Miserable French beset by angst and collective self-doubt

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The Independent Online
Pick up any French newspaper, watch the television news, listen to the conversation in the bars, and you could almost believe that Gerard Mermet has it right. The French have become hypochondriac, schizophrenic and paranoid, he says, and are busy submersing themselves in a new national psychosis - "miserabilism".

Gerard Mermet is one of France's foremost social analysts and for more than a decade has written the introductory essay to Francoscopie, the annual Larousse publication that provides an in-depth portrait of contemporary France and the French, on the basis of 10,000 or more statistics. In the 1997 edition that has just been published, Mr Mermet accuses the French of giving in to "a collective depression, an angst and a refusal to change that could surprise outsiders". To other Europeans, Mr Mermet says, France has Moliere's classic "malade imaginaire".

Like any such patient, though, the French will not be consoled. And as the week passed, you could watch the affliction, imaginary or not, passing from the chronic to the acute stage, as commentator after commentator piled on the agony. President Jacques Chirac's heroics in the Middle East notwithstanding - as Mr Mermet observes pertinently, a mark of depression is the patient's singular lack of interest in his surroundings - the prevailing mood is sullen gloom. La morosite is everywhere.

"The French are riven with self-doubt and fear the future," said the political commentator, Alain Duhamel, in the cheerful start to his weekly column in Liberation yesterday. "Their hopes dashed, they wallow in pessimism. Morale has never been so low since France was liberated [in 1945]."

A Paris region MP from the governing centre-right coalition wrote in the pro-government Figaro the previous day that it was "as though France was experiencing a nervous depression". Everyone, he said, whether in power or in opposition, seems to be following a "fashion for weeping and wailing", and those "prophesying the apocalypse" were shouting ever louder.

To be fair, the MP, Pierre Lequiller, did his party political best to parry the doom-mongers. He forecast imminent economic recovery, arguing that France was always behind Britain and the United States in its economic "curve" and that the single European currency would work wonders by giving Europe "at last a currency to rival the dollar and the yen". "We know," he said, "that collective psychology plays a big role in economics and that when people see a prospect of improvement, recovery may follow."

Mr Lequiller was effectively echoing what President Chirac and his prime minister, Alain Juppe, have been saying for weeks. In his Bastille Day speech in July, Mr Chirac actually told the French to snap out of their despondency. More recently, Mr Juppe told people to go out and spend money to help economic growth. "All right for some," was the cynical reaction. "We can't afford it now and we may not have a job next week."

The mood is pessimistic on all fronts. At a "top" people's conference in Paris on social trends for the next millennium also held last week, it was worries that were uppermost. Cries of "helas, helas," punctuated one scholar's address on the state of "the family" in France, and the lunchtime conversation was dominated by talk of political divisions, the impotence of government, and the inexorable rise of the extreme-right National Front.

One overriding problem, identified by Jean-Marc Lech, the head of one of the country's leading polling organisations, Ipsos, this week, is that almost no one trusts the politicians any more. Especially, they do not trust Mr Juppe, whose rating in the polls has slumped almost to the level of Edith Cresson immediately before she was sacked by President Francois Mitterrand.

All manner of reasons are advanced for this distrust, and the morosite that accompanies it: the high hopes invested in Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe that have been disappointed; unemployment, which has stubbornly grown rather than fallen; the failure of last winter's public sector revolt to bring down the government and hesitation about repeating the attempt this year; animosity towards Mr Juppe personally as the embodiment of a remote political elite, and a wider anxiety about France's place in a changed world.

Never one to play down a drama, the historian and sociologist, Emmanuel Todd, told l'Express magazine that France was in a "state of absolute rebellion" and the mood was "reminiscent of situations where the regime is collapsing". "We are," he said, "in a pre-revolutionary situation" - and any serious mistake by the government could trigger a reaction.

But the people, as another recent survey found, are in no mood to trust their intellectuals any more than their politicians. They think they are having a hard enough time just to keep their job without contemplating revolution as well.