Freedom, Equality, Anxiety: Are the French Really Pessimistic?

It’s an unyielding mystery: how is it that France, known worldwide for its joie de vivre, is often plagued by such doom and gloom?

From lack of trust in the future assatisfaction, to scepticism regarding the educational and social welfare systems, French life seems pervaded by a certain melancholy.

Are the French bons vivants also incorrigible grouches? Behind their continuous criticism lies a hidden discontent, whose roots are tied to French identity and culture. At least that is what many international surveys suggest.

A French contradiction

A 2014 surveyconducted in 51 countries by Gallup International, qualifies French people as pessimism world champions, far ahead the Afghans or even the Iraqis. The study revealed that only 17% of the French population thought 2015 would be more promising than 2014.

It goes without saying that migrants and expats living in l’Hexagone should also be affected by this strange disease. But they’re not. According to economist Claudia Senik in her book ‘L’Economie du bonheur’, they are just as happy in France as they are elsewhere. Similarly, Canadian, Swiss and Belgian Francophones also, seem exempt of the French pessimistic attitude.

“French unhappiness isn’t linked with objective circumstances, but rather with the values, beliefs and perception of reality that the French have,” says Senik. “It is the result of a cultural phenomenon relating to representations or manners of being that have been handed down from generation to generation, even if their causes have disappeared.”

Senik notes that despite having free access to healthcare, education and high quality facilities, the French are suffering from a deep-seated melancholy. If it isn’t linked to French living standards – which are envied in most other countries – then where exactly does this lack of happiness, reassurance and optimism come from?

An overly rigid educational system

are the french really pessimistic
are the french really pessimistic

According to a 2009 study conducted by the Organisation de Coopération et de développment économiques (OCDE) on children’s wellbeing in its 34 member countries, France ranks 23rd in educational wellbeing and 22nd in school life quality. It seems therefore that the French malaise takes root, amongst other factors, in the early stages of school education.

France’s ultra-competitive school system is a two-tier system. It relies on discriminatory assessment favouring good grades and encouraging strong students while ignoring its weakest.

Peter Gumbel, author of ‘French Vertigo’, presents quite an alarming overview of the French school system in his book, They Shoot School Kids, Don’t They?’. He denounces “an unforgiving, demeaning and often humiliating culture. A culture that has made a cult out of high-pressure evaluation and yet gives only short shrift to the notion of individual motivation”.

The French system lies far from the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian models, whose methods are based on encouragement rather than punishment. For instance, American educators – whether teachers or parents – constantly encourage their children in sports and studies, even if child’s level of skills isn’t the best.

This explains why French unhappiness isn’t linked to objective circumstances, but rather to the French’s values, beliefs and perception of reality.

Let’s not forget that participation and group work, play an important role very early on in schooling. When it’s the case, children develop self-confidence, which will serve as a very valuable asset throughout their lives.

Worrying, on the other hand, is what separates French schoolchildren from others. If we were to go by international surveys, we could describe them as particularly anxious. According to an OCDE study, French students are amongst the most stressed when it comes to Maths, for example. And from there on, it’s easy to understand that present pessimistic adults are the result of past stressed schoolchildren.

A more hopful youth ?

Are the French really pessimistic
Are the French really pessimistic

Luckily, there have been more than encouraging signs in France that prove otherwise, – especially amongst Generation Y.

According to French philosopherMichel Serres, having only known a networked world and growing up in a digitalised era, Gen-Y’s “way of being – connected, horizontal and creative at the same time – innervates everything in our society”.

Serres paints a portrait of the young generation in Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. Many of them have gone overseas during their studies, for internships or even for their first job. For them, it’s an opportunity to encounter another reality that offers life and work prospects that are sometimes more engaging than the restrictive prospects they’ve been brought up with.

This trend however doesn’t seem limited to French borders only. Growing up with Internet and entrepreneurial success stories such as that of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, Gen-Y as a whole, is in the midst of witnessing the fall of old economic, political, social and educational models.

Perhaps, this new generation’s boldness, creativity and pragmatism is already blowing new winds of optimism over the country.

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