In recent months I’ve read at least ten articles about French malaise — all of it apparently due to some mysterious Gallic trait that makes the world’s luckiest people unable to make the best of things. Granted, unemployment is over 10 per cent, the Germans are again running Europe, and François Hollande’s ‘socialist’ government is coming apart at its hypocritical seams. But I don’t buy the thesis that the French are generally ‘miserable’, as Paris School of Economics professor Claudia Senik argued last month in the Financial Times. Indeed, I felt almost defiant as my wife and I boarded the Eurostar in London two weeks ago and headed off to Paris to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
I’m not the most objective observer. Being half-French and working in New York, I don’t have to put up with the aggravations that my French friends and relatives complain about (like how hard it is to fire anyone). Still, I feel that if I hear one more of my French compatriots blather on about Saint Obama and their ‘Rêve Américain’, I’m going to scream. There’s a good reason the French didn’t emigrate in huge numbers to the United States from 1890 to 1920, and that reason hasn’t changed. With all their current difficulties, the fact remains that the average French citizen lives better than his American counterpart. You can look it up on the most respectable websites, including the UN’s and Unicef’s.
Unlike Professor Senik, however, I favour anecdotes over statistics to make my case. My first witness is the distinguished American publisher André Schiffrin, who splits his time evenly between New York and Paris, where he was born. André’s repatriation is remarkable, given that he and his family had to flee France in 1941 because of the Vichy government’s anti-Semitic collaboration with the Nazis. Yet André and his wife, Leina, now spend the spring and summer months in their lovely Marais apartment, across the street from a primary school that bears a plaque commemorating Jewish pupils deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944. André prefers the varied streetscapes of present-day Paris to those of increasingly monotonous Manhattan. Almost anywhere you stroll, there’s a treasure of a shop — not a chain store — and a well-stocked independent bookshop. When French acquaintances go on about the ‘energy’ of New York, he replies with authentic curiosity: ‘What energy are you talking about? Where?’ I know what he means, and would like to found a left-wing conservative club dedicated to the preservation not only of the French social welfare model, but of French retail diversity.
Witnesses number two and three are an ophthalmologist, Michèle, and her anaesthesiologist husband, Alain, my neighbours in the bourgeois, largely right-leaning seventh arrondissement. Just back from a vacation in the US that included a stay in Miami, Michèle tells me she’s relieved to be home. But over drinks in their large, beautiful apartment with its view of the Eiffel Tower, they want me to know how much they ‘admire’ America and, as doctors in private practice, how sick they are of the paltry remuneration they get from the government for visits from the poor patients they have to treat, many of whom are rude and unappreciative of the usually free medical care they receive. Though when I relate a few personal stories about the chaos of New York City emergency rooms — overwhelmed as they are by poor people who don’t have primary physicians — and explain how Obamacare transfers public money to private insurance companies, reason prevails. Yes, concedes Alain, in France money is not the only thing that guarantees proper medical attention. We raise our glasses of cognac.
This isn’t to say there aren’t angry people in Paris; just that they don’t seem to be the humourless type you might run into at a Tea Party gathering in the States. At the G20 supermarché in the rue St-Dominique, I excuse myself for blocking a crowded aisle: with perfect timing a well-dressed woman d’un certain âge, a broad smile illuminating her face, addresses me for all to hear: ‘Why are we French so polite, always apologising to one another? It’s the left that should apologise!’
OK, so the French don’t much like rich businessmen — it’s still considered bad form to flaunt your wealth (or, in the case of Hollande’s disgraced former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, hide it in Swiss and Singaporean bank accounts). But I’ve never seen an act of entrepreneurial philanthropy as inventive as that by Merci, the design and clothing store in the upper Marais that donates its profits to help poor children in Madagascar. No one seems to resent Bernard and Marie-France Cohen’s having made a bundle off their Bonpoint clothing shops for kids, and everyone seems to like Merci’s skylit, airy interior, which includes a wonderful used-bookshop café. Merci is so attractive that a group of architecture students on the upper level were drawing it for a class while I shopped. Outdoors, in the store café, an evidently undepressed young woman at the next table asked our permission to smoke, wanting us to know that she took good manners seriously.
In the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, we stumble across the most surprising exhibition in Paris and another reason for the French to love their country. The Crédit Municipal de Paris operates what is essentially a government-owned, low-interest pawnshop for people in urgent need of cash. Only in Paris would you find attached to such a place a gallery, which currently features a display of haute couture from the depression year 1931; by then, the curator’s notes inform us, French unemployment was heading toward 15 per cent, a reminder that things could be a lot worse. More than ever I agree with the French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd, the left-wing scourge of the euro: ‘France doesn’t feel well,’ but ‘deep down, she’s not doing so badly’.