The French are the most pessimistic in the world, even gloomier about their prospects than those living in Afghanistan and Iraq, a global survey has revealed.

Describing the French as the ‘world champions of pessimism’, a BVA-Gallup poll has found that 61% of French people believe 2011 will bring economic difficulties, compared to an average of 28% in 53 countries surveyed.

Overall, 37% of French said 2011 would be worse than 2010 compared with 14% of Afghans and 12% of Iraqis. Some two thirds said they felt unemployment would rise again this year.

The French live in one of the richest and safest countries in the world but they are frightened about the future and have a longing for the past, the poll suggests. France’s comparatively generous welfare state is no longer perceived as sufficiently protective in the face of the ongoing economic crisis here, according to commentators.

Their gloomy tendencies have been made worse by rising unemployment and a tense social context that in recent months has seen millions take to the streets to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ultimately successful bid to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

‘You can feel that people are psychologically exhausted,’ said Jean-Paul Delevoye, the French national ombudsman whose job it is to investigate complaints by private persons against the government.

He said that it was above all the middle classes who were being affected by pessimism. They see their jobs as becoming less and less secure and fear their quality of life will be reduced.

France was less badly hit by the economic crisis than its neighbours but is nonetheless struggling to recover. ‘Even if the recession in 2009 was much less severe than in Germany, we have not come out of it as strongly as Germany,’ said Jerome Creel of the French Economic Observatory.

Céline Bracq, deputy director at BVA Opinion in Paris, suggested a link between French pessimism and recent fears that the welfare state was more vulnerable than previously imagined. ‘In France, one hears these days about the failure of the education system, but also of the public finances and the pension system,’ she said.

However, European Union residents in nearly every country surveyed in 2010 were more optimistic than or as optimistic as they were in 2009 about their standard of living. Britons, the Irish, and the French were significantly more optimistic, with the percentage of people saying their living standards are getting better increasing at least 10% since 2009.

However, in most countries the increases were much smaller. In Germany, Sweden, and Finland, where optimism did not change much, if at all during the economic crisis, optimism in 2010 returned to or surpassed 2007 levels.

The poll also found a striking difference between newly prospering emerging countries and anxious western countries. Although Germans were the most optimistic in Europe, with just 22% downbeat, overall pessimism about economic prospects was highest in Europe and there was a generally downbeat attitude in North America with just 25% anticipating a prosperous 2011.

Just 15% of Europeans envisaged a prosperous 2011year but in Brazil, India and China it was just under 50%. Some 63% of people in the emerging bloc felt their own situation would improve in 2011.

Among the world’s most cheerful optimists are the Vietnamese, the poll suggested, with 70% confident about their economic prospects.