Since the 1970s, a raft of international studies has demonstrated the French proclivity for malaise and moroseness. The British had their bout of melancholia in the early 17th century. The Germans were afflicted with weltschmerz 200 years later. For France, the time to be unhappy is now.
The French inhabit a stunningly beautiful country, gifted with the world’s finest food and wine. They enjoy the security of a generous cradle-to-grave welfare system. Yet they hold the European record for consumption of tranquillisers and sleeping pills. A Gallup poll this year showed them to be the most pessimistic country in the world, ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The culture and ideas section of Le Monde recently pondered the reasons for France's existential anguish in a three-page spread titled "Liberté, égalité, morosité". It offered three explanations.
France’s schools are “hyper-selective and ultra-elitist” in the words of Dominique Reynié, a professor at Sciences Po. There is little classroom interaction. Children learn by rote memory and know their future will be determined early and irrevocably by their performance in intensely competitive examinations.
French politics are in desperate need of renewal. Representatives in their 60s are 10 times more numerous in the French National Assembly than in the Bundestag; 20 times more than in Sweden. Women are sorely underrepresented. Left and right have so long accused each other of incompetence and corruption that the average Frenchman is convinced his leaders are incompetent and corrupt.
Finally, there is what the political scientist Brice Teinturier calls France's "narcissistic wound": the "great nation" of the 18th century is no longer universal or imperial. After suffering humiliation at the hands of Germany in 1870, 1914 and 1940, the French watch Germany run Europe. De Gaulle and Mitterrand perpetuated the illusion of French grandeur for a time, but reality has sunk in. As President François Hollande said on Bastille Day, "When there's a crisis, we suffer, because we can't accept decline and losing our rank."
I would add a couple of personal theories to the above. France is justifiably proud of fostering two world-changing philosophical movements, the Enlightenment and existentialism. But if the Enlightenment killed religion, endowing France with an enduring anti-clerical streak, existentialism replaced any vestige of meaning with the conviction that life is futile and absurd. These beliefs have seeped into popular consciousness.
It is 30 years since I saw Camus's Caligula at the Théâtre de l'Ódéon, but the mad emperor's words resound as an accurate summation of the human condition: Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux. Is pessimism not the obvious response to such a rational, Cartesian observation?
Language, I suspect, has something to do with it. The gravity of Caligula's words descends into banality in translation: "Men die and they are not happy." The French academician Jean-Marie Rouart says French "carries with it something greater than itself, something which English does not have".
How else does one explain that Beckett's plays are tragic in French, comical in English? As quoted by his friend and publisher John Calder in the Irish Times magazine, Beckett used to say he "had nothing against happiness, but personally had no talent for it".
Would Beckett have spent his adult life in France, and written much of his oeuvre in French, if the country and language had not mirrored his own innate pessimism?
French pessimism can be a relief from the naive, happy-clappy optimism of many Americans. In France, optimism is cause for derision. Former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin had little success imposing what he called la positive attitude. When Hollande says "The recovery is here", he is mocked as a practitioner of la méthode Coué, named after a late-19th century psychologist and pharmacist who believed in optimistic self-persuasion. Hollande denounces pessimism in his speeches, and says wistfully that he wants to "give confidence" to the French.
Much as I empathise with France's morose leanings, la méthode Coué works. Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, thinks so too. There is no objective reason for the French economy to perform so poorly, Blanchard recently told Le Figaro. The slowdown in international trade has affected France less than Germany. French banks are healthy and credit is available. "Companies and households are investing less than they should. France is depressed," Blanchard says. "If there were more confidence in the future, the machine would take off."