France slides into fear and depression

Some say the country’s social security blankets are crippling France’s integration into a new world economy
Molly Moore / The Washington Post

Paris — Outside the Grand Palais museum, people stood in line for hours in biting cold this winter to see the city’s most popular art exhibit — Milancolie, a collection of paintings and sculptures evoking depression, sadness and despair. “It doesn’t surprise me that this exhibition is such a success,” said Claire Mione, 20, a Web site editor who joined the rush to the show in its closing days. “Melancholy is an overwhelming feeling in our society right now.”

Many French agree. In art galleries, on bestseller lists, in corporate boardrooms and on the streets, the country’s outlook has become so morose that President Jacques Chirac has urged citizens to stop the “self-flagellation.” By almost every measure this society holds dear — political, economic, wine exports, art auctions — France is losing its global dynamism. The recent demonstrations by angry young people across the country are just the latest symptom of angst and fear in the national psyche. “France is divorced from the modern world of the 21st century,” said Nicolas Baverez, author of a top-selling book, “New World, Old France.” It describes a country so fearful of letting go of outmoded traditions — including a hugely expensive cradle-to-grave welfare system — that it is being shut out of the global marketplace. “We’re at a very dangerous turning point,” he said.

Ipsos, a French polling institute, recently asked 500 people between the ages of 20 and 25 the question: “What does globalization mean to you?” Forty-eight percent of those surveyed responded, “Fear.”

Fear of what?

Just about everything, according to Christophe Lambert, author of another examination of contemporary France, “The Fearful Society.” The country, he writes, is paralyzed by “fear of the future, fear of losing, fear of others, fear of taking a risk, fear of solitude, fear of growing old.” High school and college students have thronged the streets of Paris and dozens of other French cities over the last two weeks to protest a new labor law that the government says would add crucial momentum to the economy by giving employers the right to fire workers under the age of 26 without cause during their first two years on the job. Under current job protection laws, the government contends, employers are reluctant to hire at all, out of fear they’ll be stuck indefinitely with unsuitable employees.

The demonstrations are “the expression of a true malaise among the youth,” said Eva Nielsen, 22, a student at the French National School of Fine Arts who was marching under an elegantly sketched protest banner in Paris. Masked and hooded youths who vandalized shops and set fire to cars in the heart of Paris after a march Thursday were also striking out against a government they do not trust, many analysts here said. Police say that some may be from the same poor suburban immigrant communities where violence and arson broke out last fall, fueled by frustration over joblessness, discrimination and a sense of government abandonment.

The French economy grew by only 1.4 percent last year; unemployment has edged up in recent years to hover around 10 percent. For young people under 30, the jobless rate is about 23 percent. College students — the standard-bearers for change in revolutions past — have become the strongest advocates of the status quo. They are trying to cling to the social security blankets that have protected their parents’ generation but which many economists say are crippling France’s integration into a new world economy. On Friday, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin met in Paris for 90 minutes with French labor leaders to discuss the controversial labor law. After the meeting broke up, he called it an important first step toward reaching consensus on the law and expressed hope there would be more meetings soon.

But the continuing deadlock opens the way for an even greater challenge to the government Tuesday, when students and unions say they will paralyze the country with strikes and protests. The European media carry a steady diet of stories about the erosion of French business and the work force — increasing numbers of companies deserting or avoiding France because of inflexible labor laws and high costs, French millionaires moving across the border due to high tax rates, and a brain drain of French youth to neighboring European countries in search of jobs.

France’s most sacred patrimony — its wine industry — is losing out in foreign markets to cheaper and more innovative wines offered by upstart wine-producing countries. Between 1999 and 2004, the French share of the world export market for wine declined from 25 percent to 19 percent. France’s share of international auctions of contemporary art are a third of what they were a decade ago. Even the world of haute couture is reflecting the gloom. The Paris fashion runways this season featured Muslim-inspired headwraps and hemlines and tunics splattered with simulated blood in what some fashionistas dubbed carnage couture. “You are questioning all the elements at the root of French identity,” said author Baverez.

Many French citizens and political analysts take the blame for the country’s malaise to the top — with Chirac, 74, a lame-duck president who’s held the office for 11 years. In one news poll, only 1 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Chirac if he ran for a third term when his second one ends next year. “He’s a dead duck without a head,” said author Baverez

People here also feel increasingly isolated from the European Union. Voters last year defeated a proposed E.U. constitution despite strong lobbying by Chirac. It was a major setback for efforts to further tie together the 25 member states and for the French government’s already dwindling influence within the organization. Other E.U. members frequently attack the country for protectionist policies that they say thwart the strengthening of business ties. Even the French language is under siege. On Friday, Chirac and two cabinet ministers huffed out of a meeting at an E.U. summit in Brussels when the president of a French business association addressed the session in English rather than French. According to people present, Chirac interrupted Ernest-Antoine Seilliere’s presentation and demanded to know “why on earth” he was speaking in English. “Because,” replied Seilliere, “that is the accepted business language of Europe today.”