Children of Frenchmen

One puzzling and often overlooked feature of the France that elected Nicolas Sarkozy as its new president, and that is now poised to give his political allies a powerful parliamentary mandate, is its mix of private optimism and public pessimism.

Consider this: France has the highest fertility rate in the European Union (just under two children per woman), even ahead of booming Ireland. Of course, that rate alone is not enough to sustain France’s current population, but it’s far stronger than its European neighbors and almost equal to that of the US. Yet, despite this, Eurobarometer polls repeatedly show that the French are the most pessimistic of all Europeans when it comes to their country’s future. How can it be that people who are so negative about their common future as a nation go about confidently building their private futures within their families?

Indeed, strained by decades of governmental failure to curb massive unemployment, the French are nowadays often perceived as having retired from the political sphere to concentrate on their lives and leisure. Museums, gardening, clubs of all sorts are blossoming in today’s France. Private associations, it seems, have picked up where political parties and trade unions have left off.

But if the French have turned their backs on the public sphere, how are we to make sense of the record-high participation in the recent presidential election, when more than 85% of turned out to vote in both rounds? How do we explain the passion aroused by the campaign and by Sarkozy himself including the massive affirmation he received in the parliamentary election?