RAPHÈLE-LES-ARLES, France — It seems this is a time of French malaise, moroseness and melancholy. I have been reading a lot about the existential anguish of France, a directionless nation under a featureless president. There are even fears for the Fifth Republic.
Here is something I read: “France today is racked by doubt and introspection. There is a pervasive sense that not only jobs — but also power, wealth, ideas and national identity itself — are migrating, permanently and at disarming speed, to leave a vapid grandeur on the banks of the Seine.” The article continued: “The country’s manicured capital, impeccable roads, high-speed trains, glorious food, seductive scents and deep-rooted savoir-vivre provide a compelling image of wealth and tradition. But just as the golden statuary on the bridges of Paris distracts the eye from the homeless sleeping beneath the arches, so the moving beauty of France tends to mask what amounts to a kernel of despair.”
Disturbing stuff all right — and the article noted how the anti-immigrant, rightist National Front was well placed to benefit from the ambient angst.
Well, that was an article I wrote 16 years ago, in 1997, when I was a Paris-based correspondent. So deep was the “morosité” that a two-part series was planned before my colleague, Bill Keller, then the New York Times foreign editor, decided even a malaise so massive could be evoked in a single piece. That was a good call.
For if moroseness is a perennial state, rather than a reaction to particular circumstance, does it really matter? The French are living off their malaise much as the British live off the royal family. It’s a marketing ploy with its degree of affectation; an object of fascination to foreigners rather than a worrying condition.
Tell a Frenchman what a glorious day it is and he will respond that it won’t last. Tell him how good the heat feels and he will say it portends a storm. I recently asked in a French hotel how long it would take for a coffee to reach my room. The brusque retort: “The time it takes to make it.”
This surliness is more a fierce form of realism than a sign of malaise. It is a bitter wisdom. It is a nod to Hobbes’s view that the life of man is, on the whole, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Nothing surprises, nothing shocks (especially in the realm of marriage and sex), and nothing, really, disappoints. Far from morose, the French attitude has a bracing frankness. No nation has a more emphatic shrug. No nation is the object of so much romanticism yet so unromantic itself. No nation internalizes as completely the notion that in the end we are all dead.
Now, it is true that France lives with high unemployment in a depressed euro zone; that it is more vassal than partner to Germany these days; that it is chronically divided between a world-class private sector and a vast state sector of grumpy functionaries; that its universalist illusions have faded as its power diminishes; and that its welfare state is unaffordable.
Still, moroseness is a foible in a country with superb medicine, good education, immense beauty, the only wine worth drinking, an army that does the business in Mali, strong families and the earthy wisdom of “la France profonde.”
Malaise and ennui are to France what can-do is to America: A badge of honor.
My daughter Jessica married into a French family, many of whom live in that region of strange, blustery beauty, the Camargue. Emile Trazic, my son-in-law’s uncle, has a farm here where he raises bulls and horses. Having lived near Nîmes, in an area “where even snakes die of thirst,” he was drawn to the watery flatlands of the Camargue.
I went to see Trazic recently for a long lunch. He lives alone, his wife 50 miles away: simpler like that. He has little time for ecologists — “All these people who love nature and know nothing about nature.” He says, “I love the land, I hate folklore.” His advice: “If you want to ruin somebody’s life, give him a bull.” Further counsel: “A leant horse is a sold horse.” His deepest conviction, “Dans la vie il ne faut pas s’emmerder” — roughly (and slightly less crudely) “In life, don’t take any crap.” His father always told him, “The make of the bicycle does not matter, just pedal.” And he has.
Trazic served a vile fermented cheese called “Cachat.” To make it, take all your leftover cheese, crush it, add olive oil, cognac, bay leaves, thyme, and seal it in a jar for about a year. The stench is staggering, the secret of eating it to take very little. “It’s stronger than any antibiotic, cures anything,” he said.
Even malaise? No, that is incurable, too dear to the French to be given up. Voltaire, on his deathbed, was asked to renounce Satan and embrace God. He declined, saying this was “no time to be making new enemies.”
Better to be miserable than a hypocrite, nauseated than naive — and far better to be morose than a fool.