UNITED BY RUGBY?
(the Economist, 10/30/99)
ASSUME the unlikely: that this weekend France's rugby team goes to Twickenham, just outside London, and overcomes not just the animosity of beef-crazed Britons but also New Zealand's awe-inspiring All Blacks, their opponents in the championship's semi-finals. The French press will erupt with joy. Television screens will show les Bleus gloriously confounding this season's many critics with the incisive running attacks of yesteryear. And the nation will look forward to the weekend after: a victory in the final of the rugby world cup to add to last year's world soccer trophy.
But what of the politicians? Last year, when the soccer team swept to victory against a disappointing Brazil, Lionel Jospin, the prime minister, seized the moment with a rhetorical question that captured all of France: ``What better example of our unity and diversity than this magnificent team?'' Indeed. The winning national soccer team, like the national league, is a rainbow of colours from France's imperial history. Of the 22-strong squad, eight were black or brown-skinned, including one from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, a Kanak from the Pacific outpost of New Caledonia, a Ghanaian adopted by a French priest and the match-winning folk-hero Zinedine (``Zizou'') Zidane, a native Marseillais of Algerian parentage, not to mention a quartet of Armenian, Argentine, Kalmyk and Spanish descent, plus a brace of Basques and Bretons.
By contrast, all but three of this week's 31-strong rugby squad are white, mostly of solid ethnic-French stock, with a heavy input of Basque, Spanish and Italian muscle bearing names like Garbajosa, Mola, Ibanez, Califano and Dominici. Only the Moroccan-born Abdelatif Benazzi, the half-Cameroonian Emile Ntamack and Jimmy Marlu, born in Martinique, provide dashes of colour. Politicians' comments, too, have been bland: witness President Jacques Chirac's bon mot that ``rugby is a metaphor for life.'' In fact, that presidential cliche betrays some wishful thinking. Though Paris can boast a top-class team in Stade Francais, French rugby is truly a sport for the country's rural south-west, a region which more than most encapsulates the national nostalgia for a waning rural France. Rugby may have been a game mainly for the middle class in England, Scotland and Ireland, but in France, as in Wales, its roots are as a sport for ordinary folk, peasants and miners rather than lawyers and estate agents.
Could that now be changing? Le Monde, a quintessentially intellectual newspaper of the left, is giving its readers a weekly supplement on the rugby world cup. L'Equipe, a daily devoted to sport, not only runs pages on rugby but is said to be the first dose of daily reading for an increasing number of the male middle class. Much more of this and rugby may eventually become a sport to rival soccer in its national spread.
But not yet--in ethnic, demographic or class terms. Pace Mr Chirac, it is soccer, not rugby, that reflects life in France. The rural populace, which has provided the core of France's heaving rucks and mauls in pursuit of the oval ball, has been declining for decades. The Aveyron department, for example, in the heart of rugby-playing France, had a population of 415,000 in 1886--but only 270,000 in 1990. As the country towns and villages have been depleted, so the cities have grown, complete with surrounding, often squalid, suburbs. It is there that poor children, French-descended and immigrant alike, play their soccer. Victory for the rugby team may do wonders for national pride, but for social peace, unless Mr Jospin can find a new turn of phrase, it will come a distant second to soccer.