According to noted Francophile and Timesman Roger Cohen, those of us who are bemoaning the French malaise have missed the point. (My thoughts here.) After all, Cohen’s daughter married a Frenchman, so he possesses a superior wisdom on the point.
The French, Cohen assures us, have always been suffering from one or another kind of malaise. After all, malaise is a French word, n’est-ce pas?
In fact, Cohen described a similar malaise way back in 1997. By his reasoning, if the French were miserable—also a word we owe to French—way back then, and are miserable now, that can only mean that malaise is as French as camembert.
I believe that he said this to show that when you read an opinion piece in The New York Times you are not going to have to stretch your mind.
French have always been miserable. Yet, Cohen points out, they still have the world’s best wines.
When the French use wine to drown their sorrows, at least they are using the good stuff.
Misery aside, Cohen says, the French still have great, free medical care and great free education.
As it happens, the products of that great educational system are increasingly immigrating to nations that can offer better economic opportunity.
Of course,, the French are not running away from their malaise. They are embracing it; they are proud of it; they consider that it confers moral superiority. How could it not? It’s distinctly French.
Other nations, the ones whose names we dare not mention, try to solve their problems, to create conditions that will encourage their best and brightest r young people to make their lives in their home countries.
The French, as channeled by Roger Cohen, look down their Gallic nose at people who refuse to wallow in existential futility. They believe that those other people are “fools,” in Cohen’s words, for trying to solve their problems, rather than to sit back contemptuously, puffing on a Gauloise.
You see, being French involves feeling good about yourself no matter what.
One might ask what honorary Frenchman Cohen thinks of the fact that a third of France’s college graduates is actively seeking employment outside of the country. Glad you asked: he has nothing to say about it at all.
In his heart of hearts he probably believes that once they arrive on foreign shores their craving for real baguettes will cause them to see the error of their ways and will bring them back, like prodigal sons, to their glorious homeland.
One might also ask what Cohen has to say about the widely reported study that shows the French to be the most unhappy people on the planet. Or that they are leading the world in the per capita consumption of psychoactive medication.
On these subjects, Cohen has nothing to say at all.
In order to obfuscate the issue he recounts a meeting he had with one Trazic, his son-in-law’s uncle, a farmer in the Camargue region.
One anecdote captures the French malaise. As he is talking with his son-in-law’s uncle, the man served up a folk remedy:
Trazic served a vile fermented cheese called “Cachat.” To make it, take all your leftover cheese, crush it, add olive oil, cognac, bay leaves, thyme, and seal it in a jar for about a year. The stench is staggering, the secret of eating it to take very little. “It’s stronger than any antibiotic, cures anything,” he said.
Hopefully, he was making a joke. If you believe that this fromage will cure anything, I have some snake oil to sell you. Obviously, Cohen was trying to make a chauvinistic point, one that sounds downright silly. But it explains why the French can glory in their malaise—because it has a distinctly French je-ne-sais-quoi.
Better a primitive French concoction than some foreign-made antibiotic. Right?
Cohen is right to say that the French have always made misery into something glorious—if it’s French, how could it not be glorious—but still, in the faceoff between Maureen Dowd and Roger Cohen, Dowd clearly comes out on ahead.