French hope Six Nations can bring unity in troubled times

Amid the hype and bluster surrounding the Six Nations launch, the French provided a moment of context and a sharp dose of reality.

“Of course,” said Philippe Saint-Andre, their coach, “the Marseillaise before Scotland will be quite emotional with what has happened in our country over these past few weeks.”

It was not hard to realise what he was referring to. Paris is still recovering after a traumatic start to the year, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the crimes that followed leaving an indelible imprint on France.

Throughout those shocking events their national anthem, the Marseillaise, has had a more profound resonance.

Sung on the streets of the capital by the thousands who gathered there, the French parliament even broke into an impromptu airing for the first time since the end of World War I.

Neither Saint-Andre nor his captain, Thierry Dusautoir, pretend that sport can heal those wounds.

But the multicultural nature of French society is reflected in the national team, with Dusautoir fiercely proud of his Ivorian heritage.

The captain wrote a blog post shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and it captured the mood perfectly as he signed off with ‘Je Suis Charlie’.

Yesterday, he expanded on the role rugby can now play for a country still coming to terms with a shocking act of terrorism.

“The French team, like French society, is players coming together from different origins,” said Dusautoir.

“It is nice to see a team working like this in a good way. We are representative of French society.

“It will be a nice moment to meet and enjoy being together and showing how proud we are to be French. Sport is nice in this way because it is a great moment, as you have to share and be proud to be part of a community.

“The blog was the best way for me to express my feelings in this moment. I was very emotional, I was shocked. The French were on the street to show their feelings.

“It was a way for me to show I am mixed — my father is white, my mum is black. I think I am an example that different cultures come together, and France is a very good example of this too. I hope it will continue.”

For Saint-Andre, there was the rather more practical issue of whether recent events can galvanise his team.

“With what has happened in our country, it was a very tough time,” he said. “But everybody sticks together and goes on the streets to say we are proud of our country, we are proud of our different cultures and ethnicity.

“If a team can show some fantastic things on the pitch then all the crowd and French public will be 150% behind the guys.

“It is good for French rugby to show we accept everybody, we stick together and are proud to chant the Marseillaise and play rugby together.”

The last comment had an unintended double meaning, with Saint-Andre criticised for selecting the likes of South African born trio Scott Spedding, Bernard Le Roux and Rory Kockott in his side.

Earlier he had also joked the solution to his side’s problems at tighthead prop were to ‘find a New Zealander’ in reference to Uini Antonio.

Joe Schmidt, though, was in no doubt that the shocking events of the past few weeks could serve to inspire a French side who have struggled since winning the Six Nations in 2010.

“After that they have a very nationalistic sense about them,” said Schmidt when asked about the potential impact of Charlie Hebdo.

“Adversity does galvanise a group sometimes and I think that is something which happened with us in Paris last year, Nicolas Mas walked out of the press conference because he felt that they were being unjustly criticised and he felt there was a bit of adversity. And I think nations do galvanise themselves when there is an adversity when there is something — a natural disaster or a man made disaster — as either way it can help build a national pride and consolidate a sense of being part of a country.”

But for once, rugby felt relatively unimportant.


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