striped ribbon), for artists, often awarded to foreign artists
Each of them has several levels : " chevalier " (knight) is a ribbon, " officier " is a round button, " grand officier ", " commandeur ", etc are larger buttons. When you receive it, it is always a rather formal ceremony : the person who presents you the medal (and already has it for him/herself) gives a speech to explain how much you deserve it, then he/she pins it on your chest on behalf of the President of France, then, you give a thank-you speech and try to look modest but you explain that you do deserve it. There is also the "Médaille du Travail", granted to any employee who worked for 3 employers ore less for 25 (silver) or 30 (gold) years : when you receive it, you also receive a gift (from your employer) of one month salary !


The judicial system in France is fundamentally different from what Americans are used to. Among the major differences (as established by someone who is not a lawyer !) :

  • Written law : in France, the major source of law is written law as opposed to jurisprudence, which can also be used but only if written law is not sufficient to judge the case adequately;

  • Appointed judges : judges are not elected but appointed by the State ; constitutional provisions and a special body (Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature) ensure their independence ; the French are as shocked by judges who would have to please the voters as Americans are shocked by judges who would have to resist the State (America is the only contry, with Switzerland, with elected judges)

  • Accusatory vs inquisitory procedure : in a criminal case, establishing the facts is the job of the " juge d'instruction", a magistrate who manages the police investigations and brings the case to court : in court, new facts may appear but the facts are supposed to be already established and the cross examination as we see it in the (many) American series on TV looks very strange to the French

  • Several types of jurisdictions, according to the nature of the case : civil and/or criminal (Tribunal d'Instance, Tribunal Correctionnel, Cour d'Assises), commercial or labor disputes (Tribunal de Commerce, Conseils de Prudhommes), any case involving the State (Tribunal Administratif, Conseil d'Etat) and several other specialized juridictions ; for the most serious criminal cases, the Cour d'Assises includes a jury of nine citizens and three judges

  • Plea bargaining is against French laws ; this is why a case like Executive Life is so difficult to manage from a French standpoint ;

  • Lawyers : generally speaking, the French are horrified by the influence, the power and the cost of lawyers in the USA. The increasing influence of lawyers in French corporate life is considered one of the major signs of "Americanization" through US law firms.

  • Crime : the number of people in jail is not very different from other European countries, but the ratio/inhab. is 7 to 8 times smaller than the US number

  • More to come
To related pages : more about French society(#4), French politics (#1) and religionin France (#2), French institutions (#5), French attitudes, French values, French issues, etc...

To table of contents

To top of the page 

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!