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French team's World Cup rise sparks joy, without 'real message'

Eric Feferberg, AFP | Fans celebrated throughout France after their team beat Belgium on July 10.
Text by: Alcyone WEMAËRE
4 min

Les Bleus’ run to the World Cup final has triggered vast outpourings of glee throughout France, driven by a desire to relive France’s 1998 victory.


It is impossible to say just how many people took to the streets to celebrate France’s semi-final victory over Belgium on July 10. But it was certainly a much bigger response than the tempered expressions of enthusiasm that greeted Les Bleus’ respective second-round and quarter-final wins over Argentina and Uruguay.

Big victories by the French national team have always given rise to spontaneous demonstrations of joy on the streets. That was the case when Les Bleus won Euro 2000 and when they reached the Euro 2016 final. But Tuesday night’s revelry was on a scale no one had seen since France won their first World Cup trophy, on home soil, in 1998.

Reliving the ’98 glory days?

“We’re seeing the same kind of emotional pattern as in 1998, when doubts – especially about the manager – were only laid to rest late in the competition,” said Yvan Gastaut, a sports historian and lecturer at the University of Nice, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Gilles Vervisch, a philosopher and author of “De la tête aux pieds : Philosophie du football” (“From head to foot: Football philosophy”), interprets the vast semi-final victory celebrations as an attempt to experience the 1998 glory days once more.

“The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that you can never step into the same river twice,” he told FRANCE 24. “Indeed, the victory of 1998 – the memory of which was passed on to people too young to have experienced it themselves – is a moment we were talking about as a unique event, as a myth in and of itself, that, by definition, one could never relive.

“But, of course, France getting into the 2018 final gives us a way of experiencing the same joy.”

'Great to hear joy instead of ambulance sirens'

Vervisch also argued that the series of terrorist attacks that have struck France since January 2015 have played no small role in the celebratory fervour: “The first attack on November 13, 2015 targeted the Stade de France when Les Bleus were playing there. I think in part that’s probably behind Tuesday night’s merrymaking, on a sub-conscious level.”

Indeed, on the streets and social media alike, Parisians made oblique references to the terror attacks after France beat Belgium on Tuesday night. For example: “I don’t like football, but it’s great to hear the joy of people on the street, instead of ambulance sirens.”

That’s probably why a photo of jubilant France fans at Le Carillon, a bar attacked on November 13, 2015, got more than 2500 likes on Twitter.

Nevertheless, amid the revelry one event proved that the terrorist threat was still on people’s minds: shortly before the final whistle, a firecracker set off a panic stampede in Nice, lightly wounding 30 people.

In this context of fears of terrorism, celebrating Les Bleus’ victory allows the French to feed on “a positive emotion”, Vervisch noted. “Generally speaking, the principle of national unity involves rallying against a common enemy or adversary. That’s painful, in the case of war or an attack. But it’s easy when it comes to sport, because ultimately the stakes aren’t high.”

Gastaut concurred: “The attacks brought us together in the face of adversity. Football, by contrast, is light, superficial, and happy.”

“All the other times when people rally together in large numbers are either sad, like terrorist attacks or the death of a public figure, or they’re divisive, like the victory of a political party,” the sociologist Nicolas Hourcade told AFP.

‘Football doesn’t solve problems’

A big sporting event like a World Cup victory engenders an inclusive form of patriotism, according to Vervisch: “If someone’s happy about Les Bleus’ victory, no one’s going to question it on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.”

But the philosopher added that France’s World Cup victories are, at the end of the day, “entertainment; a distraction”. Adapting Karl Marx’s famous line about religion, he argued that “there is an ‘opium of the people’ aspect to football, because for people in real difficulty – the unemployed, for example – it doesn’t change much.”

“Football doesn’t solve problems,” he continued. “In 1998 there was a great deal of emphasis on Les Bleus’ ‘black, blanc, beur’ [black, white and North African] composition. But a few years later, the 2005 riots took place.”

“This time, unlike in 1998, Les Bleus represent France, without any real message,” Gastaut put it.

There is no message, although there is a combination of “real joy and illusory happiness”, Vervisch concluded.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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