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Measuring French Pessimism

Unhappy sad woman with bad mood. Psychology concept of mental health, soul recovery, self-care. vector illustration

Unhappy sad woman with bad mood. Psychology concept of mental health, soul recovery, self-care. vector illustration

The Latest Results of the Political Trust Barometer

By Bruno Cautrès, Gilles Ivaldi, Luc Rouban, CEVIPOF

The CEVIPOF ‘Political Trust Barometer’, first launched in 2009, has been developed in collaboration with a number of foundations and universities since 2011(1) For the 11th and 12th waves of the barometer, these were Institut Montaigne, Fondapol (foundation for political innovation), Fondation Jean Jaurès, Interiale, CESE and Guido Carli university in Rome. Terra Nova also contributed to the 11th wave.. Every year, one survey (or sometimes more, depending on the context) is conducted in France and other European countries (since 2011) among representative samples of the national populations. The ‘Political Trust Barometer’ is designed to measure citizens’ trust in politicians, governments, organisations (such as businesses, unions, the police, etc.) and institutions, as well as self-confidence, interpersonal trust and social trust. The most important current affairs topics are also included, depending on the survey period. Citizens’ views on democracy, their expectations and evaluations make up the last part of the questionnaire. Aside from the robust methodology implemented, the longitudinal nature of the survey enables analysis of trends in opinions.

The Political Trust Barometer: A Tool of Reference

Research based on the results of wave 12, carried out in February 2021 in France, Germany, Italy and the UK, has enabled empirical examination of a certain number of interactions between trust, populism and concerns related to the coronavirus crisis. These dimensions can be analysed in detail thanks to the number of indicators in the survey and their diversity (interpersonal, social, institutional, political trust), as well as a range of explanatory variables. The barometer has developed over the past two years to become a comparative European survey, becoming an academic survey of reference on the topic of trust. What lessons can be learned from this latest edition?

Tangible French Concern

Feelings of concern transpire in several aspects of the survey, notably those concerning general state of mind or social trust, interpersonal relationships and our relations with others. In the four countries studied, expression of this ‘syndrome of social pessimism’ is particularly strong in France. It is mostly a feeling of ‘weariness’ that is expressed by 41% of the French people asked to describe their state of mind. This weariness is followed by ‘despondency’ (34%) and ‘distrust’ (28%). This trio of pessimistic adjectives clearly characterises France when compared with the opinions expressed in the other three European countries: the first word cited by the German and British people asked to describe their state of mind was serenity. Although the Italians, like the French, express weariness and despondency first, serenity and trust come just behind. The despondency and weariness indicated by the French answers are echoed in the lower levels of ‘social trust’ and trust in other people, which affect many indicators(2)Bruno Cautrès  – «Résilience des institutions et lassitude des opinions», Note Le Baromètre de la confiance politique, vague 12, février 2021..
Although trust in one’s family remains high in France, as in the other three countries studied, social trust is low in France, notably compared with the UK, where trust in people of other nationalities is much higher. Although the data shows a slight improvement, our country can still be described as a ‘society of social distrust’. A similar situation is found in Italy, contrasting with the UK and Germany: 62% of the French people questioned agreed with the statement ‘We cannot be too careful when dealing with other people’ and only 35% said, ‘we can trust most people’. These figures are 29% in Italy, 42% in Germany and 45% in the UK.

What about ‘happiness of living’, which our survey measures using an indicator of ‘satisfaction with the life we lead’? Only 35% of the French are perfectly satisfied with their lives, compared with 34% of Italians, 38% of British and 40% of German respondents. France is perhaps no longer considered by the French as being a country that is pleasant to live in! In fact, to a greater extent than in the other three countries, they believe that their lifestyle has deteriorated over the past few years. Similarly, when asked to compare their social situation with that of their parents at the same age, only 36% of French respondents describe it as better, compared with 41% in Italy, 45% in Germany and 47% in the UK! As shown by the analyses published about these data(3)Luc Rouban, « Qui croit à l’égalité des chances et à la méritocratie en France ? », Note du Baromètre de la confiance politique,  vague 12, mars 2021. social and political defiance feed upon the impression that social mobility no longer exists, particularly in France. Only 25% of the French consider that the same rules apply to everyone in society, which is similar to the percentage of Italians (26%), compared with 41% of British and 42% of German respondents.

This framework of social and economic concern, a pessimistic outlook for the future and low levels of social trust are also visible in the areas of political and institutional trust. Although the health crisis has enabled the political institutions involved in crisis management and protecting the public to regain some of the lost trust (most indicators of trust in institutions have risen compared with the last two years), the results of our survey continue to show a separation between two dimensions of political and institutional trust. On the one hand, trust in institutions has resisted and even improved, notably when this trust concerns aspects related to the welfare state or represents more territorial areas of political action. However, perceptions of the political incarnation of public action and anything related to the sphere of political space, continue to be negative. The word ‘duality’ might even be used to describe public opinion in this respect: for the French, the protective State stands firm and appears to be resilient against the crisis, while the world of politics continues to materialise democratic deficit and distance. Only the sphere of political decision (those in command: President, Prime Minister, European Union, members of parliament) benefit slightly from the situation. It is clear that although the governments of other countries have lost opinion points in the evaluation of their management of the crisis, the French government remains significantly behind and is viewed much more negatively.

A Complex Relationship Between Trust, Populism and Economic Concerns

Our data also indicate that populist attitudes are widely shared by the citizens of the four countries concerned by the survey. These attitudes are found across the two left and right extremes of the political spectrum, indicating the diversity of the contemporary populist phenomenon in Europe(4)Marc Lazar, From Populism to Populisms, Cogito, April 2021. Such reservoir of populism could be ‘exploited’ by movements such as the Rassemblement national or France Insoumise in France, the Lega or the Five Star Movement in Italy, or the AfD and Die Linke in Germany.(5)Gilles Ivaldi, « Les inquiétudes économiques liées à la crise sanitaire peuvent-elles nourrir le populisme ? », Note du Baromètre de la confiance politique, vague 12, mars 2021..
Not surprisingly, populism appears to be closely correlated with political trust, decreasing when the latter is higher. The degree of populism is also strongly associated with academic cultural capital and declines with the level of education. Populist attitudes are more closely correlated with ‘subjective’ poverty and the respondents’ perceived risk of unemployment.
In the four countries surveyed, populism increases with concerns related to the economic and financial impact of the health crisis, both for the household or the national economy, and regardless of characteristics such as gender, age, education, occupation or subjective feelings of deprivation. Concerns related to the financial situation of the household are expressed by approximately one in two respondents, from 45% in the UK to 53% in Italy; the national economic situation appears to be an area of serious concern for a very large majority, ranging from 72% in Germany to more than 80% in each of the three other countries, and up to 89% in Italy.
Although highly significant, these initial results cannot hide the complexity of the links between economic concerns related to the health crisis, political trust and populism. It is difficult to establish unequivocal causality. As we know, the pandemic affects the most vulnerable social groups, which are generally more inclined towards populism and express the highest levels of political distrust. Incidentally, populist voters, traditionally more pessimistic about the future, can also be more critical of the economic consequences of the pandemic.
However, we can try to illustrate the specific effects of the economy, concerns related to the health crisis using an interaction model of the effects of such concerns and political trust (see Figure 1). While the link between more trust and less populism is confirmed, the effect of trust is less evident as the degree of economic anxiety about the health crisis increases, as indicated by the slopes of the lines on the graph. Most importantly, for respondents who say that they are ‘very worried’ about the economic impact of the health crisis (purple line on top of the graph), the degree of populism remains high and constant, independently of the level of political trust.

Figure 1: Level of populism according to the level of political/institutional trust and degree of economic concern related to the health crisis (interaction)

Predicted value of populism, multivariate regression model with sociodemographic controls and country fixed effects.

The health crisis obviously represents a major challenge for all governments and parties in power in most major western democracies. Their ability to cope effectively with the pandemic remains crucial to the preservation (or strengthening) of political trust between those governing and those being governed. The results of this wave of the barometer illustrate the decisive role that economic concerns related to the pandemic might play in fuelling yet another possible populist wave which could also exploit existing and more ‘structural’ feelings of political distrust across Western electorates.

Explaining What Generates Political Trust

Though it is possible to identify the characteristics of political trust or distrust in each country and how they are associated with critical registers, such as populism and its radical versions (LFI or RN in France) or more moderate versions (macronism as a means of bypassing the ‘system’, citizens’ demands for direct democracy via the 2019 Citizen National Debate), what actually causes political trust or distrust remains to be explained.
The economic explanation based on the effectiveness or efficiency of public policies can be excluded immediately.

The first reason for this is that a comparative approach shows that roughly identical results – for example in health matters in Germany and France – do not have the same effects: much more trust is expressed in Germany than in France. Trust is not a response that depends on health data or financial results. It is determined by institutional or ideological registers. People do not vote with national statistical data in hands.
The second reason is that distrust leads to denial of the scope of public policy evaluations and official statistics: in France, our research shows that the closer medical experts are to those in power, the lower the level of trust in them. Political distrust is highly contagious. It must therefore be explained by socio-political variables.
The variables explaining trust or distrust in political institutions can be divided into three groups.

  • The first group is of a political or metapolitical nature. It includes variables such as political sympathies. Respondents close to LREM or MoDem thus have more faith in the institutions, unlike LFI or RN voters. This group of variables also includes the level of populism, which broadly encompasses political sympathy or even voting: low levels of populist feelings among Emmanuel Macron’s voters and high levels among supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen.
    These variables are condensed into social positions and representations. They express the hierarchies of interests and values in the political field that the respondents define when they vote or decide to abstain. These variables must therefore be considered as political markers, but not as determinants of trust or distrust.
  • The second group is more related to traditional sociology, measuring an ‘objective’ social position according to the respondent’s socio-professional situation, age range, level of qualification, ‘subjective’ social position measured by the respondent’s own positioning in the social hierarchy (on a scale of 0 to 10), level of household income per consumption unit.
  • The third group contains axiological variables concerning the values of the respondents and their representations of the world: level of economic liberalism (e.g. reducing the number of civil servants, having faith in companies, etc.), degree of egalitarianism (income and lifestyles), cultural liberalism or societal tolerance (acceptance of others, empathy, low propensity to criminal repression), feeling of belonging to a national community or other community (or none), level of social autonomy (possibility of changing society through one’s choices and actions, determining the course of one’s life) or belief in the meritocracy (those who make an effort will succeed, the same rules apply to everyone, no need to know someone highly placed to succeed).

Meritocracy, an Essential Factor of Trust

A regression analysis of the different variables characterising the level of trust in French political institutions (town council, the government, the National Assembly, Senate) shows that the primary factor affecting this trust is belief in the meritocracy, followed by the feeling of belonging to a national community, the level of cultural liberalism and the perceived level of social autonomy. The first sociological variable, which comes quite far behind, is related to the subjective social position. None of the other variables have a significant effect on the level of trust in political institutions.
The fairness of the socio-political system, notably reward for merit, and its homogeneity (the national community), therefore lie at the heart of the trust relationship between citizens and the authorities. This relationship is a political construct of social cohesion and is independent of automatic projections of income or social/professional status. Political efforts may therefore become decisive in this area, notably in future discussions about macronism, whose priority in 2017 was specifically to strengthen meritocracy in the French society.



1 For the 11th and 12th waves of the barometer, these were Institut Montaigne, Fondapol (foundation for political innovation), Fondation Jean Jaurès, Interiale, CESE and Guido Carli university in Rome. Terra Nova also contributed to the 11th wave.
2 Bruno Cautrès  – «Résilience des institutions et lassitude des opinions», Note Le Baromètre de la confiance politique, vague 12, février 2021.
3 Luc Rouban, « Qui croit à l’égalité des chances et à la méritocratie en France ? », Note du Baromètre de la confiance politique,  vague 12, mars 2021.
4 Marc Lazar, From Populism to Populisms, Cogito, April 2021
5 Gilles Ivaldi, « Les inquiétudes économiques liées à la crise sanitaire peuvent-elles nourrir le populisme ? », Note du Baromètre de la confiance politique, vague 12, mars 2021.