Victor Hugo, without recourse to opinion polls, had it about right.
The French really are a nation of Misérables. Now polls in 53 countries show the most pessimistic and most anxious people in the world are not the war-torn Iraqis or Afghans, nor the cuts-threatened British, but the French.
More than 60 per cent of the French people questioned by the BVA polling organisation predicted an economically gloomy and troubled 2011. This compared to 52 per cent in Britain, the third gloomiest people in the world, and only 22 per cent in Germany.
The most optimistic people in the world, the poll shows, are the Vietnamese, followed by the Nigerians and Ghanaians. The Afghans, despite a raging civil war and an allegedly corrupt government, are the 10th most sanguine nation on earth.
But why is France, the land of savoir-faire and joie de vivre, so miserable? The small-print is, as usual, fascinating. As in previous polls, the French are gloomy in the abstract but reasonably happy about their own personal lives and prospects. The country, and the world, are going to the dogs, they say, but everyday life remains reasonably good.
French sociologists and political commentators wheeled out to comment on the figures suggest that the post-2008 financial crisis has been especially depressing for the French. France may have escaped (so far) the calamities visited on Ireland (which was not polled) and Iceland (the second-gloomiest nation, according to BVA) but they foresee a dark future.
The difficulties of the West, the European Union and, above all, the financial difficulties of the "European model" of the welfare state have scrambled French perspectives and certainties.
Dominique Moisi, of the Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI), said: "The French are very scared. They feel that the present is less good than the past and that the future will be worse than the present, that their children's lives will be much harder than their own."
So much is also probably true of many European countries but the special French relationship with the state – a teenaged relationship, Mr Moisi suggests – makes French anxiety even deeper. The French regard the state as teenagers regard their parents, he said: at once a protector and a something to revolt against. Abruptly, the French find that the state can no longer afford the same level of social protection and that revolt does them no good.
Jean-Paul Delevoye, national ombudsman and president of the advisory Economic and Social Council, said the gap between overall pessimism and individual contentment was striking.
"The French tradition of the good life (bien-vivre) is being swamped by fear of the bad life (mal-vivre)," he said. "The French are playful people, people who appreciate the good things in life but there is a growing discrepancy between the individual, small pleasures of their lives and a sense of a collective decline."
The celebrity psychiatrist, Serge Hefez, pointed out that the French, answering abstract questions, have always tended to emerge as the gloomiest people in the world. They have also long been the world's largest consumer of anti-depressant pills.
Beyond that, he said, various aspects of the modern world had corroded the French sense of self-identity: the decline of the protective power of the state but also the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. "The French fear that certain of the values which have made France, such as egalité, are going to vanish," he said.
What all this means for the 2012 presidential election is unclear but it scarcely looks encouraging for Nicolas Sarkozy. Serge July, a commentator on RTL radio, suggested the poll proved that what France really needed was "not a president but a psychiatrist".
And reasons to be cheerful
No other country in the world has, at the same time, wonderful beaches, marvellous ski-slopes, excellent museums, fine buildings, sexy men and women (such as Emmanuelle Béart) and 265 different kinds of cheese.
France is still, in large parts, a green, unspoiled country, with the same population as Britain in twice the space.
French motorists are killing each other – and pedestrians – less. The death too on the roads fell below 4,000 last year, compared to 8,000 in the mid-1990s.
French high-speed railways lead the world (even if two of them got lost last week).
French mid-market wine is still excellent and, because foreigners are drinking it less, cheap.Reuse content