Innovative ideas to tackle people’s feeling of loneliness in France

Social isolation is hitting young people in particular, a study shows - we look at some innovative solutions

Nightline is a helpline in French and English run by specially trained students for their peers to unburden themselves without judgement
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Some 12% of people in France live in ‘total social isolation’ and one in three have a restricted network of relationships, a recent study shows.

The research was carried out by the Fondation de France, set up in 1969 to encourage philanthropic action for the environment, education, health, culture and vulnerable people.

Least well-off are more lonely

Its Solitudes en France study, carried out annually, defines ‘total social isolation’ as a lack of physical meetings across five social networks: work, family, friends, relationships with colleagues, and associations/clubs.

One in three of those questioned met people only in one of these networks.

Some 21% of people regularly feel lonely and 83% of those say they suffer as a result.

The researchers noted that overall levels of loneliness in France are almost stable.

However, they found that the least well-off are twice as likely to be lonely than their wealthier counterparts, and the unemployed are twice as isolated as those in employment.

The least well-educated and qualified are also at a higher risk of being lonely.

Read more: How to fight off expat isolation in France

Young people ‘feel’ alone

Anne Cornilleau, head of research, said: “Young people in France are the most likely to feel lonely.

“It is a preoccupation not just in France, but also in Japan.

“Young people feel alone. It isn’t simply a matter of being isolated in terms of social networks. That’s how they feel, even when they have physical meetings with people.”

Polling people about their social networks helps to give an objective insight into social isolation, whereas asking people whether they ‘feel’ lonely gives a more subjective response.

An EU report in 2022 found that, on average across the bloc, 13% of respondents had felt lonely all or most of the time over the preceding four weeks, while 35% reported feeling lonely at least some of the time.

Read more: French supermarket tills where chit-chat is welcome grow in popularity

Ireland has the highest rate of loneliness

Loneliness affects almost half the EU’s population. 

The country reporting the highest rate of loneliness was Ireland, with more than 20% feeling lonely all or most of the time. Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Greece were close behind.

The lowest levels were reported in the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Croatia and Austria – all under 10%.

France was somewhere in the middle with 14-16%.

It translates to around 30 million Europeans feeling lonely.

Risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke

The figure is significant because numerous studies show that social isolation increases the risk of severe illness and even premature death, almost to the same degree as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. 

Social isolation is also associated with a 50% increase in the risk of dementia, a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease, and a 32% increase in the risk of having a stroke.

Causes of loneliness in young people

In terms of causes, Ms Cornilleau has some theories.

“Young people are increasingly worse off financially, and this often has an impact on their social lives,” she said.

“Also, since the pandemic, many interactions, including teaching, have moved online, which increases solitude.”

Social media shows everyone having a wonderful time

Recent news headlines have not been positive either, and this can also play a part. 

Since Covid, the world has been rocked by war in Ukraine, the rising cost of living, soaring fuel prices, climate and environmental crises, and now the conflict in Gaza, Ms Cornilleau pointed out. 

“This has depressed everyone, and the young, especially, feel alone, despite being ‘connected’ all the time.

“Being online is quite superficial. Young people gazing at their phones tend to receive the message that everyone else is having a wonderful time.

“The Fondation de France did not study the effect of social media specifically, but edited realities online give people a negative view of themselves, so there is more work to be done on that.”

Read more: French MPs back social media age restrictions for teenagers

Differences between women and men

The report also looked at where people felt least and most lonely. 

It was noted that men and women tend to use different places for socialising and meeting new people.

Apart from in outdoor markets and libraries, women linger less in public spaces than men, who spend more time in parks, public gardens, on beaches, and in woods, cafes and bars, restaurants, sports centres and other facilities.

Men even spend more time in shopping centres than women.

Places people connect

Less of a surprise was that the most financially deprived spend most time in places that are free to access. 

Sporting clubs/facilities were reported to be the best places to make new relationships, with around 40% saying they met new people there. 

Doing something together, such as physical activity rather than merely meeting briefly in a social setting, appears to help new relationships develop.

More than half (52%) of lonely people go to shopping malls, and 42% to markets or high streets regularly.

Natural spaces – woods, beaches, mountains – were the second most popular destinations for 41% of lonely people, and 34% regularly visit green spaces in urban areas, such as parks or public gardens.

Student helpline

The Fondation de France already supports a range of projects aimed at strengthening a sense of community.

One example is Nightline – a helpline run by specially trained students for their peers.

It is open every night for students to unburden their worries anonymously, and operates in both English and French. 

It is confidential, and the listeners guarantee they will not judge callers or tell them what to do.

The scheme also raises mental health awareness and highlights some of the challenges faced by students.

Cook and eat together

Another initiative that has enjoyed success is Les Petites Cantines, which provides spaces for people to cook and eat together.

The idea started in Lyon and is spreading rapidly. 

Membership costs whatever people can afford, and the same is true for the meals. The aim is to bring people together from all backgrounds, generations and walks of life.

Young and older people live together

The focus of Générations et Cultures, meanwhile, is to enable people from different generations to live together. 

The group runs various schemes including Un toit à partager, which puts young people looking for accommodation in touch with older people who have a spare room.

Un toit parmi les âges varies slightly, in that the young person is offered accommodation in a retirement home.