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Politics and soccer: France sings the blues

Patrice de Beer
19 June 2006

The major problem of French elites is that they are old – old in age and in spirits. The melancholy late stage of the presidency of Jacques Chirac – a once-vigorous figure, active in politics since the mid-1960s, now a 73-year-old approaching the end of the road – is the most serious example. But the problem is also mirrored in the (so far) uninspired performance of the French national soccer team in the world cup in Germany, where two bland draws against modest opponents (Switzerland and South Korea) offer little hope of success in the competition.

Les Bleus may (still) have its stars: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Fabien Barthez, Zinedine Zidane. But here too, the problem is revealed: they are veterans who have passed their peak, and indeed are emblematic of a team that has the oldest average age (over 30) of any competing nation.

In soccer as in politics and society, France has the blues, and the shared feature is that French young people cannot find a way to break through to find a legitimate, accepted place where they can begin to contribute to regeneration.

Philippe Séguin – a soccer fan, ex-Gaullist minister and now (as head of the Cour des Comptes [audit office]) the official watchdog of France's state finances – drew a stunning parallel between playing soccer and playing politics in Le Monde: France's present malaise, he wrote, "comes from the gap between an often dismaying reality and self-proclaimed ambitions and assurances".

Séguin added that "we have clung to the past as if – however glorious it might be – it was the guarantee of present success. In sidelining a whole generation, we have spoiled the chances of this team. We have refused to see that we could not progress without putting ourselves in question. The results are evident. Soccer can also be a telling indicator: this team probably reflects the image of ourselves to our own eyes."

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy"
(November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

"Ukraine's inspiring boredom" (April 2006)

"France's crisis after crisis" (April 2006)

"The Ségolène phenomenon"
(May 2006)

"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed" (June 2006)

True, there is a contingency in sport that resists determinism: things might look different had the referee not disallowed Patrick Vieira's second "goal" against South Korea. A win against Togo in France's third qualifying match may change calculations. Equally, such good fortune might serve only to prolong the agony of a terminally ill team. The larger point is that – in sport, as in politics, as (often) in life – when things start to go wrong, a larger systemic defect is often revealed that opens up even more problems.

President Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, had hoped that the world cup (closely followed by the month-long summer break that pervades France's national life) would provide a respite from politics, halting the downward spiral of their unpopularity and giving them a space to consider how to recover from the disgruntlement and vanishing loyalty of their MPs. The latest opinion polls – among the worst-ever for a French president and a prime minister – have demonstrated the vanity of this wish.

It is all a very long way from 1998, when France hosted the world cup and Les Bleus won the competition with a multicoloured team – Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White and Arab), but also containing players of Armenian, Basque and Polish origin – that was representative of France's diverse society. The national enthusiasm of the moment offered a fantastic opportunity of integrating the newer waves of immigration from the Arab and African worlds. The troubles in the banlieues of late 2005 have shown that this precious chance was wasted.

No more saviours

The age problem in France has started to compound its many other structural flaws. For decades, French public opinion responded to crisis by turning towards a senior politician, a protective fatherly figure, even a saviour: Maréchal Pétain in 1940, Charles de Gaulle in 1944-45, Francois Mitterrand in 1981.

The ultimate logic of this preference was seen in the 2002 presidential campaign, when the French were invited to choose between three main contenders (Chirac, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and Lionel Jospin) who in a "normal" professional world would all have been pensioners.

Is it a small sign of progress in France that a younger generation of politicians is attempting to break through? Its two sharpest, brightest contenders – the socialist Ségolène Royal and the rightwing Nicolas Sarkozy – are a generation younger than Chirac, speak a new political language (even if it can seem only a new packaging for old values); in Ségolène's case, the phenomenon brings the healthy change of challenging the male domination of France's elite political club.

Both these figures speak directly to people by raising issues citizens face in their daily lives. "Sarko" has hammered out a tough law-and-order, anti-immigration mantra which appeals to the extreme right but is also geared towards people from the suburbs fed up with car burnings and petty criminals. The a tough but elegant "Ségolène" (or "Ségo") is unafraid of talking public security, education and family values to a leftwing audience which is being forced to reconsider issues they have long evaded as passé, pre-May 1968.

Their clear profiles and personalities attract unusually large crowds to public rallies composed of audiences much wider than their traditional supporters, where they deliver speeches and messages that are quickly relayed by an up-to-date propaganda machine.

It is not just the political-communication skills that are working to their benefit. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal have "public" personal lives closer to a new society whose divorce rate approaches 50% than their predecessors. Sarkozy has seen his wife Cécilia twice leave him and twice return, while Royal is not married to her long-term partner, the Socialist Party's first secretary, François Hollande (with whom she has four children) – a fact that not long ago would have scandalised a conservative society like France.

France may have turned one last time for this world cup to the legendary Zizou (Zidane) in an effort to reclaim ancient glory. As the 2007 elections approach, the so-called "elephants" of France's Socialist Party and of French politics generally will be kicking out, fighting for their very survival in face of the next generation. What will be the result of either campaign-plan? We will soon know.

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