Commentary Magazine

Study of Man: The French Turn to Psychoanalysis

France, the country of reason and clarity, has always been cool to psychoanalysis, the science of the unreasonable. But recently there has been a turnabout, and the doctrines of Freud have been adopted with all the intensity characteristic of French intellectual life. Sherry Mangan here tries to trace the social and political causes for this minor revolution in the French cultural climate. 




A remarkable phenomenon about France has for several decades passed relatively unnoticed, save by the practitioners of psychoanalysis themselves. With the highest reputation for hospitality to advanced ideas and the greatest tolerance concerning sexual matters, that country, alone of the advanced Western nations, stubbornly rejected the new branch of medicine and its accent on sexuality. An anti-Freudian sociologist might reply offhand that there are no grounds for astonishment here: the freedom with which the French treat sex relieves them of many of the problems that call for psychoanalysis in other countries.

The answer is apt but it overlooks certain new facts. French psychoanalysis today is overwhelmed by patients; and the existing analysts are worked to a frazzle trying to cope with the flood of medical students and practicing physicians wanting to undergo training analyses prior to becoming analysts themselves. Yet French moeurs have not visibly changed in the direction of puritanism. There must be other reasons why that nation which used merrily to quote that “the chains of marriage are so heavy that it takes three to bear them” now seems to need a fourth in the person of the psychoanalyst.

But, first, why was France so resistant till now? Of the previous resistance itself there is no question. In Freud’s own History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914) he complains: “Of the European countries, France has so far shown herself the least receptive . . .”; and Jankélévitch, translator of the first of Freud’s books to appear in French, in 1921, prefaces it: “Psychoanalysis, which for over twenty years has produced impassioned discussions and an abundant literature in German-speaking and Anglo-Saxon countries, was until a few months ago known in France only by hearsay, and the majority of those who risked speaking of it at all thought it smart to make fun of it. . . .” Despite courageous pioneering by such practitioners as Allendy, Hesnard, Laforgue, Moricheau-Beauchant, Regis, and Sokolnicka, and such publishers as Payot, and Denoël and Steele, French resistance—by doctors, intellectuals, and the general public, each from varying causes—was still monumental ten and even fifteen years later.



For psychologists and the medical profession generally, this resistance to psychoanalysis was mostly a phenomenon of uneven historical development. The advance of knowledge has frequently had a way of proceeding by national spurts; and that nation which has headed the procession has often resisted recognizing the validity of another nation’s bid for leadership. France took up experimental psychology later than Germany, Britain, the United States, and Austria; but when it did, it made a fresh start and a tremendous spurt forward under such brilliant leaders as Charcot, Ribot, Binet, and Janet, and worked out a general system far superior to the then accepted German school of Wundt.

By 1889 it had definitely turned its back on the tedious eclectic and metaphysical views which had previously passed for “psychology” in France, and had plunged into laboratory experiment, in which Binet particularly excelled. Ribot defined his method as “studying psychological facts from without, not from within; in the material facts into which they are translated, not in the consciousness which gives birth to them.” Janet’s publications on neuroses between 1889 and 1903 were unquestionably the most brilliant of their kind in that time. Well before World War I, psychology in France was characteristically a crystallized “system” in which the French had, as it were, a vested interest. Upstart foreigners were ill-viewed.

Such was French psychology’s prestige, indeed, that it was an early and determinant influence on Freud himself. In 1885 he spent a year in Paris studying under the master Charcot and translating his works; and thenafter went to Nancy to examine the advanced methods of Liébault and Bemheim. But he did not stop there: using this merely as a point of departure, he went on to develop the medical discipline called psychoanalysis, which by the turn of the century was sufficiently established to return and knock on the door of the dominant French school. Its reception was, and remained, cold and unfriendly.



The first three decades of this century were a highly nationalistic period in France, and even science, alas, is not always above national prejudices. Thus, as for Viennese psychoanalysis, even if it were good, the French wouldn’t like it. But beyond this, they honestly thought psychoanalysis a step backward. Though in their philosophical approach Ribot and Janet were swept along by the idealist reaction in philosophy (and Bergson was significantly their pupil), in their techniques they were materialists, and considered Freud’s “consulting-room” technique a scientific retreat from laboratory methods. And they could equally ill bear the fact that in its early stages this technique was of necessity empirical as compared to their Gallically logical “systems.”

Thus the body of French doctors closed their minds. The intelligent layman was further prejudiced by two secondary contributory factors. To the French, notoriously conservative linguistically, Freudian scientific terminology sounded like gobbledygook. For it must not be forgotten that the Gallic nation, with its incomprehensibly academic refusal to permit neologisms, foreign terms, its own genial slang, and even correctly formed paronymous derivatives (characteristically called “barbarisms” in France) to enrich its literary and scientific language as English has been enriched, has made of French an extremely beautiful dead language rather like ancient Greek. These bearded prejudices were so strong that, for example, Allendy and Laforgue in their early Psychoanalyse et Névroses had to write a special preface and Gallicize Freud’s terminology to try to overcome them. The situation was further complicated by the fact that, since the first serious books on psychoanalysis for the layman did not appear in France till about 1935. the first that most intellectuals heard of Freud was from the Surrealists. And however great Surrealism’s artistic achievements may have been, it was hardly the most indicated spokesman for persuading the average intellectual that the basis of the new science of psychoanalysis was rational and materialist.



Such intellectuals were above all prejudiced, through either this source or another, by a total misunderstanding of the methodology of psychoanalysis. They got it firmly in their brilliantly agitated heads that psychoanalysis was irrational. And in France that is a fighting word. What one may roughly call the Cartesian tradition has been the great methodological stumbling block in the French effort to understand psychoanalysis. Rationalism to most Frenchmen turns out to mean: formalism in logic, systematization in method, and the preeminence of reason in psychology.

French language and reasoning are neatly summarized by Buffon’s “Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français (What’s not clear, is not French).” But by “clear” they seem to mean merely transparent, easily definable, uncontradictory: hence their passion for formal logic and their instinctive incapacity to understand Hegelian or other dialectics. “A door,” they like to quote, “is open or it is shut.” So it is not surprising that they threw up their hands at such a Freudian fundamental as ambivalence, let alone psychoanalysis’ whole dynamics of non-commonsense contradictions.

Pragmatism is another bête noire to the average French intellectual. It caused France to disregard almost totally such figures as John Stuart Mill and William James at the height of their world fame. Verifiable results rarely interest the French as much as their classification in systems, those “monuments of reasoning.” It would be harsh but not unjust to call them a nation of philosophers. Hence Freudianism, which seeks above all results and is not a philosophy (any philosophy in its current practice being contraband smuggled in by bad practitioners), seemed to them suspect.

A third characteristic of French culture is its belief—or hope—that man is increasingly controlled by reason and logic. The Cartesian tradition distinguished man from other animals by that faculty, and held all else in man to be animal, mechanical. The dominant school of psychology was one of pure rationalism. To such minds the idea that emotional drives can control and deform reason is a particularly distasteful one. And thought that is not visibly purposive and rational always seems to them suspect: perhaps the most frequent and sharpest admonition one hears French mothers shout to their children when they are absent-minded is: “Ne rêve pas! (Don’t dream!).” Even the Romantic, and later the Bergsonian, revolts against reason’s predominance were only the other side of this same coin—nothing, for example, could be more antithetical to Bergsonian idealism, with its tendency to wobble off into mysticism, than materialist psychoanalysis.

It is singular how crass was the widespread French belief that psychoanalytic method is irrational. What in fact is irrational about psychoanalysis, as the late Otto Fenichel stated with unimprovable brevity in his classic Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, is not the method but the subject matter.



A third factor of resistance was the fact that France was predominantly a Catholic country. Not, as might be supposed, because the Gallic Church thundered openly against psychoanalysis as a heresy. From former sad experiences, the French episcopate has learned not to engage in frontal fights with science, but to use the science-religion dichotomy on a render-unto-Caesar bias. Medically, it left ail indisputably somatic matters to mechanist-minded physicians in order the better to claim the province of the “soul.” Hence, faced with Freudianism, it has been far more prudent than the Hiberno-American Church, and there has occurred in France no such incident as Monsignor Sheen’s obscurantist attack in 1947 on the distinguished Catholic analyst Dr. Frank J. Curran.

But the Gallic Church watched warily a therapy that made confession constructive and treated God as an interesting symptomatic concept which it neither supported nor opposed; and the episcopate gave it neither welcome nor encouragement. The appearance in the late 20’s of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, hardly a work of piety, doubtless jarred it severely; and by then the new science seemed to have got a stubborn toe-hold in France. Yet the Gallic Church proceeded, as in other matters, to absorb as much as possible of what it could not eliminate. Hence France now rejoices in numerous Catholic analysts and even a priest-analyst—not surprisingly, he is a Jesuit.

Thus it was less the opposition of the episcopate than the existence of confession that was the main religious factor in hindering the greater acceptance of psychoanalysis. And this in two ways. There can be little doubt that the function of the confessional as a periodic safety-valve for intolerable feelings of guilt lowered the whole defensive struggle to a bearable level for thousands of devout and neurotic Catholics. The anti-clericals provided the other side of the medallion: after a century of fighting the Church and its confessional, they regarded with a particularly fishy eye an esoteric therapy centered round a confessional technique. Thus, psychoanalysis attracted opposition from both sides.



All the foregoing reasons, however, are but minor compared to the fundamental causes of the French lack of interest in psychoanalysis: their national moeurs and temperament.

In all countries there are, roughly, three moralities: (1) the official morality embalmed in laws, religion, education, and public declarations; (2) the real morality as practiced in private; and (3) the generally accepted compromise somewhere between these two extremes—which constitutes, so to speak, the country’s moral atmosphere, puritanical the more it approaches the first, tolerant the more it approaches the second. France has long had the well-merited reputation of being the most tolerant country in the Western world. Even during the Victorian period, when in other lands Puritanism reached an apex, France tolerantly accepted open or hidden double sex life—a social ambience strengthened by its literature and theater. And save in a minority of exceptionally severe families, infantile masturbation was not treated by the French with the melodramatic hullabaloo of horrendous threats that in other cultures has deformed so many lives.

Janet sensed this, but got it amazingly upside-down. He had the disarming gall to assert that “psychoanalysis could have originated only in a city like Vienna, with its atmosphere of sensuality and immorality not to be found in other cities.” This from a Parisian! Freud dryly commented: “If the assumptions had been of the opposite kind, we might be inclined to listen.” But even if he got it by the wrong end, Janet had grabbed the right stick. It is no accident that psychoanalysis originated in a certain city at a certain time, and that its main developer and the majority of his followers were Jews.1 And it is equally no accident that the French, less heavily laden than Anglo-Saxon and Germanic nations with intolerable guilt feelings consequent on the conflicts between their instinctual drives and their country’s publicly accepted mores, felt no need of therapy to rid them of that guilt.

Reinforcing the mores is the important factor of national temperament, and its expression in personal independence and a live-and-let-live attitude. “Fais ce que vouldras (Do what you want)” Rabelais proclaimed as the summurn of wisdom. He could have saved his breath: the French always have and always will. It is possible in Paris to wander past the cafes on a Sunday afternoon in Indian chief’s regalia, complete with war paint, with hardly a glance from the terrace sitters. More importantly, tics, phobias, hypochrondrias, compulsive rituals, perversions, manic excitations, depressive glum-nesses all pass, if not unnoticed, at least un-interfered with. Anyone has a right, the French feel, to his moods, his manies, and his eccentricities.

There thus becomes immediately apparent a sharp contrast with the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries, where there is an all-pervasive social pressure, whose strength it is impossible to exaggerate, toward conformity: the norm to be conformed to varies, but the pressure to conformism is unrelenting. And it is all too sadly effective: deviations from socially accepted behavior lead to widespread introspection and inner anxiety, and have to be constantly explained and justified to other people. There grows a constant uncertainty and anxiety about one’s own behavior. The French think this a huge joke, and adore the inverted greeting they attribute to one New York analyst meeting another on Park Avenue: “You’re fine, thanks. How am I?” Where the “maladjusted” German or Anglo-Saxon was drawn to the analyst’s office, the Frenchman of the first three decades of the century could live in peace with his neurosis or character disturbance, since his acquaintances were neither surprised nor offended by it and didn’t chivy him on the subject. On the contrary, excessive normality of behavior seemed in itself suspect and undesirable; and there is the true story of a young woman on whom psychoanalysis was urged to correct pronounced infantilisms of behavior; she refused, assuming that if she were successfully analyzed she’d “be able to make love only one way, which would render life intolerably dull.”

Foreigners have for years understandably thrown up their hands in hopeless exasperation before the general indiscipline and pagaïe (“snafu”) of French life, with the exclamation, “They’re all crazy!” So they are, a bit; what we overlook is the fact that they like it that way. Jean Cocteau could recently complain in an interview on his return from New York that Americans were always on time for appointments, and he sighed with relief at regaining “notre cher désordre parisien (our dear Parisian disorder).” The French indeed have their own word for it. “We are not,” they like to say complacently, “grégaires, like you other peoples.” Grégaire turns out to mean, not gregarious in the English sense, but socially conscious in the sense of giving at least half a damn what anyone thinks of your behavior. Yet justice obliges one to add that the French tradition of tolerance and non-interference has permitted individuals of neurotic tendencies but high intelligence to develop what psychoanalysis calls “compensations” and “secondary gains” to an extent unequalled in other cultures.



Such then appear to be the main reasons why France was so slow to accept psychoanalysis. And it was slow. In 1913 Hesnard, Moricheau-Beauchant, and Regis were distinctly voices crying in the desert. Though in 1921 the first serious works began to be published, and Sokolnicka, Allendy, and Laforgue started their stubborn struggle, progress in the 20’s dragged, and it was not till the mid-30’s that the tide definitively turned. From then till the war’s outbreak the rhythm of growth spurted. During the occupation French psychoanalysis had to stop or go underground, since it was anathema to the Nazis.2 But with the Liberation there burst out a boom that has all but overwhelmed France. One statistic will suffice: applications from students and physicians for training analyses in preparation for practice have jumped from five per year before the war to five per week today, and the training committee of the Society of Psychoanalysts thus has its pick of high-caliber students. The universities are beginning to give official recognition: chairs in psychoanalysis have been established at the Sorbonne and Strasbourg. Something has certainly happened.

Is it because any or all of the causes of the long resistance of the French to Freud’s ideas have been spectacularly reversed?

Hardly. Doctors are, it is true, flocking to the new branch, but they are very few compared to the medical corps as a whole, which continues to regard Freudianism with great reservations. The work of popularization has made some progress since 1935, but nothing like that in the United States. French intellectuals generally have recovered neither from their strange notion that psychoanalytic method is irrational, nor from the limitations of their neo-Cartesianism. The influence of the Church and the practice of confession have not visibly diminished—rather the contrary if anything. French moeurs have not become suddenly Calvinistic: no one is refused entry into France for “moral turpitude”; having a mistress does not unfit a man to hold office or practice a profession; and even the closing of the houses of prostitution was motivated by a crisis of housing rather than conscience. Though political polarization has shortened tempers and personalized polemics, the national temperament of tolerance and non-interference is not fundamentally changed. And if there are social pressures, they are at least multiple and mutually contradictory. As for individualism and pagaïe, ne trip through Paris traffic or to a government bureau will demonstrate that the French are in no immediate danger of voluntary regimentation.



It thus seems probable, if the causes of the previous resistance to analysis have not been reversed, that new causes for acceptance have arisen and overcome them. An intimation of what these may be can be gained from a significant passage in an essay by Dr. Franz Alexander (“Present Trends in Psychiatry and the Future Outlook,” in Studies in Psychosomatìc Medicine, New York, Ronald, 1948): “. . . there can be no doubt that the extreme sexual repression of the Victorian era was responsible for the prominent role which Freud attributed to sexuality in the causation of neuroses. Sexuality acquired this significant role not because of some basic biological reasons, but because of the repressive method of handling its manifestations within the family and in public life during the Victorian period.

“In our present days another nuclear emotional conflict stands out. It centers around emotional insecurity, a conflict between competitive ambition and stress upon individual accomplishment, and a deep longing for dependence and security. The ideals of individual initiative, endurance, and self-reliance, and of an adventurous enterprising spirit . . . are still alive, but their successful realization is becoming more and more difficult in our present complex interdependent society in which mammoth corporations, on the one hand, and the all-powerful trade unions, on the other, are desperately combatting the great impersonal demons of our times: the inexorable laws of the business cycle and unemployment. This social atmosphere is the ideal breeding place of insecurity and the longing for dependence, both attitudes so diametrically opposed to the traditional love of freedom of spirit and action. And thus we recognize the central neurotic conflict of our present days—the conflict between individualistic ideals and a longing for order, security, and dependence. . . .

“Fears and hostilities, frustrations and thwarted hopes, exaggerated ambitions and discouragement may lead to mental and nervous symptoms or to disturbed human relations.”

Though written primarily about America, Alexander’s words, as applied to France, are very revealing. The fact that Victorian repressive methods toward sexual manifestations were never much practiced in France apparently saved that country from the widespread hysterical syndromes that plagued less liberal lands and made so much work for the analysts therein. But what of those neuroses and character disorders centered around fears, aggressions, frustrations, and above all insecurity, which Alexander terms “the central neurotic conflict” of our times? Has there been a change in the objective conditions of living in France that parallels the country’s changing attitude to psychoanalysis?

With the exception of the spirit of revanche toward Germany left over from the 1870 defeat, the French mentality from 1900 to 1914 was characterized by general contentment and the sublime confidence that French civilization was a fine and finished product. For case histories one need only consult certain of Anatole France’s novels. In a state of bourgeois self-satisfaction reinforced by economic stability and the rationalist tradition, the typical Frenchman lived with a profound sense of security, seeing his country as the center of culture, confident of its values, enjoying its pleasant life. It was symptomatically unusual for him to travel outside France: “On est tellement bien id, quoi (It’s so nice here).” He was, it is true, politely hospitable to many foreign ideas, but only as an intellectual exercise and to the extent that they could be neatly incorporated in his own systems. World War I was unquestionably a severe emotional shock, yet France won it and, despite considerable human and material destruction and a sharp currency devaluation, her postwar adjustment was smoother than in most other combatant countries. The 20’s were prosperous and gay, and the average Frenchman’s conviction that he lived in the world’s most desirable country was confirmed this time by a tourist flood tremendous enough to balance the huge foreign-trade deficit.

But with 1931 all began to change with nightmare speed. France faced: a severe economic depression with mass unemployment, exacerbated by a deliberately deflationary policy; constant political tension, highlighted by such events as the fascist riots in the Place de la Concorde in 1934 and the revolutionary strikes of 1936; the mounting certainty of war, reaching a nerve-shattering peak in the 1938 Munich crisis; the war itself, with the nightmare exodus and the crushing defeat; the privations and dangers of the interminable German occupation, as dreary as it was murderous, and the smoldering civil war of the Resistance; the sharp disappointment that the privations did not end with the long-awaited “Liberation” but were aggravated by inflation; political polarization in which a weak centrist government sits uneasily on the lid of a potential civil war; and above all the horrible certainty, as the United States and Russia provoke each other, of another war to end, not wars, but civilization itself, with France as a principal battlefield.

Under increasing tension, with their sense of security utterly undermined, all their values brought into question, more and more French fell prey to anxieties, fears, rages, hostilities, guilts, and obsessions. Difficult and often intolerable objective conditions remobilized hitherto controllable neurotic conflicts arising from childhood; and the neurotic behavior of such parents toward their children inevitably created neurotic tendencies in the latter. It is not surprising that more and more French individuals are breaking down, feel that they “cannot go on,” and turn to the psychoanalyst. The most frequent type of case coming for treatment, according to one distinguished French analyst, is the character disturbance signalized by breakdown in adaptation, an incapacity any longer to face daily life and its insoluble problems.



It would thus seem that in digging out the real reason for the surprising reversal of France’s attitude toward psychoanalysis, we are touching on a phenomenon whose significance far transcends the limits of French culture: the increasing predominance of the sociological and economic factor in mental health. For though the deep original conflicts predisposing to the central neuroses of today lie as ever in the oral, anal, and genital stages of infancy, the inciting external factors that aggravate them to the point of full neurotic breakdown are visibly sociological and economic.

Once, therefore, the problem of Victorian repressions and the resultant hysterical syndromes are cleared away as only minimally applicable to French culture, France is seen to differ now from the rest of the Western world not in kind but in degree: instability is greater, contradictions sharper, confusion more confounded. And to the extent that the tradition of individualistic independence was most intense in France, the relatively helpless situation of the individual in our vast industrial societies has struck the harder against the Frenchman’s sense of security and all the ideals which his education had inculcated. One important part of this nexus of new problems is well summarized by Fenichel in the work already cited: “Historically the authoritarian type of ideal was unopposed in feudalism; the subjects actually were provided for if they renounced their independence, and the mental readiness of the majority of people to accept such dependence was needed in order to preserve society. Rising capitalism brought the opposite ideal. Free competition needed the new ideals of liberty and equality. The subsequent development of capitalism, however, not only created anew a majority of people who had to be kept contented in relative frustration and dependency, but economic contradictions made the entire society unstable to such a degree that, with the disappearance of free competition, authoritarian necessities also appeared again. At the same time everybody feels endangered in any attempt to get solidly established—and even in his very existence; this makes the single individual’s activities hopeless, and thus regressive longings for passive-receptive regulation come to the fore again. . . .”

Politically, such psychological predispositions give food for not particularly pleasant thought. Economically, Fenichel’s remarks much illuminate the emotional conflicts aroused by what it seems increasingly sardonic to call “free enterprise.” The whole economic trend from artisanal manufacture through medium-sized factories to the rationalized monopoly corporation has aggravated severely the already difficult enough mental conflicts of the man conditioned to the ideal o£ himself as a successful independent operator. He is supposed to show qualities of aggressiveness within socially permitted limits by engaging in business rivalries in which his success means someone else’s failure (and resentment), and to use methods and practices whose morality, if he is to be successful, are in conflict with a whole series of other moral values he has been simultaneously taught. This was hard enough fifty years ago, but today the individual’s success is so unlikely and the struggle takes place against a background of such terrifying uncertainty that his instinct is more and more to abandon the uneven and dangerous fight and to seek refuge by collapse into the paternalistic arms of the all-enveloping monopoly corporation or state. In France, where the tradition of small business has long been a national ideal, this universal situation is, naturally, especially acute.

France is, furthermore, full of hate today. The new irritability of the postwar French that has so startled American tourists is only the superficial surface symptom of internal tensions of intolerable rage and hostility. With Gaullists and Communists at one another’s throats, one senses that minds are full of murder. It occurs occasionally in Paris that one witnesses a verbal “acting-out” under the release of alcohol, and the violence is something that must be heard to be believed. The stenographic record of the recent Kravchenko damage suit is peppered with the most amazingly overt threats of eventual assassination. On the other hand, those who fear their own aggressiveness and turn it inward react into paralyzing fears and uncertainty; and it is no accident that thousands of Frenchmen have turned in fear and hope to the well-meaning pacifism of the Garry Davis movement as a supposed shield against the universally sensed forces of hatred and war.



These are only a few of the manifold aspects of an immensely complicated situation that I do not pretend to cover, much less exhaust. But they suffice to give the clue to what is happening to French mental health. Elsewhere in the work mentioned above, Fenichel makes the following fundamental statement: “Neuroses are the outcome of unfavorable and socially determined educational measures, corresponding to a given and historically determined social milieu and necessary in this milieu. They cannot be changed without corresponding change in the milieu.” In France today the old milieu is in process of violent disintegration without as yet the guarantee of the establishment of a new and healthier one. Without the creation of that new milieu, the incidence of neuroses, psychoses, and character disturbances will inevitably rise. And with the failure to establish a more humane social system, the boom in psychoanalysis bids fair to accelerate.




1 A joke current in Britain in the 30’s ran: “Patient: ‘Why are you the analyst and I the patient, after all?’ Analyst: ‘Because I had the luck to be born a Viennese Jew, whereas you have to learn how.’”

2 Psychoanalysis, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. The third in the anti-Freudian coalition, beside the Hiberno-American Church and Nazism, is Stalinism. French Communist and fellow-traveling papers have lately been deafening everyone with diatribes, whose evasion of facts is equalled only by their excess of violence, against psychoanalysis as an “ideology of low police and espionage.” Furthermore, these spokesmen thunder, there is no difference between “good” and “bad” psychoanalysis; it is all merely a weapon of “American imperialism.” This last precision is for the benefit of the numerous Stalinist analysts, who are beginning to look a little neurotic around the edges.

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