The photo went viral: Emmanuel Macron punching the air when France won the World Cup in Russia last summer. Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou or François Mitterrand might not have been so visibly moved, but then the cynic might add, they didn't have social media.
French presidents have traditionally maintained a distant relationship with the national team. ‘The head of state was mainly interested in the French Cup which showcased all the regions and teams in France,’ says Nicolas Ksiss-Martov, a journalist at So Foot magazine, who also believes that ‘for many years, the French team embodied defeat, as evidenced by the traumas of 1982 against West Germany and 1993 against Bulgaria at the Parc des Princes when France were denied a place at USA ‘94.’ In short, football served to show his affinity with the working class. This was evidenced in 1973 by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who was an ambitious minister of finance at the time, filming himself playing a match with men from his hometown of Chamalières to try to give himself a grassroots image. Having scored the equalizer, he even went as far as to give a television interview stripped to the waist in the changing room after the match.
France '98, and all that
Things suddenly changed in 1998 when France won the World Cup for the first time. At home to boot! After that, ‘football ceased to be a sport thought of as "common" and became a sociological phenomenon, and a pillar of our national culture,’ adds Nicolas Kssis-Martov.
President Jacques Chirac was quick to perceive this shift and suddenly became an avid supporter, posing with the World Cup, affectionately greeting the players, publicly praising the now famous ‘black blanc beur’ (black white arab) team. This was rather surprising as the founder of the Rassemblement pour la République party had never been a big fan of football, ‘he actually likes sumo wrestling. Football is not really his cup of tea; archive footage shows that he didn’t even know the names of the French team’s players,’ says journalist Ronan Boscher with a smile, who co-authored Les Miscellanées des Bleus with Thomas Pitrel, a chronicle of the trails and triumphs of the national team.
Ever since, French presidents have rushed to use the French team to convey political or even partisan messages, including Emmanuel Macron. Nicolas Ksiss-Martov believes that he has ‘macronised the French team’ by putting forward ‘young, patriotic, bold, winners, fighting against all odds and preconceived ideas, aspects which are exactly what he put forward during his campaign in 2017.’ He believes that ‘a winning national team is the best way to create political storytelling and a patriotic and unifying discourse’. Above all, the eleven players can add popularity points which are more than welcome.
Polls and own goals
TNS-Sofres's archives of popularity surveys on French presidents reveal a striking fact: the further the French team gets in an international tournament, the more popular the president becomes. This was exceptionally beneficial to Jacques Chirac. Already fairly popular prior to the 1998 World Cup (45% held a good opinion of him), his rating increased to 59% in August. France winning Euro 2000 had a similar effect: 52% before the tournament and 57% when the Henri Delauney trophy arrived in France. This golden rule proved itself again in 2006 when the French team made the finals against all expectations. The president, at the end of his term and rating very low in public opinion polls, enjoyed a small respite by gaining nine points (up from 16% to 25%).
But what happens when the team loses? The drop off in popularity is immediate, and president Nicolas Sarkozy would not say otherwise. Immediately after the Knysna fiasco, marked by an unprecedented player strike, the president's popularity dropped (from 28% to 26%).
But France winning a major tournament is not a popularity slam dunk for the incumbent. While it makes perfect sense to see the president chant ‘Allez les Bleus’ at the top of his lungs, he has to be careful not to go OTT. ‘In 2018, Emmanuel Macron went over the top. The French are not stupid,’ adds Nicolas Ksiss, for whom Emmanuel Macron ‘gave the impression of wanting to keep the French team all for himself when it, by definition, belongs to the entire country.’ For him, Macron keeping the players at the Elysee for hours while shortening the public parade down the Champs-Elysees and cancelling the team’s balcony appearance at the Crillon hotel for security reasons was perceived very badly. Unsurprisingly, TNS Sofres revealed that this episode didn’t do the president any favors, dropping from 38% in opinion polls before the tournament, to 33% after. But as a general rule, the president has every interest in supporting the team and showing his love for a sport that is played by 2.2 million people in France.
Genuine fans or bandwagon jumpers?
Although presidents since 1998 have behaved like they are massive football supporters, one question remains. Are they for real? Do they really love the sport or is it just optics? It’s usually a bit of both. Some of Charles de Gaulle's successors are genuine fans. ‘Nicolas Sarkozy has been a fan of PSG since he was a child. He never misses a match, knows all the players and all the results. To the point that sometimes his name is put forward when people want a new chairman of the club,’ stressed Ronan Boscher who thinks back to 2010, after the disappointment in South Africa, when he summoned striker Thierry Henry to the Elysee, ‘he really wanted to know what had happened, like a real fan would.’ According to the author, things were a little different for François Hollande. While he claims to read French sports daily L’Équipe, he might just have been using the sport to highlight his left-wing leanings: ‘He says he's a fan of Red Star, a cult second division Paris club with a very left-wing history. That may be true, but you don't see him in the stands,’ said Ronan Boscher ironically, who suspects that for Hollande, it was pure politics as Red Star is effectively the mirror-opposite of his main rival Nicolas Sarkozy's beloved PSG!
As for Emmanuel Macron, the journalists really cannot say. The man from Amiens says he supports Olympique de Marseille, and loved to watch them when he was a teenager. In the summer of 2017, he invited himself to the Commanderie, the club’s training ground, to see the players up close: ‘Even though he has a tendency to go overboard, it does appear that he really has supported the club for a long time,’ said Ronan Boscher. Nicolas Ksiss-Martov agrees as ‘the fact that he considers 90s English winger Chris Waddle his favorite player is proof that he really knows the club's history.’ Either that, or he is very well advised. We may never know.