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.


Abie said...

Just to nitpick a bit (I'm French after all): I thing I would rather assign the origin of "sinistrose" to "sinistre + -ose", a medical-sounding way of describing this cultural syndrome (think of "arthose", "silicose", etc.). So it would rpobably translate as "sinistrosis".
The "morose" association is only a bonus, in my view.

Jerome, said...

Abie, you are absolutely right. I checked it out and it is actually a medical term.
Interestingly, it is originally akin to post-traumatic-disorder but has clearly taken on a new meaning in recent times.