Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:17 am

A nation of pessimists

The French fear change because they have best way of life on earth

Anyone who spends time in Paris comes away wondering why Parisians are so miserable. The capital city with the lowest smiles-per-hour ratio got gloomier during this election. I’ve lived here 10 years, and I’m a political junkie, but my overriding image of the campaign is of sour Parisians trudging past torn election posters in the rain.

The politicians all speak to French native pessimism. They ritually promise “to protect” the French from foreign capitalists, or from immigrants, or in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy, from both. The socialist François Hollande, who will probably beat “Sarko” in Sunday’s run-off, says: “Between protecting the privileged and protecting the children of France, I have made my choice.” Why are the French so scared and miserable?

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Simon Kuper

At a glance, things aren’t bad. The world’s most visited country has a nice work-life balance, high productivity per hour, decent grub, oodles of foreign investment and trains that run on time. The average citizen lives to be 81. Oh, and France has what Adam Gopnik calls “the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been”. Admittedly government debt is 86 per cent of gross domestic product, but that’s barely above Germany’s.

Yet France is world champion of pessimism. In Gallup International’s survey of expectations for 2012 in 51 countries, the French were the most morose. “We’ve never recorded such a low score in 34 years of surveys,” marvelled one pollster. Afghans and Iraqis were far more optimistic. The economist Claudia Senik calls it “The French Unhappiness Puzzle” – why French people report less happiness than their incomes would predict. Even French people living abroad, Senik writes, “are less happy, everything else equal, than the average European migrants”.

I can see two main explanations, one micro, the other macro. The micro one has to do with schools. Early childhood here is mostly happy, but then French schools seem to make people miserable for life. I first glimpsed this when my wife and I went to a parent-teacher meeting. It was the only one we were granted all year, so we were itching to hear about our daughter’s triumphs. “Things are OK,” the teacher told us. With that, she seemed to feel the conversation was over. Was there nothing else? She thought. “No real problems,” she said. Actually, she added, there was one task our daughter had struggled with – but other children had too.

This teacher saw her job solely as pointing out shortcomings. That’s pretty much the essence of French schooling, notes Peter Gumbel in his shocking book On achève bien les écoliers (They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They?). French pupils, Gumbel explains, are almost never praised and frequently told they are worthless. He writes, “Everyone I know who went to school in France bears the scars.” The French school “has become an anxiety-inducing environment”, agree the scholars Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and André Zylberberg. This seems to breed a lasting negative outlook. Hence perhaps that characteristic French mode: the bureaucrat, shop assistant, or neighbour who addresses you like a teacher chastising a stupid child.

French pupils usually get low grades, but what determines each child’s exact grade is their performance relative to their classmates. In short, they are made into rivals. That may help explain low trust among French people. When the World Values Survey asked, “Would you say most people can be trusted?”, more than 60 per cent of Nordics replied “yes”. Only 21 per cent of French people did. Most French people don’t merely mistrust foreigners, politicians and the rich. They mistrust almost everybody.

On a macro level, you can see why they are miserable. France since 1940 is a story of declining global status. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm says, “It is a hard fate to go from global hegemony to regionalism in two generations.” Almost everything the French most prize about France is either in the past or the countryside, which comes to much the same thing. Of course Britain has also had relative decline, but at least globalisation is now happening in our language. That makes it less scary. Whenever the French try to enter global debate, their wonderful fluency is taken from them and they have to hack along in Globish.

They try. Whereas high-end New York toddlers now learn Mandarin, Parisian ones are learning English. But for French people already worried about globalisation, it’s ominous that Hollande’s key phrase of the campaign was spoken in English, in London: “I am not dangerous.”

Sarkozy is a merchant of fear, so he understands French anxieties. The message from far-right Front National voters, he said, was: “We don’t want to change our way of life.” Admittedly the Front National is built on fear of everything, but most French voters seem to feel similarly. They fear change precisely because they have the best way of life on earth. That gives them something to lose. Throw in a French education, and they’re bound to feel anxious.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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