Politics, war and death make for uneasy team-mates in French rugby

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France has been plunged into an anguished debate following the pre-match recital of a celebrated letter from a condemned 17-year-old Resistance hero to the national rugby team.

Was this an example of the excessive emotionalism introduced to French public life by President Nicolas Sarkozy? And did it place such a burden of expectation on the France team that "Les Bleus" crashed to unexpected home defeat against Argentina in their opening game of the Rugby World Cup?

At the very least, Bernard Laporte, the team coach, stands accused of a monumental lapse of judgement. "By what distortion, by what confusion of values, could anyone compare the game of rugby to the Resistance?" asked Nicolas Gurgand in the magazine L'Express.

The row has spilled into the political arena for two reasons. M. Laporte is a friend of M. Sarkozy's and has been promised the job of sports minister after the World Cup. The President used the same Resistance hero's letter at his inauguration in May and has ordered that it should be read out next month to teenagers in every lycée in France.

Some teachers have criticised this presidential edict, saying the letter is more sentimental than educational. Other critics say it is a disturbing example of his desire to flood the French political arena with melodramatic words and gestures. Yet M. Sarkozy's supporters counter it is a way of rekindling the "lost values" of patriotism and self-sacrifice.

The letter at the centre of the controversy was written by Guy Môquet, a 17-year-old Resistance hero, just before his execution in 1941. It begins: "My little adored mummy, my adored baby brother, my little daddy, whom I love so much, I am going to die".

It goes on to ask his family to be brave, like him, and accept that his death has "achieved something".

M. Laporte suggested a player read the letter out loud, five hours before the match eight days ago, as the team stood, arms linked, in a circle. They went on to lose 12-17.

The following day, film of the incident was shown on TF1, the most popular French TV channel, infuriating the France players who said the footage " made them look like idiots".

Since then a controversy has been building daily in the press and on blogs. In one typical comment, "Pascal" argued the President was in danger of turning French public life into a "sit-com". " Ordinary people will soon want to throw up," he said.

French rugby players have, however, rejected suggestions the reading of the letter over-burdened them. It was normal for teams to "psych" themselves up before a big match, they said. Their failure was tactical, not emotional.

However, Laurent Benezech, a former international, turned media commentator, said the letter had cranked up "excessive emotion". By the time players took to the pitch, they were "empty" and "paralysed".

Attempts to connect rugby to history and politics cut both ways. Members of the government have made a series of statements in recent days paying tribute to the allegedly unique sporting values of rugby: courage, sportsmanship, teamwork and selflessness.

These brought a wry response from Guy Roux, an elder statesmen of French soccer, who said he had attended rugby matches where both players and spectators behaved "like thugs".

The magazine L'Express ran an article yesterday asking whether rugby was being hijacked by the Right. In 1940, it said, rugby union administrators connived with the collaborationist, pro-Nazi Vichy regime to have the rival code, rugby league, banned.

Extracts from Môquet's letter

"My little adored mummy, my adored baby brother, my little daddy, whom I love so much. I am going to die.

"What I ask of you, you especially, my little mummy, is to be brave. I am brave, and want to be as brave as those who have gone before me. Of course, I would have liked to live. But what I desire with my whole heart is that my death should have achieved something.

"At 17-and-a-half, my life has been short but I have no regrets, except leaving you all... I can say no more. I leave you all, embracing you with my child's heart. Be brave. Your Guy, who loves you."