Sunday, January 30, 2011

Obama's National Narrative in His State of the Union Address.

The States of the Union address is fascinating to anyone interested in the use of national myths. It is a uniquely presidential genre in which the president is given the opportunity to present his political agenda but also to reconstruct the past in order to forge the future, and thus taking the role of a national historian.
Its annual delivery before Congress is not a requirement of the Constitution – which only asks the president to inform Congress from “time to time” about the “State of the Union”. It is the result of custom and tradition.
My approach here is to consider precisely not what is political in presidential speeches but what is "American".
One of the reasons the State of the Union address has become an institution over the years is that it meets a very American concern – namely the need of a diverse nation for UNITY. After all, George Washington himself already warned against the danger of division, and whether it is sectionalism, slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights, different religions , ethnic diversity or the shooting in Tucson, the fear of division has always haunted American presidents.

That is why the NATION AS A FAMILY used by Barak Obama at the beginning of his speech (“We are part of the American family”, “American Muslims are a part of our American family”) is a very relevant metaphor which has been used since the Revolutionary era (Marienstras). In addition to reassuring American about their quarrels, it also reinforces the ties of the people to the nation by adding an organic component to the original contract around which the nation is built (“the rights enshrined in our Constitution”). (Stuckey).
The nation is thus guaranteed by both the “law of nature” (the American family) and will (the Contract, i.e. the Constitution). What makes the American nation specific is that it is not based on an ethnic group, a language or for its first 100 years on a fixed territory. The American nation is “the first nation to be founded on an idea”, says Obama because the unity of the nation has to be about “something greater” which can never die or disappear, like an idea (“The idea of America endures”).


So what is this “idea of America”? It is in part constituted by the AMERICAN DREAM (the word “dream” is mentioned 12 times) which is about material success or at least the opportunity for material success ( “turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise”). As president Obama reminded his audience, he is himself the incarnation of that dream (“That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight”) along with the Vice president (“a working class kid from Scranton”) and the Speaker of the House (“someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati”).
The success of the nation is understood first and foremost in economic terms:
"America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs”

That is why the goal of the nation is “to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

This view reveals a distinct feature of the American nation – its unity around the idea of economic prosperity which has existed since its very foundation (after all, the Revolution began with a revolt against the Stamp Act). The term “American Dream” itself was only coined in 1931 but the idea had been there in different forms, including with the Frontier where the adventurous spirit expanded an enterprising nation and its market economy (Stuckey).

It has also had the great advantage of making class or ethnic conflicts less relevant. What may often be seen as a selfish goal in Europe - material wealth - becomes the patriotic duty of all Americans since even president asks the American people to “make America a better place to do business and create jobs
Material success is what makes you a true American – it even has redeeming power and it can even supersede the “rule of law” by making even illegal immigrants worthy of being members of the American family: “let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation”. This is of course a contentious point but it is interesting that the framing of the justification for legalizing undocumented immigrants should not be based on humanitarian grounds, but on material success.


This emphasis on material success is often misunderstood by Europeans who cynically associate it with greed and a-morality (if not immorality), but it is part of a coherent and moral system.
In the American psyche material success is moral because it is the result of hard work and sacrifices (“the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded”). The American Dream “has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.”. Sacrifice is a biblical archetype that was at the center of the Puritan ideal and it has been written into the American civil religion (Bellah).

This is also the way president Obama morally justifies the government cuts needed to reduce the deficit: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”. By definition, sacrifice needs to be hard and difficult and so it will require “painful cuts” (“Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees”) and it is also morally right because it is about self-discipline.
This is a return to the traditional Protestant Ethic that considers excess (likened to gluttony) morally wrong and restraint morally good (Max Weber) - a fascinating paradox of American society where more is often better - so Obama’s government cuts have to be about “excess weight” and “excessive spending”. In effect prosperity is supposed to be the result of discipline and hard work which makes it moral. (Lakoff, The Political Mind).
(Think of the self-help books which all have this underlying theme -that redemption and success come from self-discipline or why taking drugs or smoking or drinking is so frown upon).It is also a theme developed by Max Weber pointed out in his "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism".

But of course, the greatest sacrifice for the nation is that of “the men and women who serve” it. (t but here are very few references in this speech to the military and the war other than to illustrate the unity in diversity).


Those people who serve the nation abroad are “heroic” and one of the characteristic of the American hero is that he or she is an ordinary person.
This is why many presidential speeches have been recently punctuated by the illustration of stories of regular Americans who become elevated to role models because of their character, their hard work or their hardship; and who ultimately prevailed (“Robert and Gary Allen who run a small Michigan roofing company”; “Kathy Proctor , mother of two” who “worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old”). Just like superheroes of the comics, what makes them heroic is not their powers (the villain also has powers) but their action and character: “From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”.

Whereas yesterday’s national heroes were Jefferson’s yeoman farmer or Jackson’s frontiersman, today’s hero is the economic pioneer: the “Edison and Wright brothers” of our time, who founded “Google and Facebook”. Under different forms, it is in fact the same tale of the Frontier Myth – of “centuries of pioneers and immigrants [who] have risked everything to come here.”, and president Obama clearly links today’s challenges to yesterday’s in his “Sputnik moment” remark (“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”). This is not only a reference to Eisenhower’s response to the Soviet’s Space Race but it also embraces Kennedy’s rhetoric of the New Frontier and so Obama links today’s investment in “clean energy” to yesterdays’ funding of “the Apollo Project”. In the same way, he links today’s investments in “high-speed wireless” and “high-speed rail” to yesterday’s “transcontinental railroad” and “interstate highway”. This is typical of a State of the Union Address in that the past is used to talk about the future, thus reassuring Americans about policies by linking them to long held traditions and in this case, to the Frontier myth which appeals to all Americans.


This New Frontier myth is also the general frame behind one of the most important themes of Obama’s State of the Union Address – the reinvention of the self.
In Robert’s words, ‘We reinvented ourselves.’ That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves.”.
This is of course part of one of the most important founding myths of the American nation – the myth of creation and new beginnings, the permanent ‘Novus ordo seclorum’ of the U.S. Great Seal. (Marienstras). In America reinventing oneself is celebrated and extolled.(Lakoff) and Obama’s speech is a case in point. Re-invention is based on change and innovation. (“Our success in this new and changing world will require reform, responsibility, and innovation”; “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living.”). But of course, new beginnings require a change from the past, however painful: “We cannot win the future with a government of the past”.

There are 10 occurrences of the word “future” in Obama’s speech vs. only two of the word “past” (which are negatively connoted).
The American national rhetoric is typically about embracing the future but also about the idea that the future is good because it is free and for everyone to “win” which implies the belief in the control of our destiny. (“Our destiny remains our choice”). And this is also at the core of the “American idea” and the American Dream – “the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny”, and the American nation is indeed a nation of "voluntarists" (Marienstras) but the ideological assumption is therefore that individuals are responsible for their economic fate and that those fates are indicators of talent and character (Stuckey), and personal responsibility is a universal value: “Around the globe, we are standing with those who take responsibility”.

This confidence in the future is reinforced by the many movement and space metaphors. Movement and journey metaphors are very common not only in political discourse but also in everyday discourse (Chilton), but they are particularly relevant in American presidential speech.
In Obama’s state of the Union Address we have a great number of metaphors about MOVING FORWARD which illustrate the idea that action in the present can shape the future which gives meaning to politics :
What comes of this moment is up to us”; “will move forward together”; “I ask Congress to go further”, “Now, the final step – a critical step – in winning”; “we have made great strides over the last two years”; “It is time to move forward as one nation”;” I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal”; “the work ahead of us”; “hopeful, our journey goes forward,
Even if Obama acknowledges that “for many, the change has been painful.” (and “many” means not all), and even if it may seem unfair, (“the rules have been changed in the middle of the game”), change is still mostly viewed positively (“In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.”) and change is incarnated by “the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet.”.


The beliefs that change is good and that we can control our destiny serve to boost confidence and morale. It also creates a narrative in which the rhetoric of competition becomes coherent and can be easily accepted and embraced. This is a view of the world that is distinctively American: life is a race which ought to be won.
The words “win”, “winning”, “winner” or “race” actually appear 20 times in president Obama’s speech. It starts with kids in school, with the “education race” and the need to win “the race to educate our kids” and very tellingly, the government program of investment in schools is called “Race to the Top”. So for president Obama, not only is competition a good thing, but it should also be celebrated and taught to kids (“we need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”).
This may seem like a more conservative value as it assumes that competition is crucial because it builds discipline and character, but it must be kept in mind that competitive sports are very central to the American way of life anyway and competition is something most Americans are very comfortable with.

Politically, this narrative re frames the role of government into that of empowerment rather than support or redistribution (which would be a socialist view). In other words, if the government takes the role of a parent, it is not the nurturing role of the “nanny state” but the more masculine role of a “builder”, “investor” (“with the help of government loan”) and competitor since the entire world is in a race : after all, China and India could “compete in this new world.”
This is also why the laissez-faire economy is so much at the core of the American narrative, beyond the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. Government regulation should not be “barriers that stand in the way of success” or “unnecessary burden on businesses” and thus one must “reduce barriers to growth and investment”.
But the Democratic president has to walk a fine line as this is also about his political agenda he endorses the role of protection of the government (his new health-care program is its best illustration) and he won’t hesitate to “create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people.”. But he immediately reassures his audience by linking it to the past – making it an American tradition (“That’s what we’ve done in this country for more than a century.”), and by limiting it to the correcting of abuses by greedy agents in the system (the “credit card companies” or the “health insurance industry” which should be prevented “from exploiting patients”) and to common sense notions widely shared by American people (“speed limits and child labor laws”).


If competition is a natural law, it is also a reality in the world and it thus becomes a patriotic duty not only to do your best, but to be THE best.
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper.”.
This is why the use of superlatives and comparative is so important – because America has “the largest, most prosperous economy in the world”, because “No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs.”, because it has “the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth”, and because “there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” the nation can look to the future with confidence.

One of the reasons why this ambitious goal is not so much a cause of anxiety is that the narrative is built upon making past experiences (the Frontier, the American Dream or the “Space Race” - which is assumed to have been won.) the posteriori knowledge of the future (Twings).
It also brings confidence by making the future dependent on the intrinsic qualities of the American people, their unity (“it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”), hard work and discipline (“success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”) which have built the American character. Finally, it is the enduring belief that the U.S. is the “greatest nation on Earth” and a “light to the world” that makes the prospect of winning the competition for the future within reach. This is of course reminiscent of the biblical archetype of the Manifest Destiny of the Chosen People so prevalent in 19th century narrative to justify western expansion. The narrative is now about the New Frontier, the economic Frontier.

On National Myths.

Since my first time in the United-States 25 years ago, I have been fascinated by how the French and the Americans keep using the same clichés about each other and how - despite our apparent similarities (both western countries and allies) and even in this communication and information age - there can sometimes be great misunderstanding between our peoples, including at government level, that cannot be resolved despite goodwill and endless discussions.

These misunderstandings can lie quietly under the surface or they can erupt like they did in 2003 between our two governments over the crisis leading to the war in Iraq (the “new” vs. the “old” world).

Whenever I talk about topics that typically French and Americans disagree on – the death penalty, the right to bear arms, religion, the role of government, economic laissez-faire, socialism, taxation, abortion, gay rights, or even less political subjects such as the meaning of success, pleasure, time, culture, etc… - I realize that there is only so much one can understand about where the other comes from. This is because it is nearly impossible to think outside the frame constructed by the narrative we grew up in and we are so used to. In other words, what is at stake in those discussions is actually not the topics themselves but their meaning as objects at the core of our identities and national experiences.

My long held theory is that one of the reasons that the French and the Americans tend to collide more on those issues than say, the Germans or the Brits is that both our nations are built on the myth that our values transcend nations and are universal values that everyone some will or should embrace – it be for instance ‘freedom’ or ‘human rights’. (The French often call their country “le pays des droits de l’homme” whereas the Americans love to say theirs is the “land of the free”).

The claim for universal values also comes from the fact that our modern nations were shaped by two revolutions with great universal assertion and appeal. Our revolutions were the first stories around which the “sacred narrative explaining the nation” was constituted. They are what I mean by “our national myths”. As a French person, it is a lot easier to study the national myths of others than my own precisely because I did not grow up (as much) with them.

Those myths have been shaped over the last two hundred years by a number of agents, more or less conscious of their role. Among those, schools, politics, and more recently television and movies have been the most powerful means of transmission of national myths but as a single person, it is the U.S. president who has the greatest impact on shaping the national narrative. He is the incarnation of national unity and his function at the head of the executive gives him the unique power to speak and be heard when he talks to and about the nation.

The use of national myths in presidential speech is the topic of my doctorate but I haven’t chosen this subject simply because I am interested in politics, political discourse or linguistics. It is mostly a means for bettering my understanding of the American people, and culture with the hope of eventually understanding my own national myths and be able to think outside the frame I find myself still today prisoner of. In other words, it is an attempt at freeing myself from the invisible bonds of my environment and be able to think a little more for myself and improve my critical understanding of the world.

This is why the topic of national myths fascinates me so much and also why it is likely to come on this blog more often in the future. I hope I can share my enthusiasm about this and show you how it is highly related to who we are and how we see ourselves and others.

This week, the big political news in the U.S. was of course, President Obama’s Sate of the Union Address last Tuesday. Whereas most commentators have been interested in the political aspect of President Obama’s speech, I, as you can imagine, saw his speech from a different angle – that of national myths. And this will be the topic of my next post.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sarkozy, Bush : the Imperial Presidencies.

French president Sarkozy has never been shy of his admiration for the U.S. and for G. W Bush, and he has often called - wrongfully, in my opinion - "the American" because of his professed admiration for the U.S. (here or here) - its energy, optimism and weak trade unions.

But there is something else Sarkozy liked about G. W. Bush, it is his handling of journalists. Indeed, there is an eerie parallel between the current French government and the Bush administration in their illegal use of the power of the executive to monitor and intimidate journalists and their sources, which basically aims at killing investigative journalism.

France's most respected newspaper Le Monde has accused the French counter-intelligence agency (La Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur or DCRI) of illegally monitoring their journalists and informant calls in violation of the law.
The Sarkozy government actually identified and sacked one advisor to the justice minister who had supposedly been leaking to Le Monde information about the Bettencourt scandal after obtaining access to the phone bills of the journalists who revealed the scandal. The French newspaper filed a complaint as this is directly in violation of the "news source Secrets Act", (here) recently voted in France:
The law is absolutely clear,” read a Le Monde editorial: the legislation, it quoted, says that “the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is protected in the exercise of their mission to inform the public.” (MacLaens)
This week, however, the Office of the Prosecutor (i.e. le parquet), which is supervised by - and thus highly dependent on - the French Department of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) announced no action was taken about their complaints as the offense was not penalized :
Le parquet de Paris a classé sans suite la première plainte déposée par le quotidien Le Monde pour violation du secret des sources dans le cadre de l'affaire Bettencourt, a-t-on appris vendredi auprès de son avocat.
Le parquet, qui a rendu cette décision mardi, a notamment fait valoir que le délit de violation du secret des sources n'était pas pénalement sanctionné, a déclaré Me Yves Baudelot, à l'AFP. (AFP)

Now Le Monde has brought a civil suit which will be examined by an investigating judge (juge d'instruction) who can conduct investigations into serious crimes or complex enquiries independently and outside the province of the executive branch. (AFP)

This is not the first major scandal of the Sarkozy presidency (see the Karachigate for instance) and you might say that all governments are tempted to go astray in their use of this awesome power given by the executive. But one thing that Bush and Sarkozy have in common is that this abuse of the Executive power is backed by their view of politics and society, and there autocratic tendencies of bush and Sakrozy is nothing new (see here, here, and here or even here)
This is in line with the conservative beliefs that a good society can only function if the people accept that unquestionable authority, obedience (by the people), and punishment (for disobeying authority) prevail over cooperation, transparency, and the rule of law, as the law (i.e. 'judges') limits the power of the Executive and therefore its efficiency. In other words, they deny a tenet of democracy : check and balances, and they believe that direct universal suffrage give them the authority over anything and anyone. It is almost within a limited term, they were given the power to act as tyrants.
Of course, leftist governments have also abused their power (Mitterand in France or Clinton to some extend), but those abuses was not backed up by their claimed ideology whereas conservative presidents emphasize values that undermine democratic principles.

This is why, I guess I'll never be a true conservative.

NOTE: Reporters Without Borders establishes a ranking of countries in terms of their freedom of the press and as you can see on the map below, the countries where press was the most free were Finland, Norway, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, whereas France and the US rank similarly (in gray-blue) in the 2nd -less free- group. (Wiki)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guns, an American National Myth.

"Every country has people with mental problems but not every country gives those people such easy access to guns, yet it seems it is almost outside the possible realm of discussion here [in the U.S.]".

This comment by a BBC journalist reflects pretty much how Europeans (and possibly the world) view last week's shooting in Tucson.

Gun culture in the United-States is probably the hardest thing for Europeans (or for that matter probably the rest of the world) to even begin to fathom. How to explain that?

It seems to me that this is in part the result of the pervasive influence of the Frontier Myth in American culture and politics. (Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in 20th century America" offers a remarkable study of this phenomenon.).
The prevalence of this myth has many consequences, one of which is the idea that violence is the (manly) way to solve problems compared to (weak female-like) discussion or 'diplomacy'. In fact, if you carefully study political discourse, including presidential speech, you realize that this is very much the narrative of most presidents, who use this sort of rhetoric to justify wars.

So in fact gun culture is very much part of the national narrative. Yet, one can also argue that it is even more at the center of conservative ideology which tends to emphasize traditional masculine virtues of strength and the protection of women, children and property by use of force versus the feminized view of cooperation (i.e. like calling the police) so it is no surprise that Republicans should be overwhelmingly against gun control (see this gallup poll).
According to the Pew Reasearch Center survey director Scott Keeter :
"There is a very large partisan divide on the issue, with 70% of Republicans but only 30% of Democrats saying it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership"

The difficulty with national myths is that they are so ingrained that it is almost impossible for most people to think outside their frames. It is very much like the way French see their language or their relation to government. It is beyond reason for most people because it is at the core of national identities and thinking outside the national frame takes time and effort.
But still, being hard does not mean we should not try, and it might be helpful to see how people outside, our nations, people who did not grow up with the same myths, see what we do and how we think.

In the case of the United-States, what makes it even harder for a lot of Americans to challenge their national myths about gun is that the right to bear arms is in Constitution (a sacred national text, if any):
"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Of course, this was written when a stay-at-home militia was necessary to perform the role of police to keep order or to help the Continental Army defeat the British, before the United-States had a string military of its own.
Many conservatives have put forward the argument that the right to bear arms is indeed about preventing 'tyranny.' As a matter of fact (conservative) Supreme Court Justice Scalia himself has used this argument in "District of Columbia Vs. Heller".

This may have made sense in 1791 but who in their right mind would think that civilians with guns could fight the U.S. army if case of a tyrannical government?
As Rachel Maddow put it this week, we may as well make machine guns, mortars, cannons, anti-tank guns available to civilians then if we want to be able to defeat the military and overthrow a potential tyrannical government.
A lot of Americans also buy guns for self-protection but on the same show, Maddow exemplified why more guns does not necessarily mean better protection : an armed bystander at the Tuscon shooting almost shot the hero that disarmed the shooter :
"I saw another individual holding the firearm. I kind of assumed he was the shooter. So I grabbed his wrist and you know told him to drop it and forced him to drop the gun on the ground. When he did that, everybody says, no, no, it's this guy." (Rawstory)
The last point one cannot ignore is that it is also about politics and the NRA(National Rifle Association) is (along with AIPAC) one of the most powerful and active lobbies in Washington. According to Scott Keeter
"even in years when there was more public support for gun control than there is now, legislative action on the issue often responded more to opponents of gun control. One reason may be that relatively few elected officials, especially in recent years, have spoken out strongly in favor of gun control, leaving the issue to be defined mostly by opponents." (WP)

The U.S. is the most armed country in the world, according to a 2007 study. In 2004, about 25% of all adults, and 40 % of American households, owned at least one firearm. And of course, most homicides being commited by firearms, it is no surprise that the U.S. homicide rate, even with years of decline, is the highest in the industrialized world with about 5 per 100,000 people, over 3 times the the average rate in Western Europe (1.5) and France (1.6). (Wiki)

It makes sense. After all, it is a lot easier to kill someone by pulling the trigger than by using a knife.

Homicide rate in the world.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

From joie de vivre to misérable?

There are plenty of things to love about France - its good climate, its good food and wine, its quality infrastructure, its vacation, its culture and its art de vivre often considered hedonistic - and so it is no surprise that it should be the most visited country in the world.
One think not to like about the French though is their constant whining and pessimism., and this week, a new poll confirmed that the French are the world champion pessimists.
This is at least when it comes to their view of their economic future, according to a BVA/Gallup poll conducted in 53 countries :

- 61% of the French
think 2011 will be a year of 'economic difficulties' versus only 33% of North Americans and an average of 38% in Europe (next to the French are the Brits with 52%, the Spaniards 48% and the Italians with 41% but only 22% of the Germans are pessimistic)

- 37% of the French
think their personal situation will worsen (up 13 points) when only 26% of the Europeans on average and 21% of North Americans (up 1 point) do.
Meanwhile, about about half of the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians believe 2011 will be more prosperous and only 14% predicted hardship.

The French media, in a typical cynical fashion (here's a good example) liked to remind their fellow citizens this week that this makes the French more pessimistic than the Pakistanis (29 ), the Afghans (14%), the Iraqis (12%) - of course, in those countries, it's easier to think you can only go higher.

So is France wasted on the French, as this Australian newspaper likes to put it. Well, the situation is actually slightly more complicated (of course it is, this is France after all!).
For instance, the French have the second highest fertility rate in Europe, and it continues to increase to a 2.02 in 2008 (for an average of 1.5 in the rest of Europe and 1.37 in Germany) close to that of the United-States (at 2.2).
So why continue to have babies if you think the future is so bad? Government incentives cannot explain it all.
In fact, another poll conducted in 2009 showed that 93% of the French claimed to be personally happy.
So is this another French paradox? Maybe.
I tend to agree with sociologists who view this as a gap between personal lives and the view of society as a whole. In other words, the French may be pessimistic for their country but not personally depressed or to put it another way, there may be personal joie de vivre but collective mal-vivre. In fact, the French have evn come up with a word for it, "la sinistrose" (a mix of 'sinister' and 'morose' - a medical term used for post-traumatic disorder)
This makes sense in a country whose national identity is based on a centralized Republic with power concentrated in the national government at a time when this supposedly strong government is slashing public spending and giving its (costly) power away. What is to hold the French together now?

But I would also take this French pessimism with a grain of salt. The pollsters themselves call it a "claimed pessimism" (pessimisme déclaratif).

For one thing, the French have always revered their intellectuals and those tend to consider happiness with great suspicion as if it were the opium of the people. In other words, there's a bit of snobbery there. Optimism is often closely associated with naiveté (another French word) and the French cultivate pessimism. Look at their literature. Look at the way they dress. Black in Paris is always the new black. Look at la chanson française.
There may be also be a form of exorcism here. Be making it sound really bad, you may ward off ill fortune or at least make yourself ready for it.

I must say, that along their constant whining, this love of pessimism is extremely annoying for me. In fact, one of the reasons I need to leave France at least every year is that this pessimism not only permeates everything, but it is also tiring and draining. Yet, after a few weeks or months of American optimism (which the French liken to naiveté), I don't mind a little bit of French darkness. In fact, I'd take either one but in small doses.