Studies have always shown that the French are stereotypically a pretty pessimistic bunch, though the reason why has never ceased to puzzle me. France is home to a rich gastronomy, one of the most beautiful cites in the world, as well as many other spectacular sites, some of the most famous cultural icons of our time and a pretty damn sexy language. So what’s with all the doom and gloom? After reading an interesting article by the BBC’s John Simpson, I thought I’d have a go at cracking the French unhappiness puzzle for myself…
Whilst everyone in Europe is feeling the economic pain at the moment, opinion polls show that the French are particularly low-spirited in comparison with fellow Europeans. In reality, France is currently only experiencing a slight pinch in contrast to neighbours Italy and Spain, not to mention Greece. Yet, as perfectly put by Snow, “like a patient going in for surgery everyone is wincing in anticipation.”
So what’s making the French so apprehensive? Is it the cumulative psychological effect of an increasingly unpopular and apparently weak government, a washout spring, rising prices, and a fear that the ‘good life’ is rapidly coming to an end? Or does it go deeper than this? One thing is for sure, Paris is as charming as ever – though I have to admit its streets and metro could do with a bit of clean. Despite this, Paris never seems to fail to delight its millions of visitors year upon year. As a result of its vast tourism, France has to admit that it really isn’t doing that bad.
Yet the outlook on France’s future according to its inhabitants is grim. A lot of my French friends said that they want to try and move abroad, or at least say that this would be the ideal plan for most young French people nowadays. Apparently 50% of people aged between 18 and 24 want to up and leave to live elsewhere. Whilst this ambivalence arguably lies in France’s growing youth unemployment and recession, another major factor is the lack of liberality and tolerance in a country who prides itself on « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ». This was highlighted in particular by the long-winded and bitter battle for gay marriage and adoption rights, which even now is still of much debate. It was only a few weeks ago I witnessed a protest against adoption by homosexual couples by the Panthéon. Whilst I adore life in Paris, I have to admit that the amount of conservative views and, to be frank, narrow-mindedness in such a cosmopolitan city has really astounded me.
The particularly complex higher education system with students from grandes écoles demanding hefty fees generally guaranteed to find work a lot more easily than those graduating from a ‘bog standard’ university is also a source of much frustration for France’s next generation of workers. I myself have to admit that I find the French higher education system very confusing, limiting and rooted in tradition. Whilst back in England students are seen as more than ready to enter the world of work after a three-year degree, French students aspiring for the best jobs are expected to have a minimum of five years of higher education, with the majority going on to Masters programmes.
So maybe France’s primordial problem is its focus on tradition and lack of will for change? Whilst other nations, as controversial as they may be, are making efforts to cut back and redefine aspects of national life in increasingly challenging times, the same cannot be particularly said for France. Whilst the general feeling that Britain and France are two countries that generally move forward on parallel tracks, French society is suffering from anxiety and a severe lack of confidence. Society is arguably far too conservative and being led by older 1960s/70s generations clinging onto old beliefs. However, there is quite a different atmosphere just over the Channel, where whilst the Brits know that times are hard, there is movement and potential for change.
Different mind frames, separate systems and different gauges – but ultimately the same train that travels over the stretch of water separating two countries that generally advance at the same speed. Yet the general feeling as it stands is that St. Pancras is a better destination than Gare du Nord.
On a brighter note and a bit of British optimism, my life here is far from gloomy! France, you’ve got so much going for you, but maybe it’s time to accept a bit of change.