I am sitting on the Eurostar train service en route to Paris for a few days of meetings. Normally, a visit to the French capital in springtime is guaranteed to lift the spirits but I have been reading some worrying statistics about the Gallic state of mind. Apparently, the French are feeling gloomy.
In a recent Gallup poll only 15% of French people thought 2011 was going to be better than 2010, way behind Iraq (44%) and Afghanistan (45%). The Nigerians came out top of course on 80%. This may seem strange if you have never visited Nigeria given its wealth disparity, reputation for unrest and persistent poverty. But even a short stay in Lagos is sufficient to demonstrate the remarkable confidence and energy among even the very poor in Nigeria. And with the Presidential election now behind them they might have some solid political cause for their confidence to add to the country’s innate sense of optimism.
So why are the French feeling so down? They even trail Iceland, a country still trying to piece together its economy after the financial crisis and whose northern latitude gives them an excuse to be a bit glum at times. Moreover the French lag behind their near neighbours, the British who make it into the low twenties. But maybe there is less of a correlation between economic prosperity and happiness than we might think.
According to the Financial Times, the United States (7th behind Iraq but ahead of Germany in the cheerfulness stakes) is seeing a rebound in the divorce rate as the economy recovers. In 2009 the divorce rate slipped from 9.9% to 9.7% as couples put off the financial cost of legally parting company ironically until the family finances were in better shape. Now US law firms are reporting a return to pre-2009 divorce levels as economic prosperity boosts matrimonial misery. Not sure this is what that very proper Scot Adam Smith had in mind when he pioneered the theory of free market capitalism.
The United States apart, perhaps it is inevitable that countries like France and Britain feel a sense of relative decline and that their best days are behind them. Indeed, that often seems to be the prevailing mood in London and Paris. But that does seem excessively self indulgent. How can you explain to the young people in Misrata or Damascus that our best days are behind us when they are risking their lives in the hope that they might get a system of government a bit like ours?
This coming Friday it is estimated that two billion – yes two billion, nearly half the world’s population – will watch the wedding in London of the eventual heir to the British throne, Prince William to his fiancé Kate Middleton. They cannot all be ardent monarchists. In fact, a good number of them will come from countries that have been quite emphatic in the past about not wanting the British monarch as head of state. I am not sure what this says about Britain.
Pessimists would no doubt claim that it only confirms that the country is nothing more than a theme park for ceremonial nostalgia. But perhaps it suggests that there is something else, even something – if we dig deep enough – that can still be relevant and progressive about Britain in the modern age; we just haven’t figured out what.
And if the British can do it, so can the French.
In last week’s blog I managed to side-track myself into talking about Ferrari sports cars rather than geo-politics. So this, I promise, is definitely my last Ferrari anecdote. Apparently when Enzo Ferrari first saw the brand new E-type Jaguar in 1961, he declared it – quite rightly – to be the most beautiful car in the world. A lesser man would have thrown the towel in at that stage. How can you keep on producing cars of great beauty when you have just seen the Michelangelo’s David of automobiles that has been produced by a competitor? But Enzo kept on going knowing that however stunningly beautiful all subsequent Ferraris might be, nothing he could produce would ever beat the sheer design perfection of the E-type.
So perhaps we all need a little Ferrari spirit.