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Europeans : Very Close but yet so Different

A special issue of the journal Futuribles was devoted to an analysis of European values and changes in those values, based on the European Values Survey. Directed by Pierre Bréchon1, Director of the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of Grenoble and researcher at CIDSP2, and Jean-François Tchernia3, researcher at CIDSP, this work shows that despite a common approach to value questions, cultural differences still divide Europeans.

Affiche 1997

© European Communities 1997

In 1999 Europeans responding to the EVS survey ranked the “very important” areas of their lives in order of priority; family first, followed by work as well as friends and relations, then leisure activities, and finally religion trailed only but distantly by politics. This hierarchy has not changed since 1990, which is not to say that European values have not changed. Postmaterialism, which takes the form of questioning traditional moral values once basic material needs have been satisfied, continues to gain ground even as it changes direction somewhat. That is, values such as self-expression or social participation spread without invalidating preexisting values. For example, in face of the reality of slow economic growth, Europeans look to work as something that contributes to personal development. Providing of course that good material conditions are ensured.
Another tendency is individualisation, that is, the claim by individuals of the power to decide for themselves what is good or bad for them. If the phenomenon is not new, its acceleration is surprising. As an illustration, in 1981, 44% of Europeans strongly condemned homosexuality, while in 1999 no more than 24% did. Nevertheless, as Pierre Bréchon, Olivier Galland4, and Jean-François Tchernia caution, “individualisation of mores is... tempered by a consideration of social effects”. Thus individualisation most often “combines with respect for the rules of the group and with a sense of belonging, freely chosen, to a collective entity”. Therefore, if individualism is on the rise, “it is not yet dominant in Europe and the rise of permissiveness and individualisation has not weakened on all fronts the sense of social integration.”

We do not have the same values...
Whether a subject lives in a Catholic or a Protestant country has an impact on his or her values. In the former, since social hierarchy was once valued, individuals have strong expectations and demands towards the State, which is responsible for the common good, and confidence in others is rarely spontaneous. In the latter, where faith is placed in education while equality and freedom of expression are highly valued, a sense of belonging and social ties are reinforced. In the Protestant north of Europe values and morals are more liberal than in the Catholic south.
In addition to North-South clivages, there are East-West ones observable as well, due probably to the differences in economic level as well as to the impact of the communist heritage. In addition there are identifiable trends in values specific to each national culture. As a Catholic but highly secularised society, France plays the role of a pivot country between Northern and Southern Europe. Permissiveness and individualism are quite pronounced in French society, distrust of others and everyday incivility are strong. Finally, political parties and labor unions weigh little in people's values and the tendency to form associations is not very developed.

By their values, Europeans resemble each other and distinguish themselves from one another. These values, according to the authors, “are continually being reworked and reconfigured by social and political activity and actors”.



To know more

• "Les valeurs des Européens. Les tendances de long terme". Edited by Pierre Bréchon et Jean-François Tchernia, Futuribles, N°277, juillet-août 2002.
Les valeurs des jeunes. Tendances en France depuis 20 ans. Edited by Olivier Galland et Bernard Roudet, L'Harmattan, coll. Débats Jeunesses, 2001.
Les valeurs des Français. Edited by Pierre Bréchon, Armand Colin, coll. U, 2000.


Pierre Bréchon

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