RENNES, FRANCE -- Every time you board one of France's vaunted high-speed trains and head out of Paris, you remember once more what a rich and beautiful country this is.
Bigger than Britain, and thus considerably less crowded, its farms well tended and its towns finely preserved, the France you see flashing past the train window conveys a state of contentment very little reflected in the country's current political discourse.
For every rolling green field on the two-hour ride from Paris to this Breton capital, there is a new depressing statistic: last month alone, a missed deficit target for 2012, another record unemployment rate (now firmly over 10 percent) and, for the very wealthy, the determination of the current Socialist government to hold firm to a goal to reap a 75 percent tax from those few thousand French citizens who earn more than €1 million, or $1.3 million, a year.
The glumness is such that it was not surprising that the venerable leftist daily Libération convened a meeting Friday and Saturday under the theme "Trust Reigns?" A panoply of politicians, business figures, analysts and thinkers gathered to air topics including the state of French prisons ("Full, but empty of meaning," according to the title of that session), science, media, the family, whether this really is China's century and, yes, this was France: the twists and turns of amour.
Hundreds of people packed each session in the Théâtre National de Bretagne (another jewel in France's array of publicly financed cultural organizations), happy to sacrifice part of Easter weekend to commune with the like-minded.
Libé, as the leftist daily is affectionately known, is in dire financial shape, but these conferences -- this was the fifth such held in Rennes, and there are others in France throughout the year -- both make money and lend readers that sense of togetherness implicitly lacking in that question about trust.
On Saturday, almost 1,000 people crowded into the theater's main auditorium to hear Michel Rocard, a former Socialist prime minister, hold forth -- without notes -- for 80 minutes on how to "reconquer the trust of peoples."
At 82, he was sovereign; his audience listened intently, then erupted in warm applause. His message had clearly struck a chord: that there is not just one crisis in a world robbed of trust, that a great "mutation," as he called it, has left people feeling dislocated in a global swirl in which nation-states cannot resolve problems, and that everything moves too fast to allow for sensible, intelligent discourse.
"Here is somebody who wants to reflect, and to ask some questions," said my neighbor in the audience, Laurence Molinié, a 52-year-old sales assistant. "I think people want to ask questions, and to change things."
This was certainly a leftist crowd; another discussion on whether one should trust the markets led to an airing of controlled rage. Philippe Dessertine, an economics professor who often writes for Libé, called for "the Nuremberg trial of this crisis," to slake what he saw as the popular desire to find, examine and eventually punish the guilty parties.
My part in this gathering -- full disclosure -- was to discuss with Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of the French energy giant Total, whether the French are particularly pessimistic.
Mr. de Margerie, generally a man of good cheer, radiated optimism, lamenting that France has become far too well known in business circles abroad for the quarrel over that 75 percent wealth tax, and too little appreciated for its several successful big enterprises.
Indeed, if he had a scapegoat, it was not the state of things in France, or its much criticized president, François Hollande, a Socialist who has plunged in the polls since winning office last May, but Europe. "A monster without a head," Mr. de Margerie said of the European Union.
That description from a top European businessman illustrates how far many people in Europe have moved from the dream of greater union, a vision perhaps most sharply realized nine years ago when 10 new countries joined the bloc, eight of them former Communist states symbolizing the post-Cold War unity and vibrancy of the old Continent.
The Rennes gathering capped a week in which the European Union once again lurched through a crisis -- this time it was Cyprus -- and emerged with a murky compromise that few outside Brussels could explain. It also came after the unpopular Mr. Hollande took to the airwaves for a 75-minute interview. Like Mr. Rocard, he is a practiced politician, and seemed to meet a self-declared goal of gamely answering every question -- all the while having, as the left-of-center daily Le Monde noted, "not the slightest piece of good news for the French," and being "perfectly conscious that the multiplication of promises made no longer allows politicians to make themselves heard."
To judge by the fervor of the crowds who attended some 50 discussions over two days in Rennes, there are many in France -- indeed, in Europe -- who would listen.
For now, however, one of the large billboards Libé had mounted, with quotes intended to propagate its forum, offered a simple solace in a land famous for its (rare) fecundity.
"The French continue to make children," a woman identified as Sylvie, 53, from the town of Mouazé, was quoted as saying. "So they haven't lost trust in the future."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.