Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

The Malaise Poisoning French Politics

There’s a word for the anger and disappointment French voters are feeling: “seum.”

By , a British and French freelance journalist.
An illustration of the French word "seum" reflected in a woman's sunglasses as her lip curls.
An illustration of the French word "seum" reflected in a woman's sunglasses as her lip curls.
Samy Halim illustration for Foreign Policy

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

Lately, though, seum has captured a societal malaise in France that goes beyond teenage malcontents. The word is heard in soccer stands, seen in headlines, and used across the political spectrum. Le Seum is the name of a far-left youth magazine founded in 2020 that rails against big business and has featured a cartoon strip of Francophone icon Tintin starting a communist revolution. At the same time, the word cropped up in incriminating texts sent by members of a violent far-right group last year.

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

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

Lately, though, seum has captured a societal malaise in France that goes beyond teenage malcontents. The word is heard in soccer stands, seen in headlines, and used across the political spectrum. Le Seum is the name of a far-left youth magazine founded in 2020 that rails against big business and has featured a cartoon strip of Francophone icon Tintin starting a communist revolution. At the same time, the word cropped up in incriminating texts sent by members of a violent far-right group last year.

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

Seum comes from sèmm, Arabic for “venom.” It was first used as slang in the banlieues, the urban housing projects that haunt France’s popular imagination. Associated with immigrants, rap, and riots, the French media have long stereotyped the banlieues as no-go areas with their own codes and slang. “The word was introduced into the language by Maghreb culture,” said Jean-Pierre Goudaillier, a linguistics professor at the Sorbonne University who has studied the patois of the banlieues for more than 30 years. He translates seum more forcefully: “hate.”

Slang has long signaled rebellion in France. In the 1980s and 1990s, young people spoke in verlan, a language convention in which key words in sentences are said backward: For example, femme (or “woman”) becomes meuf. The inversion of syllables was symbolic, Goudaillier said, a “rejection of the society to which you belong.” Now, young people in the banlieues are looking to their own identities for linguistic inspiration.

Slang has long signaled rebellion in France.

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

This slang has traveled beyond the banlieues by way of music videos, films, and social media. Goudaillier said the uptake of the language among the bourgeoisie is a form of fighting the status quo. “Young people who are not from the banlieues take on the combat values of the young people of the banlieues,” he said. By 2017, seum was so widespread among French youth that it provoked a semi-satirical piece in the Algerian newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, which poked fun at the French for cultural appropriation: “Not only did they conquer our country, 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 supposed poor sportsmanship of Belgium, the neighbor the French disdain most. Newspapers included the word in bold above photos of dejected Belgian soccer players. When the Belgians lost again to the French in 2021, L’Equipe summed up their bitter disappointment in four words: “Le seum, deux fois” (or “Two times, le seum”).

Since then, seum has captured a certain political mood in France. In a recent poll, 75 percent of respondents agreed that France was in decline. Even though the country’s economy is recovering after the pandemic recession, the French remain gloomy. The pandemic has lowered spirits even further. Faced with spiraling cases of depression, French President Emmanuel Macron announced last fall that the government would fund therapy sessions, improving access for citizens.

Amid all this, Macron hasn’t offered the hope he promised as a young liberal centrist. To many citizens, the president comes across as imperious yet unable to implement substantial reforms, such as for trade unions or the pension system. Now, Macron is chasing voters on the right by focusing on law and order, promising to double the number of police on the streets.

Meanwhile, France’s left is divided as never before, with their mainstream candidate trailing in the polls as people opt for the 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, though Le Pen’s rhetoric on the rise of cost of living seems 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 atmosphere, anger isn’t confined to any segment of the population. Over drinks in Paris recently, a friend told me that seum “encompasses that feeling of downward social mobility both on a personal level—many French people think they are worse off than their parents—but also on a national one, the feeling that France is a small country that isn’t respected and has little weight internationally.” He surmised that both the far right and immigrant communities share this feeling. “In fact, the word is almost unifying,” he said.

It is no longer just people in the banlieues who feel like they’ve been left behind, Goudaillier said, pointing to the gilets jaunes (or “yellow vests”) who first staged nationwide protests over the cost of petrol in 2018. Their demonstrations reflected rising feelings of discontent among France’s working class. “These youths and those who are older identify with those who live in the banlieues,” he said. They believe they face just as precarious an existence as those in the banlieues, so it’s no surprise they’ve adopted the same vocabulary.

In turn, the word seum is being mobilized within the political sphere. Writing in the left-wing newspaper Regards last summer, political journalist Loïc le Clerc used the term five times to mock politicians whose lack of appeal was reflected by a high abstention rate in regional elections. He accused Macron’s La République En Marche! party of having seum as well as the National Rally party, whose rising star Andréa Kotarac fizzled with only 11 percent of the vote in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. “It’s meant to be irreverent,” le Clerc said in an interview. “We respect politicians, but at the same time, there’s a limit.”

For those on the French left, maybe the word just isn’t deep enough to capture the gravity of the current political conundrum, with Macron still able to win the election despite his perceived failings. “For the left-leaning voter, the situation is more serious than le seum,” Le Clerc said. “To see him there still, with his big smile, that’s what gives me le seum.”

Fleur Macdonald is a British and French freelance journalist who has written for the London Review of Books, the BBC, the Guardian, and the Spectator.

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