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OPINION

Eye on France: A nation of pessimists, not depressives

There's a lot of information out there. Brice Teinturier and Ipsos offer to help us digest a rich diet.
There's a lot of information out there. Brice Teinturier and Ipsos offer to help us digest a rich diet. ©ipsos.fr

Today, Le Monde carries the news that the French are not depressive, they are simply pessimistic. The source of that priceless observation about the national mood is one Brice Teinturier, a Frenchman who has spent his entire professional career organizing and analyzing opinion polls.

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Brice is interviewed on the politics pages of Le Monde because, despite the general skepticism about statistics and poll outcomes, we continue to be avid consumers of the results of all sorts of economic, social and political surveys.

And they do have an impact. Survey results matter, especially in a world perceived as fast-changing and unpredictable.

We know that the statistics are based on small samples, that the methods used by some pollsters are questionable, that their analytical techniques are frequently dubious. But still we lap them up. And they influence our choices.

Whether for the satisfaction of knowing that a majority of people think as we do, or, on the contrary, that we are in the select minority of those who don’t conform to the average, we can never get enough poll results.

Which is where Brice Teinturier comes into his own.

Surveys produced by his national polling institute Ipsos have for years been predicting that the average Frenchperson dislike élites and increasingly distrusts politicians. So the Yellow Vests movement has come as no surprise to our man Brice.

Bad news for President Emmanuel Macron

And his analysis of the current situation is worrying for someone like the French President, Emmanuel Macron.

It is not enough, according to the poll expert, to tell people to wait for tomorrow, when today’s reforms will finally bear fruit and we’ll all be as happy as kings. So, simply sticking to your guns and continuing with promised reforms is not going to butter too many parsnips.

Because, says Brice, most citizens have the sense that they live in a world which is dangerous, menacing, complex. They worry about the future.

Ten years ago, unemployment was far and away the worst social evil mentioned by those surveyed.

The fear of the dole queue has not gone away, but it has been joined by a host of other worries, all equally important: declining spending power and the fear of uncontrolled immigration are the new nightmares, along with terrorism, climate change, access to health care, the availability of decent food.

Pessimism is now a global phenomenon

Needless to remark, the French are not alone in losing sleep over these new dangers.

The Ipsos institute runs a monthly survey called “What worries the world?”, asking 20,000 people in two dozen countries to reveal their darkest doubts and fears. Sixty percent of them, wherever they come from, say they are convinced their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Except for the Chinese, who are 94 percent convinced that the party and the president will lead them to a brave new world. At the other end of the spectrum, only 12 percent of Brazilians see light at the end of the tunnel.

Nineteen percent of South Africans think somebody stole the tunnel.

Objectively, most of us have nothing to whinge about

Brice Teinturier points out that, in fact, most of us never had it so good.

Life expectancy was never longer, wars never fewer, the number of violent deaths is down, as is the overall level of poverty.

Thirty years ago, 15,000 people died of food poisoning every year in France. Now we’re afraid to eat anything within a month of its sell-by date.

This paradox has already been given a name: it’s called the disappointment of progress and is related to the unfortunate fact that life as it is will never quite match life as we would like it to be.

Which increases our anxiety, and makes life even less like it should be.

So, who's to blame?

The consumer society has its part to play. Because we’ve been told by swarms of marketing gurus that the individual is king, free to spend her money as she likes, it’s hard for us to take group initiatives seriously.

And because we have little or no faith in the politicians who should be the source of such initiatives, because the elitist media are failing to do their job of generating group enthusiasm, because religion no longer works, we remain isolated with our Twitter followers, locked into an unshakable view of where the world is and where it’s going.

Which brings us back to the beginning: the distinction between pessimism and depression. The pessimist thinks the glass is half empty; the depressive dropped the glass when it was full.

In the case of the French, the energy, the togetherness, even the violence of the gilets jaunes are proof that the French are not depressed. And the only cure for their pessimism is the brighter tomorrow which it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure.

It’s hard to be too optimistic about that.

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