The Parable of France and the Mediocre Pants

Happy 2011!

I took a 5-week blog break for the holidays (to spend time with my family, to travel and to process some of the stuff that’s happened recently) – but I am back, both to Pau and to the regular blog-posting lifestyle.

I just read some interesting statistics about the French that I would like to share.  But first a parable.

***

One day, slightly less than a year ago, I was in Paris on a visit.  I spent the evening hanging out with a friend of mine, Kay, from Missouri who currently lives in Paris.  She invited along a Parisian friend of hers, Vivienne.  After eating a satisfying dinner of Pho, we decided to go to a dive bar in the northern edge of the city.

Vivienne was playing pool with a short man wearing a leather jacket, who appeared to be of North African descent, age about 27.  He had a wide-legged stance, and swaggered as he circled round the table, surveying potential angles.  Vivienne and he scowled at each other as they played.  They pouted and puffed air through their lips when they shot poorly, and shrugged when they shot well.  Neither of them looked like they were enjoying themselves.

Kay and I were sipping some whiskey and chatting.  At one point she asked me, “Hey Pacifica, what do you think of my pants?”  She was wearing pinstriped, dark brown pants – slim, with a kind of funky 70’s feeling to them.

“I think they’re awesome.”

“Yeah, so do I,” she said as Vivienne finished making a shot and walked over to our side of the table.

“You see, Vivienne doesn’t like them.”  Vivienne looked at her questioningly and Kay, in answer said, “PACIFICA likes my pants.”

Vivienne looked down at the pants disdainfully and said, “Non, non.  Zat is becoz she doz not undairstand.”  It was our turn to look at her questioningly and she continued,  “She haz not seen your othairr pair of pants.  Zhey are bettair.”

***

France is a country where the people often disdain things that aren’t the very best according to their standards.  The attitude seems to be that anything less than the best is mediocre, and therefore difficult to truly enjoy.   On the other hand the very best becomes somewhat boring, disappointing. “Is that all there is?”  The perfect recipe for constant dissatisfaction.  Ennui.  Malaise.

***

BVA-Gallup recently released the results of their annual international survey and out of the 53 countries polled, French people were rated the MOST PESSIMISTIC about 2011.   The poll found that 61% of the French population polled in November and December thought that 2011 would be “a year of economic difficulty,” compared to the global average of 28% who thought the same.

It should be noted that the countries that rated most optimistic in the poll were developing economies – Brazil, China, Nigeria, Vietnam etc., while the most pessimistic were developed nations.  The countries that were the most pessimistic were ostensibly the countries that have the most to lose and the least to gain.

While European countries in general topped the poll as the most gloomy in the world, France FAR out-worried everyone, including notoriously glum England in second (52%), economically troubled Spain in 3rd (48%), and perpetually troubled Italy in 4th (41%).

Only 3% of the French population thought that 2011 would be a year of prosperity (compared to the global average of 30%), and the other 36% thought it would be the same as last year (which they thought sucked by the way).  The French, according to the poll, are also more convinced than any other countries besides the UK and Pakistan that unemployment will rise in the year to come.

***

It’s a bit confusing to look at these statistics and to try and find a logical basis for them.

Yes there is a fiscal crisis in Europe, and no one knows how much it will undermine Europe’s stability.  Yes France’s economy, like much of Europe, became shakier during the economic crisis.

However France was one of the last European nations to enter the crisis, and after it entered, it fell less hard because the French economy is less dependent on exports, and the population is less reliant on credit-based consumption than other similarly large economies.  France also escaped the crisis sooner; the French economy has been growing steadily since Q2 of 2009.

France is a wealthy country.  The economy is the 5th largest in the world , and their GDP makes up more than 1/5 of all the GDP of the whole Euro zone put together.

France’s unemployment is hovering around 10% (compared to Spain’s for example, which is around 20%).  The unemployed still have a great many benefits provided by the state, including free health care.  The employed only work 35 hours a week, and have more vacation time off per year than almost anywhere else in the world.  The average age of retirement is the youngest in Europe (58.8), and the retirement pension is one of Europe’s most generous.  The French also have one of the longest life expectancies in the world.

In addition, France is famous for all the good stuff of life – good food, good art, good weather, quality everything – and a people who purport to enjoy all that good stuff.

So why the pessimism?

***

The French, as evidenced by their propensity for striking, are adept at feeling their rights aren’t being met and they should have more than they do, while also feeling it is wrong to have anything they already have ever taken away from them.

In polls the French currently express great discontent with their government.  In terms of their relationship to the government, the French population on the whole acts like a sullen teenager.  They rage against their paternal government constantly, sulk, complain, yet ultimately still want it to take care of them, and deeply believe it SHOULD take care of them.  They want complete freedom, complete safety, and no responsibility.

But maybe they are starting to get the sense that all of that isn’t quite sustainable?  Perhaps they have the horrible sinking feeling that the game is up, the carefree times are over and things are about to fall apart.  Perhaps that’s at the heart of the pessimism?

But it appears that French people’s economic concerns are more based on a generally rotten outlook about life, than on how dire they actually perceive their PERSONAL economic situation to be.  In another BVA-Gallup poll taken during the same period, it was found that 77% of the French intend to spend/consume just as much in 2011 as they did in 2010, 12% said they will spend more, and a mere 9% plan to spend less and save more. Their concerns and pessimism about the economy and about quality of life in 2011 seem to be more of a theoretical nature than about the state of their actual pocketbooks.

***

I don’t know – I may just be one of those irritating, eternally optimistic people, but I don’t think I’ve ever started a new year thinking, “This year is really going to suck.”  I’ve certainly ended years thinking that in retrospect, glad they were over, but I always assume I can make things better in times to come.

This year for example – yes I can look into the horizon and see that some very difficult things may come to pass, some hard stuff to get through, but knowing that just makes me more determined to deal with those challenges and come through the better for them. Maybe it won’t work out that way, and maybe everything will suck…but I can’t let myself assume that on the outset.

It’s a particular sort of person, and a particular sort of national psychology, that looks into the future and sees nothing but gloom.  But the French are, after all, the biggest consumers per capita of anti-depressants in Europe.

Dominique Moisi, a French author of the 2009 book “Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.” recently said that in France “there is a moroseness, a real phenomenon of clinical depression.”  He was of the opinion that this is because French people no longer believe the welfare state will actually protect them.  “The French are afraid. They feel the present is less good than the past and that the future will be worse than the present, and that their children’s lives will be harder than their own.”

But perhaps that is part of the French character in general. Things are pretty damn awesome across the board for most French people…but perhaps nothing ever quite lives up to expectations.  The country speaks with a kind of group malaise that shruggingly says, ‘Life’s so-so, and then you die.’  They drink their amazing wine, enjoy their leisurely meals, eat their amazing cheese, smoke their cigarettes, and sit there knowing these are good things, knowing they have it all but feeling somehow that something is missing.  They are left wondering, “is that all there is?”

***

IS THAT ALL THERE IS?

(by Lieber and Stoller)

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.

And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth. There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears. And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle. I had the feeling that something was missing. I don’t know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world. We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes. We were so very much in love. Then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t, and when I didn’t I said to myself, “is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

I know what you must be saying to yourselves, if that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all? Oh, no, not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment, for I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is…

~ by zoetropic on January 26, 2011.

6 Responses to “The Parable of France and the Mediocre Pants”

  1. Excited to read more of what you have in store this year.
    Yes, one could say I am optimistic about it.. 🙂

  2. Also very insightful; you only have to look at the number of French people who still insist on using cheques – bizarre! We moved here from England because: it’s stable, it has a good healthcare and education system, it has infinitely better weather, its roads are better… I can name 100 advantages, but I find a lot of my French friends very cynical, about France, about America and who look to Germany and England as more viable, more flexible. And… it’s much more happy with you being a fonctionnaire than being self-employed…. says it all!

  3. I like this story and the way you put it together. Reflective and interesting. And that Peggy Lee performance is fantastic!

  4. […] The Parable of France and the Mediocre Pants […]

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