OSLO — In Oslo, where snow falls abundantly, visibility is virtually nil. But what this white desert suggests is not melancholy à la Ibsen or a metaphysical Munch Scream. On the contrary, deep satisfaction and hope dominate here.
In other words, unlike the French, Norwegians are happy people. They claim to feel no remorse, have no complexes. In fact, whether young or old, Norwegians project an optimism that seems almost more Asian than Western. They don’t feel that yesterday was better than today, or that tomorrow will turn out to be more difficult. They still remember, in their genetic code, the extreme poverty that used to be theirs.
Of course it’s a particularly good moment for the Norwegians. The Olympic Games in Sochi brought the northern skiing nation a stash of medals.
Should Norway be considered to Europe what Singapore is to Asia, a model and source of inspiration? Certainly, there are considerable differences between a Norway rich in billions thanks to its energy resources and a city-state like Singapore that owes its wealth to hard work and inventiveness. But each country is, in its way, carrier of a message that extends beyond them.
Norway is proof positive that energy riches, transparency, modesty and honesty can coexist. Having an abundance of petrol and gas is not necessarily a curse. And Singapore can also answer to the Norwegian message, as it is a place where Asian culture and the rule of law both have their place. In Oslo, as in Singapore, there exists a kind of “proselytism.” Why wouldn’t you do what we do? Things could only go better for you if you did.
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The Troll A oil rig off the coast of Norway (swinsto101)
To explain their optimism and happiness — over and above their economic and financial security — Norwegians often point to their educational system. “The young have to start as early as possible to be happy,” insists my Norwegian interlocutor, a former foreign affairs minister who is very familiar with the French system. It is true that in this area the contrast with France couldn’t be greater.
“French unhappiness” starts in school, where the goal is not to open spirits but to eliminate — if not to destroy — the greatest number of students in the pursuit of identifying the best and brightest. It’s a system that reinforces — indeed appears to justify — inequality.
Of course, the Norwegian state can’t prevent the rise of populism or explosions of murderous madness. It is no longer necessary to belong to the EU — Switzerland has just provided the sad proof of that — for protectionist instincts to translate into identity issues. But, comforted in its decision to stay out of the EU by the “chaotic” evolution of the European project, Norway intends to find meaning well beyond itself.
The EU needs Norway
What can its global role be? Where can it be most useful? Should it focus on the African continent and its rise in power, the Middle East and its desperate quest for peace and stability, or look closer to home to a Europe that seems to be crumbling? Norway is worried about the continued decline of European status and voice in the world. Oslo seems to be saying to EU members: “You can do without us, you don’t need Norway in the EU. But can you do without the Norwegian model?”
In Norway, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of the government and those who preside over the country’s destiny. The State is modest and honest. The discrepancy between those with the most wealth and those with less is socially and ethically acceptable. Women really are the equals of men: There are as many women as men on the boards of large Norwegian companies. Finally, the treatment of immigrants — within limits, as one shouldn’t idealize the situation — is among the most humane in Europe.
The question of confidence in government is preoccupying EU countries, particularly in France, to the point of constituting a danger to democracy.
To think through their system, the French need not look to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or even the more recent Benin Letters — but to Norway. With all due respect to critics of Scandinavia, happiness does exist in Europe. I encountered it, a little over two hours of flying time from Paris.