It’s not surprising that so many Frenchmen and women partied in Paris last Sunday to celebrate their country’s World Cup success. The French side played with style and panache and deserved their victory; there’s also the fact that France hasn’t had much to cheer about in recent years when it comes to sport so they’re entitled to bask in the glory of Les Bleus. As well as cheers last week there were also some jeers – and spits and slaps – all of them aimed at the British cyclist Chris Froome as he peddled up and down mountains in the Tour de France. These are more than just surly reactions to the recent doping controversy (an anti-doping case against Froome was dropped by cycling’s governing body earlier this month), they’re the rage of a nation that has seen its most cherished sporting institution hijacked by Brits, whose cyclists have won five of the last six Tours. Imagine England losing by eight wickets to a French XI at Lord’s and you’ll have some idea of the ignominy France feels. What makes it all the more painful is that the last time a homegrown rider won the Tour de France was 1985.
Then there’s tennis, a sport taken much more seriously across the Channel than in Britain, where it remains, in general, the preserve of the posh. Despite this, Andy Murray now has three Grand Slam crowns to his name, while the last Frenchman to win one of the tennis Majors was Yannick Noah, way back in 1983. I could also mention Formula One, rugby union and the Olympics – summer and winter – where France are no longer champions but also-rans, more often than not to the British, who have surged ahead in all sports but football, So why, then, the success at the Beautiful Game, a sport in which France have appeared in three World Cup finals in the past twenty years, winning two of them?
Much of the French success is because of its African-origin contingent: players like Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly of the 1998 vintage; and Kylian Mbappe (whose father is from Cameroon), Paul Pogba (his parents are from Guinea) and N’Golo Kante (whose parents migrated from Mali in 1980) of the 2018 generation. These are players from challenging backgrounds who saw sport as the only way out of their milieu, and en route to the top they’ve encountered prejudice and hostility, working twice as hard to prove themselves. I glimpsed this in the two years I played rugby in France, where I found most of my teammates lazy and complacent, except the two lads of North African origin, who were driven and determined in training and during matches.
In response to the World Cup success, a group of French MPs wrote an open letter in a newspaper yesterday calling for more investment in sport to capitalise on the buzz still electrifying the country. Their dream is to turn France into a “veritable sporting nation” but it will take more than just money if they’re to realise their ambition. What they must do if they wish to make up lost ground on Britain is introduce competitive sport into French schools. At the moment children often have rather aimless lessons of P.E, which can range from Frisbee throwing to wall climbing to table tennis. The lack of competitive sport means that not only are French children deprived of the valuable emotional lessons of winning and losing, but the nation is missing an important opportunity to talent spot, to identify boys and girls with a gift for a particular sport and nurture their progress through the difficult years of adolescence.
But there’s another, even more important reason, why French schools must introduce competitive sport into the curriculum. For many years successive governments in France have talked up their dream of ‘Vivre Ensemble’, of a Republic living in harmony regardless of colour or creed. The results have been, at best, mixed. Few things brings people together like sport (as we saw with England’s World Cup run when, for a couple of glorious weeks, Remainers and Brexiteers forgot their differences) and this current French football squad is joyously multi-ethnic but they all cried ‘Vive La France’ and ‘Vive La Republique’ as they lifted the World Cup.
At a time when president Emmanuel Macron is engaged in a long and complex battle with Islamists for the hearts and minds of French Muslims, sport could be a powerful weapon in his armoury. A school football team on a good cup run, for example, would break down far more racial and religious barriers than any number of well-meaning but ineffectual initiatives launched in the classroom.
In this respect, the Islamists are ahead of the game, recognising a decade ago that sports clubs were a good place to recruit young men to their ideology. In sporting terms, therefore, the Islamists have established an early lead and Macron must show the same skill and resolve of his footballers to claw back the advantage and beat the opposition at their own game.