Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 20 News List

France depressed after big sporting defeats


The Guardian, Paris

It was supposed to be a month of French sporting glory, with men in shorts recapturing the heroism of ancient Gaul, distracting the nation from its economic woes and uniting French President Nicolas Sarkozy's new France in victorious flag-waving. But France woke up in a black depression on Thursday after two crushing sporting defeats at home led the country to question the very nature of its new patriotism.

French soccer players declared a "catastrophe" and their place in next year's Euro soccer tournament hung by a thread after a defeat by underdogs Scotland. Days before, the French rugby team had been trounced by similarly unfancied Argentina.

It was a double nightmare as France is hosting the Rugby World Cup, keen to impress four billion global viewers and let off the pent-up energy that would have been expended on the 2012 Olympics if Paris hadn't lost out to London.

But while French commentators marvelled at the fervor of Scottish soccer fans, wondering if the "human tide of rosy-cheeked men in kilts" was behind the Bleus' loss, controversy raged over France's sporting patriotism and whether Sarkozy could be held to blame for sporting catastrophes.

A row has developed over whether it was right to spur on players with the memory of a 17-year-old communist Resistance fighter killed by the Nazis. TV coverage of the French rugby dressing room before the France-Argentina match last week showed the team being read a letter written by the Resistance fighter Guy Moquet before his execution. The letter is a favorite of Sarkozy, who had used it to mark his investiture as president, crying when he heard it and declaring it should be read to all French schoolchildren.

The decision to read it to the rugby team was made by Bernard Laporte, who has accepted a job as junior sports minister in Sarkozy's government as soon as the World Cup is over. But on Thursday, Clement Poitrenaud, the fullback who read the text, complained the dressing room footage made the team look like "cretins."

Moquet's biographer condemned the use of the letter as "grotesque, sad and unbearable."

Crucially, the daily Le Parisien wondered if a letter beginning with the words "I'm going to die" could have "undermined the team's morale."

Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon said on Thursday the president had not asked for the text be read to the players.

Sarkozy, who prides himself on televised jogging and cycling sessions, has restyled himself as a rugby fan and insisted government ministers attend matches in order to reap as much political gain from what most of France assumed would be a clear path to at least the semi-finals.

His advisers have studied the impact of France's 1998 World Cup final victory on former French president Jacques Chirac, who despite not knowing the names of half the team, saw his poll ratings leap.

Sarkozy has joked to the French rugby team that if they lose, he will be blamed.

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