The 'flaws' of French democracy

Composite French pictures

Is France a democracy? Most people would assume there is a straightforward answer - "Yes". After all, France has free and fair elections. However, there is more to a truly democratic society than elections alone, writes Simon Baptist of The Economist Intelligence Unit.

France is a democracy, but not a full democracy, according to the newly published sixth edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index. More accurately, it is a "flawed democracy".

We give it a score of 7.92 out of 10, below the 25 countries that scored 8.00 or above - all full democracies - and fractionally below Botswana, another flawed democracy. But it's above the other 140 countries covered by the index, and a long way from being classified as a "hybrid regime" or - quelle horreur - "authoritarian".

So, what is it that lets France down?

Volunteers count ballot at the closing of vote on the day of the second round of the French municipal elections on March 30, 2014 at a polling station in Nantes, western France

France is up there with the top democracies in regard to its electoral process, civil liberties, and political participation - which refers to such things as voter turnout, the number of women MPs and preparedness to participate in lawful demonstrations. It is let down by its relatively poor showing in terms of functioning of government and political culture.

A couple of examples.

Top 10 full democracies

Country Score out of 10

1: Norway

9.93

2: Sweden

9.73

3: Iceland

9.65

4: Denmark

9.38

5: New Zealand

9.26

6: Australia

9.13

7: Switzerland

9.09

8: Canada

9.08

9: Finland

9.03

10: Luxembourg

8.88

Other countries

14: UK

8.31

19: US

8.11

27: France

7.92

Consider the power of the French parliament. In a country such as Norway, ranked first, or Australia, ranked sixth, the legislature is the supreme decision-making body. France's legislature, by contrast, is one of the weakest in Europe. Because the president wields huge power, it is difficult for the legislature to shape legislation and hold the government to account.

Pie chart showing how many countries are democracies

The president is elected too, of course, but there is a greater risk of a single decision-maker taking action against citizens' wishes than a legislature composed of hundreds of elected officials, which has its own inherent checks and balances.

This is one reason France performs badly with regard to "functioning of government".

Here's another example. French citizens, by their own admission, have very low trust in government or political parties - surveys show them to be some of the most disaffected in Europe. The autumn 2013 Eurobarometer survey [pdf in French], for example, revealed that only 7% of French people trust their political parties, while only 14% trust the national government - both well below the European average. This may be one factor contributing to the defeat of mainstream parties in last month's European election. It is also one reason why France is not ranked highly for "political culture".

A woman holds a sign reading 'When you are of the left... In Europe you put people first' as left-wing protesters take part in a demonstration against austerity on April 12, 2014 in Paris

In the first version of the Democracy Index, eight years ago, France was rated as a full democracy. It was downgraded in the third edition, in 2010, due to the decline in public confidence in politicians and because of its low levels of political engagement. In the latest World Values Survey for France, only 37% of people were somewhat or very interested in politics, as compared to 44% in the UK and 58% in the US.

Since 2010, however, France's score has been edging up again and it is now very close to being classed as a full democracy.

How the index works

  • Countries judged for: electoral process, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties
  • A total of 60 questions are asked within these five categories
  • Some questions are weighted as more important than others, including: Are national elections free and fair? Are voters safe when they go to the polls? Do foreign powers have influence over government? Are civil servants capable of implementing policies?
  • Countries are then rated as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes
  • There were found to be 25 full democracies, 52 flawed democracies, 39 hybrid regimes and 51 authoritarian states

Spain, meanwhile, has been moving in the other direction. Currently ranked two places higher than France, at 25th, its democracy has weakened over the past five years, and 2014 could well be the year that France overtakes it.

There are other European countries - including Italy (31st), Portugal (34th) and Poland (44th) - languishing further down the ranks of flawed democracies. Romania, the lowest-ranked member of the EU, comes in at 60th.

Like France, the UK is on an upward trend, climbing two places to 14th in the latest index, which was based on data available at the end of 2013. This is because of the jump in voter turnout at the last two general elections, increased participation of minorities in parliament and political organisations, and a rise in the numbers who believe that democracy is good for the economy.

So, which countries do we rate as the most democratic in the world? This group includes the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) along with New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada and tiny Luxembourg. (The US comes in at 19th.) They must by now be accustomed to the glory, as they dominate the first 10 places of many such rankings, the UN Development Programme's Human Development Index, for example, or the EIU's Quality of Life index.

At the other end of the index, the least democratic country is North Korea - let down by its score of zero in the electoral process and civil liberties categories - followed by Guinea-Bissau and the Central African Republic.

Bottom 10 authoritarian regimes

Country Score out of 10

158: Syria

1.86

159: DR Congo

1.83

160: Saudi Arabia

1.82

161: Equatorial Guinea

1.77

162: Uzbekistan

1.72

163: Turkmenistan

1.72

164: Chad

1.50

165: Central African Republic

1.49

166: Guinea-Bissau

1.26

167: North Korea

1.08

Egypt made the biggest fall during 2013, tumbling back into the authoritarian category, after a year classified as a hybrid regime. Montenegro and Benin were also downgraded - from flawed democracies to hybrid regimes - while Madagascar and Burkina Faso made the leap up from authoritarian states to hybrid regimes.

What The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index shows is that free and fair elections and civil liberties are necessary conditions for democracy, but they are unlikely to be sufficient for a full and consolidated democracy if unaccompanied by transparent and at least minimally efficient government, sufficient political participation and a supportive democratic political culture. It is not easy to build a sturdy democracy. Even in long-established ones, democracy can corrode if not nurtured and protected.

But equally, a country that does nurture a healthy democratic system can rise up the index. Maybe next year France will make the leap back to being a full democracy?

Simon Baptist (@baptist_simon) is chief economist and Asia regional director at The Economist Intelligence Unit

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