French heroes from wrong side of tracks

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With a national record of 32 Olympic medals to their name - so far - you would have thought that the French would be dancing around the Arc de Triomphe, or at least cracking open a bottle or two of champagne in the Bois de Boulogne.

With a population almost identical to that of Britain, France has won more than three times as many medals, 13 of them gold, and lies fourth in the medals table.

At yesterday's cabinet meeting, President Chirac joked that he was awarding the sports minister, Guy Drut, himself a former Olympic champion, a metaphorical gold medal in recognition of the French team's success at Atlanta. The congratulations from on high are lavish. Mr Chirac sent a long message to Marie-Jo Perec when she retained her 400m championship, applauding the example she had set to young athletes, and quoting from a poet of her native Guadeloupe. The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, appended a handwritten note to his message, saying: "Well done! I embrace you."

The media, in amazed ecstasy at the French performance, are promoting the idea that the medal-winners represent the "better face" of French youth. Much has been made of the fact that many of the medal-winners, especially in the early events like fencing and judo, were hitherto "unknowns" from immigrant families, from modest backgrounds, or from the further reaches of the French empire.

"Where did all these stars come from?' asked the pro-government daily Figaro in surprise, before drawing an optimistic lesson for social and racial integration.

The victory of Djamel Bouras in the judo was hailed as the first time a beur, a non-white Frenchman of North African origin, had won an Olympic gold. His call home, and his joyous family gathered on the sofa in their council house were held up as proof that France's housing estates - portrayed last year as the cesspits of the nation, seething with ethnic unrest - were not such a failure after all.

Two other gold medallists, a woman judo winner and a cyclist, with previous Olympic disappointments to their name, were treated as paragons of the wholesome country life. The message was that the real heart and soul of the country is to be found in the much-ridiculed "France profonde".

For the French government, the nation's success in Atlanta has only one downside: a nagging worry about how much it could cost. Olympic victors receive generous rewards from the government, up to 250,000 francs - more than pounds 30,000 - for a gold medal.

Otherwise, the nation's success at Atlanta should be a godsend. The President and the Prime Minister have spent the best part of a year blaming a nebulous "feel-bad" factor for the economy's failure to grow, and for the persistence of high unemployment. What better tonic for the national psyche than a tally of Olympic medals?

Unfortunately, little of this seems to be filtering through. France is on holiday. And when the French go on holiday they have better things to do than watch television - which include doing the walking, cycling, white-water kayaking, riding etc, themselves.

But even if the French were not - physically and psychologically - on holiday, the "feel- good" benefits of the Olympics might still be less than the government would hope. "Can Olympic medals really be any sort of consolation," wrote a reader from Aix-en-Provence in a letter to a national newspaper, "to a country that is in such a parlous state?" And he drew a surprising analogy with Grand Prix racing.

Which would you rather be, he asked: Volkswagen, the market leader, that has never taken part; Renault, which is dominating this year's world championships but is withdrawing from a promising market, or Ferrari, the legendary champion fallen on hard times? "I would prefer French society to be more like Volkswagen than Renault," he said, unpatriotically. A good many more than 32 Olympic medals will be needed to lift this particular Frenchman out of his gloom.