French pessimism is an enigma. It is at the same level as in the most deprived countries on the planet. Why is this darkness of spirit so prevalent here? The writer Jean Cocteau said of the Italians that they were good-humoured Frenchmen, while Italians for their part like to talk of la furia francese, French fury or rage.
Is it possible that the French do not deserve France, that they moan about the splinter in the eye of their country without seeing the plank in their own? Because the complaints made about France by our fellow citizens, so many of whom back the yellow vest movement, are the exact opposite of the accusations the country deserves.
What really threatens France is that it lives beyond its means, gives generously to its children what it does not have, and is no longer able to produce what it needs. France is the world champion of redistribution and of the taxes that enable this redistribution.
Social transfers (health, old age, unemployment, housing, family etc) are at 800 billion euros a year, the equivalent of one third of the wealth created by the nation, and make up nearly two thirds of public spending.
This is much more than in any other developed country, and leads to another world champion trophy, that of tax, to which we should add the future tax that our public debt represents.
'France is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world'
It is said that anger in France feeds on the scandal of inequality, yet we are one of the most egalitarian countries in the world.
According to INSEE, the national statistics office, the ratio between the incomes of the top 10 percent and the lowest 10 percent is rather high at 22 before taking into account the works of the welfare state, with its levies and social charges.
But it is only 5 to 6 after redistribution, which is low compared to similar countries.
France is also a country where the poverty rate is among the lowest, even if it remains at a painful 14 percent of the population.
Economist Michel Cicurel of investment group La Maison. Photo: AFP
Where France falls down is that we are no longer able to sustainably support our welfare state because we do not produce enough. Our current account and public deficits are no longer sustainable.
In order to produce what we consume, we need more employment and more capital. But these two factors were ravaged by retirement at 60 (until 2010 when it was raised to 62), the thirty-five hour working week, and the confiscatory taxation of capital.
'Globalisation has both benefited and bruised French consumers'
It is not a question of reproaching the yellow vests, whose demands are those of the working classes suffering from the transformation of the world. Globalisation, and its ultimate stage which is digitalisation, has tremendously benefited the French consumer, who imports clothes, appliances, electronics, etc. at exceptionally low prices. But it has bruised many workers shaken by major movements in urbanisation and modernisation.
These French, driven from the city centres by property prices, and from the suburbs by immigration, now live resentfully in their houses on the urban fringes where they are hemmed in by high fuel prices and ecological constraints. This is a significant part of the French population, one excellently depicted by the geographer Christophe Guilluy (whose latest book Twilight of the Elites continues his examination of “la France périphérique”).
Their situation deserves consideration and action. But they certainly do not make up the three-quarters of our fellow citizens who support the yellow vests, and whose bad mood could lead to bad decisions.
Populism finds a magnificent playground in the latent pessimism of the French. But, curiously, they have so far never deliberately gone for the extremes as other Europeans have done without hesitation. It as as though French grumbling always stops just before the point where it could break the country.
There is a lot of political intelligence in our country, and perhaps the good faith of the ongoing debates will enable it to find common sense. It would be nice if France could keep the French it deserves.
This article was first published in the Journal du Dimanche on 3 February 2019