Seventy years after the dissolution of the national assembly and in spite of one decade of recovery, France appears to be again in a depressive spiral that nothing seems to stop. 

A French version of this article by Edouard Tétreau was published by Les Echos on 5 November 2014.

“Here we are in November. The war has been over for two months; motivation is yielding; and major actions obsolete.” In his War Memoirs, General Charles De Gaulle described in this way the melancholy of the month, which begins on All Souls’ Day and reminded him of the passage of time: November was the month of his birth – and, as it would turn out, of his demise too. He wrote the words in November 1944, and the French political elite would soon point the way for De Gaulle to his retreat at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises – among them, those same parliamentarians who in June 1940 voted for the dissolution of the national assembly and the transfer of full powers to Vichy France’s head, Henri-Philippe Pétain, even as they continued to draw their salaries.

Seventy years later, in spite of one decade of recovery (1958-1968), France appears to be again in a depressive spiral that nothing seems to stop. Witness, for example, the phenomenal success of Éric Zemmour’s The French Suicide – a pamphlet that completes the hatchet job carried out by a whole generation of French declinists, who are as ready to stigmatise France’s shortcomings and mistakes and to set up scapegoats as they are unable to propose a path for progress or hope. The French Suicide follows in the footsteps of Renaud Camus’ France: A Nation’s Suicide, to name but one of the many examples of the genre.

Another side to the same coin is the passion for repentant commemoration by a political elite that rushes to honour its predecessors, as if this can exonerate it from its own inability to lead or to inspire in the here and now. Rather than reforming a country in which 5 million people are unemployed and 1,000 gone to fight a jihad in Syria, we prefer ad nauseam to commemorate slavery every 10 May and armistice – that is to say, Europe’s massive attempted suicide – every 11 November.

Who will give hope to a country made for joie de vivre and greatness, not melancholy or self-destruction? On 25 October, giving the lie to the supposed “French Suicide”, the vice-president of the People’s Republic of China, Li Yuanchao, welcomed young leaders from the France China Foundation. Twenty young Chinese entrepreneurs, scientists, political leaders, and economists met with 20 of their French counterparts who are particularly involved with China. One such expert is Merieme Chadid, a French-Moroccan astronomer worthy of winning a Nobel Prize. She explores the origins of universe during her yearly expeditions to the Antarctic and shares her findings globally, including with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) of Beijing.

LI Yuanchao told the young leaders that “the happiness and grandeur of a country depends on the will of its people and the ability of its leaders to give the country direction and to stick to it”. Li used here the two keywords chosen by Xi Jinping at the closing of the last Chinese communist party congress. Happiness and grandeur are the conditions for China’s revival. After decades of “humiliation”, madness (in the Cultural Revolution), and hypergrowth, China has returned to the source of its identity and of its centuries-old culture. Confucius – whom Li Yuanchao quoted – is back in favour, as are entrepreneurs and merchants such as Jack Ma, the English teacher turned charismatic philanthropist and founder of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant worth $250 billion dollars in market value. Now, Ma and his kind are the heroes of the young Chinese generation.

This is what the world looks like in the twenty-first century: big countries such as China, and also the democracies of Turkey and India, are experiencing a kind of renaissance, regaining their confidence in themselves and in the future as they rediscover their original identities. At the same time, the old Western European countries, debt-ridden and self-doubting, believe they can save themselves by turning inward, renouncing their founding values. For example, Great Britain, a country of liberty and openness, is transforming into a little England, closing its borders under pressure from more xenophobic, anti-European, and anti-immigrant public discourse. Germany is trapped in a narrow legalism and a narrow vision of Europe, more anxious to preserve the pensions of the old than to provide opportunities to the young and a future to Europe.

In the same way, France for the moment would prefer to sacrifice the means of its renaissance – if not its survival – on the altar of short-term and limited comfort. Every year France spends €500 per capita to defend its territory, its citizens, its values and its interests (in the form of the French defence budget, which is continuously being reduced, in contradiction to the French president’s public commitments). At the same time, it allocates €7500 per person – 15 times more – to the social security of residents of France (law-breakers included), which worsens the deficit and seriously hinders France’s competitiveness and ability to create jobs.

Old nations never die: they rise again – provided we give them the ambition and means to do so. This will be the task of a new generation of French thinkers and politicians. They must provide an antidote to the crumbling policies and ideas of our time – the policies and ideas that invite French society to commit suicide or foster hate for foreigners. In a century marked by the resurgence of brutal nationalism and tribalism, a renewed France, as a matrix for the European project and a shared European identity, remains the best hope for the continent.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.