Nostalgic and Narcissistic France's Obsession with the Past Hinders Reform



Part 2: Preoccupation with Itself

The festivities to celebrate the French National Day, July 14, offer an indication of the extent of the country's preoccupation with itself. The full regalia of the past are assembled for the occasion. Tanks are paraded in formation through the boulevards of Paris. Members of the Republican Guard, wearing helmets adorned with red feathers, ride on horseback around the Arc de Triomphe, and cadets from the Saint-Cyr military academy march with their sabers drawn. In the hours-long live TV broadcasts, active-duty soldiers and decorated veterans of all wars are interviewed -- including this year a 90-year-old veteran who once fought against Rommel. A TV reporter provides live commentary on the parade from one of the Rafale fighter jets that France is trying to sell around the world. An imaginary world power could be observed on that day as it transformed its phantom pain into a demonstration of strength.

The figure of the president himself, who behaves with post-monarchic pomp, no matter who happens to be in office, is also noteworthy. When Hollande made his first official visit to the German capital, Berlin journalists were reminded of his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's first visit. They noticed the slightly stilted manners the Socialist had acquired since becoming president, as if he were the leader of a country of 265 million and not 65 million people. But this was not the expression of a changed attitude, but rather of the role he is now expected to play.

During his campaign appearances around the country this spring, he could often be heard repeating one particular phrase: "France is a great country," for which he always received enthusiastic applause.

In Germany, France is also regularly, albeit derisively, referred to as "la grande nation." In France itself, no one ever needed to take the trouble to make this point. For the French, it was for a long time self-evident that France is one of the most important nations on earth. But Hollande's repeated remarks could be seen as a sign that the French no longer take this for granted.

The fact that his campaign often invoked the past showed how familiar Hollande is with the French mood. He praised the icons of history during his appearances, from the French Revolution to former President François Mitterand. His vision of France was reminiscent of an iPhone Hipstamatic photo with a distorting retro filter.

How can the French be expected to create new images of themselves if they are so attached to the old ones?

When Germany Became Cool

In retrospect, it seems almost like an unreal dream that some in France, for a few weeks near the end of last year, were saying that the country needed to become more like Germany and escape the "tropism of the south."

For a brief period, the expression "the German model" became a magic word. The concept came from President Sarkozy, and during this period, taxi drivers, small business owners and intellectuals throughout the country could be heard raving about how much more effective the Germans were at doing things. Germany, it seemed, had become cool.

For a few weeks, France imagined what it would be like to be different, only to discover that it had always wanted to be everything, except for Germany. The hysterical enthusiasm quickly subsided and turned back into rivalry. Since Hollande has been president, the newspapers seem mainly concerned about whether or not he will manage to get the German chancellor to "cave in."

Germany remains the fixed point against which France incessantly measures itself. One could say that the French are obsessed with Germany. They have never found it easy to understand their neighbors across the Rhine River, who they see as being so much more serious, direct and rigid than they are. But since the euro crisis linked the countries more closely together than ever before, the French are constantly obsessed with their large neighbor. German journalists are constantly called upon to explain their country on French television.

Inferiority Complex

It is impossible to deny that France has an inferiority complex regarding Germany.

When France lost its AAA rating with Standard & Poor's in January, the worst thing about it, from the French perspective, seemed to be the fact that Germany kept its top rating. When Moody's recently cut the outlook on Germany's AAA rating from "stable" to "negative," the French evening news jubilantly opened with the story.

According to a survey published some time ago, Germans are simply unable to enjoy something unless they've worked for it. They even experience performance anxiety during sex. Most major French media outlets reported on the study. There was probably something reassuring about the notion that the Germans, even if their economy is in better shape, are at least unable to enjoy their lives to the full.

France sees Germany as its opposite. The Germans only look into the past to assure themselves of what they never want to become again. Germany clings to the present. Its chancellor runs the country from a building with an exposed concrete façade rather than a gilded palace. Seen from Paris, Germany looks like an excessively modern country where brutal economic liberalism prevails.

This, in turn, says a lot about France. It is a nostalgic and narcissistic country which is also -- precisely for those reasons -- loveable. It is a country that would like to be part of the north but whose heart belongs in the south.

France doesn't want to conform to anyone, and so it is waiting again for the day when Europe conforms to France. In other words, as it always has.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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yiannaki 08/14/2012
1. North and south.
Thanks for this excellent article. It did confince me of two things: We better do have two euros. And France better does have the south one.
pmoseley 08/14/2012
2. Germano-centric article
The title of this article appeared to be all about how France is obsessed with itself, but ends up as an article that tries to portray France as a country obsessed with Germany. Why does Der Spiegel always publish articles that seem to be just pro-German propaganda. Whatever the topic, it seems that the German angle is always at the forefront of the writer's mind, however twisted. I realise that Der Spiegel is a German publication aimed primarily at German readers, but this approach really does boil down to bias, which is unfortunate for readers, particularly those who are not in the least bit Germano-centric. The recent article on the London Olympics, for example, even had a small section on how they were run 'with German efficiency' That was just clap trap. Come on, France is a mature democracy, with its own culture, attitudes and history. And like most other European countries, they don't necessarily like or compare themselves incessantly with the Germans and may not even want to either speak, behave or manage their economies like them. Der Spiegel - please grow up!
Dodin 08/14/2012
ZeLuiz 08/15/2012
4. Justified Resistance
France resists reform as defined by others. This is the rational thing to do if you believe, as France has every reason to believe, that "reform" is going in the wrong direction. This is what most reputed economists all over the world have been saying for the last four years, with the exception of the Goldman Sachs-trained hacks currently in charge in the EU. It is also what an increasing amount of empirical evidence is confirming. We should therefore ask ourselves if the real problem is France's resistance to "reform" or Germany's resistance to basic economic rationality.
kimmokarvain 08/18/2014
5. Intellectual protectionism
The French obsession with the past seems much less charming if you look at the deplorable impact it has had on the quality of the country's intellectual life, which in the English-speaking world has come to symbolise backwardness and dogmatism rather than the refinement of thinking with which it was previously associated. French academics stubbornly hold on to outdated ways of thinking in a desperate bid to preserve a distinctly French style of intellectualism against a perceived invasion of foreign "vulgarity." This paranoia about foreign influence on French life is not a minor stylistic matter pertaining to the humanities, either, but has very real social implications as it trickles down to other areas of the country’s scientific culture. In the field of medical science, where psychiatry is holding on to outdated psychoanalytic notions about the causes and proper treatment of mental disorders, it has had the most tragic consequences. French psychiatrists continue to accuse parents of patients with mental and neurological disorders of having caused their children's condition by traumatising them emotionally. The lingering influence of Freudianism in the country's health care system has resulted in a massive delay in the introduction of effective cognitive-behavioural treatments for autism as doctors and psychologists continue to attribute the condition to parental abuse or neglect, prescribing completely ineffective psychoanalytic therapies to treat it. Imagine a person who doesn’t speak being given talking therapy. In the documentary film Le Mur Autisme, by French director Sophie Robert, several psychoanalysts denounce neurological explanations of autism and condemn cognitive-behavioural therapies which have been shown to improve the condition. Their reasons? That neuropsychiatric and behavioural approaches constitute a form of brainwashing and an insidious influence of American-style pragmatism in the medical world. They must not be allowed to contaminate sophisticated French culture. These people, in other words, are willing to sacrifice even the well-being of children to their mad obsession about keeping French culture forever in the past, forever clean of all influences from the world outside.
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