It’s undeniable: We French have a reputation for complaining. Each new survey appears to confirm the grumbling stereotype with a generally pessimistic view of the future.
Indeed, a recent survey by pollsters Ifop, published in November* found that 83% of French people polled said they felt pessimistic about the future.
A similar study the year before found that the figure was 84%, suggesting that the war in Ukraine – arguably one of the biggest negative events to happen in the past 12 months – has not had a significant impact on people’s overall happiness (or lack of it).
The three main issues cited as worries for the next 50 years were:
A downgrading of the healthcare-system (31%)
Reduced personal consumption (28%)
Forced migration to France from global warming (26%)
Many studies report similar conclusions in other countries but much of the pessimism there appears due to post-lockdown blues rather than a singularly constant negative view as in France. Parisians (like me), in particular, can almost elevate it to an art form.
The extent of complaining here may seem in stark contrast to the benefits many feel the country offers – especially people who choose to come to France to retire or live. These include its diversity in geography, cuisine, languages, cultural heritage, traditions and system of governance that many see as gold-standard.
But this French pessimism should not obscure the fact that France remains one of the best countries to live in, from a geopolitical, social, political and economic standpoint.
Constantly expecting better
Our perceived negativity can be traced back to the Enlightenment-era philosophers, who introduced concepts of egalitarianism, equality and importantly critical thinking.
They argued for raising doubts as a necessary evil to push the boundaries of reasoning. Philosophers such as Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Alexis de Tocqueville or Jean-Jacques Rousseau meant that French people became educated as ‘free-thinkers’.
Philosophers continued to write about the benefits of casting doubts, developing critical thinking, rationality and ‘mindful autonomy’. This may lead to French people being seen as more obstructive than other cultures.
My first philosophy lesson was about the famous ‘I think [and so I question] therefore I am’ (Cogito Ergo Sum) by René Descartes, just like many French students across generations.
The lack of critical thinking from Americans is often cited by people – including myself and friends – who have lived or live in the United States. I have always wondered why most Americans seem to work on the assumption that something is correct, whereas my education taught me the opposite.
Of course, Americans’ ‘positivity’ may be one of the factors that make them a helpful force in moving Western societies forward.
But France’s more critical thinking can also act as an important check on this, and our principles of equality can also help to alleviate the perhaps-negative consequences of the liberal-minded ‘free market’ US mindset.
Grumbling could, in this way, be seen as a necessary check on an unbridled ‘gung-ho’ approach but also as a ‘hidden’ sign of high standards.
Take the findings of another study**, published by OpinionWay in 2010, which showed that French people complain mostly when filing administrative paperwork, facing strikes and delays on public transport services or at the actions of the government.
In this way, grumbling can show people’s disappointment, anger or sadness at something they believe should be working better. It could actually be expressing high expectations, which society should be heading for but against which the country is currently falling short.
Globalisation is over…but France has more resilience than most
I believe that the grumbling and negativity of French people should not overshadow the might of the country’s capacity in the current international situation.
I have been sure for some time that globalisation is over or, at least, is now limited to the extremely wealthy – and healthy – segment of the population.
The so-called ‘joyful globalisation’ concept is in fact a mirage that has served the interest of an even narrower population to push liberal policies that have widened inequalities.
This seems to be on the minds of several world leaders as well. Three individual friends forwarded me an article from newspaper Le Monde, which headlined that ‘the end of globalisation’ was on everybody’s mind at Davos.
The world is shrinking.
From unprecedented rises in inflation, and the cost of petrol, energy, airline tickets, and raw materials, leading to consequent shrinking spending power, the world is getting smaller, and is being seen more and more through screens alone.
Rising temperatures are forcing millions to flee, against the bleak horizon of the planet’s rising carbon emissions, and rising ocean levels, the world continues to shrink yet further. Eco-anxiety is a well-known growing issue among younger people.
However, what most French people do not perhaps appreciate is that France is probably still among the very best countries to withstand this ‘shrinkage’. It holds unparalleled levels of variety and diversity in such a small area and is still managing – arguably – to keep solid public services afloat.
One might say that there are too many regulations at European level, and many entrepreneurs see the United States as a distant model to follow when it comes to their race for profit.
However, most may not realise that this level of profit requires a huge level of violence from extreme liberal elements and ‘war’ against anything that will create ‘big government’.
Hospitals in France may be lacking beds and experience staff shortages everyday but we have not not reached the level of Britain, where some report that they are having to resort to extracting bad teeth themselves because NHS dentists refuse to treat them if they are not already signed up.
The following video report on the state of health in England from newspaper Le Parisien may be hard to watch.
Others feel that education is declining, and French levels of maths, reading comprehension and science are, by some measures, on a downward spiral but the country can still produce a small bit of méritocratie and egalitarianism, even though positions in many of the best schools and universities remain difficult to obtain.
The list goes on on social issues.
People in France are not, despite their grumbling, suffering from the effects of this shrinking world to the same intensity as other countries.
Despite the complaining, the country is still able to provide much-needed comfort and leisure and we can still offer a high level of resilience during often ‘war-like’ conditions.
*Study carried out by Ifop from November 10 to November 14, 2022 on 1,001 French people above 18 through an online questionnaire.
**Study carried out by OpinionWay from April 21 and 22, 2010 on 1,005 French people above 18 through computer-assisted web interview.