‘Seum’ captures French malaise ahead of presidential election

Last November, the French newspaper Le Figaro published a glossary of slang for exasperated parents trying to understand their children. At the top of the list was seum, which the newspaper defined as “rabies”. In practice, the word covers the vagaries of adolescent angst, also evoking anger, disappointment and disgust. Someone feeling deeply frustrated might say “I’m in rage(or “I’m sick”), a variant of the common refrain of teenagers around the world: “It’s so unfair!”

Lately, however, the seum has captured a societal malaise in France that goes beyond disaffected teenagers. The word is heard in the football stands, seen in headlines and used across the political spectrum. The Seum is the name of a far-left youth magazine founded in 2020 that speaks out against big business and featured a comic of French-speaking icon Tintin starting a communist revolution. At the same time, the word arose in compromising texts sent by members of a violent far-right group last year.

There is something timeless in the word, which fits perfectly into the French tradition. From 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire‘s use of “spleen” to symbolize melancholy to words that have crept into English, such as boredom and unease, the French have a knack for conveying discontent. But the seum, which has become more widespread as it creeps into coverage of this month’s presidential election, uniquely reflects the country’s current political mood: feelings of dissatisfaction and resignation now transcend social divisions.

Last November, the French newspaper Le Figaro published a glossary of slang for exasperated parents trying to understand their children. At the top of the list was seum, which the newspaper defined as “rabies”. In practice, the word covers the vagaries of adolescent angst, also evoking anger, disappointment and disgust. Someone feeling deeply frustrated might say “I’m in rage(or “I’m sick”), a variant of the common refrain of teenagers around the world: “It’s so unfair!”

Lately, however, the seum has captured a societal malaise in France that goes beyond disaffected teenagers. The word is heard in the football stands, seen in headlines and used across the political spectrum. The Seum is the name of a far-left youth magazine founded in 2020 that speaks out against big business and featured a comic of French-speaking icon Tintin starting a communist revolution. At the same time, the word arose in compromising texts sent by members of a violent far-right group last year.

There is something timeless in the word, which fits perfectly into the French tradition. From 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire’s use of “spleen” to symbolize melancholy to words that have crept into English, such as boredom and unease, the French have a knack for conveying discontent. But the seum, which has become more widespread as it creeps into coverage of this month’s presidential election, uniquely reflects the country’s current political mood: feelings of dissatisfaction and resignation now transcend social divisions.

Seum comes from week, Arabic for “venom”. It was first used as slang in the suburbs, the urban cities that haunt the French popular imagination. Associated with immigrants, rap and riots, the French media has long stereotyped the suburbs as no-go zones with their own codes and slang. “The word was introduced into the language by Maghrebi culture,” said Jean-Pierre Goudaillier, a linguistics professor at Sorbonne University who has studied suburban patois for more than 30 years. It translates seum with more force: “hate”.

Slang has long signaled rebellion in France. In the 1980s and 1990s, young people spoke in verlana language convention in which key words in sentences are spoken backwards: for example, women (or “woman”) becomes girl. The syllable inversion was symbolic, says Goudaillier, a “rejection of the society to which you belong”. Now, suburban youth are looking to their own identity for language inspiration.

Many age-old French words have Arabic origins, but in recent years Arabic slang has entered the mainstream. The popular use of words like seum and to like (“to savor”), which comes from the Arabic word for hashish, reflects the demographic changes of recent decades. Immigrants to France increasingly come from North Africa rather than other European countries: In 2021, 12.7% of immigrants to France were born in Algeria and 12% in Morocco.

This slang has traveled beyond the suburbs through music videos, films and social media. Goudaillier said that the adoption of the language by the bourgeoisie is a form of struggle against the status quo. “Young people who are not from the suburbs take on the fighting values ​​of the young people from the suburbs,” he said. In 2017, the seum was so widespread among French youth that it caused a semi-satirical play in the Algerian newspaper Oran Dailywho mocks the French for cultural appropriation: “Not only did they conquer our country, but they also came to borrow our rich cultural heritage.”

Seum really entered the French lexicon during the World Cup in 2018, when the media used the word to describe the alleged poor sportsmanship of Belgium, the neighbor the French despise the most. Newspapers included the word in bold above photos of discouraged Belgian footballers. When the Belgians lost again against the French in 2021, The Team abstract their bitter disappointment in four words:The seum, twice(or “Twice, the seum”).

Since then, seum has captured a certain political mood in France. In a recent survey, 75 percent of respondents agree that France is in decline. Even though the country economy is recovering from the pandemic recession, the French remain gloomy. The pandemic has further lowered morale. Faced with spiraling cases of depression, French President Emmanuel Macron announced last fall that the government would fund therapy sessionsimproving access for citizens.

In the midst of all this, Macron did not offer hope that he promised as a young liberal centrist. For many citizens, the president appears as imperious but unable to implement substantial reforms, such as for the unions or the pension system. Now Macron is drive out voters on the right emphasizing law and order, promising to double number of police in the streets.

Meanwhile, the French left is divided as never before, with its dominant candidate lagging in the polls as people opt for far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Conservative presidential hopefuls Marine Le Pen, Valérie Pécresse and Éric Zemmour offer little hope for France’s immigrant population, although Le Pen’s rhetoric about the rising cost of living appears to be resonating with the electorate. She is now climbing in the polls ahead of the first-round vote on April 10.

In this political climate, anger is not confined to any segment of the population. Over a drink in Paris recently, a friend told me that the seum “encompasses this sense of downward social mobility both on a personal level – many French people think they are worse off than their parents – but also on the national level, the feeling that France is a small country which is not respected and which has little weight on the international scene. He surmised that the far right and immigrant communities share this sentiment. “In fact, the word is almost unifying,” he said.

It’s no longer just people in the suburbs who feel left behind, Goudaillier said, pointing to the yellow vests (or “yellow vests”) who first staged nationwide protests against the cost of gasoline in 2018. Their demonstrations reflected a growing sense of discontent among the French working class. “These young people and those who are older identify with those who live in the suburbs,” he said.. They believe they face an existence just as precarious as those in the suburbs, so it’s no surprise they’ve adopted the same vocabulary.

In turn, the word seum is mobilized within the political sphere. Write in the left journal Cheers last summer, political journalist Loic le Clerc used the term five times to mock politicians whose lack of appeal resulted in high voter turnout in regional elections. He accused La République En Marche of Macron! party of the seum as well as the National Rally, whose rising star Andréa Kotarac fizzled with only 11% of the votes in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. “It’s supposed to be irreverent,” Cleric said in an interview. “We respect politicians, but at the same time, there is a limit.”

For those on the French left, perhaps the word is simply not deep enough to capture the gravity of the current political conundrum, with Macron still poised to win the election despite his perceived failures. “For the left-wing voter, the situation is more serious than the seum,” said Le Clerc. “Seeing him still there, with his big smile, that’s what gives me the seum.”

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