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France, Where Is Your Mojo?

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Perhaps you've read Maureen Dowd's New York Times column on the "nouvelle vague" of French melancholia ("Goodbye Old World, Bonjour Tristesse", July 6, 2013). Not quite the usual (and often dubious) pondering over the French trait, Ms. Dowd's piece grasped a deeper, truer malaise. The French, it seems, have lost their mojo.

The fact that this has some elements of truth leaves me a bitter taste. I battle everyday with our national pessimism syndrome, which harms us more than the real state of things does. Yet most people who corroborate this view, as in Ms. Dowd's piece, seem to be past their forties. The languid woman from a bygone era sitting at Café de Flore opposite the Times article confirms this nostalgic facet. But where are the voices from a younger generation?

France is indeed depressed in some ways but it is also pregnant with a previously unseen flow of creative energy. You don't have to take my word for it but I would not be surprised if Paris had a rebirth -- a kind of Berlin moment -- within the next five years.

I had this in mind when I moved back to the French capital. I packed three years of living in the US and began to gear up for what I knew would be the ineluctable question back home: "but why did you even come back?" I was aware that to many my decision would seem absurd, the polar opposite of the expanding French drain.

Moving back was trickier then I thought. When told that things are going badly the French are easily convinced, but the contrary is much more arduous. I had a hard time persuading myself, and others, that I was seeing something they weren't, a coming French renaissance.

At times I have wondered whether I suffer from blind, patriotic optimism. My generation has indeed a lot to deal with. We are facing skyrocketing rates of youth unemployment, regalian institutions forged after de Gaulle's idea of gerontocratic power, and a standardized education system tapping very little into the incredible well of French creativity (I mean, look at the Daft Punk coup! A pure product of French wit.) A part of France even seems to linger in the idea that, as a collective, we cannot let unique individualities express their difference...

But this year I met more people genuinely excited about their future in France than I could ever hope for. I saw front-runners in the sharing economy thrive. Among them are BlaBlaCar, the three-million-user carpooling start-up that rekindled our sense of conviviality, and the Vélib, our ever-successful bike sharing system. I also contemplated the rise of a newfound artistic audacity with the installation of Louvre antennas in the Northern town of Lens and in Abu Dhabi, a stunning new Centre Pompidou in Metz and an expanded Palais de Tokyo, now the largest European center for contemporary art. All the while, avant-garde music bands such as Fauve and La Femme are giving the French Touch a third or fourth round, singing in French again!

I am convinced that the depression has a lot to do with this renewal because it is teaching us about humility. Many of the youth have assimilated that France is an average power on the world scene. We focus more on our différence. Like Cocteau's "Enfants Terribles" trapped in their bedroom, imagination is our best ally in constricted environments, whether it is cultural, industrial, esthetic or intellectual.

Count the number of French innovators in the Silicon Valley today as well as those scholars cited in American universities -- not only the dead ones. Look at the Vélib exporting success in New York and elsewhere. And the Weather Festival, which turned Paris suburbs into the next big electronic music hub of Europe. I tend to think that those are only a few manifestations of a country loosening its grip on untimely expectations and touching ground again with its liveliness.

In a way, we are more emancipated from history, discharged from the myth of our country than our parents and politicians are. We are less interested in regaining past glory than creating something new. As French philosopher Michel Serres would put it, "this is not a crisis, this is a change of world." And we are working hard at it.