Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front Party, shocked France in April 2002 with his second-place finish in the first round of France's presidential election. He took 17% of the vote, eliminating Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, who tallied 16%. Jospin, stunned by the result, announced that he was retiring from politics and threw his support behind incumbent president Jacques Chirac, who won with an overwhelming 82.2% of the vote in the runoff election. Chirac's center-right coalition won an absolute majority in parliament. In July 2002, Chirac survived an assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist.
During the fall 2002 and winter 2003 diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations over Iraq, France repeatedly defied the U.S. and Britain by calling for more weapons inspections and diplomacy before resorting to war. Relations between the U.S. and France have remained severely strained over Iraq.
France sent peacekeeping forces to assist two African countries in 2002 and 2003, Côte d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Prime Minister Raffarin's plan to overhaul the national pension system sparked numerous strikes across France in May and June 2003, involving tens of thousands of sanitation workers, teachers, transportation workers, and air traffic controllers. In August, a deadly heat wave killed an estimated 10,000 people, mostly elderly. The catastrophe occurred during two weeks of 104°F (40°C) temperatures.
In 2004, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols in schools. The government maintained that the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols threatened the country's secular identity; others contended that the law curtailed religious freedom.
In March 2004 regional elections, the Socialist Party made enormous gains over Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Party. Unpopular economic reforms are credited for the UMP's defeat.
On May 29, 2005, French voters rejected the European Union constitution by a 55%–45% margin. Reasons given for rejecting the constitution included concerns about forfeiting too much French sovereignty to a centralized European government and alarm at the EU's rapid addition of 10 new members in 2004, most from Eastern Europe. In response, President Chirac, who strongly supported the constitution, replaced Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin with Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister.
Rioting erupted on Oct. 27, 2005, in the impoverished outskirts of Paris and continued for two weeks, spreading to 300 towns and cities throughout France. It was the worst violence the country has faced in four decades. The rioting was sparked by the accidental deaths of two teenagers, one of French-Arab and the other of French-African descent, and grew into a violent protest against the bleak lives of poor French-Arabs and French-Africans, many of whom live in depressed, crime-ridden areas with high unemployment and who feel alienated from the rest of French society.
In March and April 2006, a series of huge and ongoing protests took place over a proposed labor law that would allow employers to fire workers under age 26 within two years without giving a reason. The law was intended to control high unemployment among France's young workers. The protests continued after President Chirac signed a somewhat amended bill into law. But on April 10, Chirac relented and rescinded the law, an embarrassing about-face for the government.
Presidential elections held in April 2007 pitted Socialist Ségolène Royal against conservative Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the nominee for the Union for a Popular Movement. Late in the race, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou emerged as a contender. Sarkozy, with 30.7%, and Royal, taking 25.2%, prevailed in the first round of voting. Sarkozy went on to win the runoff election, taking 53.1% of the vote to Royal's 46.9%.
Sarkozy immediately extended an olive branch to the United States, saying "I want to tell them [Americans] that France will always be by their side when they need her, but that friendship is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently." The dialogue signalled a marked shift from the tense French-American relationship under Chirac.
On his first day in office, Sarkozy named former social affairs minister François Fillon as prime minister, succeeding Dominique de Villepin. He also appointed Socialist Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières, as foreign minister. Workers in the public sector staged 24-hour strike in October to protest Sarkozy's plan to change their generous retirement packages that allow workers to retire at age 50 with a full pension. On the same day of the strike, Sarkozy confirmed that he and his wife, Cécilia, had separated and planned to divorce. Rail workers staged a strike in November to protest Sarkozy's plan to end generous benefits that allow workers to retire in their 50s with full pension benefits. Strikers relented after nine days and agreed to negotiate.
In Feb. 2008, Sarkozy married Italian-born Carla Bruni, a former model turned pop star.
In July, Sarkozy launched the Union for the Mediterraneanan—an international body of 43 member nations. The union seeks to end conflict in the Middle East by addressing regional unrest and immigration
On July 21, 2008, Sarkozy won a narrow victory (539 to 357 votes—one vote more than the required three-fifths majority) for constitutional changes that strengthen parliamentary power, limit the presidency to two five-year terms, and end the president's right of collective pardon. The changes, approved in July, also allow the president to address Parliament for the first time since 1875. The Socialist opposition asserts that the changes actually boost the power of the presidency, making France a "monocracy."
The French Parliament approved a bill in July that ends the 35-hour work week and tightens criteria for strikes and unemployment payments. The new bill is intended to decrease unemployment and allow businesses and employees to negotiate directly about working hours.