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French press review 30 January 2018

A strike by French staff looking after old people, storm clouds gathering over the Macron administration, and a quick lesson on the neurobiological basis of happiness are some of the items in today's French dailies.


There is to be a strike today by those who work with old and sick people who can no longer live independently, Le Monde tells us.

Seven trade unions are involved, and the strikers have to support of many directors of institutions for the aged. Basically, everyone wants more money and more staff to make life slightly better for the nurses and helpers and for those they are supposed to serve.

Storms forecast for Macron

Over at right-wing Le Figaro, the same strike is rolled into a ball with the ongoing dispute in French prisons and the more general malaise affecting the national health sector to constitute the first major difficulty for the Macron presidency.

The spokespersons have been busy playing the whole thing down.

"A touch of seasonal fever," says one, minimising the seriousness of the various symptoms of discontent.

"The president always knew he was facing difficult and complicated situations," offers another, as if knowing you face the death penalty would make hanging any less painful.

And beyond the hospital, jails and retirement homes already smoking furiously, Le Figaro warns that there are likely to be negative reactions from the nation's secondary school seniors to the reform of the university admissions system. To say nothing of disgruntled Corsican nationalists, the environmental campaigners still occupying land at the site for the now-abandonned airport near Nantes, and a growing wave of discontent at the shape of a future law on immigtation and political asylum.

It is, of course, somebody else's fault. The reason for all the anger is quite obvious: according to yet another presidential partisan, it's all down to three decades of paralysis inflicted on the nation by the traditional political parties. Shame on them all!

Emmanuel's marchers have a long way to go.

It's all in the mind

An article on Le Monde's Science pages look at the difference between pleasure and happiness.

Many people don't actually know the difference, and many advertisers work on the confusion between the two states. Think of the McDonald's Happy Meal or your local boozer's happy hour.

Pleasure is instantaneous and is what you get from devouring a bar of chocolate or by collecting likes on your social media account. Happiness is not an accumulation of moments of pleasure but is a long-term, almost spiritual experience and it can't be bought or brought on by substances or gadgets. You can become an addict of many of the products and activities leading to pleasure but there's never been a case of an addiction to happiness.

In case you are wondering about the technicalities, pleasure is provoked by the brain chemical dopamine, while happiness is due to serotonin.

The reason for Le Monde's enthusiasm for these matters is a new book called The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig in which the famous neuroscientist warns that too much pleasure is actually a sure way of blocking access to happiness. Lustig's last book was called The Bitter Truth about Sugar, to give you an idea of where the man is coming from

He is now warning that pleasure gets in the way of happiness. Literally. It appears that when the receptors in the brain that react to dopamine get too much of it too often, they tend to switch off in order to protect the upstream nerves. So it takes ever larger doses of the stuff to make a breakthrough, doses which can, eventually, actually poison the neurons involved.

The ways in which serotonin works in the brain are much more complicated. Crucially, the basic chemical in the happiness cocktail is also needed to manufacture dopamine, meaning that there is a constant struggle in the brain for supplies of the crucial ingredient. It is roughly true to say that the agents of pleasure are at war with the agents of happiness inside each individual human head.

And chronic stress, such as is provoked by the constant presence of the professional telephone, is one of the great killers of serotonin. The less happy you become, warns Robert Lustig, the more likely you are to reach for that bar of chocolate or pile of cocaine.

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