Saturday, October 6, 2007
There's something extraordinary going on here in France during the World Cup of Rugby, a convergence of the athletic with the political in a way that happens only rarely in the history of nations. Against all odds, France just defeated the All Blacks of New Zealand, 20-18. And in case you're like me and you know nothing about the sport, the All Blacks are to rugby what Brazil is to soccer, only without the occasional lapses in concentration. France has got a solid, competitive team that deserves plenty of respect. It remains, nonetheless, a major upset.
Now to give a little context, Bernard Laporte, the coach of the French national team, is set to enter the government of Nicolas Sarkozy as a vice-minister of athletics at the tournament's conclusion. Sarkozy was in Cardiff for the match tonight, and has been known to visit the team's dressing room before matches.
Laporte was widely criticized for using the famous last letter of Guy Moquet, a 17 year-old French communist executed by the Nazis during WWII, to motivate the team before their first match against Argentina. The tactic was blamed for the team's emotional tightness that ultimately resulted in a sloppy defeat. But more than that, it was considered bad judgment and bad taste to appropriate Moquet's sacrifice for something as profane as a sporting match.
The stunt also drew attention because it echoed a proposal Nicolas Sarkozy had made during this year's presidential election requiring French students to collectively read the young martyr's letter as part of their education. He later went on to put the measure in effect as one of his first acts upon taking office.
Anyone who has ever watched a rugby match would probably agree that it's about as brutal a sport as exists. I don't think I'd get much argument if I suggested that it doesn't exactly fit the stereotype commonly used to portray the French, either. Like American football, despite flourishes of individual skill and grace, the game is principally decided by controlling territory through brute force and team discipline. Cheese eating surrender monkeys need not apply.
It's a sport traditionally associated with the political right, played in "la France profonde" (the heartland), "la France d'en bas" (the little people). In other words, Sarkozy's France. Tonight's victory is along the lines of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. Not in the significance of the symbolic narrative of the two teams playing, but in what it means for the narrative of France as a nation.
Of course, it hasn't been that long since France tasted the joy of victory. Winning the 1998 soccer World Cup followed by the European championship two years later defined a historic moment in the country's identity. France, like its national soccer team, was no longer bleu, blanc et rouge (blue, white and red) but black, blanc et beur (black, white and Arab). And contrary to American opinion, its defiance of the American invasion of Iraq, so eloquently expressed by Dominique de Villepin at the UN Security Council, was here considered a point of pride. (In fact, I'm convinced that the World Cup victory played a role in France finding the confidence necessary to stand up to US and England on the world stage.)
Nevertheless, since 2003 (and even before, if you include Le Pen's second round finish in the 2002 presidential election) it's been a pretty bad dry spell. So to see the country back in the running, and for a title that symbolically represents all the values of the new direction Sarkozy would like to take it in, resonates with a particular signifance.