A nation rejoices, or does it? How the French have reacted to their success

Despite the weekend's delights, writes John Litchfield in Paris, rugby has some way to go to earn the nation's affection
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When the whistle blew in Cardiff on Saturday night, two or three thousand Parisian rugby fans poured out of bars and homes and celebrated with polite joy on the Champs Elysées.

When France beat Brazil in the quarter-final of the football World Cup last year, a vast and multi-racial throng instantly swamped the Champs Elysées, beating drums and igniting fire-crackers.

When France won the 1998 football World Cup – their World Cup – the Champs Elysées was jammed from end to end by the largest and most excited crowd seen in Paris since its liberation in August 1944. The crowd, like Aimé Jacquet's triumphant football team, was brown, white and black. They exploded on to the Champs Elysées, from the wealthiest districts of Paris and from the poorest of its multi-racial suburbs.

If France go on to win the 2007 Rugby World Cup – their Rugby World Cup – there will be immense joy and pride. Could there be another explosion of popular, multi-racial, nationwide fervour? Would sporting triumph unite the whole nation as it did – fleetingly, as it turned out – in the summer of 1998?

It seems unlikely. Rugby is a question of life and death in villages and small towns in southern and south-western France. In the rest of the country it has, until now, been a subject of occasional, vague interest each spring during the Six Nations Championship.

The oval-ball game has barely penetrated the sprawling multi-racial suburbs which surround all French cities and large towns. Rugby in France remains a rural game, a southern game and mostly, but not exclusively, a white game. There are three black African players in the France squad but all learned their trade in the heartlands of the south west, not in the troubled Paris suburbs which produced Lilian Thuram, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Louis Saha and so many others.

And yet, and yet...

The France v New Zealand quarter-final on Saturday night attracted a television audience of 18 million, one in three of the population – the largest ever for a rugby match in France. Sales of France replica kits, and perhaps more significantly sales of rugby balls, are smashing all records and expectations. New applications for membership of rugby clubs, including the many low-level, amateur clubs which exist outside the frontiers of Ovalie (the south and south-west) are booming.

Could the Rugby World Cup – whether Les Bleus eventually win or not – change the sporting map of France?

"Something is happening. Something is definitely happening," said Daniel Herrero, a legendary player and manager at Toulon, now a radio commentator and writer. "There will not, perhaps, be the enormous, popular reaction right across the country that we saw in 1998. Football still grips the popular imagination far more than rugby. There are 3,000,000 registered football players in France – one in 20 of the whole population. There are only 280,000 registered rugby players.

"And yet from the moment that France qualified for the quarter-finals, from the moment that it seemed Le Coq might crow after all, you could feel a rising ground-swell of excitement. If France continue to play well, if, dare I say it, they continue to win, if the game's administrators convert that try, there could be great dividends from the 2007 World Cup. There is every reason to hope that rugby will conquer new territory in France and start, at last, to become a truly national game."

A month ago, when France lost to Argentina in the opening match, that would have seemed an absurd hope. The Mondial de Rugby had been given a huge media and political build-up. President Nicolas Sarkozy, and almost every other right-wing politician, leaped aboard the bandwagon, praising the special "values" of rugby: courage, tenacity, teamwork, respect for officialdom, and the (alleged) absence of an overriding obsession with money.

Le Monde carried an interview on the spiritual and cerebral qualities of rugby with a French philosopher, Catherine Kintzler. She offered the opinion that Aristotle would have been a good coach and Descartes – the apostle of logic and clear-thinking – "an excellent scrum-half".

All of this hype and abstraction seemed to fall face down in the mud when France lost to the Pumas at the Stade de France. There was a media hue and cry, and sincere national unease, when it was revealed that a moving final letter from a condemned 17-year-old Resistance hero had been read out to the players two hours before the match.

To mistake rugby for war, death and genuine self-sacrifice was taking "rugby values" too far. In any case, the stunt had backfired and made the players perform like statues.

The fury centred mostly on the enigmatic figure of the France coach, Bernard Laporte. President Sarkozy has appointed him junior minister for sport, a position he will take up after the tournament. The letter from the resistance hero, Guy Moquet, had already been used by Sarkozy as a way of promoting patriotism among French youth. By having it read out to his players, Laporte seemed to have strayed offside; he had started thinking like a politician, rather than a coach.

However, good performances in the three other pool matches and the heroics against the All Blacks have restored faith in Laporte's judgement. And that of Sarkozy.

Because he appointed Laporte to the government, because he made so much of "rugby values", Sarkozy has a lot riding on the World Cup. No wonder the President of the Republic leaped up, arms aloft like any other fan, when France scored their tries at the Millennium Stadium.

Rugby has always been a political game in France. This explains, in part, its deep implantation in the south and its relative unpopularity elsewhere. In the early 20th century the Catholic Church opposed rugby as a brutal activity, favouring football and cycling. As a result, many anti-clerical teachers and village mayors in the fiercely republican south promoted rugby as an anti-church sport.

By the 1920s, the French game was run by the haute bourgeoisie in Paris but played largely by peasants in the south west. Of the squad of 30 France players in this World Cup, the vast majority still come from rural backgrounds. There are 92 départements (the equivalent of counties) in France. Essentially the squad is drawn from 10, stretching from the Rhône Valley to the Basque country.

Can French rugby break out of its ghetto at last? Can it begin to draw on the potentially limitless pool of energy and sporting talent in the banlieues or suburbs of French cities?

Fadela Amara, the junior minister for urban affairs in the Sarkozy government, said: "There is a prejudice against rugby in the banlieues as an elitist and country-bumpkins' game, unlike football, which is the sport of the poor... partly it's a physical problem... you can dribble on concrete. Tackling on concrete is more of a problem."

All the same, Mme Amara predicts that if France win, the multi-racial suburbs will get caught up in the excitement like everyone else.

Amar, a youth organiser in a multi-racial suburb just west of Paris, is not so sure. "There are Serge Betsen and the others but the kids here don't look at the France rugby team and see themselves. OK, there is more interest than I thought there would be. But it won't change anyone's life here if France win."

Herrero remains optimistic. "What impresses is that some of the matches have happened in places like Lyons and Nantes, where there is no rugby tradition. You have had the same warmth and fervour, both inside the ground and outside, as you did at Bordeaux or Toulouse. Regular television coverage has already introduced the game to many new people in recent years. If Le Coq continues to crow, it will surely be heard, at last, by young people far outside our heartlands."