Midnight last Friday was the deadline for returning French 2007 tax declarations by ordinary post. It was a reminder that the country, frequently maligned by its own citizens for its perceived high level of taxation, also regularly ends up Number 1 on the annual tax Misery list compiled by Forbes (click on the graphic for a larger version).

The list, however, ignores the fact that compulsory social security costs in France are comprehensive (where it counts) in the coverage they pay for. So fairness decrees France's misery ranking be considered together with, for example, her otherwise free health and education services. From that angle the rankings are not apples to apples when looking at France alongside, say, the USA.

Take home wages should be looked at in that context too; and generally France comes out well in international comparisons for most domestic circumstances (although the being rich and single has some drawbacks).

But what of overall happiness? One set of researchers at the University of Leicester found that the three most important determinants of contentment in nations are (easily first) health, wealth and education (the latter two in a virtual tie). Attention, looks like France is shaping up for a blow-out score on these criteria.

Eh, non. According to the Leicester work the French, out of 178 nations, are only 62nd. And there is more bad news from another set of researchers at Rotterdam's Erasmus University: France 39th of 95 countries.

Two similar results by different researchers is bad enough. But a third, this from work begun in 2002 by the University of Cambridge, is terrible: France 11th of the (then) 15 European Union (EU) nations. And the study was run by Cambridge's Faculty of Economics who know a thing or two about dismality.

Why is this? The Cambridge study, by focusing on the wealthy EU, had to look beyond the diminishing marginal returns extra units of wealth, health and basic education conferred. Those are key factors where scarce but relatively less so in the well-off EU (or, for that matter, other OECD nations). Accordingly, they found whilst everyone in the study was relatively happy the deciding factor between them was trust - in both public institutions and social interactions.

The topic of such trust deficits is a dangerous one to broach. Yet the hypothesis may well ring true as the explanation for the French findings to many who have lived extensively there and elsewhere. A paradox is that the French Republic was conceived as collectivist: liberté - the cry "live free or die" rang during the French Revolution long before New Hampshire got hold of it and franchised the bumper sticker to out of state SUV drivers; égalité - "all men are by nature and in the eyes of the law equal" is written into the 1793 Droits de l'homme et du Citoyen; and fraternité which here serves as a proxy for "trust".

Whereas liberté and égalité were defined in writing during the First Republic (albeit as descendants of an older lineage dating back to England's Bill of Rights) and are relatively simple to script in legal language fraternité is a moral idea and was enshrined last, in 1795:

"Ne faites pas à autrui ce que vous ne voudriez pas qu'on vous fît ; faites constamment aux autres le bien que vous voudriez en recevoir"
"Do not treat another as you would not be treated; always bestow on others the good you would yourself receive"
That this biblical notion came two years after the others and was delivered by a regime (Le Directoire) known in its own time as morally and financially corrupt is odd. In that context the adoption of "brotherhood" sounds opportune and self-serving. If so it was an early example of two of the, arguably, primary impulses of the French psyche: idealism and cynicism.

Commentary on this count is by definition subjective and mostly best left to open minds at the bar. But one manifestation is itself the heavy tax burden seen in the Forbes analysis (which sits on a narrow base) in hand with an elevated role for the state (expected to take care of everyone).

The tensions this produces politically, socially and economically are a direct legacy of those suffered by people who - by revolution - cast the mould and vocabulary of modern European democracy where no one else even remotely looked like so doing. Being trusting could never have been part of that equation: a culture for whose politics the phrase "creative destruction" might have been coined does not usually go around agreeing with and slapping itself on the back contentedly. And history has shown this a not wholly bad trait.

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