It’s a tale of two countries. In England (and I mean England, not the UK), contented voters gave Boris Johnson’s government a by-election victory in perennially Labour-held Hartlepool. The Conservatives’ national polling lead over Labour averages about 8 per cent. No matter Britain’s 117,000 excess deaths from an initially mismanaged pandemic, the worst recession since 1709, ominous violence in Northern Ireland, shocking corruption scandals or the Scottish government’s game-plan for secession: most English people are freshly jabbed and satisfied.
The French aren’t. The bunch of retired generals who used an obscure blog to appeal for what sounded like a coup d’état captured the national mood. Fifty-eight per cent of French voters backed them, 74 per cent believed French society was collapsing and 45 per cent thought France would “soon have a civil war”, report the pollsters Harris Interactive.
The point isn’t that Britain is outperforming France. The two countries are practically twins in their gross domestic product, absurd over-centralisation and declining national grandeur. On vaccinations, the UK leads France by about 11 weeks — not a huge deal in the scheme of things. The deeper issue is that the English and French hold opposing worldviews. England is a complacent society, and France is an apocalyptic one.
The French tend to apocalypticism partly because their history progresses through ruptures, notably the revolution of 1789, the German invasion of 1940 and the loss of what France treated as an integral part of its territory, Algeria, in 1962. Moreover, notes a forthcoming report by society-building NGO More in Common, France suffers from “under-appreciated constitutional instability”, with 14 constitutions since 1789. In short, the French have had a lot to be apocalyptic about.
Very unlike the English, they are raised on absolute ideals, which are inevitably betrayed by reality. Imagine spending your formative years in a school with the words “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” engraved on the façade, then watching your country’s former rulers Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon be convicted of crimes without going to jail (so far, anyway).
Many French people mistake disappointments for disasters. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen recently told the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris that France was “the world champion of debt . . . the world champion of unemployment, the world champion of poverty”. It was a ludicrous thing to say about a high-income country. How would she categorise Mali? But she knew her electorate would agree.
The French have regularly emerged from global surveys as world champions of pessimism, ahead of Iraqis and Afghans. In the 2017 election, a divided pessimist vote let Emmanuel Macron’s small optimists’ party into power. Yet each strand of the French spectrum still nurtures its pet apocalyptic scenario: neoliberal hegemony for the left, Islamist takeover for the far right, climate apocalypse for greens, end of national grandeur for Gaullists and Présidente Le Pen for Macronists.
Contrast all this with England, which has gone more than 300 years without revolution, civil war or serious invasion. Inevitably, the English have grown complacent about potential disasters. After the fall of France in June 1940, when Britain was obviously next on Hitler’s menu, the racing correspondent of the Daily Mail reported: “The people were stunned by the news just after the first race at Wolverhampton yesterday but, of course, carried on and presumably the meeting today will go through, if only as a gesture of stoutness.” (The crucial phrase here is “of course.”)
England’s postwar descent down the global hierarchy generated not apocalyptic thinking but declinism: a genre of comedy about national decline.
The most complacent English caste of all is the ruling class, understandably so, given that it hasn’t been replaced in centuries. If your life passage takes you from medieval rural home to medieval boarding school to medieval Oxbridge college and finally to medieval parliament, you naturally end up thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”
David Cameron airily held a referendum on Brexit. Many English people voted for radical change almost in a fit of absent-mindedness. Now, after a few years of uncharacteristic English political excitement, the issue is being forgotten again. No wonder that the embodiment of English complacency, a man ironic about everything except his own ambition, has ridden the national mood to Downing Street.
When Johnson was accused of allegedly asking Tory donors to fund his home renovations and nanny, only people raised outside England seemed able to sustain their sense of alarm for an entire week. Anthony Ojolola, a Nigerian immigrant to England, emailed me: “None of this is funny. Not in the slightest. And frankly, I would be damned if I kept my mouth shut and see Britain become another Nigeria.”
The hundreds of thousands of French people who have brought their apocalyptic worldview to England, following peaceful, large-scale population transfers between the two countries, might share his anger. Few English people seem to. Johnson understands that for a nation incapable of apocalyptic thinking, almost everything is funny.
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