Exultant French Put Their Reserve on Hold
By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 10, 1998; Page C1
Those are natural gathering places for great occasions; by some estimates more people celebrated in public after the semifinal win than at any time since the liberation of France near the end of World War II.
The more unexpected demonstration was in the countryside near the tiny town of Clairefontaine, an hour from Paris. When the French team's bus pulled into its training camp there just before midnight, hundreds of fans greeted it, waving flags, singing the national anthem and shouting.
Soccer fever is everywhere in France these days. Its team is in the final for the first time. The normally reserved French are feeling a surge of national pride and wholehearted enthusiasm for the tournament they are hosting and for the success of their team.
They are not afraid to act silly: On game night, five men wearing tall Eiffel Tower hats and satin boxer shorts can-canned their way around the Stade de France, the 80,000-seat stadium in Saint-Denis where France beat Croatia.
They are not afraid to look stupid: For what is said to be the first time in French soccer history, fans are painting their faces in the blue, white and red stripes of the tricolor national flag.
They are not afraid to think big: More than 1,000 people helped unfurl what must be the world's largest soccer jersey in the stands Wednesday night; the French team logo creation measures 40 yards by 60 yards.
Aime Jacquet, coach of the French team, saluted the newfound enthusiasm of French fans today in a television interview.
"What makes me happiest is the people, who are finally participating with the team," he said. "It's great to see how happy people are. . . . Thanks to soccer, we have helped bring France together."
A touch of the French love of criticism remains. In a front page editorial this morning, L'Equipe, the sports daily, saluted the team and Jacquet, of whom it often has been critical. But not without a dig or two.
"We continue not to share his fundamental options on game strategy and to regret some of his choices, but in sports, it's the result that counts. The result is that Jacquet and his men have succeeded at something no one has before them in following their path without quailing."
Not everyone loves soccer. One cafe near the Eiffel Tower brought in a television to broadcast the game. Only four or five people stood around the bar watching. The other 25 or so customers dined on.
"But you have to understand," the hostess said. "These people are here because they don't like soccer. Usually we are much more full than this, but most everyone has stayed home to watch the match." Indeed, the streets of Paris were virtually silent during the game.
The clamor that followed was appreciated by the players, but the relative quiet in the stadium itself was not.
"It's not a classical music concert; there should have been 80,000 people on their feet," goalkeeper Fabien Barthez said.
"All I saw was a bunch of guys in ties looking uncomfortable," said team captain Didier Deschamps, who blamed the calm on too many seats that were allocated to corporate sponsors and their guests.
But there is enthusiasm on the streets. T-shirt vendor Lilem Cohen said his products were selling like, well, like hot crepes.
"I'm not happy because I'm French, I'm happy because the team earned this," he said. "We needed this victory. People are stressed. We have unemployment, we have problems. This lifts the morale. In the last month people are happy and pleased to have the World Cup in France, and to have the team doing so well. Even if France loses, it will have fought to the end."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company