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Home News The catastrophist discourse in France is at odds with the reality, according to Alexander Hurst in The Guardian.

The catastrophist discourse in France is at odds with the reality, according to Alexander Hurst in The Guardian.

Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

The French adventurer Sylvain Tesson may have put it best when he wrote: “France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.”

The images from France over the past two months have seemed hellish enough – mounds of rubbish, sometimes on fire, serving as backdrop for violent clashes between some of the more extreme protest groups and body armour-clad riot police. Enough for my parents to repeatedly ask over FaceTime if it was really OK for me to be out and about in my neighbourhood, which borders a main protest square. (It was, I assured them each time, just France being France: the overaggressive nature of the confrontations and the dismissive and “arrogant” government response simply the self-fulfilling result of everyone assuming this was just how things would unfold.)

Of course, France isn’t a literal paradise. It has had four decades of structurally high unemployment; a lost decade of stagnating incomes after the 2008-09 financial crisis; lower levels of social trust than its happier northern European neighbours (made worse by Emmanuel Macron’s use of article 49.3, which forced the legislature to choose between passing the unpopular retirement reform or holding new elections); a population shifting away from rural towns towards urban centres; and a slow, rolling recognition of its relative decline on the global stage.

But there is an incredible disconnect between what tourists see, what foreigners living in France see, what French people living abroad see, what this recently naturalised français sees, and the hyperbolic, catastrophist nature of France’s own domestic discourse about itself (that is, the French people convinced their country has gone to hell).

In this tale, France has been submerged by immigration and Islam, or by ultra-neoliberalism, or by authoritarianism (or some combination of these). This doesn’t correspond to measurable reality, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are powerful.

Several weeks ago I took a straw poll of my students – nothing statistically significant, but a snapshot of the general outlook of bright, politically aware first-years at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious and globally high-ranking universities. I showed them a chart of inequality levels among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, but with the country names chopped off. They had no problem identifying where on the chart the US fell: nearly every hand went up to indicate that it had the highest inequality of any rich democracy.

They were almost universally wrong when it came to accurately identifying France on the same chart. Nearly every student placed it just a few spots behind the US, easily in the top 25% of inequality. In truth, France’s position is in the bottom portion of the chart, just shy of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway.

Unemployment – the perennial problem – is almost below 7%, a level that hasn’t been reached since before the 2008-09 financial crisis, partly due to the public investment made in promoting apprenticeships over the past two years. Intentions to hire are the highest they’ve been in 20 years, and in less than a decade France has gone from being woefully absent in the startup world to taking the continent’s crown for startup investment.

When you adjust economic performance for climate footprint (which we should do for every country), France leads all of its peers. Whereas the US generates 0.28 tonnes of greenhouse gases to produce $1,000 of GDP, France does the same with only 0.14 tonnes of emissions. French per capita emissions are the absolute lowest of any large, wealthy country, and have been continually declining – down 25% from 2005 – while since 1990, France’s total forested area has increased by 7%.

And France can still build big things. It has connected its major cities with the fastest trains in the world more cost effectively than China, and the Grand Paris Express (more than 200km of new metro track and 48 new stations) is being built for 20% of the per-km cost of New York City’s most recent line extension.

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At a European level – the one that actually matters when it comes to most of the society-shaking, collective challenges we face – a French approach to public policy is ascendant: for the first time, the EU has issued collective debt, and is willing to counter protectionism from the US and China with support for its own green industries.

The term “performative miserabilism” has been coined to explain France’s confusing penchant towards self-cynicism. There’s something almost laudable to it – a type of solidarity, in the sense that endless optimism might actually seem boastful to those who are struggling; a negative narrative is at least one that acknowledges their pain.

Alexander Hurst is a France-based writer and adjunct lecturer at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute for Political Studies

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