You must have been reading it all over the newspapers and magazines: France is the most miserable nation of the world. Oh non!!!
According to surveys, our present is represented by miserabilism and our future by pessimism.
I am going to give you a summary of everything I read on the subject adding my own “French” perspective!
So what is causing our French pessimism?
1- Our education is tough.
I mean, really tough. I know, I’ve been there. So much is expected of French children and teenagers. We have a huge amount of classes, homework, constant tests, pressure, and negative feedback. No matter what you do and how hard you work, it’s never ever enough.
Harsh teachers and almighty grades are your life. You are your grades. If your grades are not excellent, you are a good-for-nothing kid who will no doubt become a good-for-nothing adult. This is the message. And even when you get good grades, you are given a discreet well-done immediately followed by a could-do-better. So much for self-esteem!
French grades are marked out of 20. So getting 20 / 20 means 100% of your answers are correct. I remember frequently getting 17 / 20 in English and endlessly whining about it. Logically, you know it is an excellent grade. Emotionally, it is unbearable. 19 / 20 used to barely keep my tears in but not my frustration. “How could I make such a stupid mistake?!!??? I was so close to 20 / 20, how could I let myself down so much!??” Seriously, I am not exaggerating. Perfection or nothing.
2- The French are no longer Masters of the Universe.
I am way too young to have experienced the French Empire but I have certainly immersed myself in it via books, text books, classes (history AND geography), movies, documentaries, museums, you name it!
All over the world we were!
From Alger to Madagascar, Tahiti to Pondichéry, Nouméa to Ouagadougou, to name a few only. Well, it no longer is. And I understander the former French pride has greatly suffered because of this.
For centuries, the French took pride in being a model for the rest of the world. But it is no longer true, neither culturally nor financially. We no longer enjoy the same level of prosperity and grandeur. Who would not find this demoralizing? Louis XIV, Napoleon I, Victor Hugo, Claude Monet, Chanel, etc. and now what?
To this I would like to add the shame, that I believe the French nation still carries throughout the generations, caused by the nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945. When I was a child, I never understood why it was so popular for my French school mates to mock and despise everything that was French: French cars, French music, French cinema, French TV, etc. It was all bad by definition because it was French. It made no sense to me because I loved my country and deeply appreciated all the above. To this day it remains fashionable to talk badly of our own culture. I knew from everything I learned that this was a fairly new tendency and it finally dawned on me that it started after WW2.
3- Doubting everything is oh so chic and spiritual!
“Melancholy is the happiness of being sad” Victor Hugo
Genius! I love this! And it is so true too, don’t you think? Or do I only relate to it because I am French? You tell me!
The French love to complain. Complaining bring them a certain level of purpose and happiness. (Notice how I use “they” and not “we” because I finally got out of it after living abroad for 11 years! I actually can’t stand it now!)
We also love drama and sorrow. This too gives us happiness. For example, I adore my completely depressing French literature & poetry (Voltaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, Sagan, Duras). I find it so much more beautiful that way. It is deep, it is intense, it is passionate. It is in fact quite perfect. But that doesn’t make me unhappy!
Not to say that I don’t enjoy a happy ending here and there. But oh my French books just hit the spot!
One of my favorite 20th century female writers Françoise Sagan, writes in her 1954 book “Bonjour Tristesse”:
“A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.”
As explained earlier, a lot is expected of French children.
We read French classics (pretty much all of them being extremely intense, sad, and heavy) from a very young age! We grow up associating sorrow with art, melancholy with beauty.
Some people blame it on Voltaire who wrote in “Candid”: “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”
These highly intellectual people set the tone then and they still do today. It seems to me that in order to qualify as a French intellectual, you must be gloomy and grumpy. Being cheerful is just so not sophisticated!
Philosophy is a compulsory High School class. At the end of the last High School year (interestingly enough called “Terminale”, not dramatic at all), we take our Baccalauréat. This is the type of question we need to write about for four hours:
– “Le vivant obéit-il à une finalité ?”
– “La certitude de ma propre mort conduit-elle au désespoir?”
– “Sommes-nous prisonnier de notre corps ?”
Now you see, being French is not easy. Wonderful yes. Easy no. However, pessimism does not stop the French from enjoying themselves. Being too obvious about it might just be vulgar and tasteless! Instead we frown while reveling in our beautiful & luxurious culture: delightful exquisite food & wines, spending time with friends at cafés for hours, reading and sharing our knowledge, producing the biggest luxury brands in the world, and why not, kissing on benches!