France gives itself a helpful kick in the pants: the Independent year

The World Cup
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE ARC de Triomphe was built to celebrate a different, bloodier kind of victory.

None the less, walking past it nowadays, one almost expects to see a new name engraved alongside the inscriptions of Austerlitz and the other battles: "Stade Saint Denis 1998".

On the night of 12 July, the famous old arch was turned into a projection screen for electric-green, laser-painted faces of the French footballers who had just won the World Cup.

Each face and each name - but especially that of Zinedine Zidane - drew a huge cheer from the crowds blocking the Champs-Elysees.

The next day more than a million people - five times the number who watch the entire French First Division on a good weekend - blocked the avenue from top to bottom to catch a glimpse of their brown, white and black heroes.

This was a family festival, a national festival. There were babies in prams with their faces painted red, white and blue; there were poodles with tricolours pinned on their collars. Most startling of all, there were white, brown and black Frenchmen and women jostling happily side by side. Arab youngsters from the suburbs were waving the French flag, probably for the first time in their lives.

France has always been a country in which politics is made on the streets. The crowds that turned out to celebrate the French victories in the World Cup semi-final and final were the largest on the streets of Paris since the Liberation in 1944. They were the most politically significant since the student revolts of 1968.

Politically significant? Six months later, the claim may seem hard to substantiate. The French economic recovery is beginning to stutter - although the boom in domestic spending encouraged by the World Cup victory has saved the country from worse problems.

The traditional winter violence in the troubled suburbs of French cities has broken out once more, though so far not as seriously as last year.

Can the implosion earlier this month of Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right, racist National Front be the doing of Zinedine Zidane, star of the French team and the son of Algerian immigrants, born in the troubled, northern suburbs of Marseilles? Would that life were so simple.

The significance - the political significance - of the World Cup victory is real none the less. It snapped a negative, inward looking national mood, which was long overdue for snapping. It allowed French people to celebrate being French, without complexes. It allowed them to reject the cheap anti-immigrant propaganda of the NF. It allowed them to reject the defeatism of the French, intellectual left.

There is, or was, a conviction in France that the country was doomed to decline in the modern world, in spite of the fact, or even because of the fact, that it is more cultured than the rest of the planet.

Part of the significance of the French World Cup victory is that it was based on hard work, muscle, multi-racialism and team work as much as traditional Gallic flair. Another part is that it was founded on players, who blossomed after going abroad, without losing their Frenchness.

On a recent visit to one of the troubled inner suburbs of Paris, I asked a football-mad, second-generation Algerian what the World Cup victory had meant for France. "On one level, nothing," said Hammer, a 33-year-old, youth worker. "All the problems here are the same as before. On another level, everything.

"For the kids here to see a man like Zidane starring in a team which looked, racially, like a group of youngsters on these streets, it gives them some hope that they, too, can make something of their lives."

That alone is worth a new inscription on the Arc de Triomphe.

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