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

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”.

Bad mood
“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.

“After they left office, the French continued to live on that belief.”

Today, he added, this illusion is disappearing gradually and “France is a country in mourning”.

What is lacking now is the music of history, “the capacity to contemplate tomorrows that sing”, he said.

It doesn’t help that as they come to grips with their dashed illusions of grandeur, the French find out that their own government and the US’s have them under the spyglass.

L’Oncle Sam se comporte très, très mal [Uncle Sam behaves very, very badly],” Le Monde wrote in a front-page editorial last week.

“I know we can be unbearable but not to the point where you are entitled to put mics at our place,” said Philippe Manière, managing partner of Footprint management consultants.

A 2011 BVA-Gallup poll conducted in 51 countries revealed that the French were even more pessimistic than Afghans and Iraqis. As sociologist François Dubet told Le Monde: “If France doesn’t get all the Olympic medals and all the Nobel Prizes, the French consider it hopeless.”

Manière complains about how “disgusting” the Disneyfied Champs Élysées has become, with hordes of teenage tourists snapping pictures of themselves in front of Ladurée, the macaroon shop, and pictures of the French without even a “s’il vous plaît”.

“The intersection of globalisation and the French spirit is especially painful,” he said. “We have this feeling that everything we were used to is disappearing and what we are offered is not as good.”

Bland global society
The French gave up the franc but don’t want to give up anything else to mesh into a bland global society.

“The French are very conceptual, very cerebral,” Manière said. “We need to have more than food and TV. In America, it is not treason of an ideal if you want to watch TV all day, whereas in France it is.”

It is a measure of their desperation that the French have become fixated on American-style happiness studies. Claudia Senik, a professor at the Paris School of Economics and the Sorbonne, has become a media darling discussing her research on French malaise.

Living in France, with its unyielding judgments about talent and its locked labour market, reduces the probability of being happy by 20 per cent, she says.

Though everyone else flocks here to be dazzled, the French are less satisfied than the average European.

She calls it “a cultural trait” linked not only to circumstance but to values, beliefs and behaviours passed from generation to generation, and exacerbated by madly competitive schools that are hard on self-esteem. In others words, unhappiness has been bred into the French bone. When French citizens emigrate, she says, they take their tristesse with them.

“Our happiness function is a little deficient,” she said over espresso at Le Rostand across from the Jardin du Luxembourg. “It’s really in the French genome.”
– (New York Times service)

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