France tries to smile again

17th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

A series of French press reports are trying to convince the French they have reason to be optimistic in 2006. But national morale still seems stuck at a 10-year low. Sylvie Briand asks: why is France so depressed?

"Optimism" may become this year's new buzzword in France, as politicians and the media seek to lift a national mood crushed by months of doom-mongering about the country's woes.

Since the start of the year, the influential Le Monde newspaper, the popular daily Le Parisien and the left-wing weekly Marianne have all run cheery reports listing "reasons to be optimistic".

Le Monde interviewed 100 personalities — doctors, artists, winegrowers, clergymen and others — for chirpy comments on the year to come, listing the many reasons to be upbeat in a prosperous, free society such as France.

Such reports set out to counter France's morose obsession with the idea of its "decline", which has dragged morale to rock bottom.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin harshly criticised the pessimistic fixation in his New Year's address, while President Jacques Chirac exhorted the French to stop "flagellating" themselves.

Down in the dumps: France

Commenting on France's ailments has become a national sport for many journalists and academics, while books with alarming titles such as 'France in Free Fall', published in 2003 by the economist Nicolas Bavarez, are bestsellers.

"Is France in decline? Broken down? In crisis? In danger? In disarray?... Wherever you look, it is clear that our country is in a bad shape," wrote the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur recently.

The French press is trying to lighten the national mood. But is it working?

 Study after study has shown national morale to be stuck at a 10-year low, with less than one person in three hopeful for the future.

"Nobody expects anything, nobody hopes for anything — we are all crushed by a kind of nervous breakdown," Socialist deputy Arnaud Montebourg argued on French radio.

Confirming the country's fascination with doom and gloom, a Paris exhibition on 'Melancholy in the West' was one of last autumn's hit shows.

France has taken some hard knocks in the past year, from the rejection of the European constitution to watching the 2012 Olympic Games slip through its fingers, to the outbreak of youth rioting in its suburbs.

Sluggish growth and unemployment stubbornly hovering around 10 percent have helped plunge the country into what Libération newspaper described as a "Red, White, Blues" — in a play on the colours of the French flag.

There is also a pervasive dread that France's comfortable way of life and generous social system are doomed to disappear in the face of globalisation.

A collective problem

But according to Georges Hatchuel, deputy head of the French Research Centre for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions (CREDOC), the extent of France's morosity has been exaggerated.

"I wouldn't say that the French are depressed," he argued. "It is more a kind of resignation in the face of a range of problems — the environment, health, terrorism or falling purchasing power — that politicians appear powerless to address."

"It is less of an individual than a collective problem," Hatchuel said.

One recent study appears to confirm that, despite the nail-biting over the nation's collective ills, French people taken individually are mostly content with their lot.

True, 72 percent of those questioned by the CSA institute said they believed their fellow countrymen were unhappy — but an even greater number, 84 percent, said they were happy with their own lives.

Christian Rioux, Paris correspondent for the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir, argued that France's true problem was a lack of political mobility.

"France has not had a real presidential election since 1995 — the 2002 elections were an accident of history," he argued, referring to the shock first round result that saw far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, rather than left-wing frontrunner Lionel Jospin, face off against Chirac.

"If the political class had had the courage to call an early election, there probably would not have been this crisis."

January 2006

Copyright AFP

Subject: Living in France

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