Despair a la Francaise

One nation is here to remind us that the things we think bring us "joy" are cheap, shiny trinkets. That life is a pointless Sisyphean slog. That just when you thought sadism could plunge no deeper, the Marquis pulls out…(shudder)…needle and thread. That the heart of man is a pustule of malice, envy and lickspittle conformism. That thousands of brown people are suffering indescribable torment to mine the exotic metals that make your mobile phone work. And that there is, of course, no God. And no reason to chew through the leather straps every morning, to quote Emo Phillips.

We are speaking of the French, of course. And I’m happy to report that the supply of French pessimism seems secure for generations to come. The French Foundation for Political Innovation recently completed a massive study of over 20,000 young people ages 16-29 in many different countries, to put into international context the attitudes of young French people toward their future, globalization, the economy, and other factors.

The results, published as this study (f, .pdf) and summarized in an insert (f, .pdf) and article (f) in L’Express magazine, do not disappoint. The overall tone can be gauged by two comments on the front. Marjorie, 24-year-old student of sociology, says "People are cynical (desabusé)." Nils, 28-year-old graphic designer, says "To re-orient oneself is nearly impossible."

The Express insert summarizes the results: "They fear for their future and that of their society. They have stronger doubts about globalization than all the others. They say they are convinced they do not see a good job in their future. They are also timid, and believe they are incapable of changing society." (p.3).

Some more results. "Does having a good life mean having a lot of money?" France and Germany are at 30%, with the U.S. at 29%. India’s by far the most materialistic society by this measure (56%), with Russia close behind at 47%.

"Can people change their society?" The U.S. and Denmark top the list here with 63% apiece, Germany turns in a respectable 50%, Italy, the U.K., and Poland are 44, 41, and 41%, respectively. And France? Dead last, with 39%.

"Do you have a promising future?" The Danes top the list here with 60%, the U.S. and Norway tie at 54%, Germany’s in the middle with 37%, and France, Poland, and Italy come in dead last, with 26, 24, and 23%, respectively.

Only 5% of the French and Germans think becoming a celebrity brings "the good life," the number is 10% for the U.S. India and Taiwan top this list here, with 46 and 45%, respectively. The French are the least willing in the entire study to pay taxes to support aging members of their society (11%).

Young French people are also staggeringly conformist. The foreign stereotype is the chain-smoking libertine, but those in the know realize that ordinary middle-class French people obsess constantly over minor aspects of other peoples’ behavior, and about what other people might think of their own.  1 in 4 young Frenchmen believes it’s important not to do anything unusual or remarkable in life (ne pas se faire remarquer), and a world-record 54% of young French people say that the opinions of other people "determine" their professional career choices (Germany’s at 45%; the U.S. at 34%, and the Finns at an intriguing 9%).

Finally, young French people live in terror of globalization.  Does it "bring new opportunities?" The Poles top the list here (48%), with Estonia, Denmark, and Russia close behind. The U.S. is in the middle at 34%, Germany’s at 31% (who would have thought that?), The UK at 23%, Spain at 22%, and France dead last at 20%.

This is all reassuring news to me. Their President may have just visited Eurodisney (shudder), but if you want the Frenchman’s pessimism, you’ll still have to pry it from his cold, dead hands.

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