“Why are the French so convinced that things are falling apart?”, asks The Economist. In a recent poll, three in four respondents said France was “in decline”. Talk shows rage about the country’s ruined language and landscape, lost jobs, squeezed incomes and dwindling global stature. Its people are fractious and divided, “if not on the verge of a civil war”, as a public letter from retired army officers suggested earlier this year. Yet France is on the up. It has a greater proportion of vaccinated people than Britain or Germany, salaries are on the rise and the economy has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.
One answer may be that, as Claudia Senik of the Paris School of Economics, puts it, “the French have an ambivalent relationship to happiness”. They consistently rank as more unhappy about everything than their peers, and morosité resists improved economic performance. “Being idealists, the French find that the real world always disappoints.” Taught from a young age to adopt l’esprit critique, they delight in disapproval: “Bleak is chic.” This runs especially hot when elections loom. Stirring indignation and promising salvation “is a practised political art”. François Mitterrand successfully campaigned as “the tranquil force” in 1981, hinting at the chaos he would calm as president; in 1995 Jacques Chirac promised to mend the “social fracture”. “It suits opponents of all stripes to lay the doom on thick.”