By Monique El-Faizy
France will go head-to-head with Germany in the European soccer championship semifinals in Marseille on Thursday.
That may seem like a fact with little significance to anyone other than fans of European soccer, but the match and, indeed, the entire tournament, have taken on an oversized significance for the French, who are in the throes of a period of exceptional malcontent.
Misery is nothing new here. In many ways, it’s part of the French identity. In 2010 the journalist and author Éric Zemmour wrote a book, French Melancholy, arguing that the bleak national mood stems from the country being out of touch with its glorious ancient Roman roots. The volume was a best seller.
In 2011, a study sponsored by the World Health Organization provided empirical evidence of French despondency, finding that France was the most morose nation in the world, with 21 percent of people having suffered an extended period of depression.
And in 2013 the French themselves declared that they were even more dispirited than previously thought, when a survey showed that seven out of 10 of them believed the nation was experiencing a collective depression.
But lately things have gotten so gloomy here that a 10-year-old girl became a national hero of sorts when she applied to a PhD-level fellowship program writing: “The streets of Paris are sad. I want to build a robot that will make them happy again.” (She was accepted.)
The truth is, the French have had plenty of reasons to feel dejected as of late. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 were an assault on the very ideals on which modern France was founded. The attacks last November, in which 130 people were killed by terrorists linked to the Islamic State, were the deadliest in France since World War II and traumatized an already wounded nation, leaving it in a state of resigned insecurity.
France is economically unstable as well. Unemployment remains stubbornly above the 10 percent mark—double that of Germany—and among youth that number is at 23 percent. Poor job prospects have left the young in France feeling even more disillusioned than the older generations, and were among the factors spurring the ongoing Nuit Debout movement, a nocturnal assembly at the Place République that resembles Occupy Wall Street both in its style and in its lack of articulated goals.
That same disquiet can be seen in the months of protests against proposed labor reforms, which turned violent on multiple occasions and saw police firing tear gas at marchers. And let us not forget the recent strikes. Trains, metros, planes, and taxis were all afflicted, as was, most malodorously, garbage collection.
The political arena is a source of further fatigue. On the far right is the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, representing an ever-emboldened faction of people who say they want to return “France to the French.” After the shock of the Brexit vote, more moderate French who thought the National Front could never actually come to power are feeling considerably more anxious.
Then there is the mainstream right party, the Republicans, who will be holding a presidential primary this November that already has 12 declared candidates. The roster includes former president Nicholas Sarkozy, who is facing a raft of legal issues and, at the lowest point of his presidency, had an approval rating of only 30 percent.
And yet, even at his worst, Sarkozy was more popular than current President Francois Hollande, whose approval rating is an abysmal 17 percent, the lowest ever for a president in the history of the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958. He is so disliked that his Socialist Party has decided to hold its own presidential primary, marking the first instance in the same time period that a sitting president has been forced to compete for his own candidacy.
Add to all that the rain. Endless rain, and floods. Paris was inundated early last month when the Seine broke its banks, forcing the closure of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. Hundreds of towns and villages near the Seine and the Loire were deluged and four people died.
The waters have receded, but the skies have remained gray. June gloom gave way to a dismal July, further souring the mood in the capital.
The one glimmer of joy has been soccer. On match days, French fans strut through the streets clad in all permutation of national flags (my personal favorite is the red-white-and-blue umbrella hat) and face paint. Some of them have exhibited uncharacteristic ironic humor, donning audacious tricolor rooster combs and carrying baguettes (although one suspects those props might end up doing double duty).
One French friend of mine, who is decidedly not a sports fan, told me that seeing a stadium of supporters clad in the color of the flag and singing the Marseillaise was the most moving show of national unity she had witnessed since the marches in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
So far, Les Bleus, as the national soccer team is fondly called, have been making their homeland proud. Aside from a draw with Switzerland, they have won every one of their matches and seem to be growing stronger as they progress, most recently routing Iceland in a 5-2 victory.
It remains to be seen if the team can heighten this national joy when it meets up with Germany in today’s semifinal. History would suggest not, as France hasn’t beat Germany in a tournament since 1958, but for the first time in a long time, the French are feeling optimistic about something. “I know they’re going to win,” my neighbor told me confidently.
One almost wishes that today’s match will never be played and that France can prolong this brief moment of brightness. And maybe, just maybe, the French will be able to capitalize on their home turf advantage. They’ve done it before, winning the 1984 European Championship and the 1998 World Cup, both played in France.
After all, the sun has to come out eventually.
Monique El-Faizy is a Paris-based journalist and a fellow at the World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Raphael Labbe]