The recent pronouncement by the managing director of John Lewis, that France is “finished”, that it is a “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat” country where “nothing works and, worse, nobody cares about it”, provoked a floodtide of ripostes and aggrieved accusations of “French bashing” from across the channel. Though he later apologised, his comments had touched a raw nerve. The French are battling a severe case of collective despondency about the future. This famous French malaise has percolated through all layers of society, dissipating any lingering illusions of grandeur.
The political landscape never looked bleaker. Distant seem the days of leaders with vision and grand ambition, like Charles de Gaulle and even Francois Mitterrand. Instead, France has to make do with uncharismatic President Francois Hollande (the most unpopular president in modern French history, with a popularity rating that touched 13 per cent), who, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for perpetually having one eye on the opinion polls. Hollande’s efforts to project himself as a statesman of international stature and as the US’s principal ally in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East are somewhat undermined by his inability to control his own fractious Socialist Party and rebellious members of government. His image took a further beating because of former companion Valérie Trierweiler’s tell-all memoir, which shows him in poor light.
The main opposition party, the UMP, in severe in-fighting mode, appeared to be on the verge of a split when, like a knight in shining armour, Nicolas Sarkozy rode into the political breach. The announcement of his return to politics brought temporary respite and the party appeared to be rallying around him. But old ambitions die hard and bitter rivalries have resurfaced. In the meantime, Marine Le Pen’s radical, far-right National Front has been making inexorable inroads into both left and right vote banks, wresting two senate seats for the very first time in the latest elections. In an unprecedented development, opinion polls show that each party enjoys the support of approximately 30 per cent of the voters and suggest a repeat of the 2002 presidential election: a second-round runoff between the UMP and National Front candidates. That the far-right is forging ahead is unsurprising, given the economic doldrums France finds itself in.
Labelled by some as the new “sick man of Europe”, France’s economy is certainly ailing. The country’s rate of growth is close to zero (0.3 per cent), unemployment is over 10 per cent, public debt is around 95.1 per cent of the GDP, and the deficit is 4.3 per cent. Disposable income has shrunk and the spectre of joblessness haunts the young, while for the old, the prospect of diminished pensions seems all too real. Strikes seem the order of the day, as one after the other, various groups — air-traffic controllers, notaries, Air France pilots, pharmacists — make desperate attempts to safeguard their benefits. Hollande’s new measures to spur growth are met, for the most part, with the dismissive Gallic shrug and indifference, indicative of his lack of credibility in the eyes of the population.
This economic quagmire has engendered social tensions. In some dreary, high-rise suburbs, unemployment is as high as 40 per cent for the under-25s, who feel marginalised and discriminated against because of their immigrant origins. All it takes is a minor incident for the feeling of despair that prevails in these neighbourhoods to be ignited into violence. In recent months, the spark was provided by the Gaza conflict, exploited by radical groups to fan violence and anti-Semitism. France, home to Europe’s largest populations of both Jews and Muslims, has, of-late, witnessed the rise of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
Now, to add to its woes, after France’s bombing of Islamic State strongholds in northern Iraq, there is a heightened threat of terror attacks from French jihadists. In its travel advisory for France, the UK government has warned its citizens of the “high threat” from terrorism and the possibility of indiscriminate attacks. The UK issued this new alert after IS leaders urged their followers to kill the “dirty and spiteful” French last month.
In this atmosphere of doom and gloom, a book of nonfiction, Le Suicide Français (The French Suicide) by Eric Zemmour, a rightwing political commentator, is topping the bestseller list and selling at the rate of 5,000 copies a day. His essay examines the reasons for the decline of the country and is “a journey through the unhappy soul of France”. That a voluminous, pessimistic text of 500 pages, which analyses the errors that France has made since the time of General de Gaulle, is flying off sellers’ bookshelves shows it resonates with the French. The success of the book is undoubtedly because it helps explain who and what contributed to France’s downfall.]
Recognising and understanding the errors of the past is the first step towards preparing for a better, more hopeful future. And the French certainly deserve that.
Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based freelance writer