The Observer

Re-Bonjour Tristesse: Is French Pessimism Inevitable?

If we are to believe French news bulletins and media commentary, les Français are down in the dumps and their country is on the verge of implosion. Seen from abroad, however, the story is slightly different.
© Hervé Pinel

Two years ago, I wrote about the gloom that has engulfed France over the past four decades (or 400 years, depending on the optics). Back then, I wanted to put a bleak picture into perspective by showing that, while no longer a global powerhouse, the country was doing well overall. Guess what? Since then the mood has darkened even further. Leaving aside the black swans of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, newscasts and media commentary are still depicting a country seemingly on the verge of implosion. Listen to the headlines, read the papers, or follow the Twitterati and you get a sense of impending doom. Last year, for example, a clique of retired army officers published an open letter denouncing the disintegration of French society and calling for an uprising to prevent nothing less than civil war. What, if anything, has made the situation worse? Two factors seem to be at work, one circumstantial, the other structural.

The recent presidential campaign brought up some long-festering issues, especially law and order, immigration, and religion. More worryingly, the election was framed by some as an existential struggle for the identity of France, split between globalized city-dwelling elites and rural populations who feel isolated, impoverished, and disenfranchised. The two candidates on the far right, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, played heavily on the deterioration theme. Zemmour in particular banged the declinist drum with gusto. “It’s no longer time to reform France, but to save it,” he bellowed – apparently forgetting his earlier claim that the country was already dead and that “liberal elites” were “spitting on her grave and trampling her smoldering corpse.” One of Mr. Zemmour’s constant fixations is that France has surrendered to “Anglo-Saxon capitalism” – embodied by the now-reelected Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker at Rothschild & Co – and that “real” French people will soon be outnumbered by non-white, non-Christian immigrants. Hence the need for national salvation. Though Zemmour garnered only 7-odd percent of the total vote in the elimination round last April, his identarian arguments shifted the window of discourse during the campaign, forcing other candidates to talk up the traditional French values that are allegedly endangered by the country’s perilous decline.

Anti-elitism – a theme well-known to American voters – is spreading rapidly in France. It has become a staple of media and political rhetoric, alongside more compelling issues such as education, unemployment, and the cost of living. Observers inside the country, including your correspondent, are subjected to endless debates about how everything, from industry and education to culture and the French language, is disappearing into the black hole of irrelevance because of “the globalized elites.” Worse still, economic prosperity supposedly has ground to a halt.

Seen from outside France, however, the story is slightly different. Even habitual French-bashers have been surprised, not just because the country has been doing well – sometimes better than others – but also because the good news doesn’t seem to have trickled down to the French themselves. As the Paris-based newsmagazine L’Obs observed, foreign journalists are taken aback by the all-pervading climate of sinistrose, which roughly translates as excessive pessimism but can also mean a delusion of entitlement: “We ought to be happier than we are, dammit!” Similarly, Le Monde, the newspaper of record, bemoaned a very French tendency to wallow in “sad passions” and to deliberately ignore positive news.

"Paradise for some, peanuts for the rest of us." © Hervé Pinel

Objectively, the data quoted by Le Monde are encouraging, whether on unemployment, net job creation, or growth. The social welfare system is holding up relatively well, despite some strains, as the country emerges from the worst of the Covid pandemic; and universal childcare enables parents to continue working without resorting to costly private babysitting services. When measuring economic prowess, there is a knee-jerk tendency to draw comparisons with the United States. Here, too, the recent findings make for interesting reading. For example, intergenerational mobility – the changes in social position from one generation to another – is higher in France than in the U.S., despite a basic misconception about the percentage of poor children stuck in poverty (the French overestimate the figure, while Americans underestimate it). Other comparisons are equally instructive. A recent Brookings Institution study of healthcare finds that although America spends more per head than almost every other country, it lags France (among others) in terms of outcomes. Thanks to universal health coverage, the French enjoy higher life expectancy, less infant mortality, and lower rates of obesity than Americans.

Ah, but what about the gold standard: gross domestic product? Despite bouncing back to pre-crisis levels, French GDP per head is structurally lower than America’s. Here, too, the Brookings economists take a nuanced view. GDP is certainly an important metric, they argue, but it doesn’t capture all of the things that make life worth living. Another American expert, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, makes a similar observation. He posits that France’s somewhat lower national output reflects a choice, not a problem, inasmuch as French workers retire earlier. Above all, they work shorter hours than their American counterparts because they actually take vacations. The French economic model might be decried as “socialist,” notes Krugman, but it’s faring pretty well at the moment.

None of these experts is rosy-eyed enough to overlook the real problems facing France. At the same time, some perspective is needed. Jean Pisani-Ferry, a public policy expert and former adviser to Emmanuel Macron, makes that point clearly. He acknowledges that there are many areas for concern, including the structural issues that the French regularly grumble about: inequality, insufficient wealth redistribution, geographical inequalities, middle class malaise, and the quality of state institutions. Even so, he says, comparisons with other countries show that France’s performance is rather good.

So why, despite widespread relative prosperity, are the French consistently glum? Here, the root causes are structural. Some argue that France’s idealistic vision of itself, born of the 1789 Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, can never match up to reality, whence an inevitably ingrained malaise. In addition, the central role assigned to the state will always create excessive expectations. An even gloomier view is that France has been terminally undermined by its recent history. Its self-image has been battered by serial misfortunes: the debacle of World War II and the Nazi occupation, the 1973 oil crisis that curtailed a thirty-year “golden age” of expansion, followed by economic contractions and political turbulence that culminated recently in widespread social unrest due to a widening wealth gap. The result, to quote one punning protest placard, is Paradis pour les uns, pas un radis pour les autres (Paradise for some, peanuts for the rest of us).

Yet, the declinist trope is exaggerated. According to the Scottish-born, French-based historian Robert Frank, the recent dark years continue to poison the collective memory but France has nevertheless achieved another revolution by prioritizing domestic and economic modernization over an unceasing quest for worldwide influence. In doing so, it has adjusted to the transition from a global to a midsize power. Personally, I fear that neither Mr. Frank’s upbeat analysis nor the encouraging economic numbers will cheer my fellow citizens who, as one seasoned American observer concluded, are in constant denial about their nation’s success. In sum, the French seem quite happy being pessimistic.

Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.