The Rugby World Cup has roused a response
among the French that ranges from the often
passionate to the occasionally indifferent,
reflecting the sport's swift rise from a
regional to a national following in a
country still dominated by soccer.
Some in France can barely contain their
excitement as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to
see a top-class international tournament.
Others view the event through the prism of
commerce, culture or (this being France)
philosophy, as an event that promotes good
values and brings people together.
"You'd have to have something wrong with you
not to get worked up about the rugby," said
Maite, 69, a chef in the southwestern French
village of Rion-des-Landes. "Everyone here
is hooked on the World Cup, me included."
Said Patrick Pelloux, an accident-
and-emergency doctor: "Generally, I don't
like sport, but I make an exception for
rugby. It's got a good atmosphere and hasn't
been messed up by financial scams and
Julien Stanart, an artist in Toulouse,
enthused, "Two weeks ago, you wouldn't have
got the feeling that the World Cup was about
to start. But now you really get the feeling
that the fever is there."
But not everyone shares this enthusiasm in a
land where "Zizou" (Zinedine Zidane) remains
the unchallenged national idol.
"Rugby? No, not interested," said Sandrine
Lebon, a Parisian hairdresser in her 30s. "Je
prefere le foot."
Even so, the seven-week bash carries the
imprimatur of a huge international sporting
event and popular fiesta - a self-sustaining
phenomenon in the same vein as soccer's
global tournament and the Olympic Games.
For weeks, French newspapers, the press and
TV have been building up to the event,
showcasing the big names in photos and
interviews, picking out the better-looking
ones for fashion shoots and explaining the
basic rules of the game to the uninitiated.
Seventy-five rugby-themed books have
appeared in France this summer alone.
The French Post Office is issuing a special
set of World Cup "lenticular" (moving image)
stamps. By rotating the ¬3 ($5.93) stamp,
the viewer sees a ball, kicked by a Bleu,
heading between two rugby posts in a
succession of six images.
Members of the Government squabbled fiercely
over getting tickets for themselves and
their families for the opening ceremonies,
as there was not enough room for everyone in
the 200-seat presidential box.
"I bet that half of them have never seen a
[rugby] match before in their life," former
agriculture minister Jean Glavany, from the
rugby-playing heartland of the southwest,
Corporations from the banking sector to the
food, auto and clothing industries have been
cranking out rugby-related ads, while
restaurants, bars and shops have been
outdoing each other to pledge allegiance to
the oval ball.
In Paris, the welcome is stellar. "Rugby
bears the values of solidarity, fraternity
and commitment," says fan Mayor Bertrand
Delanoe, who has installed a giant TV screen
outside city hall, where all 48 matches will
be broadcast, opposite a lawn capable of
seating 15,000 people.
The Eiffel Tower has put up a 10m rugby
ball, illuminated in brilliant white, that
will be bracketed by two vertical beams
symbolising a pair of uprights.
At the Trocadero, on the opposite bank of
the Seine, a 2000sq m "rugby village" hopes
to be the big gathering place, offering
tastes of the food of all the participating
nations as well as video clips of past World
Cups and workshops on rugby techniques.
Eleven of the city's districts, with more
than 10,000 businesses, have been turned
over to flags, food fairs and exhibitions.
The big department store of Galeries
Lafayette is holding "un rugby-dating"
match-making service on September 20 for
rugby fans in search of a mate.
A British pub in Paris, the Frog and
Princess, is brewing a special brown beer
for the World Cup.
In the southern city of Marseille, where the
All Blacks will play their first match, and
at nearby Aix-en-Provence, Maori have been
staging lessons in the haka and tattoo art.
In the nine venue cities, the Government has
also vowed to scrap France's strict
restrictions on Sunday opening hours for the
duration of the tournament.
The reason for this is not hard to fathom:
2.4 million people have bought tickets for
the tournament, including between 350,000
and 400,000 foreigners.
Many of them are well-heeled visitors from
the Southern Hemisphere who are expected to
linger after the tournament to taste the
delights of France.
Once confined as a popular sport to the
south and southwest of France, rugby is
pushing hard to establish itself nationally
and among different population groups other
than white males.
CHRIS RATTUE |
The NZ Herald | Saturday, 8 September ,
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