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 fête." 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-Ponté, 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
--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 François
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

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

He has correct and even cordial relations with the prime minister, to
whom he leaves the difficult decisions, making little trouble over
the "reserved" presidential authority in foreign and security
matters. He travels widely, pressing flesh, slapping cows on the
flank, and admiring prize pigs, seemingly campaigning for the office
he already has and didn't know what to do with.

He has distanced himself from the quarrelling survivors of the
shipwrecked Right, and cultivates younger politicians of the Right
instead, having seen that Mr. Jospin's success is due in no small
part to his having dissociated himself from the politicians who ran
the country under François Mitterrand. Most of the members of Mr.
Jospin's government have never before held cabinet office.

The French public has found that it likes the "cohabitation" of Right
with Left. Intellectuals and political scientists are offended by it
because it is not logical. There have been many proposals to reduce
the presidential term to five years, to coincide with the
parliamentary term. But the authors of the Fifth Republic's
constitution have been validated by public opinion, which likes the
opportunity provided by unbalanced terms to correct its mistakes, and
has found the checks and balances of cohabitation very
comfortable--all the more so as the outrageous corruption and abuses
of power of the Mitterrand presidency, as well as the past favoritism
and occult party financing of the Right, continue to be revealed by
the examining magistrates and police, no longer held in check by the
reciprocal complicities of the powerful and the passivity of the

Bonaparte said that a good general is a lucky general. He also said
that "in war, moral considerations account for three quarters, the
balance of actual forces only for the other quarter." Both comments
may be applied to the prime ministership of Lionel Jospin. Sheer luck
made him prime minister. He was marginalized by the Socialist
leadership after serving as minister of education early in the
Mitterrand era. They recognized in his stiff, teacherly manner, and
his Protestant conscience, a fundamental incompatibility with the
kind of government they were running. Following the victory of the
Right in the 1993 legislative elections, which launched the second
cohabitation of the Mitterrand presidency, with Edouard Balladur the
prime minister, Mr. Jospin tried to withdraw from the Paris political

He twice asked Mr. Balladur's foreign minister, Alan Juppé (later
Balladur's successor as prime minister), to give him an embassy
appointment. (Jospin began his career in the diplomatic service, and
as is customary in France's high civil service, retained his rank and
seniority despite interrupting his foreign office career to enter
politics.) He suggested the ambassadorship to Prague. Juppé ignored
the request. At loose ends, without a posting, he occupied himself
with pulling together the demoralized Socialists. In the absence of
anyone else willing to sacrifice himself in the 1995 presidential
election, when Jacques Chirac's victory seemed foreordained, Jospin
put himself forward.

He did much better than anticipated, beating Chirac in the first
round of the vote, losing only in the second round when other
candidates had retired. That left him leader of the Socialist party,
but a party that seemed set for a long period in opposition. Then in
1997 came the Right's catastrophic miscalculation in dissolving a
parliament in which it possessed a 484 to 93 majority, and that had
sat only for three of the five years for which it had been elected.
President Chirac and Prime Minister Juppé had wanted a new five-year
mandate for their government, to guarantee the conservative parties'
power right to the end of Mr. Chirac's presidential term.

The dissolution was decided despite the fact that the Juppé
government's initial year in office had not been a great success.
Jospin took up the challenge, and led the Socialist party to a
plurality victory. The Left was back. The Right was left
thunderstruck, split, embittered, riddled with mutual reproach and
anger--and so it remains today.

The second manifestation of Prime Minister Jospin's luck was the
general European economic upturn that began at about the time he took
office. France was at the bottom of the economic cycle under the
Juppé government, and his orthodox monetarist measures for producing
economic recovery--budget cuts, restrictions on social expenditure,
privatizations of state enterprises--were imposed in a condescending
and technocratic manner that made little concession to the need to
win public sympathy and cooperation. This resulted in the
public-sector strikes of midwinter 1996-97, when to general surprise
the Paris public cheerfully roller-bladed, biked, and car-pooled its
way to work, demonstrating sympathy for the public transport and
other civil service strikers, and even for the nation's truckers, who
blocked the highways for better hours and more money.

Essay Types: Essay