Miserabilism

Tom Forth, .

What. The. Fuck! Would also be my reaction to this image if I'd never lived and worked in France and if I didn't spend a lot of time working with French data. But I have, so I think I can explain it.

Do 61% of French really think that the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe while just 9% of Brits think the same? Not in a useful way. Source: YouGov.

I've never found the French arrogant. I've been told that they are by the overconfident private school types I met for the first time when I started university in London. And by an MP I spoke to that one time on the train to Ilkley for the literature festival after he'd ask me "what school did you go to?" assuming it would be on the list of "good ones" people like him keep in their mind. And by UK civil servants, who've invited me to London for an early meeting so I could tell them about tech in "the North" and been obviously surprised that I speak like someone from the North.

But then I lived and worked in France. And I found the people far from arrogant.

It helps that I speak French. I learned it at school in East Yorkshire with a few other slightly weird people. I couldn't do Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, so I did French. And then a bit more at lunch at university, reading Camus when I just wanted to be able to drink pastis and chat to the blokes playing pétanque in the square. But it all worked out. I did a year at Uni in a research lab in France. Then I worked with a friend's company in Paris, remote from Leeds, afterwards. I've continued to do small pieces of work in France and with French colleagues since. I've profited from selling Brits ideas from the French where they are ahead and by selling the French ideas from Britain where we are ahead.

So if the French aren't arrogant, what are they?

Miserable.

Performative miserablism

At the end of January 2020 Ipsos-MORI polled the French people. Did they like their President? No.

Of course not. Just 40% approval. Better than the last guy, Hollande, who was awful apparently. Better than the guy before him, Sarkozy, who was awful apparently. But still, Macron is awful apparently.

But who would they prefer? Offered nearly two dozen alternatives to their current leader the French chose Macron.

This is a country with superstar Mayor Anne Hidalgo on the left, with ECB President Christine Lagarde on the right, and lots more talent in between. But they stuck with the person who they think is crap. A few months later when their Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was replaced they started to really like him. When he was doing the job, they thought he was awful.

This behaviour is pretty typical of the French in polls and in discussions; they take the most miserable position possible. Tell them that France is a model country because of its low inequality and they'll moan that taxes are too high. Celebrate their succesful industries like in luxury goods and they'll moan that taxes are too low.

Tell the French that they should be miserable because there's a pandemic and they can't go out,...

No seriously,... just guess what happened to French life satisfaction during the pandemic.

The French said that they were never happier than during a global pandemic that was killing them (though it was partly because they'd just been released from lockdown). Source: CEPREMAP.

The pandemic made the French say that they were more satisfied with their lives than ever before.

Did this happen everywhere? We can check because data on wellbeing is collected in the UK just as it is in France. In the UK the pandemic made us miserable, even after we were released from lockdown.

A global pandemic made people in the UK say they were miserable. Source: Covid-19 and subjective wellbeing.

There is no end to the discussions we could have about the methodologies of these surveys and their validity. This data is difficult to interpret. It's noisy too. But I feel pretty confident about my overall understanding of the French psyche, as much as such a thing can exist for a nation as diverse as France.

Success in France is not cool. It is desirable of course, a great bottle of wine, a fantastic sex life, great food, a nice home, a lovely holiday, a happy family, a relationship with God perhaps. But to be happy about that openly is not cool, because it is to sneer at those less fortunate. And so misery becomes a status symbol.

France has class of course, but not as much as the UK. So performative misery serves as a proxy. If you're really poor, really struggling, really in pain, you see that there is "no beauty in suffering". But if you're just pretending, showing solidarity, seeking to avoid shaming others in a society that lives closer to others than most, kisses strangers more closely, and hugs more tightly, then at least hiding your good fortune and underplaying your success spares your blushes.

When Covid happened and when everyone really was miserable, there was no need to lie in the polls any more. People told the truth and it made them look happier. I don't believe that they were, just as I don't believe that they are as miserable as they say the rest of the time.

Mostly, French miserabalism is harmless. But sometimes it gets serious. If we lie to ourselves and those around us often enough, we come to believe those lies. I think that the French actually do talk themselves into being miserable, and then forgetting that they were exaggerating.

Most years Ipsos-Mori ask people around the world whether they think that their country is "on the right track". Every year the French are right at the top of the most miserable.

But ask them which country they'd rather be like and things change. There's much less confidence. The USA is too capitalist. German austerity is bad. British food is grim, and so is the weather. France is awful, but everywhere else is worse.

Increasingly I'm convinced that we just shouldn't ask the French anything in polls. Just give them some choices and ask them to pick the least awful. That's their preference really.

Vaccines

So now there's vaccines. A wonderful miracle of science. France is pretty good at science. Lots of Nobel prizes. As many as the USA per capita. Not as many as the UK. Lots of Fields Medals for Maths too, more than the UK at that. So France is good at science and maths and invented loads of stuff to do with vaccines. Pasteur!

And so obviously,...

Before vaccines were rolled out, just 39% of French said they would take one. 80% of Brits said the same. Source: YouGov.

France hates vaccines and only 39% of people said they would take them compared to 80% of Brits.

Actually the French took the vaccines.

But actually the French took the vaccines. 91% of French care home residents have been vaccinated. The equivalent figure in England is 93%.

So the French said that they weren't going to get vaccinated, and then they did. Some early success for the media ended in failure when the few care home residents who'd declined a vaccination first time round said yes when they returned. There was no mass vaccine refusal to cover.

The French gave the most miserable possible answer they could in a poll, but then their actions were pretty normal. As always. And this is exactly what will happen with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The AstraZeneca Vaccine

Let me be clear, President Macron of France seems to have made a really daft comment about the AstraZeneca vaccine being quasi-ineffective among older people in an unrecorded but on the record briefing to the press a month or so ago. Wrong, unhelpful, daft, thankfully not widely shared in France, and since corrected and overwritten many times by stronger statements in support of the vaccine. The independent French regulator initially didn't licence the vaccine for those over 65, a stance it soon changed when more data became available. And the independent regulator suspended the vaccine for a few days pending EMA investigation of blood clots, which seem extremely rare even if possibly real and treatable, before restarting them.

That all happened and I've written about benefit and precaution in medicine if you want to understand why I think that all of these things were not the best things to do, but also not a big deal.

So what's happening with the AstraZeneca vaccine in France?

AstraZeneca vaccinations in France are going fine.

The data shows that AstraZeneca vaccines in France are going fine. They started slow, then they got going, and most of them got done. There was a pause last week while reports of side-effects were investigated, and then vaccinations restarted and they're going fine.

The supply problems to the EU that AstraZeneca are struggling with means that their vaccine will in any case be a minor player in the EU and France's vaccination effort. The supply problems in the coming weeks means that there will be no problem using the doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines scheduled, even if most French people chose not to accept them.

But the French people almost certainly will accept the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite what they tell pollsters about how safe they think it is.

Because as much as they say that they think their current President is awful, the French will probably elect him again next year. And because despite only a minority of them saying that they would take a vaccine when one became available, almost everyone so far offered a vaccine has taken one now that it is available. And even though when you poll the French they are more miserable about their country than almost anywhere else, very few of them leave, and those that do often return.

What do the French think of us in the UK?

There was a second part to the question that got me writing this blog post. What do the French think has happened to the millions of Brits injected with the AstraZeneca vaccine so far? The answer is no.

No is not a grammatically correct answer to that question, but it's what I mean. No, the French don't think about us. Barely ever. We are not very important to them I can safely say reading the French press and talking to friends.

I've tried to explain that England is not the UK, and they don't really care. Most English people don't care either, but that's another problem. My friends in France think that we left the EU in 2017. When I explain that we didn't, they don't really care. The French say in polls that they think that France got done over in the Brexit negotiations and that the UK got a great deal by taking avantage of them.

The French public, alone in Europe, think that the British got the better deal from Brexit. Source: YouGov.

If you believe that the French really think that, you need to re-read this blog post.

If the French thought about us, would they trust us? As individuals, yes. As a society, yes. They honestly like us. They even quite like tea, just not with milk.

But would they trust statistics from our current government? Not really.

Our Prime Minister is widely regarded, with good reason, as a frequent liar in most of the world. I don't think that's even a political point at this stage. The French may dislike their own President, but if it was a choice between Macron and Johnson it would be a landslide win for Emmanuel.

What little time the French have to think about the UK does not extend to the independent regulation of statistics produced by our national health service (something they don't really have) or our office for national statistics (which isn't legally independent of government in France). They have seen our politics, they know that we lie.

But will they still take the vaccine? Yes. Because their independent regulator says it's safe and it was not overruled by their politicians. Because the European regulator says it's safe and was not overruled by politicians. Because US trials have come back with excellent results, though with some concerns about them. Because their Prime Minister has had the vaccine and is fine.

The French will say that they're not going to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, and then they will. Well they would, if it could be supplied to them, which it mostly can't be. So they will take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which they trust more than ever.

Everyone wins. How boring.

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