Have the French lost their joie de vivre? Mais non!

So, are the French depressed or not?  Have they lost the joie de vivre the entire world envies them, or at the very least, associates with them?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in Paris for haute couture week, gave the subject her attention in an article entitled “Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse” that appeared on July 6  and I’m starting to lose count of the number of people who have forwarded it to me.  They think – as they should – that since I wrote an entire book on the subject of  joie de vivre, I’d be interested in her take on the matter.

You bet I’m interested, for at least two reasons.  One, of course, is the subject.  Two is that I’m a journalist as well so enjoyed looking at how she constructed the piece, seeing who she interviewed, what quotes and polls she chose, and what her slant was.

As usual, she’s entertaining.  (That’s what she’s paid for!)  She writes well and reports well (if she’s at the Times, these skills are a no brainer).  The tone is typically, in my mind, New York Times Arch, ie, if I’m telling you this, That’s The Way It Is.  After all, the Times is the journal of record so the journalists must be right, non?

The French are always fun to report on and if you’re a reporter for the Times, it’s even more fun because you can get in a few cheap shots and no one will accuse you of being Fox News for God’s sakes.  To wit:  “The French,” she proclaims, “are so busy wallowing in their existential estrangement – a state of mind Camus described as ‘Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?’ – that they don’t even have the energy to be rude.”  I was smiling until I got to the last few words.   Well, I see why she couldn’t resist, but still.  “The French are rude” stereotype is just so tiresome.

To back up her point that the country has fallen into a state of depression, Dowd interviews fashion designer Christian Lacroix’s dentist on the avenue Hoche.  For those of you who are not all that familiar with Paris or its social classes and spheres, interviewing Christian Lacroix’s dentist for his thoughts on joie de vivre is like interviewing  Marie-Antoinette about which cake she’s going to distribute to the people. He says that his patients are bemoaning such horrid things as, and I quote, ‘not going anymore on holiday to Egypt’.  Oh, please.

The entire article continues in this vein – the dentist muses that the French people probably “think too much” and that the “happy stupid” don’t see the problem after which he, according to the reporter, gives (what else) a “Gallic shrug” and pronounces that none of this is “the end of the world.”  Does this mean that if you’re happy you’re stupid? I admit I didn’t quite get it.

For Dowd,  the French are stuck in a sentimental time warp (all of the French? one wants to ask) which prevents them from moving forward.  She cites a BVA-Gallup poll which revealed that the French were even more pessimistic than Afghans and Iraqis!  She did not cite a poll that showed that while the French are indeed pessimistic about externals, they are extremely happy about their private lives.

And she leaves us dangling with sociologist François Dubet’s comment to Le Monde that “If France doesn’t get all the Olympic medals and all the Nobel Prizes, the French consider it hopeless.”

Too bad she didn’t take a nice long look at that comment for it’s the crux of the matter!

That the French want to be great, that they want to go back to the good old times when France was glorious, that they are unhappy to be one among many in Europe, that they want to be special and stand out, that people are dissatisfied about this, that or the other is normal.   But I think she missed what was so incredibly and indelibly French about his comment (and actually what was French about all the comments of the people she interviewed).  The French simply cannot bear to be bored.  The Spanish, the Irish, the Greeks, and many other countries are suffering from unemployment and various problems (just look at the Americans and health care) .  Everyone’s got problems but when the French have them, the whole world knows about it.  It’s not for nothing that the national bird is the rooster whose vociferous crow leaves no man asleep.    The French are drama Kings and Queens.  I know: I’m married to a Frenchman for whom even the smallest of matters is One Big Deal.  Everything,  and I mean everything, is a subject for discussion and debate.


So you know what?  This whole discussion about “liberté, égalité, and morosité”, this whole debate about the French being down in the dumps, and have they or have they not lost their joie de vivre is PROOF of their joie de vivre!   The French love nothing better than a nice big attention getting controversy.  Hey, they even got a New York Times reporter on the case of joie de vivre and yours truly devoted an entire BOOK to the subject .

Bravo les français.  While everyone’s having serious discussions as to whether your renowned joie de vivre has gone the way of the dodo, you’re having a glass of white wine in a romantic restaurant with a white tablecloth, looking into the eyes of your loved one,  or you’re on a beach somewhere enjoying the benefits of your generous paid vacation time, or maybe you’re even in a hospital but it’s ok because you don’t have to worry about outrageous medical bills since you’re covered.

You’re out there somewhere enjoying your joie de vivre.

And you’ve outwitted us all once again.




11 thoughts on “Have the French lost their joie de vivre? Mais non!”

  1. Thank you thank you thank you Harriet for writing this counterpoint to Dowd’s article. Although I usually love Maureen Dowd’s op eds, I hated this one. You have shown the false logic in her argument and demonstrated the fallacies of her premise. This “counterpoint” belongs on the op ed page of the Times. It’s certainly going on my face book page and am forwarding it to all my friends. Encore une fois un grand merci !

  2. nathalie roche

    Merci, Harriet to you and all the other American, British and Australian bloggers who love my country so much and promote it so well. I fear, though, that you see it through rose coloured glasses most of the time! I agree (not entirely, but almost so), as do my French family. friends and colleagues with most of what was written in this article by Maureen Dowd. I see many quotes in it by the French themselves. I don’t take offense at it, nor should you; France is indeed undergoing a bit of a difficult time right now. We are not perfect, but neither is any other culture.

    1. How nice to have a French reader! I enjoyed your comments and thank you for taking the time to write. Regarding rose colored glasses, I took mine off a long time ago (you’ll see that if you read my first book, French Toast). However, a few years ago I made a conscious decision to look at the positive side of life in France – otherwise I’d slit my throat when I hear how depressed the French are. Seriously, I know all about the negative side of life in France and the very real sociological and economic problems and challenges the French are facing. But I decided not to buy into the current conformity which would have us all believe that France has no future. Ras-le-bol!

      1. Bonjour Judy,
        Glad you loved my article! And thanks for pointing me to the article you published in response to Maureen Dowd’s article, written by a French woman no less! I think almost everyone who is French or knows the French well is aware that a lot of the ambient gloominess is posturing, all part of the fun, while in fact the French are quite happy! Go figure! Harriet

  3. Oh, I really hope that the French don’t lose their joie de vivre! So, it’s good to hear that the majority of them are still happy 🙂

    1. Bonjour- I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the French losing their joie de vivre! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thanks Harriet for the great piece!

    I just received the NYT “Vive le Terroir’ article as did everyone else in the group of Francophiles of that US town where I live, and I immediately reacted to the usual stereotypes, aside from the interpretation/misuse of the word “terroir” itself.
    Things like “The notion of terroir is essentially political, at heart a conservative, even right wing idea…” or “The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities…” are so preposterous, and reveal such misconceptions and ignorance from the authors that I remained speechless… Or almost speechless! It is difficult to point to NYT readers who see it as progressive and “left-wing” paper that it is just another mass media product, as you pointed out so skillfully; and particularly dishonest these days when it comes to “The French”.
    Your article on la Dowd’s paper is expressing what I feel, only in a wittier and much more articulate way than I could ever do. I’ll be passing it out.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments and forgive me for replying so late. I was on a book tour and have only now settled down to look at my blog. I’ll be posting something new soon so do keep looking for and at my articles!

  5. The “sentimental time warp” that you mentioned totally reminds me of the film “The Midnight in Paris”. I suggest you check it out!

    It also brings me back to the French expression of “cache ta joie”… which is a clever way of telling someone they look sad! (literally means, you’re hiding your joy).

    Great post!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *