Unusually, the French are Happy

Unusually, the French are Happy

Mini Teaser: Lionel Jospin told a group of foreigners last summer that "it is a sociological fact that the French are always discontented with how they are governed." Yet polls show the French feel prosperous and confident in the future.

by Author(s): William Pfaff

Last August the Paris newspaper Le Monde published a front-page
article, entitled "Quand la France s'amuse . . .", announcing that
the French were happy: "For the first time in a long time a strange
climate reigns in France, an ambiance of f ête." The author attributed
this not only to victory in the Soccer World Cup but to a fall in
unemployment and general satisfaction with the national outlook. The
French, the article said, were actually enjoying their vacations.
This deserved front-page treatment. It was sensational news.

As the article also noted, thirty years ago last spring, in another
commentary in the same newspaper, the head of Le Monde's political
service, Pierre Viansson-Pont é, had famously warned, "Quand la France
s'ennuie . . ." ["When France becomes bored . . ."]. Shortly
afterwards, in the "events" of springtime 1968, France found a way to
deal with its boredom, with consequences that still persist.

At that time, the French were enjoying what they now call les trentes
glorieuses
--thirty years of triumphant postwar growth. In retrospect
one might assume that they should then have been happy, but clearly
they were not. The political comment of the time described France as
"blocked", its political life stale and frustrating under Charles de
Gaulle's splendidly unyielding autocracy, the French discontented
with the immense changes that had taken place in their society.

The events of 1968 made them happy--those of them who believed that
imagination was indeed about to seize power--but disillusionment was
rapid and order was restored. However, the president, a wise man who
had described old age as a shipwreck, chose a year later to arrange
for himself a characteristically dramatic withdrawal from power, on
the occasion of his defeat in an unnecessary referendum on an
unimportant reform. (The novelist and Gaullist chronicler Fran çois
Mauriac called it "an unprecedented case of suicide in the midst of
happiness.") The general then died the next year, with panache. The
French were even more unhappy.

Their unhappiness was reinforced by the oil producers' boycott of
1973, for France la crise , which brought les trentes glorieuses to a
halt. Ever since, the French have considered themselves in permanent
crisis. La crise has provided an explanation for everything since
that has been worth complaining about.

Events thus conspired with a national disposition. In France,
pessimism is taken to be the only intellectually serious stance. To
express optimism about France's condition and prospects, and
certainly to express pride about France's accomplishments, would be
to display the vulgar boastfulness one might expect from Americans,
lacking the seriousness appropriate to a mature people.

This, of course, has little to do with the real convictions the
French hold about their nation, its modern performance, and its
prospects. The obligatory pessimism is, however, largely responsible
for the permanent confusion that exists abroad about the state of
affairs in France. Foreign journalists and specialists interrogate
French businessmen, economists, and political analysts about how the
country goes, and reflexively they are told that things could
scarcely be worse, any sign of positive developments an illusion,
France mired in archaisms. When businessmen are asked, they say that
the whole society is desperately in need of the enterprise,
ingenuity, open-mindedness, and economic freedoms of the United
States and Britain, the countries that have shown the way to a
radiant future (or so it was said until the events of recent months).
The foreign interrogators then publish what they have been told, and
the French are outraged and complain about a complot Anglo-Saxon to
denigrate their country.

Yet suddenly, last summer, they found to their astonishment that they
were happy. They thoroughly enjoyed their annual six-week holidays in
Provence or Brittany. France had won not only the World Cup but the
northern hemisphere's rugby championship (the Five Nations Cup). The
French-led Airbus consortium was selling more airplanes than Boeing,
and the Ariane space-launcher had 60 percent of the world's
commercial satellite orders. The American economic paradigm no longer
seemed all-conquering.

They were happy with their prime minister, Lionel Jospin, who during
the summer months reached levels of popularity in the polls never
before achieved by a prime minister of the Fifth Republic. They liked
his new government of "the plural Left" (composed of Socialists,
Communists, Greens, and nationalists of the Left--the so-called
Movement of Republicans led by the interior minister, Jean-Pierre
Chevènement).

The French were happy with their president. The conservative
ex-Gaullist Jacques Chirac won nearly as high a popularity score as
his Socialist prime minister. Even Mr. Chirac seemed to be happy.
Having ousted his own parliamentary majority from power in 1997, with
a disastrously overclever election maneuver--a tactically motivated
dissolution of parliament--Mr. Chirac has since radiated contentment
in the quasi-ceremonial function he has chosen to make of the
presidency.

Essay Types: Essay