The US is not the greatest country in the world. Is France?


Yesterday I read this piece by Shaun King. I know a few countries that, viewed from the outside, look obsessed by the idea that they are “the best place in the world”. Even without going that far, many countries like to brag (to outsiders too, but mostly to themselves) that they have the best [insert your answer here] in the world. French people have a reputation for being pretentious, but also for complaining a lot about their homeland. Today I will indulge in the latter. We all know what feels good about our countries, but do we know about what’s really bad about them?

“The 1st step to solving a problem is to recognise that there is a problem.” In this post, I will just go through the same topics as King did and discuss the ranking of France through some indicators. What are we good at, and what should we be really focusing on improving right now?

Disclaimer 1: Some people’s go-to answer to any nation-based criticism is “Leave if you don’t like it here.” A. Criticising does not mean you hate a place, and B. I already left, I don’t live in France anymore. As far as I can tell, that did not make our county’s issues suddenly disappear…

Disclaimer 2: Yes, yes, I am addressing my fellow countrypeople, I should write in French. But I found that international opinions seem to count more for a certain breed of people than criticism from the inside…


Prisons and police

France ranks 147th out of 222 countries for prison population rate.The website prisonstudies has handy tools to navigate prison data. It’s not a terrible score, but it’s nothing to be proud of either. We have been putting more and more people in prison since 1992; in 2011 we had 102 people in prison per 100 000 inhabitants. More than 1 in 5 of these prisoners are not even convicted people; they are just waiting for a trial. But where we have a terrible record is on how we overstuff our prisons, putting people in really bad conditions – our prisons are running at 116.6% capacity, and the state has been repeatedly condemned for mistreatment, and even for not respecting basic human rights by the European Court of Human Rights. Not really what you would expect when you think “France”. Then there is the issue of police violence. It’s nothing comparable to what has been happening in the US, but who would take that as a standard? Tensions between the police and poorer suburbs are no state secret, sometimes culminating in assault in death. The thing is… we have official numbers on violence against police, but none about the violences committed by police. We do have emblematic cases of people, overwhelmingly POC, assaulted or killed by the police. Tensions between the police and the people are never a good sign; no numbers about police violence is not a good sign; and what’s really a bad sign is that we have been criticised by Amnesty International (fr) for the impunity of our policemen when they do commit violent acts on people. About 20 people are killed by the police every year, but there are rarely any consequences for the policemen, and that is what is criticised by Amnesty.

France’s prisons and police: Not outrageous, but lots to improve.


Health care

99.9% of the French have health insurance. In its study of health systems around the world, the World Health Organisation says: “France provides the best overall health care followed among major countries by Italy, Spain, Oman, Austria and Japan”. Wow! That’s something to be happy about. Being sick in France won’t make you bankrupt, although I do find the dentist expensive. French people have been worried for years about the future of their healthcare: “le trou de la secu”, the hole in the health system budget. But things are looking good as this deficit is planned to reach its lowest level in 2017. Issues with health care can rather be found in the working conditions of doctors (in 2005 France was found not to respect the limits on working time fixed by Europe),  in the slowly dwindling numbers of doctors (fr), and in issues linked to gender: no official study here, but recent scandals have shown that women face gender-specific discrimination by medical professionals  (this is unfortunately hardly a French specificity).

French Health Care: I’ve had a number of astonishingly bad experiences, but who am I to argue with the WHO? “Best overall health care”! Congrats, France.



The PISA survey data can be found here. Compared to other countries in the OECD, we’re doing average in Science, and good in reading and gender equity. We’re doing really bad in equity between social backgrounds though, so bad in fact that we were ranked last in 2015. This report by the National Agency that evaluates French school system actually says that school is one of the causes of social inequalities. Don’t be born poor, and if you do, silly you, don’t go to a French school.

French Education System: average, but rife with inequalities.


Income inequality

In 2008, France was one of 5 OECD countries where income inequality was steadily decreasing (pdf). In 2013, we were ranked on a par with Germany and Hungary, still better than average but worse than in 2008. On the other hand, the gender wage gap of 14% had not budged since the 2000s, while it was decreasing from 18 to 15% in the whole OECD. At that rate we will soon be worse than the average, all because we haven’t evolved in 17 years.

French income inequality: Slightly better than average, but overall getting worse.


Quality of life

It’s no secret that French people used to pop up more antidepressant than anyone else in the world, but that’s not the case anymore. Let’s have a look at the Happiness Report: France ranks 31st out of 155 countries. Not bad at all! For a nation self-described as a country of whiners. The report explains French happiness in equal parts by the fact that they live in a rich country and by the strength of their social networks. We also have good life expectancy. However, we are apparently growing less and less happy, with one of the worse progression of the report, 24 places away from Venezuela (the worst progression). We’re still one of the most attractive countries for tourists although we are not the most competitive place for travel (pdf), we’re 2nd behind Spain. To be fair, Spain is where French people go when they need a break! It is worth noting that in terms of traveler safety (see also previous link), we are not even in the top 20. I don’t think a single tourist will be surprised by this news – it’s the most common complaint I hear.

French life: We’re getting less happy, but hey, at least we’re popping less pills. And it’s not that bad overall, especially if you are a traveler (but hold on your wallet).



There topics were not in King’s piece, which makes sense because his was tailored for the US. France ranks as one of the worst European countries for English language proficiency, doing only slightly better than Japan on the world ranking. We rank best at preventing “preventable deaths” thanks to timely and effective care. We’re 39th on the free press ranking, good but still our worse position since 2013.