Photo Gallery: Taking Stock of France

Foto: Maurice Weiss/DER SPIEGEL

A Tour of France Examining the New Sick Man of Europe

The TV images of the Tour de France show an idyllic country, but behind the gloss is a nation where fears of decline are prompting people to vote for the far right. A trip along the route of the world's most famous cycling race reveals the deep uncertainty ailing the French.

There is a new word in the French language: La mannschaft. It's the term used to define everything that is enviable on the opposite bank of the Rhine River -- in other words, Germany's success. It's a success that is the product of the collective and is free of any of the egocentrics, self-deluded, bling-bling divas and "general director presidents," as the heads of French companies are called, that can make France so stuffy.

A week ago Monday, on Bastille Day, newspapers across France sighed that it wouldn't hurt if the country were a bit more like la mannschaft. Instead, unemployment is twice as high as it is in Germany, growth and investments have fallen far and former President Nicolas Sarkozy was recently detained for questioning by police at dawn. La mannschaft is the polar opposite of the other word currently in fashion in France: le malaise. A deep gloom appears to have taken hold in France. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the French are "pessimistic" about their country's future.

"Viewed from the outside, France under François Hollande is like Cuba, only without the sun but with the extreme right," the newsweekly Le Point recently wrote. The country is "impoverished, over-indebted, divided, humbled and humiliated and finds itself in a pre-revolutionary situation in which anything seems possible."

The only thing missing, it seems is the travel warning, because right at this moment, large numbers of vacationers from the rest of Europe are traveling in the country. Are these vacationers all francophone lemmings on their way to the cliff, blind to anything that doesn't involve a game of boule or finding a camping spot?

Something is adrift in France. Rarely has the public mood been this miserable and the sullenness as omnipresent as it has been this summer. A president currently resides in Elysée Palace who was mercilessly booed during the July 14th military parade. It doesn't seem possible for Hollande to get any less popular, and yet his popularity continues to fall from one low to the next.

But at least the country still has the Tour de France, the grand race that circles the country and serves as a prelude to the summer holiday season. Each year, it provides a long beloved view of a different, rural and idealized France -- one where local firehouses still host annual dances, where there's a memorial to those lost in the wars in front of every city hall and where the people know where they belong. But do they really?

This reporter recently traveled across France to take the country's pulse with the people on the ground. The route followed stayed true to the course of the 2014 Tour de France, taking in cities, towns and villages, and sought to observe signs of the crisis, decline, collective depression and other specters that are haunting Germany's most important neighbor.

Lille (km 710)

The first stage of the tour to take place in France (the first three are in Britain this year) ends at the periphery of Lille in Pierre Mauroy Stadium, a sparkling arena of glass, steel and concrete. The only person in sight is a guard. Lille is one of the few success stories in a French Socialism that is otherwise in a state of crisis. Local Mayor Martine Aubry even managed to get re-elected recently. The politician is the anchor of the Socialist Party's left wing. In contrast to the president, she is cherished by the party base. Aubry also happens to be the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, the father of currency union.

Although Lille has profited from Europe, Joël Leclerc has not. "Lille is for the rich," he says, noting that he doesn't even buy his coffee here. Leclerc is the sole security guard standing in front of Pierre Mauroy Stadium. He's the son of a miner and has a crew cut, as is common among members of the French Foreign Legion. He says he raised his children with a "good kick in the ass." Unlike Lille, he says the village of Avion where he lives isn't home to any "vermin," the highly disparaging term used by Sarkozy to describe the children of immigrants who rampaged through the streets of Paris' suburbs in 2005.

"We still have values here in the village," Leclerc says. He's the archetypical supporter of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National party. Leclerc says he once had aspirations to become a member of the police force, but that he wasn't able to. "My father threw lumps of coal during the 1968 strikes at the CRS, the special police," he explains. "That's what people here in the village do. Avion has been communist for 200 years. People call it Little Russia. Me? Of course I'm a communist. A simple worker."

Leclerc remains loyal to the communists for the same reason that most of his colleagues have since begun voting for Front National -- out of tradition, patriotism and the desire for order. He says his father once lived in Poland, somewhere near Katowice, but, no, he didn't work in the mines there. The place had a different name. He had to stay there for three years. Then, without any special emphasis, he says the name: "Auschwitz."

Arras (km 865.5)

Back when the Tour de France was created, French unity was anything but a given. It was a time when Bretonnians, Occitans and Alsatians, but also monarchists and Catholics all seemed to have problems with the words that are today posted on every town hall: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," liberty, equality and fraternity.

The race was intended to be a celebration of the country's beauty. People used the landscape as a stage to celebrate their country. It was a chance for "La France profonde" -- deep France, the real France far away from Paris -- to shine. It was all about the periphery of the country, the Café du Commerce that seemed to be located in every town or faded posters advertising aperitifs like Dubonnet.

Essentially, it is this France where much of the current discontent is coming from. "Revolution is stewing at the edge of France, away from the major cities," French social geographer Christophe Guilluy recently wrote. These areas are home to 60 percent of the French population and 80 percent of those who might be described as the "little man": laborers, pensioners, the middle class -- people who in general harbor the strongest fears of decline. It is here that voter turnout was poor during the communal elections in March. And it is here where Le Pen did particularly well.

Somme is a countryside filled with former mines and battlefields. There are flat fields and sugar beets for as far as the eye can see. The French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre was born and raised here before going to Paris to help the virtuous rise to power, using the guillotine where necessary.

Raffi Ashkar holds a pair of scissors in his right hand. He runs a shoe repair and key making shop in Rue Robespierre across the street from the former Jacobin's home. Ashkar says every era needs a revolution. The question is what kind of revolution? Ashkar, who is of Lebanese origin, is every bit a member of the middle class, or Third Estate as the French called it during the revolution of the late 1700s.

"I understand the French," he says. "There are no values any more. Family and friendship? Each is out for his or her self. Everyone is egotistical. That's why many vote for Le Pen -- out of sheer hopelessness. As long as you behave, the people here are likeable. Unfortunately, there are a lot of foreigners who don't understand that. They have no respect. Let's just take the example of football. Why don't all the players (on the French national team) sing the national anthem? That bothers me. I work here, I earn my money here, and this is my country. Voilà, that's all."

Valmy (km 1,160)

Stacks of books at a local bookstore in Valmy are dedicated to a new genre in French literature: the downfall. It includes titles like "Reinventing France," "France, a Peculiar Bankruptcy," "If We Only Wanted To, "When France Wakes Up," "A Dangerous Game in the Elysée," "Fellow French, Are You Ready for the Next Revolution?" "France, A Challenge, " and many, many more.

Around two dozen such titles were published last month alone. They always seem to have the same central message as well -- that things can't continue as they are and that France is in decline. It seems like the term "déclinisme" has already emerged as its own school of thought.

The Tour de France detours here around the industrial wastelands and decommissioned blast furnaces of northern Lorraine. Instead, on the route between Reims and Verdun, you see a windmill set on a hill surrounded by canons and heroic statues. This is the site of the birth of the nation. The fact that the cannons placed are emblazoned with "Made in Manchester" -- and that it was German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who retroactively identified the Battle of Valmy as an historical turning point -- doesn't detract from the place's symbolism.

During the Cannonade of Valmy in September 1792, the Revolutionary Army halted a Prussian army that had rushed to the aid of the French monarchy. It marked the first time that the French chanted "Vive la nation!" The notion of the nation, as the central point of reference for all French, had replaced that of God and the king. They persevered as well, using team spirit akin to that of la mannschaft.

The term "nation" has been invoked here incessantly ever since -- mostly, unfortunately, to animate the people to charge into bayonettes, grenades, mustard gas and all manner of projectiles. After leaving Valmy, the Tour de France route passes through the battlefields of the last century, those of World War I and II.

'An Excessively Glorified Past that Won't Go Away'

Flirey/Pont-à-Mousson (km 1,271)

The name Pont-à-Mousson can be found everywhere you go in France, be it French Guiana, Martinique or any of the overseas departments. The name of the city appears on French-made manhole covers. The city's main industry is iron casting. Going by the dense smoke billowing out of the blast furnace on Rue nationale, it might come as a surprise to some that the country is in the midst of a crisis. The stockpile behind the plant is filled with pipes -- "for the time being," says Gérard Rothermel, sitting beneath a chestnut tree on a cast-iron bench that, ironically, was made in Spain.

Rothermel then starts to rant. "The six-meter pipes are now being made in Germany. They do what they want." He's spent his entire career pouring iron covers. "Earlier, we used to whistle on our way to the factory. The only thing people think about today is the competition. Leftist politicians lied to us and the right did as well."

Rothermel rails against taxes, but also says he thinks retirement at the age of 56 should be perfectly normal. He says he doesn't like people who just hang around doing nothing or those who take advantage of the welfare state, even though he himself is reliant on the system, receiving government-subsidized social housing and also health care benefits. "French sociologists have a term for people unable to cope with the changes that have been wrought on France: "Petit blanc," or "little whites". Words that were once closely associated with the country -- like education, president, army, nation or labor -- have become empty.

Mulhouse (km 1,622)

Liberal intellectual Guy Sorman says France is the sick man of Europe these days. "The state is sick, the economy is sick, its education is sick and it is sick from an excessively glorified past that won't go away," he says.

Nation, Verdun, Valmy, the Tour de France and the national football team -- none of it seems strong enough anymore to hold the French together. Many are no longer able to identify with the requisite rituals, dogmas, hymns, creeds and even street names. Still, the country has some great principles, ones that are universal and known to everyone. And what could be wrong with a country that has so many streets with the word "freedom" in their names? The problem is that these terms no longer seem to have much meaning for many people, who no longer feel at home in their own country. So what terms could be used instead?

The final stretch of the stage passes through the Rue de la Marseillaise and goes by a spot where Samir Ayed spends a good deal of his time, the Paradise café and bar, a lively meeting place that seems to be a magnet for the very Arab and African immigrant children who populate the nightmares of many in France.

"Liberté, egalité and fraternité?" he asks. "That has never been my experience. Listen to what I have to say to you." He goes on to claim that the only freedom is that of financial flows, the only equality are EU standards and norms and the sole sense of brotherhood is unbridled globalism. That's not exactly what Samir said, but it's a distillation of the phrases, theories, truths and false truths one hears when he speaks. "The French are pansies," he says. "They're allowing their country to be taken away from them -- by the EU, by the Chinese and by those who are really pulling the strings. Do you understand?"

Samir and his buddies, who come from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey, are angry because France doesn't accept them and because they feel the country is going to the dogs.

Yzeron (km 2,104.5)

Here in the countryside, no suffering is visible. Instead, a disquieting quiet becomes noticeable. Many houses have their shutters closed up tight and there are lots of "For Sale" signs. At 6 p.m. on a recent evening, the only person to be seen was a pensioner trimming her hedge. In the local paper, the list of recent deaths is three times as long as the birth register. France's relatively high birth rate is invisible here.

The Tour has managed to make its way through the Alps and now balances on the Massif Central above the Rhône River and Lyon, flying past Au Petit Rapporteur, where Josiane and Jean-Pierre Lambert have been cooking for locals for 19 years. The daily special costs €12 and is produced using local ingredients, such as veal, goat cheese, Andouillette sausage and berries.

An estimated 70 percent of all restaurants in France use frozen ingredients, the New York Times recently reported -- a sign that the country's cuisine is also in freefall. Jean-Pierre Lambert says: "The main thing is that it tastes good." And perhaps, he adds, the Americans also share some of the blame for what is served up in Paris.

Josiane is afraid of flying, but Jean-Pierre recently flew to Cuba with the local volunteer fire department. Neither of them have much use for the word "crisis". "There are still farmers here who make a profit. We survive."

The Lamberts are a like a phenomenon of Quantum physics, only there when you look -- for the brief moment when the peloton speeds past. Afterwards, it disappears back into its parallel universe.

A quarter of all French live in one of the 31,590 communities that have a population of less than 2,000. To a greater degree than in Germany, these people are dependent on what they refer to as "terroir," the specifics of the place where they live. And they are noticing that something is threatening that existence.

The digital revolution is "a new space," a non-space that has eliminated distance, Michel Serres, the French philosopher, at the Sorbonne in late January. This revolution is not a French one, the British columnist Roger Cohen added, continuing the thought. "It is, in fact, an anti-French revolution. It challenges fundamental French values, the French sense of self and the French attachment to the state."

Perhaps that is what is causing the grumbling and complaining along the route of the Tour. People are living next to each other, but not with one-another, they are eying each other with mistrust yet complaining about the coldness between people at the same time. "We used to whistle on the way to work." And throw chunks of coal at the CRS.

Saint-Rémy-de Provence (km 3,038)

Stéphane Paillard trades in vineyards like others do in wine. Bordeaux, Rhône, Burgundy, Provence: He has châteauxs for all tastes and proclivities, starting at €3 million. If you want to spent your retirement walled off from the present in a 17th century property with olive orchards and grape-bedecked hillsides, Paillard is your man.

Elderly Americans stroll past the shop windows, marveling at the Van Gogh-esque colors, the soft light and the sycamores. Saint-Rémy is vintage France, some might call it hardcore. "Some of the largest fortunes on the planet can be found here in the Alpilles," Paillard says, referring to the range of low mountains cutting through the Provence. Americans, in particular, are enamored of the region.

Paillard's trade in vineyards is doing well as a result. But, he says, "in recent years I have noticed a certain reserve among international clients when it comes to investments in France. The government. You know." Luckily, wine is an exception, he says. "The euro might not last, but wine will."

Still, Paillard has also noticed change even in the paradise of Provence, small things mostly. Large stone blocks, for example, have been placed in front of an electronics shop to prevent thieves from driving through the show window. At a bakery, customers are asked to pay using a machine due to security concerns. And fear.

"It is the most insecurity I've seen here in the last 20 or 30 years," Paillard says. "Even in my line of work, you see copycats, tricksters and cheapskates." He blames the Internet in addition to the government.

Beaucaire (km 3,056)

By the time the town's new mayor took office in March, the route of the Tour had already been determined. It would have been difficult to drop Beaucaire from the course. It is one of the towns with over 10,000 residents where the Front National won in spring municipal elections.

Seven file folders are stacked on a chair in the new mayor's office. "Inside, are 200 applications for a job in city hall," says Julien Sanchez. Thirty years old, Sanchez had been Marine Le Pen's spokesperson before winning the Beaucaire vote in March. He says the old system of cronyism and unshakable faith in the state is being thrown out. He is a gentle radical; the picture of President Hollande has been allowed to remain.

"I'm not from here, I come from Paris. I said that there wouldn't be any more subsidies for bullfighting," he says, referring to the town's summer bullfighting festivals. "Going by standard criteria, I never should have been elected. But it turned out to be an advantage not to be a part of the sleaze here."

The old Socialist mayor, Sanchez says, left the town with millions in debt. But one key reason for the Front National's victory in the town was the fact that mainstream parties split the vote, allowing the radicals to come out on top.

It was a tedious election, with very little passion. In contrast to previous votes, inflammatory Front National signs were not plastered onto every tree in southern France and there were fewer complaints about them cluttering up the landscape.

Beaucaire is a town of limestone and sharp shadows. A dike protects it when the Rhône periodically bursts its banks while the walls and citadel shield it from the mistral, the cold winter wind. The town is largely segregated, with immigrants in the city center and those born in France on the outskirts. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, the poor, rejected people from Maghreb. And the native-born French in their single-family homes. The same old story. But that's rubbish," says Sylvestre Balit.

Balit says that he should know; his own father is from Algeria. The French who lived in Algeria in colonial times and then lost their homes once the country was granted independence were among the first to vote for the Front National. Today, by contrast, the party is an option for everybody who is angry and afraid.

"This country is a toilet and the Socialists have shoved my arm into it up to here," Balit says, tapping on his shoulder. "They hand out jobs to Arabs and to other Socialists. That isn't racism, my friend. That is EX-PER-I-ENCE. Humanism is a great idea and all, but it needs rules. Otherwise, you get the jungle."

Sylvestre Balit, 54, is a former paratrooper. His girlfriend gets up at 4 a.m., six days a week, for her job in a supermarket. She is a real French "heroine," he says. He spends much of his time in the café waiting for better times. "I spoke with two former comrades of mine," he says, lowering his voice. "In two regiments, they are currently talking about a putsch. C'est fini la France." France is finished.

An Open Wound that Never Healed

Col du Tourmalet (km 3,213.5)

At an altitude of 2,215 meters (7,270 feet), the Col du Tourmalet is the second highest point on the Tour de France, yet by far the most legendary. And surprisingly, there is no Tricolore flying at its peak. There is, however, a herd of sheep grazing just above the road as it crosses the pass. The fur of some of the animals has been sprayed blue, others red, while still others have been left white. Quite a few of them are black and a large portion of the herd bears a circle A on their haunches. The only thing missing is a shepherd to say: "That is France."

No, the A doesn't stand for anarchy. Rather, it is a reference to his last name, says Eric Abadie, whose sheep they are. Abadie is actually wearing a beret. "Why a French flag isn't flying here? I'll tell you. No garbage service, no Tricolore. They have forgotten about us up here."

Perhaps it is the pure mountain air, but otherwise Abadie has a pleasingly laid-back attitude to the world and, in particular, to his country. "I have seen all of them ride by here: Armstrong, Ullrich, Pantani, Jalabert. First they were kings, and then frauds. That's how it is everywhere. I can understand why everyone is now attacking our politicians. But we don't have any others."

Eymet (km 3,433)

The landscape of southwestern France, leading up to the Pyrenees foothills, is peacefully empty, the population so sparse that it feels like one is traveling through northern Canada. One can see expensively renovated farmhouses and sprawling retirement homes -- along with decaying walls covered in vegetation with cars up on blocks out front. Many of the villages seem to survive only on people trying to get away from it all.

"It's less stressful here," says Tracey Griffin. She is from Warwickshire and works behind the bar of the Café de Paris. With several flights a day to the British Midlands, starting at €40 one-way, tourism from the UK is substantial and, with many permanent residents as well, Eymet has come to distantly resemble Stratford-upon-Avon. Without the British, the town would be dead.

There is an English newspaper, called The Bugle, and a cricket team, known as the Dorking Dads. Tracey Griffin likes it here, citing the food and the people, and has improved her French. "No, the main square isn't British," she says. "That's where the New Zealanders are."

The town of Eymet is symptomatic. Peugeot is partly owned by Chinese investors, Renault is almost more Romanian and Japanese than it is French, the cement concern Lafarge is moving to Switzerland and Alstom's energy division was just sold to General Electric.

In the last 20 years, French industry has lost more than a million jobs and soon, tourism will contribute half as much to the country's economy as the entire manufacturing sector. An economic paper recently asked: "And what if France becomes the world's amusement park?" It perhaps isn't that far off: Last year, some 90 million tourists made their way to France, the Sick Man of Europe.

In his novel "The Map and the Territory," Michel Houellebecq describes a France of the future, one which is more dependent on agriculture and tourism than industry and is thus largely immune to crises. Old handicrafts flourish, as do romantic hotels, vineyard tours and discrete sex tourism. Many were horrified by the vision laid out by Houellebecq when his book was published and saw it as a warning. Not as a travel brochure.

Evry (km 3,523)

In the final stage, riders don't pass each other anymore; it is considered bad manners in the cycling world. But that is not true in politics.

Manuel Valls was the mayor of Evry for 11 years, but now has his sights set on moving into the Elysée Palace, the presidential residence not far from the Champs-Elysées -- where the Tour de France finishes. That, at least, is the gossip. In March, François Hollande had to promote his rival from the Interior Ministry, where he gained a reputation for steeliness, to his current position as prime minister.

Valls wants to lead France out of its depression with decisive reforms. Evry was his training ground.

Evry was one of the new cities of the future surrounding Paris, a model of statist urbanism. There are no smoldering cars here, the trash cans are emptied regularly and there are signs everywhere: "Human Rights Square," "Citizens' Street," "Transport Assistance for the Elderly," and even one kindly noting that "You Are Entering a Zone Under Video Surveillance." It is as though the city is constantly whispering in your ear.

Evry has an ice-skating rink, schools, psychiatric services and a military recruitment office -- "We actually have everything we need." And yet Nelle Basse is missing something nonetheless. She is 33-years-old and works as a hair stylist in the mega-shopping center that serves as Evry's downtown. Her husband speaks six languages, but has been unable to find a better job than as an Air France steward. Both want to move to Senegal, where they are originally from.

"The concierge in my building doesn't like blacks. Yet she isn't French either," Basse says. "When we go visit my husband's family in the countryside, they all want to touch my skin. That's how it is."

In France, every immigrant can become a citizen if he or she accepts the values and culture of the République Français. But that means little to Basse. "Republic? That is just a word, totally empty," she says. "In the 15 years I have been living here, I haven't made any friends. I greet the neighbors, but that's it. Everyone keeps to themselves in the housing complex -- the Congolese, the Arabs, those from Mali, everyone. People are so stressed out. Everyone feels safe, but so alone."

Champs-Elysées, Paris (km 3,660.5)

At 1 a.m., a conspicuously elegant man is rifling through newly published non-fiction at Publicis Drugstore, the 24-hour mecca of luxury retail. "What a great country, where you can write about what a complete idiot the president is," the man says, holding up the book he is referring to.

Born in Belgium, Philippe Jean Crijns knows the Sarkozys and works in the cosmetics industry. His address is Avenue des Champs-Elysées 25, a palace that once belonged to the Marquise de Païva, the 19th century courtesan who married a relative of Otto von Bismarck. "In France, you don't get elected president because the people want you, but because they want to get rid of someone else," Crijns says.

Crijns points to a book that predicts a new revolution; the boulevard outside is packed with tourists. "Everyone loves France," he says, "except the French."

The next morning, a national holiday, Crijns stands on the balcony of the Païva Palace and watches the parade passing by below. Standing in one car, the president looks small, sandwiched as he is between military leaders, and he is followed by boos and whistling as he drives past. He wanted to be a "normal president," but the people didn't want normality. They want an exceptional president that is worthy of the populace. They want everything to get better and to stay the same.

"There are no crises," says Crijns, "only changes. Nowhere else is there as much history as there is in France. Every step is painful. C'est évident." It's obvious.

The Tour de France may seek to celebrate the true and original France. And it ends where everything else leads -- and where one suspects the cause of the malaise can be found.

On July 27, the Tour, as usual, will end with several laps around the Arc de Triomphe after passing by the Elysée Palace and the Place de la Concorde, home to a statue of a woman in front of which a king was beheaded in the winter of 1793. The event opened a wound that the country has never quite recovered from. Otherwise, it wouldn't be so passionate in its scorn of the normal citizen at the helm.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey