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Paris warming up to party at the Rugby World Cup

Chris Rattue8/9/07

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 doping."

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, said acidly.

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 , 2007 | Comment on this article

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Chris Rattue

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