France succumbs to rugby mania

While most French presidents have avoided sport, Nicolas Sarkozy prides himself on televised jogging sessions, cheering the Tour de France and appearing in the stands of the Paris Saint Germain football team. Now the president is reinventing himself as a rugby fan to take maximum political advantage of the World Cup that begins in France on Friday.

As France prepares for six weeks of games that will be watched around the world, with 1,6-million visitors pumping â,¬625-million into the tourist industry, Sarkozy is keen to be part of the rugby mania sweeping the country.

His pollsters have briefed him on the dazzling effect of France’s 1998 football World Cup win on president Jacques Chirac, who witnessed a mood of national depression turn to euphoria overnight.

Sarkozy has been brushing up on rugby rules and visiting training grounds since his election. He appointed the French rugby manager, Bernard Laporte, as Sports Minister, persuading him to abandon his six-figure income and join the government as soon as the World Cup ends.

Predicting that France will reach at least the semifinals, Sarkozy has addressed the French team on the importance of winning the cup, joking that he will be blamed if they fail—a quip that one player complained was “perturbing”.

Despite the All Blacks being favourite, 70% of French people in a recent survey believed France could win.
Around 61% believed the World Cup would give a lift to the country’s flagging economy. “You can sense the growing World Cup craze ... It’s a moment of national unity,” said the Prime Minister, François Fillon.

“The further we go in the competition, the more I’ll be in the stands, and not just as a Blues supporter,” Sarkozy has said.

“We are going to see the president seize on the rugby to reaffirm his image as a sports fan,” said sports sociologist Patrick Mignon. “If France wins, there will be a big media operation to allow him to capitalise.”

France is already locked into a national debate on the intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic values of a sport that is hugely important in Paris and the south of France, but has a much smaller following than football.

“Rugby is not a sport for brutes,” Philosophie magazine said in a headline this week, assuring readers of the noble and intellectual value of the scrum, as more than 70 new rugby book titles flooded bookshops. The French rugby world’s highly successful equivalent of the Pirelli calendar will be rushed into shops early this week to coincide with France’s first game. Gods of the Stadium, in which players from Paris club Stade Français pose naked behind strategically placed oval balls, is tipped to quickly sell out.

When the French player Christophe Dominici recently published a bestselling and deeply personal memoir about the breakdown of his marriage, he said his mother was less concerned about his personal confessions than about him flashing his pubic hair in the calendar. But the Paris team will continue to market their softer side during the World Cup, with a new range of cosmetics including anti-wrinkle cream.

As the World Cup is expected to yield â,¬8-billion for the French economy, products extend beyond the 400 000 tricolour kits expected to be sold in France. Tourists can expect oval-shaped wine boxes and rugby supporters’ gourmet hampers of duck and sausage.

The French team hero, Sébastien Chabal, hailed by the singer Francis Lalanne as a symbol of “the Gallic soul”, has even been contacted about a role in the next Asterix film.

“In the past few years, it’s bizarre to see how French rugby’s image has changed. It has become something glamorous,” said Pierre Galy, co-author of a new book, La Grande Histoire du Rugby.

“But it has remained a slightly middle class sport focused on villages and small towns. One of the key aims of the World Cup is to reach out to the cities and poor suburbs and to the children of immigrants.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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