Why French are world champs in pessimism

Friday 07 January 2011 01:00

The French live in one of the richest and safest countries in the world, yet they are global champions of pessimism, fearful of the future and longing for the past, according to a survey published this week.

"The French are afraid. They feel the present is less good than the past and that the future will be worse than the present, and that their children's lives will be harder than their own," said commentator Dominique Moisi.

"There is a morosity, a real phenomenon of clinical depression," said Moisi, the author of the 2009 book "Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World."

Moisi was sceptical about the BVA-Gallup poll published Monday that suggested that the French were more pessimistic than people in Afghanistan or Iraqi who daily face high levels of violence.

But he conceded that it had some substance. He and other commentators said several factors were to blame.

France's comparatively generous welfare state is no longer perceived as sufficiently protective in the face of the ongoing economic crisis here, they said.

"The French behave towards the state like teenagers with their parents. On the one hand they rebel, but on the other they want ever more protection," said Moisi.

French pessimism is nothing new. The French are Europe's biggest consumer of anti-depressants.

But their gloomy tendencies have been made worse by rising unemployment and a tense social context that in recent months has seen millions take to the streets to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's ultimately successful bid to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

"You can feel that people are psychologically exhausted," said Jean-Paul Delevoye, the French national ombudsman whose job it is to investigate complaints by private persons against the government.

He said that it was above all the middle classes who were being affected by pessimism. They see their jobs as becoming less and less secure and fear their quality of life will be reduced.

"The French are sensualists, epicureans... and we are seeing a discrepancy between the little individual joys and the collective malaise," said Delevoye.

France was less badly hit by the economic crisis than its neighbours but is nonetheless struggling to recover.

"Even if the recession in 2009 was much less severe than in Germany, we have not come out of it as strongly as Germany," said Jerome Creel of the French Economic Observatory, or OFCE.

Many French now view the European Union - which last year was rocked by massive bail-outs for Greece and Ireland - less as a force for positive change in France and more as a source of difficulties.

Frederic Allemand, a specialist in European economic governance issues, said that this disillusion stemmed from the "inability of Europe to improve its growth prospects."

The BVA-Gallup poll described the French as the "world champions of pessimism."

It found that 61 percent of French thought that 2011 would bring economic difficulties, compared to an average of 28 percent in the 53 countries surveyed.

Sixty-seven percent believed unemployment would rise again this year, a more pessimistic view than than in every country except Britian - 74 percent - and Pakistan - 72 per cent.

Thirty-seven percent of French people polled said this year would be worse than 2010, making them considerably less optimistic than Afghans - 14 percent or Iraqis - 12 percent.

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