(Economist) “Democratic heroes”, he believes, bring out the best in the French
WHEN Emmanuel Macron was a child, growing up in the northern French town of Amiens, he was a fervent supporter of a southern club, Olympique de Marseille. In 1993, the year they won the European Champions League, the club’s captain was a certain Didier Deschamps. On July 15th, under torrential rain after France’s victory at the World Cup final, it was as president that Mr Macron clasped in a tight embrace the same Mr Deschamps, captain of the French team that won the World Cup back in 1998, and now manager of the French champions.
Today France welcomes home Les Bleus, their national team, after a 4-2 defeat of Croatia in Moscow. A million people descended last night on Paris as the sun began to set, chanting, rocking Metro carriages, clambering onto bus shelters and up lamp posts, and setting off flares and firecrackers. The capital’s arteries emptied of cars and turned into a flag-waving, chanting human flow.
The team will this afternoon parade down the Champs-Elysées (past a station that the Paris Metro briefly renamed “Deschamps-Elysées”) in an open-top bus, to a reception hosted by Mr Macron at the presidential palace. They have warmed hearts and made history. Mr Deschamps has become only the third person to win the World Cup as both player and manager. Kylian Mbappé, a striker who grew up in the Paris banlieue of Bondy, is only the second teenager, after Pelé, to score a goal in the World Cup final.
Football for Mr Macron, who did not conceal his joy in the presidential box during the match, is more than just a sport. A left-back when he played as a student, he enjoys the game, and took his presidential campaign to Sarcelles, a Paris banlieue, where he kicked a ball about with youngsters. Yet football matters to him for other reasons too, and not least because, although he will doubtless be accused of exploiting victory for political ends, he may well get a poll bounce as the country’s mood lifts. In 1998 the sitting president, Jacques Chirac, saw his popularity leap from 45% in June to 59% in August after France’s victory. It remained above 50%, amid a broad economic recovery, for the next 18 months.
One reason this victory suits Mr Macron is that, at a time when the president is accused by his detractors of contempt for those less fortunate than him, and of a drift to the political right, football in France represents the sort of social mobility that he approves of. Sport, he said on a trip to Marseille during the election campaign last year, “kills house arrest” for those living in the country’s banlieues. Greater Paris, ringed by brutalist housing estates where many families of immigrant origin live, has a thriving network of after-school amateur football clubs that has become a giant talent pool for the national team. Training and talent are central to Mr Macron’s vision of how to combat poverty, and football offers a potent symbol of this.
A second reason is that the team itself has become a classy advertisement for France. In 1998 the country was still so unsure about its multicultural identity that the team was tagged “black, blanc, beur” in reference to its multiracial make-up. At the tournament in South Africa eight years ago, the French side, made up of supersized egos, went on strike during a training session, and later departed in disgrace after crashing out of the tournament. This year Mr Deschamps has forged a side of likeable team players, who were as boisterous in the dressing-room after the match as they were disciplined, focused and ruthless during the tournament. Mr Mbappé has spoken of wanting “to give everything to France”. Antoine Griezmann, another goalscorer, tweeted simply, “CHAMPIONS DU MONDE. Vive la France!”.
Mr Macron, who will have enjoyed the symbolism of victory in Russia, which he suspected of trying to hack his election campaign, has a final reason for embracing this team. This is to do with what he calls “democratic heroes”. From the president’s speech at Johnny Hallyday’s funeral, to that during the entry of Simone Veil to the Panthéon, Mr Macron regards the celebration of the lives of popular, or historic, figures as a chance to try to bring out the best in the French. Liberal democracies, he has argued, faced with the dark menace of nationalism, need heroes if they are to rouse a positive national spirit and defeat the “sad passions” fanned by populists. In the 23 players and their manager who brought home the World Cup, the luckiest man in French politics has found his heroes.