Has World Cup feelgood factor melted as Paris burns?

It is the evening of September 9, and the Stade de France is a sea of sound and flashing lights as the Paris public greet their World Cup heroes, embarking on another campaign.

Has World Cup feelgood factor melted as Paris burns?

It is the evening of September 9, and the Stade de France is a sea of sound and flashing lights as the Paris public greet their World Cup heroes, embarking on another campaign. The golden trophy is raised aloft once more. The crowd bathes in euphoria, as they did, one million and more of them, filling the Champs Elysees the day after their triumph in Moscow.

France is awash with pride, a nation at ease with itself. The President of the Republic surrounds himself with the players, handing out the gongs and modestly basking in reflected glory, as presidents always do.

On the eve of that day in July, Simon Kuper, doyen of sportswriters and correspondent for the Financial Times in the French capital, described Emmanuel Macron as “perhaps the luckiest of presidents”. Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief for The Economist, has written that Macron aims to provide France “with moments of collective exaltation, of common feeling, that bring a nation together, in awe or in sorrow.”

Winning the World Cup fitted the bill perfectly, especially for the French. After all they invented it.

Then suddenly it was as if a bubble had burst.

The Champs Elysees, avenue of triumph, was transformed into a street of shame. Fires raged and tear gas grenades exploded as groups of Gilet Jaunes took their protest to the heart of the city, sacking some posh shops as they did so. The Yellow Vests have become a symbol of resistance to Macron and all he stands for. In a matter of weeks, France was up in arms. Even though the movement itself is largely peaceful, 10 people have been killed. It is as if that World Cup triumph had never been.

That’s a simplistic view, admittedly. France before those euphoric July Days was already simmering with discontent over many issues — tax policy, public sector pay, education among them. There has been growing resentment at the super-rich for years, and also a festering hostility towards the Paris elite, and the politicians’ neglect of the problems of ‘the provinces’. Although Paris has been the apparent flashpoint for the protests, the real depth of the movement is elsewhere, in cities such as Bordeaux and Toulouse, and countless smaller towns as well as the countryside.

Yet strangely many observers did genuinely feel that the 2018 World Cup was more significant for France, and also for French football, than their first win back in 1998, even though that was on home soil. Julien Laurens, football writer for Le Parisien, felt that the feeling this time was “stronger and more emotional… It looks like it means more to French people than it did 20 years ago.”

He felt that that the younger generation could identify more with the team because the players were younger. Also “1998 was a big surprise, this time we’ve been waiting 20 years. When you wait so long and it finally happens I think it really gets the country together.

To see President Macron with the players in the dressing room sharing the moment with everyone. That was very emotional as well, because he spoke for the French people.

Political pundits shared his view. Gael Sliman, head of the Odoxa polling organisation, was convinced that “the popular jubilation and enthusiasm, at a key moment, just before the holidays, will stay in the memory. Clearly this World Cup will have an impact on French joie de vivre, self-confidence and their general optimism.”

These comparisons with 1998 must be confusing for the president and his political advisers. Twenty years ago Macron’s predecessor Jacques Chirac had just been through a political scandal and some humiliating election results, and his popularity soared 18 points, whereas Macron’s support actually fell a couple of points and has since plunged to new depths.

And that 1998 win was hailed far and wide as a symbol of a healing process in French society. Zinedine Zidane, Algerian by background if not by birth, became a national hero. The words ‘Merci Zizou’ flashed on and off along the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Algerian flags waved among the tricolors.

People compared the mood to the Liberation in 1944 — which seemed somewhat exaggerated even at the time — but the diversity of the squad was real and was celebrated. Patrick Vieira came from Senegal, Lilian Thuram from Guadeloupe. Others were the sons of immigrants from Argentina, Armenia, Portugal, and the Caribbean.

1998 inspired all sorts of hopes for France but also expectations about social cohesion that were completely over the top. The team was a great advertisement for integration, but that was all it was.

The image of football in France also took a beating in 2010, when the players went on strike during the finals in South Africa and it became clear that their eccentric manager, Raymond Domenech, could no longer control the team. Players were suspended, effectively banned for life, and gradually Laurent Blanc restored order. But then Blanc too ran into trouble when it was revealed that he was involved in discussions about ‘racial quotas’ for national team selections.

Sporting success can produce a great feelgood factor — imagine the warm glow if Ireland win the rugby World Cup next year — but usually the political or social spinoff is shortlived. The only exceptions to this rule are dictatorships — for example Mussolini in 1934 or the Argentinian military junta in 1978.

Losing can possibly have a greater impact, at least in England. When Harold Wilson called an election in June 1970 his party were 7.5 points ahead in the polls. Unfortunately for him England blew a 2-0 lead against West Germany four days before the vote: the rest is history.

But 1998 did have a lasting impact on French football. It’s more doubtful that 2018 will do the same.

Historically football has had an uncertain status in France, even though the French have made a unique contribution to its international development — Fifa, the World Cup and the European Cup, now the Champions League.

Paris has never been a football hotbed, in fact the capital never had a big football club until the recent rise of PSG, which itself is the result of foreign investment. Even in cities such as Marseille and Lyon, crowds at French games were traditionally small. Fifty years ago, in 1968, the average Ligue 1 attendance was 7,804. At the end of the 1980s the average was still less than 12,000.

By the eve of 1998 tournament that figure had increased to nearly 16,000, but the subsequent rise was spectacular, to almost 20,000 the following season, and up by 60% when the next World Cup came around in 2002.

Since then the sport has polarised. The league has been dominated by a single club year after year. First it was Lyon, now it is PSG. Attendances at mid-table clubs have fallen away, so the average crowd is now around 22,500, even though the big clubs pull in 47,000 or more.

It’s in cities such as Bordeaux and Toulouse where clubs are struggling to pull in the support: coincidence or not, the cities where those Yellow Vests have been particularly visible.

The new wealth in French football has been very unevenly distributed. The rich have become richer, the poor have marked time — at best. You can see the difference in pay levels. Of the 13 highest-paid footballer in France, 12 are at PSG. Neymar is paid more than the seven highest earners combined at Marseille. Lyon’s top players — four of them — have combined earnings of less than €16m, compared to the €168m of those 13 top players at PSG.

There is also the continuing anomaly that Monaco, the club with the least support in Ligue 1 (average 8,802 so far this season), enjoys a privileged tax position. Monaco’s finances have been increasingly in question over the past two seasons — “it is a trading operation, football is merely an accessory” declared Le Monde recently, after latest Football Leaks revelations.

It is hard to find anyone anywhere, never mind in a yellow vest, who believes stratospheric wages in football are justified, but the skewed finances in Ligue 1 help explain why the French have become even more cynical. Even before PSG’s wages rocketed, a poll found that only 3% believed footballers were paid “normally”. That too may help explain why the World Cup bubble hasn’t lasted.

No surprise then that in contrast to Zidane, the superstar hero of 1998, this time the hero was the modest, self-effacing N’Golo Kanté, too shy even to look President Macron in the eye or even to lift the trophy until his team-mates forced it into his hands.

Not that Kanté is low-paid, but his humble origins and unostentatious manner endeared him to the public at large, not just the fans who composed a song for him. “Il est petit, il est gentil” (he’s small, he’s nice). The tune is a golden oldie, sung by Joe Dassin in 1969, and entitled ‘Champs Elysees’. Maybe Macron will offer him a job.

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