La crise… a French psychopathology
The Germans have a saying that someone who lives comfortably or luxuriously lives like “God in France.” Nonetheless, polls rank France among the most pessimistic countries in the world, by some measures worse than war-ridden places like Afghanistan or Iraq.
This pessimism is not only a subjective measurement, since polls can be misleading. According to a recent book on psychotropic drugs, more than one in five people in France takes either antidepressants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills or antipsychotic drugs, sometimes a combination. Some 200 million boxes of such drugs are sold in France per year, more than three per inhabitant.
Over the last couple of months, sociologists, political experts, historians and editorialists in the French newspapers have tried to analyze where this French malaise comes from. Clearly the French economy is struggling. This year is likely to be the second in a row of stagnation – at best. Then again, compared with its Southern neighbors’ economies, France’s looks bright. Real GDP is not stuck at the level of 1999, like Italy; nor is more than 25% of its working-age population unemployed, like in Spain.
However when asked, the vast majority of French will tell you that they are experiencing “la crise.” And this crisis started not in 2008, nor in 2000 or even in the 1990s. “La crise” has been with France since the mid-1970s, almost as part of the French cliché like the Basque beret, the Camembert, the baguette and the bottle of Beaujolais. The “trente glorieuses,” the thirty glorious post-war years with high growth rates and almost full employment, were followed by almost forty years during which unemployment remained rather high and the French started using “la crise” to define their economic environment.
France has never been characterized as “sick man of Europe,” as the UK was during the late 1970s or Germany in the late 1990s. It didn’t go through a “Winter of Discontent” like Britain in 1978/79, and did not have to absorb such costs as German reunification. In fact, even the last 2008/09 recession was milder in France than in European neighbor countries like Germany. Still, pessimism and “la crise” prevail. By now the populace could even be right.
French leaders, however, prefer to deny that there is any problem and continue to rely on a method developed by Emile Coué (1857-1926), using autosuggestion and repeating like a mantra, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” An example of this is the latest interview given by President François Hollande on July 14, Bastille Day. His statement “the economic recovery is here” stretches to the limits of interpretation a monthly uptick in French industrial production, which remains quite depressed. But the French president is not alone. The words “austerity” and “recession” are taboo for French government officials, not only today but for the past 40 years in all governments. When Prime Minister François Fillon declared in 2007, “France is broke,” he drew the ire of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
French leaders moreover confuse their folk in a second way, by developing economic theories which contradict even the fundaments of logic. Again, in the French president’s interview on July 14, he declared that to solve the financing gap in French social security, “we need to increase the numbers of years one has to contribute without increasing the age of retirement.” Similarly a couple of weeks ago, Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici remarked that if France’s growth rate is too low next year “taxes will need to be increased.”
I am not a psychologist, but denial and confusion by creating cognitive dissonance between what the French experience in their day-to-day reality and what their leaders are telling them is certainly one possible source of the French malaise. If this were true, then we would have found a paradoxical cure to “la crise,” since acknowledgment is usually the first step toward healing.