Emmanuel Macron knows a winner when he sees one. The president of the Republic was quick to hitch himself onto the France football squad in 2018, and was in the stadium that memorable July day when they beat Croatia to win the World Cup. As luck would have it a snapper was right behind him when he leapt to his feet to celebrate one of his team’s four goals.
Macron made a point of singling out Kylian Mbappé for praise. The PSG striker was the face of the French World Cup squad, a young, gifted, personable player, from the suburbs of Paris who got to the top through talent, dedication and determination. Mbappé is revered by youngsters. He is, to coin a phrase, living the dream. The dream Macron promotes is a France where success is possible for everyone regardless of creed or colour.
Mbappé’s rugby equivalent is Antoine Dupont. He comes from the other end of the country but the France scrum-half has risen from humble stock – his family are pig farmers – to become the world’s greatest player. Last month Dupont adorned the cover of GQ but judging from his performance against Ireland fame has not weakened his focus on the day job.
In the autumn Dupont enjoyed another photoshoot, this one in the presence of Emmanuel Macron. He and the rest of the squad lunched with their president and his wife at their training camp at Marcoussis five days before they played the All Blacks in the last of their three November internationals. Dupont had turned 25 a few days earlier and Macron wished him a belated happy birthday. He also offered the squad some words of encouragement ahead of the New Zealand Test and expressed his hope they might emulate the French women’s team, who had recently thrashed the Black Ferns 38-13.
Macron’s wish came true, and like every good politician he didn’t miss the opportunity to bask in some reflected glory. ‘Two victories for the rugby Bleus against the mythical New Zealand players!’ he tweeted shortly after Dupont’s France had hammered the All Blacks 40-25. ‘Our women’s and men’s teams end the autumn internationals unbeaten. Winners!’
France have extended their winning streak into 2022 and are the only unbeaten side in the Six Nations. If they can keep it going they’ll win their first title (and Grand Slam) since 2010, bringing to an end their most barren period in the championship since the war.
It’s never easy to win away at Edinburgh and Cardiff but France will go to both venues as favourites on their back of their outstanding performance against Ireland. It was a French display the like of which the world has not seen in the professional era. Technically superb, their fitness didn’t let them down in the final quarter and nor did their temperament, so often the flaw in French teams this century.
Their final match of the championship is at home to England. In the last couple of decades ‘Le Crunch’ has been dominated by the English with fourteen victories in 22 encounters, but all those defeats will be forgotten if France win the title at the Stade de France on March.
The timing could not be better for Emmanuel Macron. Three weeks later, on April 10, France goes to the polls in the first round of the presidential election. Once the votes are counted the top two candidates go forward to the second round on April 24.
The polls suggest that Macron will comfortably make the second round but who will join him is at this stage anyone’s guess. There are several contenders, one of whom is Eric Zemmour, the leader of the right-wing Reconquest Party. Included in his campaign manifesto is a pledge to end all immigration, both legal and illegal. He also wants to ban parents from giving their children foreign-sounding first names. Presumably Zemmour isn’t a sports fan because the France football team would not have won the World Cup in 1998 and 2018 had it not been for the efforts of its ethnic minority players. The same goes for the French rugby squad of 2022.
Politicians love to talk about ‘diversity’ and its benefits but nothing beats seeing its positive outcome in action, in a rugby scrum, for example, that features Anthony Jelonch, Demba Bamba, Paul Willemse and Peato Mauvaka.
This is the France in which Macron believes: not only diverse, but also successful. So a Six Nations title would provide him with much political capital. Obviously he would tweet his congratulations to the squad, and perhaps he might find time in his busy schedule to invite the players to the Elysée Palace. Name a politician who has ever turned down the chance to shake the hand of a successful athlete in the hope some of the stardust may fall on their shoulders!
Macron might conceivably attend the England match in person. It is England, after all, a country for which he doesn’t appear to have much affection. Or at least it’s Prime Minister. Macron reportedly called Boris Johnson a ‘clown’ late last year. How Macron would love to put one over his rival by watching France win a Grand Slam at the expense of the English.
The trouble is sport doesn’t always work out the way you want it, and the president’s advisers will be aware it could all go horribly wrong. What if it’s not just the president who turns up at the Stade de France on March 19; what if England finally do, after two years of stuttering displays, and smash France the way they did New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final.
This time the photos in the papers and on the internet would show a stony-faced Macron. Fans would blame him for the defeat. Merde, we were playing well until you turned up, Monsieur le president.
Macron won’t want to end up like John Howard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who thought it would be a good idea to present the medals at the 2003 World Cup final. Unfortunately his boys lost, to the Poms, and it was hard to know which delighted England fans more that night in Sydney: Jonny’s winning drop goal or Howard’s face as he doled out the winners’ medals to England. One Australian paper accused Howard of performing the presentation with a ‘lemon-sucking grimace’.
The influence of sport on political elections has been debated for years. In April 1970 the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a general election in June during the World Cup. The polls had his Labour Party 12 points head of Ted Heath’s Conservatives but nonetheless there was a nagging worry in Wilson’s head, which he confided to one of his ministers, Denis Healey; might they ‘suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day?’
And that is what happened. Four days before the election West Germany came from behind to beat holders England 3-2 in the quarter-final. It wasn’t just the Three Lions who had to lick their wounds; so did Wilson, voted out of office in one of the biggest election shocks of the century.
In 2010 an American academic called Andrew Healy studied the results of local college football games between 1964 and 2008, and compared them to the outcome of American presidential and senate elections in the corresponding counties. He concluded that success lifts the spirits of supporters, and ‘if they approach the ballot box in this way, they’re more likely to think well of the incumbent party, to interpret their past record more positively, and to be more content with the status quo’.
Failure, on the other hand, leads to dissatisfaction. The veteran British football journalist Keir Radnedge recalled the aftermath of England’s defeat to the Germans in the 1970 World Cup. “It deflated the mood in the nation,” he reflected. “Therefore, they looked for something new. Something new in that case was voting in a new government.”
Politics is a cynical, treacherous and selfish profession. In many ways it’s antithetical to the values of team sport such as trust, loyalty and selflessness. But both ultimately are concerned with the business of winning. And if success really does breed success, then President Macron will be desperate for Dupont and his boys to win the Grand Slam on March 19.