Joie de Vivre

July 19th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

The French Are Happy To Say They Are Dissatisfied, But This Does Make Them Unhappy!

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Paul Krugman at his New York Times blog (France's Glorious Malaise) has been having a go at the rash of copycat articles in the English-speaking media alleging that the French have lost their joie de vivre; are depressed, morose, discouraged, and mostly unemployed - quite unrecognizable in fact.

They miss la gloire, which disappeared forever about the time that the Duke of Marlborough's armies put an inglorious end to the reign of Louis XIV; there's no one nowadays to match General de Gaulle for sticking it to the Brits; Germany seems to have stolen the European show; and, having longed for more than a decade for a socialist government to save the country, they've got instead a government which most of them seem to believe is of unparalleled incompetence. C'est la mal francais once more, and more badly than ever.

Follow up:

Krugman points out that when one looks at the economic data, France may be doing badly, but it is doing less badly than many others, and not noticeably worse than the USA itself. All true. Krugman is a man who when it comes to the economy gets his facts right.

On the other hand, if the economy gives the French have a feeling of foreboding, that may well be justified. The US economy seems to be recovering from the Great Recession. France's economy is still stuck in it, and every day the French can read earnest articles telling them how much worse it is going to get - perhaps not quite as bad as Greece and Portugal, but very unpleasant all the same.

And they don't believe their ever-optimistic president, Francois Hollande, when he tells them, as he did again on Bastille Day, July 14, that 'the recovery: it's here' and that unemployment, now about 11%, will stop rising by the end of the year.

But I tend to disagree with Krugman when he comments that there is nothing new about the moroseness of the French. he says -

"They're always morose."

Personally, in my day-to-day relations with the French, I do not find them morose, and that goes for the official French one meets in government offices, too. I find the French to be generally friendly, helpful and polite.

And I disagree when he says they're not "have a good day types". Every time one leaves a shop or passes the supermarket check-out, and just about every time you meet anyone and exchange a few words about the weather, the conversation concludes with a "Bonne journée!"; "A vous aussi!" ('Have a good day', 'You too'). Next after "bonjour", these must be about the most used phrases in the French language.

My personal views about the French, among whom I have now lived for quite a few years, is coloured by the many years that I previously lived in Denmark, which always comes at the top or near the top in the international happiness surveys. I have a high opinion of Denmark and its people, but there are some things about them that paled somewhat when I found myself comparing them with the French.

It's not that I think the Danes are, actually, unhappy, and the French are, actually, happy. But having lived for years in both countries I don't think you can really tell the difference, and in some respects the French where we live, in Touraine, seem to be more open, friendly and polite than the Danes, not least personnel in shops and supermarkets.

Not untypical of the experience one has in Danish shops (it is quite different if you are a known and regular customer) is the day I walked into a pharmacy in Copenhagen at about nine o'clock in the morning to buy some pills to relieve my wife's headache. I was the only customer. I said "Good morning" to the lady behind the counter.

There was then a lengthy stand-off, probably only a few seconds, but it seemed as if it might go on for minutes, until finally she rather ungraciously asked, "What do you want?" To which I replied, "When I say 'Good morning' to someone, it would be nice if the person said 'Good morning' to me" - and I marched out. As the nearest alternative pharmacy was about a kilometer away, and I was on foot, I am afraid my wife had rather a long wait for relief.

Generally speaking, the happiness surveys conclude, fairly convincingly, that people in rich and stable countries are happier, or more satisfied, than people in poorer and less stable countries. But personal experience, in my case, does not convince me that the French are less happy than the Danes.

Weighing in the balance against the Danes is the health service, a subject on which complaints in an unending stream pop up as soon as it comes up in conversation, whereas the French have a better health system - everyone says so, and my experience corroborates this judgment - and it is noticeable that the French do not beef about it.

The France probably scores less well on job satisfaction than the Danes. Relations between Danes and their bosses seem to be relaxed and constructive. In France, it all too often seems to be stressed and destructive, and it is a subject that often surfaces in conversation.

In France, I have learnt that it is obligatory always to say 'Bonjour, madame, monsieur' when you enter a shop, a hotel, a café or an office.

It is a near-guarantee that you will get the service you expect, but if you don't say it, there is a distinct cooling in relations and service will not be up to the normal standard, with a negative outlook. I would certainly suggest to Professor Krugman (if he has not learnt this) to remember it next time he is in France. He might find the French distinctly less morose.

In general, I am suspicious about surveys that purport to tell you that the people of country A are happier than people from countries B, C, and D.

It is sometimes argued that the Danes and other Nordics feel better if they tell people they are satisfied, and that this cultural characteristic (if it exists) helps to explain their high place in the happiness surveys.

The French, I would argue, do not possess the same characteristic; in fact they are happy when telling you that they are dissatisfied, and one cannot take this to mean that they are, therefore, unhappy.

It ought to be possible to work out a sneaky questionnaire that would enable the happiness survey designers to tease out the extent of this phenomenon. They could then adjust the listings to take it into account.

I think the adjusted index might well leave the French level-pegging with the Nordics.

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