Inégalité, morosité, nostalgie


France’s sluggish economy, debt and unemployment figures could account for the gloom and self-doubt pervading French society. But with top-class services and a high birth rate, there is still room for happiness

IF YOU WERE TO SKETCH an outline of the archetypal French provincial town, it wouldn’t look very different from Château-Thierry. Its winding cobbled shopping street leads on to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, a pretty square with an art-deco cinema overlooked by the ruins of the fortified castle on the hill. The town, bisected by the River Marneas it surges through northern France, has its obligatory Rue du Général de Gaulle, its Avenue de la République and its monument to the fallen of the first World War. In a cafe off the square, with its pinball machine and blaring pop music, local men line up against the bar for their morning coffee. Shopkeepers on the street are rolling up their shutters. The smells are of freshly baked bread, roasting chickens and acrid car fumes.

But Château-Thierry’s emblematic credentials run deeper. The town’s demographic profile so closely reflects the national picture that pollsters and market researchers take a keen interest in what its people think, and the supermarkets on the edge of town are used as testing grounds for new products. If Château-Thierry’s 15,000 residents like it, the logic goes, chances are the rest of France will too. “They say we’re a mirror of the average French town,” says Isabelle Jacob, the deputy mayor.

With four weeks to go before French people vote in the first round of the presidential election, Château-Thierry’s politics are being closely watched as well. The town is steeped in republican and left-wing lore; it was renamed Égalité-sur-Marne during the Revolution, and it was here, in 1903, that France’s first communist community was set up. Legend has it that Lenin cycled from Paris to pay a visit.

Recent elections showed an almost even split between right and left – just 1.5 per cent separated Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist rival Ségolène Royal here in the 2007 election. And despite its position as a gateway to the Champagne region and its proximity to first World War battlefields, Château-Thierry has been feeling the strain of the economic crisis. Unemployment is about two points above the national average of 9.5 per cent, and the only reason the far-right National Front doesn’t have a strong presence on the local council is that politicians from rival parties set up a united electoral list to block its advance.

“I don’t think I’ll vote,” says Marine Berguer, a middle-aged woman who owns a home-decoration shop on Grande Rue. With people having less money to spend, she has noticed business fall off badly since last summer. “I’m conflicted. I know women haven’t had the vote for all that long, but voting for one or the other feels like the same thing. I don’t know where we’re going.”

“I’m afraid things won’t change,” says Lauralee Messmer, a 20-year-old first-time voter, who is on a temporary contract in a cosmetics shop on the same street. “I was watching the news about Greece on TV the other night – they’ve cut salaries in half. I’m worried that could happen in France.”

The election campaign is being fought over familiar terrain: jobs, economic security, public services, immigration and values. But flowing beneath the surface is a strong current of the sort of pessimism Berguer and Messmer reflexively articulate.

In a global BVA-Gallup poll carried out in January last year, 37 per cent of French participants said the next 12 months would be worse than the last, making them gloomier than Afghans (14 per cent) and Iraqis (12 per cent). Domestic surveys have been showing the same pattern for years.

The feeling is widespread that France is in a trough. The economy is crawling along at 1.7 per cent growth, no government has balanced a budget in 40 years and public debt is 86 per cent of gross domestic product. Youth unemployment is at 24 per cent and emigration, virtually unknown in the past, is tempting many young people.

The bottom line is that France is growing poorer, says the prominent liberal economist Nicolas Baverez, “and that translates into social divisions and the rise of exclusion and social ghettoes, with practically six million people who are now outside society and the economy”. Baverez became a household name in France in 2003, when he set out in the provocative France in Freefall his thesis of economic and social decline. Nine years later, he says he is more convinced than ever of his argument. “I think public opinion was already on my side, but now the political and media system is obliged to acknowledge the truth.”

And yet the figures don’t quite explain France’s self-doubt. After all, the French economy is in relatively good shape compared with Europe’s laggards, and the combination of a big public sector and its citizens’ prudence insulated it from the worst effects of the post-Lehman Brothers crisis.

Part of the explanation lies in recent history. A whole generation of French people grew up during les trente glorieuses, the 30 years of great prosperity and cultural-intellectual flowering that followed the second World War. Every generation since has grown up hearing about it. These were the years when Charles de Gaulle was at the height of his powers, the social model was felt to have triumphed, and France projected its military and cultural clout, its grandeur, far and wide. It was exemplified by the concept of the exception française, a term that captured all the ways in which French society and culture distinguished themselves from Anglo-American conformism.

Les trente glorieuses came to an abrupt end with the oil crisis in the 1970s, and apart from a parenthesis between 1998-2001, when unemployment fell, the economy rebounded and a World Cup win whipped the country into euphoria, those heights have not been scaled since. Nostalgia is a big seller these days. Scan the new cinema releases each Wednesday and you’re guaranteed to find something with a sunny, pastoral background and a child narrator set either in les trente glorieuses or the halcyon days before the first World War.

Sitting in his Paris office on a midweek afternoon, the socialist former foreign minister Hubert Védrine says France’s self-pity is partly born of the concerns shared by all western powers over the rise of China, India and Brazil.

“Western countries will remain the strongest, the richest for a long time, but they’re no longer alone,” he says. “They no longer have a monopoly. That has absolutely gigantic consequences. Clearly, some people are panicking. I think part of the American reaction – the Tea Party, for example – is made up of people who are horrified to see that the US doesn’t control the world, whereas at the end of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, everyone felt America controlled everything.

“That’s not the case. America has to take account of China, India and Brazil. There’s anxiety among certain Americans; there is anxiety in Europe. European middle classes are worried about the future, and they think it’s going to be more difficult for their children.”

One of the reasons France has found Europe’s relative decline harder to stomach is that for centuries its self-image has been bound up with its leadership role. After the revolution, France built itself a universalist mission around the principles of liberty, equality and the consent of the governed. Frenchness has, since the Declaration of the Rights of Man, been intimately tied to that universalism.

In his memoir, de Gaulle wrote that France was “truly herself” only when she was in the first rank. As recently as last March, when Prime Minister François Fillon justified military intervention in Libya, he linked it to France’s vocation to uphold the revolutionary ideals around the world.

“France is a pretentious country, historically,” says Védrine. “It says it has universal ideas . . . But just because we had universal ideas two centuries ago doesn’t mean we’re universal every morning. In the French psyche there are the same worries you have everywhere: the West’s relative decline, the economic crisis, the rise of emerging powers, youth unemployment and so on. But in addition to that I think there is an element of humiliation.”

At times the morose self-flagellation risks tipping into self-parody. The French take more psychoactive drugs than anyone else. The evening TV news has a daily “And finally . . .” slot it tends to devote to scaring people with the latest threat to their well-being: recently it has covered germs, computer viruses, nuclear accidents, antibiotics, meat, vegetables, binge-drinking, flu, bullying, harassment, divorce, ageing, fat, bad botox, bad manners, storms, maladjusted step-children, pollution and rogue locksmiths.

All of this feeds into the political system. At either end of the spectrum, voters are promised a return to an idealised version of the past where things were better and easier to understand – a workers’ utopia at one end; a white, Catholic pre-euro eden on the other – while the mainstream, dominated by an aloof and mistrusted technocracy, must play along to ensure it doesn’t leak too much support.

“The right says identity is being lost, we’re being invaded by Africans and so on. The left says the social model has been completely demolished,” remarks the sociologist Jean Viard. “They’re both untrue.” But here’s the paradox: listen closely to what French people are saying and it turns out they’re not quite as unhappy with their lot as they seem. When pollsters ask people how they feel about their own life – family, lifestyle, home and surroundings – about 75 per cent declare themselves content. In his latest book, Viard argues that, for most French people, the past century has been one of constant and continuing improvements in their daily lives — and they know it.

The dirigiste model has given France an excellent healthcare system and well-run towns and cities underpinned by a strong civic ethic. So good are the roads and trains that, in the past decade, France’s long pattern of rural exodus has been reversed by families fleeing the city for the countryside.

Neither is there anything inevitable about French decline. Throughout the 1970s, Britain was gripped by a sense of terminal weakness. Less than 10 years ago, headline-writers were calling Germany the sick man of Europe. For every sign of weakness, there’s a reminder of strength. After all, France’s economy is the world’s fifth biggest. It has the second most extensive diplomatic network, its language is spoken daily by 220 million people and its military and cultural clout has a long reach.

Corporate France is thriving, with its biggest firms in leading positions in global industries such as oil, banking, luxury goods, aircraft, cars and drinks. Moreover, France has the second-highest birthrate in the EU, sparing it some of the demographic worries of other countries. It remains so attractive to outsiders that it receives more tourists – 80 million every year – than any other country.

What if the real story were simply of a big western power going through the same bout of self-interrogation that every country experiences from time to time, adjusting its footing and finding its place in a globalised, multipolar world?

“It’s the exception française reversed,” Viard remarks in exasperation. “We want to be the best, and if we’re not the best, we must be the worst. What we don’t seem to want is to be a country with strengths and weaknesses like every other.”

An Irish voice in Brittany: 'People here like to disagree'

Sheila Matson Barkat, originally from Co Waterford, is a college lecturer who lives near the western French city of Rennes. When she came to France to study 20 years ago, she met Hadj. They have two children, Amine, who is 12, and Ines, who is seven.

“In the countryside in Ireland, you can have a very simple life, but during the Celtic Tiger stage, where everything was sort of American – big houses and things like that – I really felt in France it was healthier. It’s not valued in society to keep trying to have more and more.

“In France people tend to buy what they can afford. They don’t live on credit anything like at home. You can’t, in fact. The banks won’t let you. You can’t say, ‘I’ll buy a huge house and pay it back over years and years.’

“Brittany is a very dynamic region. It’s traditionally associated with agriculture and fishing, but it’s a big centre for hi-tech now. I live about 10 miles outside Rennes, and we don’t feel the depression that some parts of France would feel.

“My son Amine has cystic fibrosis. In Ireland, I just couldn’t pay for what he gets here. Five days a week, a physiotherapist comes to the house. Every three months, he has to go on a drip for two weeks, and he can do all that at home, with a nurse coming to the house. All his medication is paid for. If he has to go to hospital, he always has a private room. And we don’t only see doctors – there’s a psychologist, a dietician, all the physiotherapists.

“It’s very human as well – here in Rennes, we have three dedicated CF nurses. My son knows them very well. When you ring them up, it’s almost like ringing up a friend.

“In France, before you get your salary, a third of the money is gone on social security and towards retirement.

“On average, people pay about one month’s salary in income tax. Then we have to pay a house tax and a land tax, which come to over €1,000 a year.

“I think French people are afraid it’s getting worse, but very few will want to leave the country. People here like to disagree, to debate, to object to everything. They just like giving out.

“ In relation to health, for example, most French people have no conception of what it might be like somewhere else – that you’d have to pay every time you went to the doctor. That’s a right for them. It’s the provider state – that’s the way they’ve been brought up. You pay your taxes and you get these services in return.”

France in figures

The divorce rate is 50 per cent nationally, and 66 per cent in Paris.

Just 8 per cent of French workers are members of a trade union, making it one of the least unionised countries in the world.

The average net salary is €19,270.

Some 79 per cent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power; the highest percentage in the world

Just 9 per cent of French men and 14 per cent of women say they practise their religion regularly

Some 57 per cent of households own their principal home

More than 15 million French people have taken psychoactive drugs such as antidepressants and sedatives. It is the highest consumption rate in the EU.

There are more than 1,200 McDonald’s outlets in France, and fast food accounts for 24 per cent of all restaurant expenditure.

More than 8 million out of France’s population of 65 million lives below the poverty line, defined as €954 a month.

Some 48 per cent of regional councillors and 18.5 per cent of national assembly members are women.