Rugby World Cup: The mood of France

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The Independent Online

You organize a big party for yourself but, through unforeseen circumstances, you are unable to make it. Your noisy next door neighbours invade your house and drink up all the champagne.

Pity – just for a second – the poor people of France. They expected to be the stars of their own show today. Instead, they have to watch excited England rugby fans pour like red-and-white lava over every street in the French capital, defying overrunning transport strikes, Pounds 3,500 black-market tickets and full hotel signs.

In truth - speak it not in the Frog-bashing offices of the Sun or Daily Mail - the French are being very noble about it. Most French people that I have spoken to will be supporting England tonight.

“Of course we would have preferred France to have been in the final of our own World Cup but England must win for Europe and for the northern half of the planet,” said my rugby-daft friend, Michel. “The arrogance of the English if they win will be intolerable but the arrogance of the big rugby countries in the South is always intolerable. Allez, les rosbifs.”

A national transport strike which was supposed to finish after a single day rumbled into extra-time yesterday, disrupting the Paris Metro and domestic railway services.

Eurostar trains from London were not affected. The red and white tide of raucous, but generally well-behaved ,“Anglais” rose inexorably over the streets of Paris during the day.

If the strikes extends into the weekend – which seems unlikely – England fans might have some difficulties in reaching the Stade de France, just north of the capital tonight. The RER (regional metro) line B, the main route to the stadium, was closed down yesterday for the second day running.

Other metro lines to the northern edge of Paris proper were running nearly normally, however. The Stade de France is only just outside the city. It is not like walking to Twickenham.

Pete Tindell, 39, from Southport had a more urgent problem. To find a ticket for the match without robbing the Banque de France.

“The cheapest we've heard they're going for are Pounds500 and if we were offered that we'd take it. Some are going for Pounds3,500 though.”

“If we can't get into the ground, we'll watch it (on the big screen) near the Eiffel Tower. It's just important to be in a good atmosphere.”

Dave, 27, from Luton, already dressed in rugby England rugby shirt, and red and white clown wig, said: “We’ve been teasing the French a bit in bars but they’re mostly pretty good about it. The saddest people around are all the silly Kiwis, who booked to be here months ago knowing the All-Blacks would be in the final.”

“The only problem is that they seem to have taken all the hotel rooms. I’m kipping on a friend’s floor.”

The Rugby World Cup – the first to be organized in a non-English speaking country – has been a stunning commercial success. The minister for tourism, Luc Chatel, estimates that 350,000 foreign fans and their families have traveled to France in the last six weeks

Rugby is, apparently, a game for big spenders.

“They spend more than the average tourist and more than the average sports fan, such as football supporters,” M. Chatel said.

Outside the rugby ghettoes of the south and southwest, rugby is usually a subject of ephemeral and polite interest in France. Not in the last six weeks. The last two matches played by the France team each attracted over 18,000,000 TV viewers – almost one in three of the population and the largest TV audiences of the year.

Rugby memorabilia, and even rugby balls, have been swept from the shelves. Applications to join amateur rugby clubs have tripled.

All had been building towards a festival of national joy once France triumphed in its OWN rugby world cup final tonight – emulating the football victory “chez nous” in 1998. That dream fell flat on its face against England last Saturday. President Nicolas Sarkozy is reported to have said after the match: “Bang goes one per cent of GDP.”

None of that worried the red-and-white clad hordes arriving at the Gare du Nord last night to look for a ticket – and, first, a bar.

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