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Thursday, July 23, 1998 Published at 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK

The World Cup effect in France

Members of the team celebrate in style

Mark Reid reports from France on the impact the World Cup win has made on the nation's psyche.

France won the World Cup with just ten men on the pitch after the defender, Marcel Desailly, was sent off. This wasn't a problem. His colleague in defence, Frank Lebeouf, later explained -- it felt like we had sixty million people playing at the Stade de Paris. Everyone here has been surprised by the extent to which the nation identified with the team.

It took time though -- initially the main sports newspaper, L'Equipe, had persuaded the country the team didn't have a chance in the World Cup finals and that the national coach, Aime Jacquet, was useless. Even after the semi-finals, the team captain, Didier Deschamps, called for less blazers and ties and more French scarves and singing. There was no shortage of either after the 3-O win against Brazil.

National identity

[ image: France celebrates]
France celebrates
Not since the liberation of the country after the Second World War had more people celebrated on the Champs-Elysees. And a sociological fact has quickly emerged - a team of mixed racial background attracted a similar mix of supporters and for the first time, enabled them to identify with France.

The President, Jacques Chirac, himself a keen football fan, and the rest of the political establishment were overjoyed in part because much of the population who had previously felt excluded from national identity were waving the French flag and singing the national anthem, the Marseillaise. The footballers have succeeded where the politicians had failed.

[ image: Zinadine Zidane]
Zinadine Zidane
The team's origins are very diverse. The scorer of two goals in the final, Zinadine Zidane, has Algerian parents, the semi-final hero Lillian Thuram's family are from Guadeloupe and Christian Karembeu was born in New Caledonia. To name but three.

You only have to step on the Paris Metro to see that France is a racial melting pot. But now there is a psychological unity. So France has a tonic after a period in the doldrums with economic woes, and problems in the deprived estates of the suburbs, the banlieues.

The Zidane effect

Feeding off these divisions, the far-right National Front party had taken an electoral hold - fifteen per cent of voters - with its anti-immigration policy of national preference. The World Cup victory for the new France and the 'Zidane effect' as it's known, has dealt a blow to the National Front's standing.

In a cafe in the Paris Barbes district, an Algerian told me the World Cup win is a disaster for the Front and its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Mr Le Pen didn't go to any of the games and only in the days of celebration which followed, did he change his previously stated view that such a mixed team could not represent France. Now Mr Le Pen is satisfied that enough of them sing the national anthem in the pre-match ceremonies. He could not however resist saying that the World Cup success was a detail of French history. He had previously caused outrage by saying the same of the holocaust.

The nation's coach

[ image: Frank Lebeouf]
Frank Lebeouf
For other politicians, the reflected glory of Sunday's triumph has sent their opinion poll ratings sharply upwards. The country's cohabitation government team has a nice balance to it - with Prime Minister Socialist Lionel Jospin playing down the left and big Jacques Chirac slotting in as President on the right and up front. Mr Chirac now sees himself as a coach to the nation - his job to bring the best out of the country's sixty million players with the right tactics.

The politicians' opportunity now is to cement the togetherness of the nation in the moment of football victory with a boost to education and social spending in the most deprived areas. It's not easy though -- as the country is only slowly emerging from recession and the budgetary confines of preparing for the European single currency, limit room for policy manoeuvre.

Lionel Jospin has voiced a note of caution, reminding people that in many ways sport is separate from people's everyday concerns.

There are though signs that the World Cup's Zidane effect may change attitudes and even laws relating to immigration. The former hard-line Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, has said that the situation of those in France without residence documents, the sans-papiers, should be regularised. Illegal immigrants hope then that they can stay and become French.

'Morality and responsibility'

As I crossed the Pont-Neuf over the Seine, pondering the full meaning of the World Cup win for France, I was assisted by a colourful sign outlining four centuries of the River's history with key dates. Someone had added 1998 - Champions of the World. It's as big as anything that's ever happened.

And the change in the mood of the country, the new inclusivity, reminded me of what goalkeeper turned Nobel Prize winning French writer Albert Camus, said about football - that he owed to it everything he knew about morality and responsibility. For the moment at least, all France feels the same.

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