By Kim Willsher in Paris
The French seem to have a tendency to feel nothing but doom and gloom.
Gallic gloom drove one-quarter of the French population to reach for pills to cheer them up, help them to sleep or calm them down last year.
The depth of despair to which France has descended is revealed in a new study into the use of mood-altering medication. It found that doctors prescribed an unprecedented 120 million boxes of mood-altering drugs, known as psychotropes, including anti-depressants, sleeping tablets and tranquillisers.
It has long been known that the French suffer from Les Bleus - nothing to do with the national football team of the same name that lost the World Cup final a week ago - and are the champions when it comes to taking anti-depressants.
The research, by scientists from Bordeaux, found that almost a quarter of all French - more than 15 million people - admitted taking psychotropes in the past year. This is four times more than in Germany, three times more than in Holland and 1.6 times more than their World Cup football rivals, the Italians. The French consume FIVE times as many tranquillisers as the British.
One-third of the French population has taken mood-altering pills. Women take twice as many as men - especially after the age of 60. More worryingly, a quarter of all girls and a fifth of boys have been prescribed them before they reach 18, usually during adolescence.
The question researchers sought to answer was why, in a country that boasts of a better quality of life than its European neighbours, where workers enjoy a maximum 35-hour working week and retire early, and where the climate is generally clement, the population is so miserable.
Prof Bernard Bégaud, one of the authors of the 539-page report, Good Use of Psychotropic Drugs, said the French had every reason to be happy. "They are people who should be content and not have a complaint about anything, but who actually complain all the time. It's a culture of intolerance, individualism and never being satisfied."
Prof Bégaud and his research colleagues said that in 82 per cent of cases patients were prescribed psychotropes by general practitioners with no psychiatric training. "The average appointment with a GP in France lasts eight minutes. The logical solution when faced with someone who is depressed, stressed or cannot sleep would be to talk to them and find out what is wrong," he said. "But advice takes longer than eight minutes so it's easier to write a prescription."
Last year the medical magazine Le Quotidien du Médecin sent two women pretending to have stress, sleep and anxiety problems to 60 GPs across France. All the doctors approached wrote prescriptions for tranquillisers.
"It's clear GPs find it very difficult to refuse a request for these drugs," concluded the magazine.
The recent report, which was commissioned by the French parliament, also blamed lobbying by pharmaceutical companies for persuading non-specialist doctors to reach for their prescription pads. It said that half of those who had taken anti-depressants and more than two-thirds of those taking tranquillisers and sleeping tablets had no psychiatric problem requiring them.
Conversely, half of those diagnosed with genuine psychiatric or psychological problems had not been prescribed the drugs.
The use of such psychotropes - sleeping tablets, tranquilisers and anti-depressants - cost the French health service €1 billion (£700 million) in 2004, up from €300 million at today's prices in 1980.
Medical experts question the efficacy of such drugs, since France also has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's latest figures for 1999 show 17.5 out of every 100,000 French take their own lives every year, compared with 11.9 Canadians, 10.4 Americans, 7.5 Britons and 7.1 Italians .
"I was shocked to discover how we are such big users of these medicines," said Prof Bégaud.
"I think the level of use of these drugs is an indication of the malaise in our civilisation. If I was a politician I would look at these figures and say there is something really wrong in France."