Sunday, August 20, 2023

"Diagnosing France"

 From the Journal of the History of Ideas, August 16:

Ask a French person about their country and chances are they will say France is falling apart. Politics just aren’t like before. From left to right, many in France agree the country is gravely ill. In 2021, 75% of French people thought it “in decline.” To them, their country is the ‘sick man of Europe.’ There is a reason one speaks of the ‘French ailment’ (‘le mal français’). But in their eyes, France has always seemed that way. And it may always seem that way—to a large extent because of a torturous self-perception. For anyone curious about the genealogy of current grievances, this presents a puzzling question: why does a nation which has historically fared so well, feel so miserable?

France faces momentous policy challenges which must not be minimized. Political observers quarrel over rural and peri-urban precarity, the agricultural class feeling left behind, unemployment in the banlieues, an increasing sentiment of insecurity, cultural and religious tensions, political extremism, and rising public debt—to name a few issues. For a historian, one possible contribution is to instead examine France’s self-perception complex, which long preceded these current policy challenges. This complex is in part what Émile Chabal described as the French population’s tendency to expect “grandeur” and to express discontent when they do not attain it. This results in “a yawning gap between the grand ideals they are supposed to embody and the messy reality.” Remarkably, such melancholy is found in France’s main political observers since at least the 1700s. Their verdict sounded almost identical, whether France was the leading world power or losing wars. These writers composed poetic lamentations, while the people periodically erupted in protest for one last attempt at salvaging politics. Perhaps Beaumarchais was right in The Marriage of Figaro that in France “everything ends with songs…” [1] Yet, a history of the French self-perception places these grievances into perspective, and suggests more optimistic verdicts are possible.


The question of the ‘French ailment’ resurfaced with protests against President Macron’s pension reform last spring, and with riots after a policeman fatally shot a teenager in June. The popular upheaval prompted commentators in France and abroad to ask: is France unwell? An article in The Guardian noted “there is an incredible disconnect between what tourists see … and the hyperbolic, catastrophist nature of France’s own domestic discourse about itself.” A journalist for The Economist went viral on Twitter emphasising how “Every evening, images of real war and extreme hardship on the European continent are beamed into its living rooms. Yet France has turned the raising of the pension age to 64 into a national psychodrama.” One former French diplomat and intelligence official concluded after the riots: “The country’s vital prognosis is in question.” The Gilets jaunes movement prompted similar interrogations almost five years ago.

Wittingly or unwittingly, conversations about the ‘French ailment’ fit within a longer tradition of the “body politic”: depicting France as a human body, which in this case is ill. Intriguingly, the historian Antoine de Baecque found that body-politic metaphors were already used in 1770s France and then throughout the French Revolution. “The metaphor of the body,” he wrote, “offers to politicians and men of letters alike the illusion of an organic ordering of the human community, an illusion that thus gives them a scientific claim to observe it and organize it.” However, to visualize France as an ailing patient or to express that disenchantment violently is to lack historical perspective on two fronts. On a fundamental level, it overlooks how most European states face similar challenges, and it fails to account for the numerous current upsides of living in France. More pertinently to the point at hand, it overlooks the longstanding tradition of writers announcing France’s degeneration, which makes the present situation appear less dramatic. Where does this negative self-perception stem from?

One answer may come from an E.P. Thompson insight in The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompson noted how “it is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions.” In other words, metrics may objectively improve on the whole, while life feels worse for each individual. There may be more of everything, but the perceived experience does not match. In France’s case, the country develops, but popular remonstrances reveal a profound unease. This applies to most domains. France has expanded education, but intellectuals believe that French culture is also increasingly impoverished. Life expectancy rises, but older generations feel life is not as ‘gentle’ as it was during the Trente Glorieuses (1945–1975). Political activity is accelerating, but the substance of political debate feels shallower. All of these complaints merit being addressed. The question here is the everlasting negative human experience the French have, indepentedly of these issues.

Look back to The Social Contract in 1762, and the Swiss-born Rousseau told a publisher “this book is not made for France”—because France was already beyond repair in his eyes for The Social Contract to apply....