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Jean-Luc Vannier

The French Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

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Jean-Luc Vannier, (2016, June 16). The French Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Psychreg on In Depth. https://www.psychreg.org/french-adolescence/
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This article is based on a synthesis of two different papers. Both are dedicated to the French youth and the cannabis: the first presentation occurred during the Addiction Science Congress in Tehran (September 2015) while the second took place at Shahid Beheshti University.


It has occurred to me that masturbation is the one great habit, that is a ‘primary addiction’, and that the other addictions, for alcohol, morphine, tobacco, etc., only enter into life as a substitute and replacement for it.
– Sigmund Freud, Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, 22 December 1897

France is the European country where the proportion of adults who have ever used cannabis is the most important according to a 2014 study realised for the ‘Health Barometer‘. It regroups facts and figures from the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addictions (OFDT), that of the National Prevention and Health Education Institute (INPE) and that of the Defence and Citizenship Day. The latter, which is organised by the Ministry of defence as a replacement of the former compulsory military duty, allows every year to bring together around 25, 000 youth, male and female aged 17or 18, in order to assess their state of health and their level of education.

The main trends of these studies show an increase of the cannabis consumption as a whole, either in experiments or in more frequent use, even if one notices a rise scored among adults and a slight decline among the 17 years old.  The phenomenon is coupled with the alcoholism and an increased of stimulants, but one observes stability for other illicit goods throughout the decade.

Before asking ourselves ‘What does cannabis mean for the French youth?’ (III), and then, possibly considering the change of the meaning of smoking cannabis for the French teenagers among their new addictions (IV), we should start with some reminders about psychoanalysis and introduce what we consider to be the analytic approach of the adolescence (I) and recall the major symptoms of this period of life (II).

The clinical approach of the adolescence

In our clinical introduction, we would like to remind some fundamental points about psychoanalysis. According to Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalysis is a way to conduct investigations of mental process which are hardly accessible otherwise and which are based on clinical work, then, a method of treatment for mental disorders based on these investigations and, finally, a series of conceptions leading to a new science called the meta-psychology or the depth psychology compared to psychology which is more dedicated to the world of the volition.

During his entire life, from infancy to death, the human being is experiencing recurrent psychic reshuffles through acceptances or renunciations. These reshuffles routinely occur during upheavals like separation, loss of a close relative or various suffering, including the love mourning and the pubertal instinctual surges. These rearrangements also happen primarily with all mutations of the human body during major ‘stages’ of life: birth, infancy, adolescence, reproduction and parenthood, menopause, andropause (prostatic loss), climacteric, diseases, the perspective of death.

These psychological reshuffles are attempts of the psyche to adapt: it means to integrate and to accept the body changes. But these changes have also to be considered as ‘break-in’ into the body-psychic envelope. It means into the mental representation of the body as well: Freud reminds us that the Ego is at the same time ‘a surface and a projection of surface’. One of the possible consequences is the apparition of some anguish as a result of a conflict between the somatic arousal and the absence or the inadequacy in the psychic elaboration. The psyche experiences a kind of overflow or unbinding within the libido energy. This imbalance causes a reminder of the primary seduction: the fundamental asymmetry in the early relationship between adults and child. According to Jean Laplanche who grants it as a human structural invariant, the ‘fundamental anthropological situation’ is the implantation in the universe of the child, by the most every day and the most innocuous gestures of cryptic, enigmatic messages from the adult.

These messages are called ‘enigmatic’ for two reasons: first of all, because they are compromised by the repressed infantile sexuality of the adult himself. The adult is even not aware of them. Secondly, these messages have to be translated by the child who does not know, who does not understand that language:  ‘Infans’ means literally who does not speak, who does not understand the language of the adult. This operation is the prototype of the further repression: the waste of this failed translation creates the original unconscious.

This attempt of psychic-body adaptation is the paradigmatic psychic reworking and will be repeated in the adolescence as well as at the other stages of life. The psyche seems, if we can say so, to run after the transformations of the body in order to try, while explaining them, to comply with them psychically. The analytic session replays, in a way, this asymmetric relationship between the patient and the therapist.

The major symptoms

What does the ‘adolescence’ psychologically mean? Specialists generally agree to name this period of life as a ‘discontinuity’, a ‘failure’, a ‘psychotic moment’ among the great cycles of life. Basically, the adolescence operates a cleavage (spaltung) between the physical body changes imposed by the pubertal reality – namely the sexual ‘instinct’ – and the reduced capacity of the psyche still plunged into the childhood, to grasp their scope, their significance. All of this recall of the ‘primary seduction’: the intrusion of the adult body into the child psyche provokes the reinvestment, not to say the reactivation of the old suffering. The Freudian theory of the trauma in two steps finds its best evidence at the time of the adolescence: it activates the sexual meaning of an old traumatic event, still ‘on’ in the human psyche.

Besides this, the supreme paradox of adolescence is the admission into the adult world of finiteness which means a kind of death but, at the same time, the teenager discovers his ability to give life through his genital sexuality aimed at the reproduction of the species. The commitment – this word even scares teens – into the working adult life constitutes acceptance of the idea of death; to accept to let their infancy behind, which enlightens the multiplication of experiences, that of trials and errors, in order to delay, while using an unconscious strategy, to postpone the entry into the adult life.  

There are three needs claimed by the adolescent can be observed: (1) He wants to distinguish themselves of the adults, considering the fact that he has, in his mind, exhausted all parental psychic resources; (2) He wants to test himself in order to regain control over his body, as the pubertal physical reality is experienced as an active principle, a kind of ‘alien’ that he has to fight within himself. As a matter of facts, if the boys will challenge or compete with this ‘alien’, the girls will more usually try to make an ally from it. This could probably be explained by the different relation of both of them to their Oedipus complex; (3) Lastly, the adolescent will try to integrate and feel ‘being one’ with the peer group: a way to search for new identifications and for new psychic affiliations. The adolescent time meets also with a triple quest: to release one-self of experienced mental suffering by deviating this suffering toward self-inflicted physical pain. Teens explain it: ‘I do know now from where I am suffering from.’ Then, to experience strong sensations in order to feel alive until flirting with the risk of dying and to draw emphatically adults’ attention while waiting, more or less secretly, to be recognised and contained by them. This is what we name the ‘hidden requests’ of the adolescents: any delinquent act requires a response of the environment. It is important for a teen, as well as for a child, to face a ‘no’ from the parents: the adolescence time will consist in transgressing all kinds of these norms but the parental ‘no’ will help him to distinguish the point, the limit where he starts from to build up his own way.

Among the three major risks at adolescence, the traffic and car accidents are still the first cause of death among the young people with a striking male excess mortality: to possess and to drive a vehicle mean empowerment, autonomy, and appear to be a tangible way to assert his power and to compete with peers. The search for speed records could be easily interpreted as a way to challenge the speed of their own internal bodily changes as well as the car racing signifies the competition with other male virility. As the author observed during his stay in Lebanon and his various trips to Iran, the car is offering an available space for the first sexual manoeuvres which is, due to the tiny social and family network, quite impossible otherwise. This perspective has more value, especially, if the car is the father’s.

Some teens are frequently seen on their motorcycles or even on their bicycles like cowboys trying to master the power of their savage horses. If they are the second cause of death among teenagers, three out of four suicides are male with rarely rescue possibility due to the proceeding  (firearms and hanging) as suicide attempts are 50 times more than completed suicides, particularly among women: the latter generally use drug poisoning, scarification, phlebotomy. Anorexia should also be included in the morbid attempt of committing suicides. Among risks indicators, one should consider: breaking lines combinations like acted out violence, the use of psychoactive substances, eating disorders, unprotected sex as well as family suicide history, suffered sexual violence, family instability, biographies with family secrets or affiliation (adoption), difficulties to define or assume a sexual orientation, questioning of identity and place. One should notice that since a couple of years, emergency hospitalisations for suicide attempts minors under 15 years have sharply increased.

What does cannabis mean to the French youth

The use of psychoactive substances is the third major risk at the teenage time. The ‘first’ cigarette is the gateway to the subsequent polydrug use. The first smoke appears to be a kind of initiation ritual in order to belong to the group of peers.

When asked about the meaning of smoking cannabis many years ago, the adolescents were usually answering that it was aimed at creating a distance or a detachment from a reality that is perceived by young people, rightly or not, as intrusive, threatening and even anxiogenic. Smoking created, according to them, a kind of buffer zone between this reality and their world. It is said to establish protection, a way to escape. But escape to what? Could the reality they are trying to flee some of internal psychic representations projected out of them?

Since 2003, 52% of French young people aged 15–25 are smoking cannabis. The use during the year 2014 peaked in the 18–25 years with 34% of males and 23% of young women: an increase compared to the 29% for male and the 17% for female in 2010. The most amazing fact is that the adolescents now smoke no more to reject something but to belong to. Cannabis, as they explained with a very sure argument, is aimed at ‘inserting themselves into the social group’ and strengthening the ‘sense of belonging’. Some parents are even smoking together with their children during the weekend time. ‘This is a standard, a way of living,’ said one of my patient, because every day of the week, time, money, thoughts, discussions and behaviours are dedicated to cannabis. Teens explain: the cannabis is like the bottle of good wine that you, grown-up, are sharing during Sunday’s family lunch.

Traditionally, the initiation rite in the ‘primitive societies’ was meaning a symbolic ceremony of passage through the absorption of psychoactive substances to achieve the membership procedure to the group. The group of cannabis smokers follows strict rules: ‘a joint should be treated respectfully’ explains one regular smoker. ‘The one who is in charge of lightening it, named “P1” is regarded with honour. Many games could be organised to know who will be the next igniter. A group of smokers is strongly welded due to many and all kinds of experiences.’

The drug is still used as a gateway to another world. But the goal has changed: once fled by adolescents, the ‘reality of the others’ has now become the ‘social group of the same’, the ‘mould’ to live in. It reveals the integration into blurred normality due to subterfuge of the standard.

The new pathologies of ‘link and attachment’

The use of cannabis can also be enlightened through what we name ‘the needs of links’. Nowadays, there is an interest; seen as vital, to feel and to be connected with ‘others’. It’s a huge paradox: on the one hand, we observe a strong dilution of the individuality into the group; multitude which becomes an ‘aggregate of isolated’, as D.W. Winnicott said. The psychic heaviness of existence leads humans to drown it into the community. On the other hand, the same human being and, especially, the youth claim to exist only through the relationship with others. Identity is now acquired through a web proxy. Loneliness is unthinkable, because unbearable if not associated with depression. The ‘I’ lost oneself and is now searching for the ‘we’ recognition as a survival.

Many factors are able to explain this phenomenon. First of all, the addictogenic and hyperconsumerist environment is strengthening the claim for immediacy as a kind of denial of the conscious time but in favour of the a-temporality of the unconscious: teens want everything and right now because ‘the death happens tomorrow’.  They look for recurrent novelties which give them the feeling of excitement: ‘to be hyper’ is the only way to survive. ‘The novelty is the condition of sexual enjoyment.’ 

Secondly, the informational zapping which accelerates, through the permanent reception of short messages and news alerts, the time progress. This has clear and bad effects on the learning, on the concentration, on the whole knowledge acquisition as well as on the sustainability of efforts, and, more widely, on the socialisation abilities.  This also creates a kind of addictions.

Thirdly, this promotes or, more precisely maintains childish illusory and magical thoughts which could provide a fallacious ability of a change in personnel status as prompt and decisive as could appear the binge drinking phenomenon: the express drunkenness is aimed at not wasting time at socialising and at reaching intoxication and disinhibition with some partners in the same evening.

Finally, the computer keyboard looks like a magic reset and provides the feeling of full power to fantasise about alias or false characters, including all risks of disaffiliation for the weakest. This is the paradox offered by the social networks: thousands of virtual contacts but most of them are not able to provide the true elements of the human meeting which are composed of the glance, the skin, the behaviour, even the smell of the other. An example: the addiction of my Nice University students to Smartphone seems to be regarded as a vital habit: when it rings or even it vibrates, it impossible to let the other wait for an answer.

Conclusion (Open to discussion)

Psychoanalytically speaking, all this looks like a denial of the fundamental asymmetry in all human relationships under the appearance of the differences’ valorisation and that of the moral claim for egalitarianism. Moreover, the mutation of the libidinal economy is no more based on the organisation of the repression but moves to the one based on the exhibition of enjoyment. The adult ‘sexual’ enjoyment is not, even more, the standard measure of other enjoyments but regresses to the unbinding and the preeminence of the death sexual drive aimed at, as Laplanche wrote, provoking the manifestation of an unbinding, a parcelling or a burst, whether at the social level or at that of the individual organism and which is the characteristic of the infantile sexual drive, an ‘endless quest and who does not know the appeasement’.


Jean-Luc Vannier is a French psychoanalyst based in Nice (French Riviera). Jean-Luc is an editorial board member of the Psychreg Journal of Psychology

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