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The French penchant for pessimism

President Macron meets Boris Johnson at No 10. Frank Augstein/Getty Images

“England is a complacent society, and France is an apocalyptic one,” says Simon Kuper in the Financial Times. That’s the only way I can explain our contrasting moods. We’re mired in the same pandemic problems and “practically twins” in economic terms. But a recent poll showed 74% of French voters believe their society is collapsing, while a bunch of retired generals essentially suggested a coup last month. Meanwhile the “freshly jabbed and satisfied” English happily shrug off shocking corruption scandals, a fraying Union and “the worst recession since 1709”.

It boils down to the different ways we frame our fortunes. The French are raised on absolute ideals, “which are inevitably betrayed by reality”. Their history is all revolutionary ruptures, Nazi invasions, endings and false dawns. They regularly top global surveys of pessimism, ahead of Iraqis and Afghans, because they “mistake disappointment for disaster”. In contrast, snoozy England has gone more than 300 years without revolution, civil war or serious invasion. Our post-war drop down the global hierarchy generated only “declinism”, a genre of comedy about national decline. No wonder Boris Johnson, “the embodiment of English complacency”, could ride the national mood all the way to Downing Street. Even radical shake-ups such as Brexit have fizzled out. The French will never understand how our PM gets away with sleazy scandals. But “Johnson understands that for a nation incapable of apocalyptic thinking, almost everything is funny”. What a joke.

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