Why the French Can’t Help But Be Unhappy


You know all those received ideas people have about France? How the French are really negative (especially unpleasant Parisians), how they’re anti-capitalist and anti-American, how they’re really into l’amour and open relationships, how French women love lingerie, blablabla.

I could go on. But so far those are the four tried-and-true, almost parodically clichéd ideas about France that Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’ celebrity editorialist, has written about in a series of Op-Eds in the past two weeks.

According to her dateline, Dowd is evidently in Paris at the moment, and her pieces have been about—surprise—moroseness, lingerie, anti-capitalist sentiment, and the defiantly unmarried French first lady (this last column was actually a twofer: not only the really-into-open-relationships cliché, but then the mother of all clichés about France: “It is disorienting to watch the French try to be nice.”)

It’s a shame she billed the New York Times for the expense of traveling to France when she could have phoned in the exact same columns from her home office in Washington, just with Google and a couple of hours. In fact, in the first of her France columns, “Goodby Old World, Bonjour Tristesse,” which is about the French being all down—you know, “so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement”—Dowd actually cut, translated and pasted citations from an earlier article in the French newspaper Le Monde about the same topic. (She cites the headline of the story by Anne Chemin, “Liberté, égalité, morosité,” as proof that this is the mood in France now, and uses quotes from a French historian and a French sociologist, citing them “as they told Le Monde”). Pourquoi pas, it was a terrific piece!

Dowd did meet with the designer Christian Lacroix’s dentist. I’m not sure what makes his insight on French affairs relevant, but he certainly did help reinforce her deliriously original premise: “The French people, maybe they think too much.”  In defense of Dowd’s choice to, as the French expression goes, push at an open door, I will offer yet another cliché: that there is some truth in all stereotypes.


A delightful video illustrating clichés about France by Cédric Villain.

And the French-are-morose stereotype has been making a popular comeback lately. A few days after Dowd’s “Bonjour Tristesse” column, another Times editorialist, Roger Cohen, published his (excellent) version of the story, “France’s Glorious Malaise.” Cohen also pulls citations from another story—but it was actually his own, from 16 years ago. A story about…French malaise. “…If moroseness is a perennial state, rather than a reaction to particular circumstance, does it really matter?” he asks tody. He concludes that French gloominess is less a malaise than a natural outlook, a form of realism and “bracing frankness,” a level-headed way of taking things as they come.

It’s an interesting analysis and in any case, Cohen, who was a Paris-based correspondent for years, knows that he has to find something that goes a bit deeper than Dowd’s facile “existential estrangement.” What’s really interesting is that Cohen’s explanation turns French moroseness into something practically…American! French pessimism actually becomes a deeply pragmatic, salt of the earth philosophy. Le français as le existential cowboy! That would also go some way to explaining the French fascination with the American West, and to getting beyond that tired the-French-they-think-too-much cliché.


Lucky Luke, famous French comic book hero, icon of French fascination with the American West.

I love the idea that this alleged French malaise could actually be some kind of shared Franco-American common sense. Undoubtedly it is, but I also think it’s something even more basic. The very reason that French unhappiness is intriguing (especially to happy Americans) is because, when you experience France, it’s hard not to be struck by just how good they have it. Sheer beauty, free healthcare, really good bread, global status, cheap world-class education, lots of paid vacation, generous social security, subsidized culture, free childcare…I could go on here, too.

Well guess what? The French agree. But having it good is not something to be happy about! Don’t you see? The French have it so good, and have it had it so good, comparatively, for so long, that they can’t bear the thought of it ever being any different. And yet they can’t imagine it being anything but less good as time passes, and of course they’re right—after all, as we know, they are realists.

The French love France, their lives, their benefits, they love it so much it makes them deeply unhappy. It sort of makes sense; have you ever seen a happy cowboy?

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