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,” commentator Dominique Moisi said.
“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 skeptical about the BVA-Gallup poll published on Monday that suggested the French were more pessimistic than people in Afghanistan or Iraq, 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 an ongoing economic crisis, they said.
“The French behave toward the state like teenagers with their parents. On the one hand they rebel, but on the other they want ever more protection,” Moisi said.
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 French 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,” Delevoye said.
France was less badly hit by the economic crisis than its neighbors, but it 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.
Many French now view the EU — 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 this year would bring economic difficulties, compared with 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 in every country except the UK (74 percent) and Pakistan (72 percent).
Thirty-seven percent of French people polled said this year would be worse than last year, making them considerably less optimistic than Afghans (14 percent) or Iraqis (12 percent).
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