France's "national psychiatrist" has issued an alarming report on the democratic and social health of the nation as it prepares to select a new president next year. Gérard Mermet, a sociologist who publishes a much respected bulletin on the country's state of mind every two years, suggests that France now suffers from a collective form of three mental illnesses: paranoia, schizophrenia and hypochondria.
In Francosopie 2007, M. Mermet says that France is "schizophrenic", because it finds it difficult to "recognise the realities" of the "great changes" happening in the world around it.
He says France is "paranoid" because it believes itself to be the victim of a "global plot" and to have been betrayed by its own "elites".
Finally, France is a "hypochondriac" because it downplays its achievements and advantages and wilfully exaggerates its economic and social ills.
All in all, M. Mermet says, the French are individually happy but collectively miserable. No candidate in next year's election would dare to point out this contradiction, M. Mermet says. They would immediately be accused of being part of an "elite" conspiracy to deny the hardships of the people.
France's state of mind explains the social unrest of the past 14 months and the rise of political extremes of right and left, he says. What the country needs is a plain-talking politician, capable of making the French face up to realities, both good and bad, and "re-founding" the French Republic.
M. Mermet's comments are based on a compelling picture of France - confirming some prejudices but busting many others - which emerges in the latest edition of the book, published every two years since 1985. In nearly 500 pages of studies of market research, social trends, economic and demographic statistics and opinion polls, M. Mermet suggests that there is a yawning gap - much larger than in other countries - between everyday life in France and the unsuccessful, angry, confused image that France has of itself.
"The French suffer more in their minds, than in their flesh," he says.
Questioned on the future of France, 76 per cent of French people are deeply pessimistic. But questioned about their own lives and hopes, they are fairly optimistic.
Gaps between poor and rich are reducing, not increasing, as most French believe. Disposable incomes are rising. French industry, with some exceptions, is competing reasonably well in the new global market-place (even though much needs to be done to reduce the burdens of tax and regulation).
Part of the problem, M. Mermet suggests, is that the French have lost confidence in their politicians and political institutions. M. Mermet told The Independent: "It is a deliberate exaggeration, of course, to say that France is a schizophrenic, paranoid and hypochondriac nation but it is an exaggeration which tries to make an important point. By not facing up to realities, we are in danger of turning France's many advantages into handicaps."
Apart from anything else, M. Mermet feels that the French, as a nation, should "get out more". Only one in 10 French people each year travels abroad - much less than other EU countries.
Ignorance of the rest of the world, he suggests, helps the French to insist, simultaneously, that their social model is excellent and that everything is going to the bad.
In truth, he says, France finds it difficult to distinguish between what works and what does not. The country's much vaunted social model often does the opposite of what it is supposed to do. Job protection creates unemployment; the "egalitarian" education system creates elites.
M. Mermet insists that his analysis is non-partisan, but his book contains words of caution about the Socialist front-runner for the presidency next year, Ségolène Royal. By turning over much of her campaign to "participative democracy" - or ideas from the grassroots - Mme Royal could help to bridge the gap between politicians and the electorate, he says.
On the other hand she could just have found a new way of avoiding the old, hard decisions.Reuse content