The French are (Apparently) Misérable

By Lindsey Tramuta

The French are known for more than just their beautiful language and delectable pastries - surly attitudes and cynicism have garnered them quite a reputation but what’s really causing all that pessimism?

Anticlimactic news flash! Last week, the results of the annual BVA-Gallup International Survey on economic outlook were released, revealing that the French are the most pessimistic people in the world. Undoubtedly this caused Americans and Brits everywhere to cry “told you so! That’s why they’re so unfriendly!”, perpetuating longstanding stereotypes about the French and their attitudes toward all non-French people. Yes, according to Time the French have the most dismal outlook on 2011, unconvinced that the ominous economic cloud that has raised their unemployment rate from high to extortionately high is really starting to dissipate.

However, their level of economic and personal pessimism might appear disproportionate to the amount of money they are spending. Le Monde reported that purchases by credit card were up 7.2% by the end of 2010 and a record-breaking 13.6 million transactions (presumably in preparation for the Christmas holiday) were executed on December 11th – so they’re miserable but jolly spenders?  I asked my husband (who is French) what he thought of this behavioral revelation and he explained, quite matter-of-factly, oh yeah, it’s widely known that we’re cynical and distrusting. But everyone puts on a façade for the holidays to make themselves and others around them feel better, even if only temporarily. Then once the holidays are over, everyone goes back to self-important complaining.”

Are they escapists or just exercising their right to boost the economy via retail therapy?

Perhaps the greater question is what do they have to be so miserable about? So perpetually down-in-the-dumps, in fact, that they perceive the future with greater gloom than war-torn Afghans and Iraqis. Economist and philosopher Gurcharan Das, who apparently knows a thing or two about real misery living in Delhi, painted a harsh yet befitting picture of the French: “Sometimes I think of France as a fat cat, comfortably curled up by the fire… one must know hunger to really savor happiness”; imagery that applies as much to the starving and poor as to the sick. This isn’t to say that other Europeans or even Americans do not occasionally fit this caricature but the French seem to have a mastered the art of ‘woe-is-me’.

What we should all remember is that this negative outlook actually refers more to economic wariness than personal misery but the overall negativity is palpable. What could be contributing to a country-wide mope-fest? It could be argued that much of their unsavory traits may be attributed to their education – an increasingly damaged system with a “classroom culture that brands students ‘worthless’”. It functions in such a way that students are made unequivocally aware of their shortcomings and failures rather than be praised for their talents and successes. Instead of “great job!”, they see “pas mal” (not bad) on their work – negatively-framed feedback that persists throughout all levels of education and invariably plays a role in their outlook and sense of self as adults.

Sure not every Joe Schmo in the Anglo-Saxon systems deserves to be coddled and extolled, especially when it isn’t merited, but at least they aren’t essentially taught to associate education with misery. “Nobody talks about happiness in school…” – well, nor do they talk about it any other part of their lives, it would seem. The French are therefore walking through the world with cracked glasses, seeing only what holds room for improvement not what is already magnificent. In a country as beautiful as theirs, with such rich culture and glorious food, that’s just dommage.

Lindsey Tramuta is a home & culture columnist for BitchBuzz and the creator of Lost In Cheeseland where she writes about life in Paris. Follow her on twitter @LostNCheeseland.

Photo courtesy of DDirac

Thu, 13 Jan 2011 10:00 (GMT+00)
3 Responses

I thought that "pas mal," even though it is grammatically framed in a negative way, actually meant that something was very good? Sort of a backwards way of expressing enthusiasm? I guess that's one of those things you have to really speak the language every day to truly understand.

Mon, 17-Jan-2011 14:30 GMT

Kat, that's mostly correct how the construction in itself is what is negative - much of the language is presented that way. So yes, even in English "not bad" can be used as a compliment, but that's certainly not the only comment we receive as students. Again, it is just one example of many.

Tue, 18-Jan-2011 20:32 GMT

A very interesting article, again food for thought. I am of French heritage, and I can see some of this in my own family. However my direct family had not lived in France since my great grandmother.

Thu, 20-Jan-2011 02:50 GMT

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