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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007, 01:08 GMT 02:08 UK
Sarkozy catches World Cup fever
By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

French fans at the opening match of the Rugby World Cup between France and Argentina
Rugby fever has gripped France as the World Cup kicks off
As the rugby World Cup kicks off in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy and his government will be hoping to benefit from the inevitable feel-good factor.

It is as if France has suddenly woken up.

After much of the country has been slumbering towards the World Cup, now it is everywhere.

People who know nothing about the sport are calling radio phone-ins to talk about it.

The front page headlines have no other news.

Not surprisingly, French politicians are wasting no time in getting in on the act.

President Sarkozy - who seems to have been everywhere, all the time, since his election in May - visited the French squad at their training headquarters in July. He did so again last week.

Wave of popularity

The president has good reason to take a close interest.

He wants to show that he shares the same passion, the same grief, the same sorrows as the people
Arnaud David

After the French football team's World Cup triumph on home soil in 1998, Jacques Chirac surfed on a wave of popularity.

For Arnaud David, rugby editor of the sports daily paper L'Equipe, Nicolas Sarkozy's interest is not purely opportunistic.

The president, he says, is a true sports fan, with a particular passion for cycling:

"Wherever he goes, he wants to show that he shares the same passion, the same grief, the same sorrows as the people."

"This World Cup, don't blow it", President Sarkozy told the squad, helpfully, before reassuring them that the whole country was behind them.

Not all the players appreciated the visit.

Former captain Fabien Pelous described such trips as "disturbing", saying they only added to the pressure to get a result.

Social engagements

The president has not been the only politician to bring their good wishes in person.

The players have become as adept at polite conversation in recent weeks as they have at tackling.

Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot was pictured in Paris Match being carried aloft by the entire squad.

The prime minister had them to dinner at his Matignon residence, where the Finance Minister Christine Lagarde met the players too, telling the wild-haired cult hero Sebastien Chabal how much her son admired him.

The defence minister dropped in for a barbecue at the squad's training camp.

Nicolas Sarkozy looks on during the opening ceremony of the rugby World Cup
[Sarkozy] thinks he has to get close to the heart of all French people who follow the world cup
Denis Tillinac
Among the other visitors: the human rights minister, the justice minister, and the minister for co-operation and la francophonie.

Olivier Thomas, the socialist mayor of Marcoussis where the squad is based, has watched the limos come and go.

Over the top

He acknowledges that it is natural for the head of state to wish the team luck, but thinks the mass governmental interest has gone over the top.

"I don't understand why they are here", he said. "I know that the French team is very popular, but I think that the repetition of the dinners with players, it's too much."

Imagine what the French squad could be in for, should the scenes at the Stade de France on October 20th resemble those on a certain summer evening nine years ago.

A month after Jacques Chirac handed over the FIFA World Cup trophy to the then French football captain Didier Deschamps, the president's personal popularity rating stood at 59%.

One friend of the former president argues that Mr Chirac was astute in perceiving the importance of Zinedine Zidane as a symbol of the integration of those from North African origin into French society.

Denis Tillinac, who is also an author on rugby culture, believes that Nicolas Sarkozy has gone a stage further in integrating politics with sport.

"He thinks he has to get close to the heart of all French people who follow the World Cup", he says, adding that the president will have been mugging up on rugby at home.

"He's like a sponge, incorporating it into his personality. It's very interesting, because we've never been governed this way."

Boost for government

Nicolas Sarkozy may hope that a French world cup victory would give his government a long-term boost.

France's Fabien Pelous (C) holds fast in a maul during the rugby union World Cup opening match
There will be a feel-good factor if they win, but it won't be a tidal wave
Patrick Mignon
Sports sociologist

But some believe the lessons of 1998 suggest otherwise.

"Politically nothing happened", says sports sociologist Patrick Mignon.

He argues that the impression that society changed after the victory of the multi-racial French team was false.

"Rugby is much less popular than football", he says.

"Of course there will be a feel-good factor if they win, but it won't be a tidal wave."

Whatever the outcome on 20 October, the next day will see further evidence of the encroachment of sport into politics.

The French rugby coach, Bernard Laporte, will officially begin his new job as France's sports minister.

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