By Elias Forneris
Ask a French person about their country and chances are they will say France is falling apart. Politics just aren’t like before. From left to right, many in France agree the country is gravely ill. In 2021, 75% of French people thought it “in decline.” To them, their country is the ‘sick man of Europe.’ There is a reason one speaks of the ‘French ailment’ (‘le mal français’). But in their eyes, France has always seemed that way. And it may always seem that way—to a large extent because of a torturous self-perception. For anyone curious about the genealogy of current grievances, this presents a puzzling question: why does a nation which has historically fared so well, feel so miserable?
France faces momentous policy challenges which must not be minimized. Political observers quarrel over rural and peri-urban precarity, the agricultural class feeling left behind, unemployment in the banlieues, an increasing sentiment of insecurity, cultural and religious tensions, political extremism, and rising public debt—to name a few issues. For a historian, one possible contribution is to instead examine France’s self-perception complex, which long preceded these current policy challenges. This complex is in part what Émile Chabal described as the French population’s tendency to expect “grandeur” and to express discontent when they do not attain it. This results in “a yawning gap between the grand ideals they are supposed to embody and the messy reality.” Remarkably, such melancholy is found in France’s main political observers since at least the 1700s. Their verdict sounded almost identical, whether France was the leading world power or losing wars. These writers composed poetic lamentations, while the people periodically erupted in protest for one last attempt at salvaging politics. Perhaps Beaumarchais was right in The Marriage of Figaro that in France “everything ends with songs…”  Yet, a history of the French self-perception places these grievances into perspective, and suggests more optimistic verdicts are possible.
The question of the ‘French ailment’ resurfaced with protests against President Macron’s pension reform last spring, and with riots after a policeman fatally shot a teenager in June. The popular upheaval prompted commentators in France and abroad to ask: is France unwell? An article in The Guardian noted “there is an incredible disconnect between what tourists see … and the hyperbolic, catastrophist nature of France’s own domestic discourse about itself.” A journalist for The Economist went viral on Twitter emphasising how “Every evening, images of real war and extreme hardship on the European continent are beamed into its living rooms. Yet France has turned the raising of the pension age to 64 into a national psychodrama.” One former French diplomat and intelligence official concluded after the riots: “The country’s vital prognosis is in question.” The Gilets jaunes movement prompted similar interrogations almost five years ago.
Wittingly or unwittingly, conversations about the ‘French ailment’ fit within a longer tradition of the “body politic”: depicting France as a human body, which in this case is ill. Intriguingly, the historian Antoine de Baecque found that body-politic metaphors were already used in 1770s France and then throughout the French Revolution. “The metaphor of the body,” he wrote, “offers to politicians and men of letters alike the illusion of an organic ordering of the human community, an illusion that thus gives them a scientific claim to observe it and organize it.” However, to visualize France as an ailing patient or to express that disenchantment violently is to lack historical perspective on two fronts. On a fundamental level, it overlooks how most European states face similar challenges, and it fails to account for the numerous current upsides of living in France. More pertinently to the point at hand, it overlooks the longstanding tradition of writers announcing France’s degeneration, which makes the present situation appear less dramatic. Where does this negative self-perception stem from?
One answer may come from an E.P. Thompson insight in The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompson noted how “it is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions.” In other words, metrics may objectively improve on the whole, while life feels worse for each individual. There may be more of everything, but the perceived experience does not match. In France’s case, the country develops, but popular remonstrances reveal a profound unease. This applies to most domains. France has expanded education, but intellectuals believe that French culture is also increasingly impoverished. Life expectancy rises, but older generations feel life is not as ‘gentle’ as it was during the Trente Glorieuses (1945–1975). Political activity is accelerating, but the substance of political debate feels shallower. All of these complaints merit being addressed. The question here is the everlasting negative human experience the French have, indepentedly of these issues.
Look back to The Social Contract in 1762, and the Swiss-born Rousseau told a publisher “this book is not made for France”—because France was already beyond repair in his eyes for The Social Contract to apply. As Bertrand de Jouvenel summarised, for Rousseau “what is lost is lost; one has to save what is salvageable. Yet, what is salvageable? In the big corrupt society, it’s the individual, and Rousseau [instead] wrote Émile” (1762). In Book IV of Émile, Rousseau judged that France’s capital had degenerated: “farewell Paris … with all your noise and smoke and dirt, where the women have ceased to believe in honor and the men in virtue. We are in search of love, happiness, innocence; the further we go from Paris the better.” Enlightenment France was not good enough for Rousseau’s imaginary pupil Émile (though few places were), and his view was striking considering one sees eighteenth-century France today as the center of intellectual effervescence and power in Europe.
In the 1830s, Tocqueville was worried about France as well. “Since democracy in France has been hampered in its progress or abandoned, without support, to its lawless passions, it has overturned everything that has crossed its path and has shaken everything it has not completely destroyed,” he wrote gloomily in Democracy in America (1835). For Tocqueville, the advance of democracy was inevitable, and fortunately, he thought “God is preparing a calmer and more stable future for European societies.” Until then, the path would be treacherous, and democracy itself could exhibit tyrannical aspects. Shortly after the Revolution of 1848 and the advent of Napoleon III, Tocqueville published The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), where he made an inventory of what remained of the Ancien Régime and what changed since 1789. He wrote about eighteenth-century French society: “I have tried not only to detect the disease of which the patient died, but to discover the remedy that might have saved him.” The next society presented advantages only if “equality” went hand-in-hand with “liberty.” But were the French not careful, this society would also be most susceptible to devolving into a combination of “equality and despotism.” And at the time, he warned, liberty had fallen “in disgrace.”
Other monumental French thinkers such as Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine abandoned hope wholesale by the 1890s. France had gone through a century of formidable growth, industrialization, literary and artistic prowess, and scientific innovation. Undeniably, it was a century equally marked by loss of territory, uprisings, and regime change. From the triumphs and defeats, these thinkers retained the proclivity for defeat. “Renan and Taine died doubting French vitality,” Maurice Barrès wrote. “They believed new generations would live in the shadow of a shadow and would die of moral inanition, like the old Carolingian emperor did, seeing the Normand boats on the ocean and shedding tears while prophesizing the invasion.” Reading them, one would have thought it was the end.
Somehow, France endured. It emerged scarred from the World Wars: it was conquered then liberated; it suffered millions of deaths, and the tragedies and hatred resulting from collaboration. Until the early 1960s, it fought domestically divisive wars in Southeast Asia and in Algeria. But at least the contours of a strong France continued to exist: it experienced extraordinary economic recovery, gained a solid constitution under the Fifth Republic, attained nuclear power status, adopted a leading role in the European project, and had its seat at the U.N. Security Council. Nonetheless, even General de Gaulle—responsible for many of these developments—was melancholic about the result. In 1969, he apparently told André Malraux:
I wanted to resurrect France and, to a certain extent, I did … The month of May , the quarrels of politicians … I tried to erect France against the end of a world. Did I fail? Others will see. Undoubtedly, we are witnessing the end of Europe … [But] France has seen other days like these. I told you once: it wasn’t going very well on the day of the Treaty of Brétigny, nor was it going well on 18 June .
De Gaulle’s assessment was doubly insightful: one, no matter the material progress, the assessment of whether France ‘died’ or not depended on something immaterial. He was conveying a feeling, a historical intuition. Two, France always had an extraordinary capacity for renewal out of the worst situations. Waterloo, the Franco-Prussian War, June 1940, and the independance of Algeria were seismic events. But each time France reappeared under a slightly different form, with a different regime, and with different lessons.
Alain Peyrefitte, one of de Gaulle’s ministers, captured the persisting unease in ‘The French Ailment’(1976). He cited historical figures ranging from King Henri IV and poet Jean de La Fontaine, to Renan and statesman Georges Clemenceau, who all mentioned the ailment. “How many times, observing our difficulties from up close, has it appeared to me that they were of the psychic or sociological order; or, if we prefer, derived from mentality?” Peyrefitte asked. “As if the French did not face ‘problems’ from outside. As if they carried these problems within them, and projected them on the reality that surrounded them.” France is the talented athlete who always has an ‘off day.’ The player who has numerous qualities, could win, but is struggling with the mental game.
Amusingly, the metaphor of a ‘sick man’ or a ‘sick man of Europe’ has been used for at least 60 other places, yet in few has this issue persisted as long. If France has been ‘dying’ for centuries, then is it dying at all? Or is this time different? In the 2010s, countless media sources argued over the “sick man” label in light of worrying economic stagnation and security issues. Pessimistic outlooks on French society lined bookshelves. Most famously, Eric Zemmour’s ‘The French Suicide’ (2014) fit “the French obsession with national suicide” (another body-politic metaphor), and Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission shortly followed (2015). Both figures are often associated with the political extremes, their texts extensively linking decline to immigration and Islamization. Though the popularity of their works undoubtedly attested to a widespread curiosity about a French decline, it was simultaneously a reminder of how easily narratives of France’s decline could be used to serve the political aims of the extremes.
Recently, a leading French talkshow, Répliques, organized a debate on the country’s lingering anger. One guest, Denis Olivennes, wrote ‘The Delightful French Malheur’ (2019). He underlined how France is one of the countries in which individuals work least (in the OECD), yet it feels entitled to the quality of life of the richest countries. Because of this, the French experience frustration when seeing the Germans and Americans outperform them. This example is the last in a long line cited, and truly illustrates the self-perception complex consisting of high aspirations and frequent disillusion.
Turn back to Rousseau, who decried France’s alleged corruption, and one also finds possibilities for optimism. In Book II of Émile, he asked: “Where is the path of true happiness? The mere limitation of our desires is not enough … neither is the mere extension of our powers … True happiness consists in decreasing the difference between our desires and our powers.” According to him, an individual can improve self-perception by sensibly recalibrating expectations and efforts until these are aligned. Rousseau’s prescription would certainly prove challenging if applied to a population aspiring to “grandeur”: to tell the French to “expect less” would be akin to telling a nervous individual to “just relax.” Still, historical perspective enables one to take a step back and achieve such a recalibration.
Whether the French express their melancholy in books, protests, or cafés, they all experience it to a certain degree. As a Frenchman who has lived abroad, I tend to as well. It is an instinctively compelling narrative. It is also a maddening state of mind to be in. The political thinker Mark Lilla most suitably concluded “one can’t help thinking that if the French were able to recognize themselves for what they are, and the advantages of being that way, they would deal with their problems moderately but steadily.” France does not have to be the moribund ‘sick man of Europe.’ A nation can be in imperfect health, without dying.
 Unless cited from an English translation, translations from French are mine.
Elias Forneris is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Cambridge, researching European intellectuals exiled in Britain during the Second World War. He is an Editor for Tocqueville 21, the online presence of The Tocqueville Review | La revue Tocqueville. He previously studied at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris.
Edited by Tom Furse and Artur Banaszewski
Featured Image: Le Malade imaginaire (‘The Imaginary Invalid’) by Honoré Daumier (c. 1860-1862) (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).