With his inexhaustible repertoire of shrugs and grimaces, and his big hooked nose protruding from a squashy, weathered face, Villepreux is a Frenchman the English can recognise, in the mode of Gainsbourg, Depardieu and Cantona. He is also obliging enough to satisfy the stereotype by discussing a mere ball-game in the terms of a philosophical inquiry. This method worked less effectively when, during a period of estrangement from the French rugby establishment a few years ago, he was invited to coach the English team.
Some of the players understood what he was saying. Others, he said afterwards, didn't want to understand. They wanted organisation, not ideas. The rest of us could see the result of their preference when England, running in straight lines and quickly running out of ideas, were eliminated by South Africa in the quarter-finals, while France pulled off a sensational and exhilarating victory over the favourites, New Zealand, to reach today's climactic meeting with Australia.
It was a French film director, Claude Miller, who said that "we carry our childhood with us, tucked away in our pocket, all our lives". And that's what we see in a great performance by a French team. When they succeed, they show us the childlike spirit that sport is supposed to embody. Not childish - although, like most sportsmen, they can sometimes be that, too. But the spirit of freedom, the pleasure of flinging a ball around or outstripping an opponent, the joy of turning to your team-mates and sharing a moment of glory is far more evident in a French success than an English one. And for the French, recently, it has been just one damned jour de gloire after another.
It will be interesting to see who turns up at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium this afternoon, wearing the blue, white and red on their cheeks or around their necks. The last time France made it to the final of a big international sporting tournament, it was held in their own new national stadium and the best seats were filled with the stars of politics and entertainment. Emmanuelle Beart and Romane Bohringer, two of French cinema's finest actresses, were among those present to see their compatriots trounce Brazil. But those two had also been spotted a couple of weeks earlier in the less glamorous surroundings of the football stadium in Lens, a mining town 50 miles north of Paris, where the national team suffered a near-catastrophic humiliation as they struggled to beat unfancied Paraguay.
To be a French sports fan is to know the extremes of triumph and disaster, and to meet them both with equanimity. It is hard to believe that the million or so citizens who danced down the Champs-Elysees after the 1998 World Cup final would have been trashing Fouquet's or urinating on the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe had their team failed to beat the favourites. They took their victory as they had hosted the tournament, with civilised delight but a sense of proportion that stood as a gentle rebuke to the excesses of the English. And the next morning they cleared up the litter and got themselves to work.
France are the current world champions of football, thanks to that delirious Sunday night in Saint-Denis. By this evening they may be the world champions of rugby. Next month they meet the representatives of today's opponents, Australia, in the final of the world team championship of tennis, the Davis Cup. In team sports, no other nation can currently compare with them. Yet this is
supposed to be a nation of individualists, of lonely existentialists, whose isolated triumphs are achieved by momentary bursts of flair. A country, moreover, at odds with itself over the question of integrating ethnic minorities from its former colonies.
Aime Jacquet's football team was characterised by its informal slogan: blacks, blonds et beurs - a reference to the composition of a team whose members could trace their ancestry to Guadeloupe, Armenia, Algeria, New Caledonia, the Basque country and Argentina. The hero, Zinedine Zidane, was a child of the tenements of Marseilles.
What it was not, however, was a team devoted solely to the cause of what even its exponents know as le French flair. Jacquet, a butcher's son from the Loire, represented other virtues. "In football," he had announced, "spontaneous creativity doesn't work. You need hard work, conviction and confidence." His old-fashioned simplicity earnt him the scorn of Parisian critics as his team stumbled through their preparations, but in the end he bonded a collection of disparate talents into a team capable of beating everyone.
Those same critics have spent the last few months attacking the rugby team supervised by Villepreux and his colleagues, Jo Maso and Jean-Claude Skrela, whose pre-tournament results were similarly uninspiring. Their squad is not quite such a rainbow coalition, but the team's captain, Raphael Ibanez, is a Basque, its physical reference point, the giant lock Abdelatif Benazzi, was born in Morocco, one of its star backs, Emile Ntamack, is the child of immigrants from Cameroon, the flank forward Marc Lievremont was born in Senegal, and a reserve wing, Jimmy Marlu, is from Martinique. French rugby is a regional affair, with its stronghold in the south-west, but this team does its bit to promote an acceptance of the nation's new diversity.
To some observers, the contrast with England is drearily obvious. Clive Woodward's squad for the disastrous semi-final against South Africa two weeks ago contained 22 players - the 15 in the starting line-up, plus all seven replacements - whose skin colour matched that of their lily- white shirts. How can the team representing the nation in a major sport hope to succeed when it does not truly represent the nation, or draw on all its talents?
This new France has plenty of problems of its own, but at least the official view is that it represents something to be proud of. It was also on show in London on Thursday night when the French ambassador, Daniel Bernard, hosted a party at the Institut Francais in South Kensington to launch the French Music Bureau, aimed at promoting the country's popular musicians to a British audience. A DJ played music which seemed to encompass the sounds of all France's former colonial territories before a singer stepped forward to sing and chant in an ululating style that performed a marriage between hip-hop and the Islamic chants of the Maghreb. This was Amina, whose origins are in Tunisia.
M Bernard used the French term for the mixing of races to describe the phenomenon. "This metissage of music is quite similar to the metissage you have in Britain," he said.
These people give us a vision of France that adds a dimension to our long-established picture of a land of sunlit lavender fields and empty farmhouses ripe for conversion into second homes. This is a France of the cites, the housing projects in the sullen suburbs, but also of the TGV and the grands travaux. A France that is forgetting how to bake a decent croissant (according to a survey in Le Figaro this week) while erecting IM Pei's pyramid in the Louvre forecourt. A France where the new national symbol, the Marianne, is modelled by Laetitia Casta, who does not exactly bring to the role the gravity of Catherine Deneuve, yet also a France in which Norman Foster's art gallery looks respectfully across at the Maison Carre built by the Romans in the centre of Nimes. A France of an emptying countryside but a cinema that continues to illuminate many levels and degrees of the human condition, from Place Vendome through La Vie Revee des Anges to La Haine.
And, today, also the France of a rugby team whose style and commitment we can only stand back and applaud, whatever their fate. But we should not be fooled into assuming that their achievements are the result of a careless rapture that occurs when great improvisers suddenly find themselves working in unison. There is more to it than that.
"Of course, the flair is one of the strengths of French rugby," Villepreux told me almost a year ago, when his team's World Cup chances were being generally written off and I was asking him whether improvisation was still the name of the national game. "But improvisation is not the right word, I think. Improvising is something that happens when you have no sense of the situation you're in. Improvisation, for me it's too dangerous. If you improvise, one player will see one thing and another will see something else. It doesn't work."
What does work, it seems, is a willingness to say that since diversity is here, we may as well nurture it and trust it and try to bring the best of the new together with the best of the old, even at the risk of an occasional disaster. And the word for that is metissage - a word for today, but also for tomorrow, theirs and ours.
LE `FRENCH FLAIR'
THEY HAVE WE HAVE
Emma Bovary Emma Bunton
L'heure bleue Drive time
La vie revee des anges Mad Cows
Cassoulet Sausage and beans
Alain Delon Roger Moore
Marguerite Duras Agatha Christie
Jane Birkin Antoine de Caunes
Eiffel tower Blackpool tower
The Marseillaise God Save the Queen
TGV leaves on the lineReuse content