France – The Malaise Continues

I was in Paris last week for a couple of days, arriving a few hours before the announcement of the Olympic Games Committee that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games. On my way from the airport the news on the radio were almost exclusively focused on the imminent decision, with live reports from Singapore on the French presentation, the highlights of which were a film about Paris directed by Luc Besson and an emotional speech given by Jacques Chirac about the merits of the French capital.

During my morning meetings the tension was palpable. By lunchtime, the shortlist was down to London and Paris, and the conversation around the table touched on the generations-old rivalry between the two countries straddling the English Channel. Needless to say, the obvious clichés about the gaps in food quality and esprit de corps were the main course.

By early afternoon, when the announcement was made, the mood changed. Some shrugged the whole thing off as being unimportant and said they opposed the whole thing from the beginning anyway (“who wants all those foreigners invading Paris and creating traffic jams in the height of summer?”). Others blamed the whole thing on politics; this was nothing but a way to get back at France for rejecting the referendum on the EU constitution last month. Yet others said this was all too predictable, another milestone in the long string of French failures on the global stage in recent years. After all, this is the third consecutive time Paris has competed and lost for the bid to host the Olympic Games.

To me, this whole story is yet another symptom of the sickness France has been suffering from in the past decade or so, a general air of malaise the roots of which are hard to pinpoint but which everyone agrees is clearly there. The general sentiment is that anything that can go wrong, will indeed go wrong. The feeling that no matter what France does or says, the world will, at best, misunderstand or in the worst case shrug off as irrelevant. The list is long: France’s stance on the Iraq war, its hesitant position regarding the enlargement of the EU community and Turkey’s candidacy, the awkward balance between a “social” economic policy and the required “capitalist” measures so sorely needed to revive the economy and the belated and hotly contested steps taken against the Muslim minority (the so-called “Chador law”). The feeling is that everything is breaking down and the country is not going anywhere.

My personal experience this week (although it can hardly be representative), confirms this last feeling. I took two taxis during my short stay, and both could not find their way to the destination without problems. The first driver, once we finally arrived, also could not get the credit card machine to work. Both blamed everything but themselves for not doing their job properly: the road signs, the bad advice of other drivers, the non-functioning GPS system… A Swedish colleague of mine, who was unfortunate enough to share one of these rides with me, said this was a “known thing” in Europe: French taxi drivers simply do not know their way around. As far as I’m concerned, at least one of the systems in France is most definitely broken down.

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