After two rounds of the Six Nations, France is the only unbeaten team. Their victory against Ireland in a ferocious encounter in Paris on Saturday evening keeps them on course for the championship title.
The last time France won the Six Nations crown was in 2010. The decade that followed was not kind to the national team. One might say their decline mirrored that of the country in general. They became a laughing stock, finishing bottom of the Six Nations in 2013 and suffering embarrassing defeats to the likes of Tonga and Fiji. Everything about the French team was amateur — their preparation, their fitness, their technique — compared to the clinical professionalism of their Six Nations rivals such as England, Ireland and Wales.
But Les Bleus are back. They travel to Edinburgh on Saturday week to face the inconsistent Scots and then it’s off to Cardiff to play a Wales side that also blows hot and cold. If France is victorious in both of those games they will have the opportunity to win the title (and with it the Grand Slam) in their final match, which is not only in Paris but also against the team that everyone in the championship loves to beat: England.
Few French fans will have their fingers crossed for a title triumph as tightly as Emmanuel Macron. The President likes his sport, particularly football, and he has not been shy in the past about exploiting its popularity with the masses for political gain. He was in Russia in July 2018 when France played Croatia in the World Cup Final. France won, and didn’t Macron let the world know it. The photo of him celebrating in the stand, punching the air in delight, adorned the world’s newspapers and internet sites the next day.
Success in the Six Nations would sit very well with Macron. The first round of the presidential election is three weeks after the championship and it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage how he would spin the win to his advantage. France is on the up, Macron will say, not just the rugby team but the country at large.
To no one’s great surprise the government last week suggested that the Covid Passport will be dropped at the end of March, just in time for the election, although of course any such move will be based on health considerations not political ones. Regardless, the French will be delighted with its demise, a sign that life is slowly returning to normal. Throw in a first Six Nations title in 12 years, and which self-respecting French person wouldn’t have a little spring in their step as they entered the polling booth?
There are precedents in how sport has influenced political elections. For example, in the run-up to the British general election in 1970, Harold Wilson was on course to be returned to power. One poll had his Labour party holding a 12 per cent lead over Ted Heath’s Tories. But four days before the election West Germany staged a stirring comeback in the quarter-final of the World Cup to knock out holders England 3-2.
Heath emulated the Germans. Was it a case of the public taking out their disappointment on Labour? In his memoirs the Labour defence minister at the time, Denis Healey, wrote that before he called the election Wilson ‘asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day?’
There is another reason why Macron will be desperate for French success in the Six Nations. The team is, to coin a cliche, a ‘celebration of diversity’. Along with the gnarled men of the deep south, such as the hooker Julien Marchand, born in the shadow of the Pyrenees, there is also Demba Bamba, raised on a housing estate in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, and Yoram Moefana, who arrived in France aged 13 from the Pacific island of Futuna. Against Ireland on Saturday the French team — their eyes wide and their chests out — sang La Marseillaise with gusto, along with 80,000 fans in the Stade de France, many of them waving French Tricolores. It was a stark contrast to what was happening a few miles south in the centre of Paris, where policemen used tear gas to disperse protesters from the ‘Convoy of Liberty’.
Macron’s pitch will be that the French rugby team — like the football squad — embodies the very best of the Republic. Éric Zemmour, on the other hand, is the candidate who wants to end all immigration and ban parents from giving their children foreign-sounding first names. How will that help French sport?
Will Macron be in the crowd on March 19 for ‘Le Crunch’ against England? He’s attended high profile rugby events before, such as the final of the French domestic championship in June 2019 between Toulouse and Clermont-Ferrand. But that didn’t quite go according to plan. The public, presented with a rare opportunity to let their President know what they thought of him, whistled and booed as he was introduced to the players on the pitch.
A Six Nations crowd, being more corporate and middle-class, will probably be more respectful. Many of them, one suspects, are Macron supporters. Nonetheless it would be a risk to turn up for the Six Nations decider in person; particularly as it’s against Perfidious Albion, the country Macron loves to loathe. Wouldn’t it be typical of the English to pee on the President’s parade?
England has dominated France in recent years, winning seven of their last ten encounters, and were they to make it eight — and perhaps in the process snatch the Six Nations title from under French noses — Macron could suffer politically. Nobody likes to be linked to a loser.
Merde, the French might mutter, not only did England emerge from lockdown months before us but now they’ve put one over us on the rugby field. Who’s the ‘clown’ now?
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