France revels in rugby-mania

12th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

12 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - With President Nicolas Sarkozy cheering in the stands, more than 16 million fans glued to their television sets and players like "Caveman" Sebastien Chabal gaining star status: France has succumbed to rugby-mania.

12 October 2007

PARIS (AFP) - With President Nicolas Sarkozy cheering in the stands, more than 16 million fans glued to their television sets and players like "Caveman" Sebastien Chabal gaining star status: France has succumbed to rugby-mania.

Les Bleus are preparing to face England at the Stade de France near Paris on Saturday, riding a wave of enthusiasm after last week's win over New Zealand's All Blacks.

Some 16.6 million viewers in France watched Les Bleus knock out the rugby powerhouse -- an all-time record in France for a televised rugby match that is expected to be shattered on Saturday evening.

The fervour is drawing comparisons with the 1998 football World Cup when France beat Brazil for the champion's title, unleashing a massive victory party on the Champs Elysées with one million revelers.

The 1998 victory provided a boost to French morale and even helped then president Jacques Chirac notch up 14 points in his approval ratings.

"There is real passion. The stadiums are full. We are getting record television audiences. It's really extraordinary," said Alain Doucet, the general secretary of the French Rugby Federation.

Enrolment in rugby schools is up as legions of French children have discovered the sport during the World Cup that France is hosting until October 17, said Doucet.

Even Sarkozy, a long-distance runner and soccer fan, has been a willing cheerleader, travelling to Cardiff at the weekend to watch the match against New Zealand along with several members of government.

Sarkozy's junior minister for sport is national rugby coach Bernard Laporte -- who will formally take up the portfolio after the World Cup -- while Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie is the daughter of a one-time international rugby referee, Bernard Marie.

For the writer and rugby expert Denis Tillinac, who joined Sarkozy's trip to Cardiff, the president "doesn't have the physique, but he has the right mindset for rugby, he likes all the manly, brothers-in-arms stuff."

"If we win the World Cup his ratings will jump five points, though he'll drop back again just as easily."

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has described the World Cup as an opportunity for the nation "to come together in national unity" to cheer on Les Bleus in their march to win the Rugby World Cup.

A popular sport in the Southwest of France, rugby enjoys an image as a community sport unblemished by commercial interests and the drug scandals of the Tour de France.

But it is a distant second to football, where the semi-final match pitting France against Portugal in 2006 drew a television audience of 22.2 million.

France has more than two million soccer players registered in various clubs while rugby has fewer than 300,000, said Patrick Mignon, a sport sociologist at the National Institute of Sport.

"Rugby remains an elite sport in France," said Mignon. "It's played in ivy league schools, for example. There is very little rugby in the Paris suburbs."

Commercial sponsors and sports manufacturers are cashing in on the craze, with the World Cup expected to pump eight billion euros (11.5 billion dollars) into the French economy, according to the tourism ministry.

Fans have bought half a million rugby shirts, while the World Cup has already generated 33.7 million euros in ad revenue for France's biggest television channel TF1.

Some 350,000 fans have travelled to France for the World Cup, with 40,000 Britons set to flow into the capital for the France-England showdown on Saturday.

But experts are wary of predicting a long-term impact of a World Cup win on French morale: "There is a 'feel good factor', but what is left after a few months?" asked Mignon.

"It could provide a boost to morale -- but it won't be as wild as the football World Cup," agreed Frederic Dabi of the IFOP polling institute. "And anyway, we have yet to win!"

AFP

Subject: French news

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