It’s the end of the world as French know it
Opinion: Widening chasms between sectors of society are creating new divisions
The French gave up the franc but don’t want to give up anything else. Photograph: Getty Images
Versailles lived again at haute couture week, as designers paraded let-them-eat-cake creations, hand-stitched with gilt embroidery and trimmed with guiltless fur – frous-frous no real women can wear and few can afford. On Friday night, Christian Lacroix offered his homage to Elsa Schiaparelli, but even high fashion couldn’t lift Paris from its low mood. “Liberté, Égalité, morosité,” Le Monde declared.
Joie de vivre has given way to gaze de navel. The French are so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement – a state of mind Albert Camus described as “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” – that they don’t even have the energy to be rude.
It’s not that they have lost faith in their superiority. They have lost faith that the rest of the world sees it. The whole country has, as Catherine Deneuve says of her crazy blue moods, une araignée au plafond (a spider on the ceiling).
On Place Vendôme, Lacroix was dispatching models in black crepe chiffon peplum basques while, on Avenue Hoche, his dentist was bemoaning the black crepe City of Lights.
Holding a cigarette in a waiting room filled with Picasso-print pillows, Dr Gérard Armandou told how his patients, always prone to pessimism, are even more filled with malheur now as they sit in his chair contemplating tous les problèmes, including “not going any more on holiday to Egypt”.
“Cocteau said the French are Italians in a bad mood, but now there is more morosity,” he said. “We are connecting with nostalgia. What is nostalgia? Where the present doesn’t agree with the hope that you got in the past.”
He said there are widening chasms between sectors of French society – old and young, natives and immigrants, smokers and nonsmokers, homosexuals and non-homosexuals. “Enter conflict, where before there was none,” he said. “The French people, maybe they think too much. The happy stupid don’t see the problem.”
People with joie de vivre, after all, are simply not paying attention. “It’s not the end of the world,” Armandou said with a Gallic shrug. “It’s the end of one world.”
The French have higher rates of taking antidepressants and suicide than most other Europeans. And while arguing about how to move forward, they feel trapped in the past, weighed down by high unemployment and low hopes, the onerous taxes that drove Gérard Depardieu to flee, conflicts with immigrants, political scandals, François Hollande fatigue, Germany envy, economic stagnation, a hyperelitist education system, and cold, rainy weather that ruined the famous Paris spring.
Instead of confronting the questions at hand – how to adjust to globalisation and compete with the Chinese – the French are grieving their lost stature and glorious past, stretching back to the colonial empire, the Lumières, the revolution, Napoleon, even the jazz-age writers and artists. They are stuck in a sentimental time warp as vivid as the one depicted in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
“In 1945, France was on the losers’ side, but this reality has long been masked by the political speeches of Gen de Gaulle and François Mitterrand: They both maintained, in their own way, the idea that it remained a great power promised to an exceptional destiny,” historian Christophe Prochasson told Le Monde.