Macron joins WC celebration, hoping to capture feel-good factor

AFP . Paris | Update:

French president Emmanuel Macron (R) congratulates France`s coach Didier Deschamps during the trophy ceremony at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 15 July 2018. -- AFPFor a president who has travelled the globe for a year telling audiences that "France is back" under his leadership, the country's World Cup victory couldn't come at a better time for Emmanuel Macron as he confronts growing challenges on multiple fronts.

The 4-2 defeat of Croatia in Moscow on Sunday by the young French team starring Kylian Mbappe was celebrated by 40-year-old Macron in person, who jumped and pumped his fists with each goal.

He even broke out a "dab" in the changing room -- a type of celebration imported from American football players and rappers -- as the jubilant squad savoured its success afterwards.

Beyond the sporting triumph, it will also be cheered in the presidential palace for reinforcing a narrative Macron has promoted abroad since his election: of a young, dynamic France with a more prominent global role.

"This victory will improve France's image for several years, and almost automatically that of its leader," Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, a French think-tank, told AFP.

"It's about soft power and the international prestige of France. Football is now global. Before the Chinese wouldn't have been bothered who won, but now they want to know. Even North Korea will follow it," he added.

Former president Jacques Chirac saw his polling numbers bounce in 1998 when France last won the World Cup even though the ageing Gaullist took little interest in football and barely knew the names of the players.
- Few tangible results -

Macron's diplomatic objectives since taking power in May last year have been showing France as a key player in an increasingly fractious world, a role which he and many observers felt had been lost during the previous presidency of Francois Hollande.

The young centrist leader has travelled widely to push his blueprint for overhauling the European Union and spearhead efforts to fight climate change.

He has also lead the charge against resurgent nationalism and isolationism, both on the continent and by its traditional ally the US under Donald Trump.

Yet on issues ranging from the fraying Iran nuclear deal to initiatives to end the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Macron has struggled to produce any tangible results and his EU reform drive is also floundering.

Resistence to his far-reaching drive to reform French institutions and bolster economic growth has sparked mass strikes, with his poll numbers near the lowest since his election last year.

An Odoxa survey published on July 5 found that just 29 percent of respondents thought Macron's policies were "fair". While 75 percent declared him "dynamic", only 45 percent considered him "likeable".

- 'Magnifying effect' -

Giving his first speech as president, Macron had promised to make France feel better about itself and its place on the global stage, which makes the rousing performance of its young, ethnically diverse football squad a perfect gift.

"This win is obviously going to have a magnifying effect on France," said Paul Dietschy, a French historian specialising in football at the University of Franche-Comte.

Before attending Sunday's final, Macron congratulated Russia's President Vladimir Putin for organising a contest that went off without a hitch -- after years of growing tensions between Moscow and the West.

"Sports are often just a pretext. Macron's trips to Russia for the semi-finals and especially the final, with France victorious no less, may have created the opportunity for a different type of dialogue with Putin," Dietschy said.

And the political dividends could keep coming with the country set to host the rugby World Cup in 2023 followed by the Olympics the following year.

"In the same way that ping-pong diplomacy in 1971 allowed China and the US to restore ties, we could see this facilitating France-Russia relations," he said, referring to a visit by American ping pong players to China that year.

On the domestic front, the boisterous street parties which brought strangers into each others' arms offers a welcome contrast to the tensions in many of France's deprived urban neighbourhoods.

Many youths in the so-called "banlieues", who often come from immigrant families, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens unfairly targeted by police.

"We want to hope that this France, usually so quick to doubt itself and stew over its divisions, can find in this the energy to move forward," the La Montagne newspaper in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, wrote in an editorial.

The question is also whether Macron can capitalise on his opportunity before his five-year term ends.

"This is good for the country's morale, but what's going to matter in 2022 is the unemployment rate, not the second World Cup title," Boniface said.

Delirious French revel in WC victory

Hundreds of thousands of French fans partied into the night on the Champs Elysees on Sunday to mark the country's World Cup victory, celebrating football and the power of the game to bring a tense and often fearful nation together.

The country erupted in joy on Sunday after "les Bleus" clinched a 4-2 victory over Croatia in Moscow, with fans streaming into the streets, honking car horns and flying the tricolour flag.

Cheers rang out throughout the country for each of goals in the final, which has transformed the young team into national icons 20 years after the country's first World Cup triumph.

Even before the final whistle in Moscow, crowds packed the Champs Elysees in central Paris in a repeat of the scenes of 1998 when more than one million people partied there into the early hours.

"1998 was magical! Tonight my son has the chance to experience the same happiness," Eric Rodenas, 42, told AFP with his son Raphael, who had travelled from France's south coast to the capital.

As night fell, the dancing and singing continued, with the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the famed boulevard lit up in the blue, white and red of the French flag.

An increase in road accidents, as well as isolated clashes with police and the looting of a store on the Champs Elysees, marred an otherwise joyous occasion attended by people of all backgrounds.

The festivities will resume Monday when the victorious French squad will parade down the capital's most famous street at around 5:00 pm (1500 GMT), followed by a reception with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace.

"MERCI" the president wrote in a one-word tweet after the match which saw him pictured celebrating wildly in the stands and visiting the players in the changing rooms.

Midfielder Steven N'Zonzi said Macron "had found the right words... He just told us it was huge for the country, for all the young people."

France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper rushed out a special edition in Paris hailing a team which has ascended "To the Stars".
- 'We needed this' -

Amid the dancing and singing of the national anthem, some fans paused to savour a moment of unbridled joy and national unity after a difficult period for France.

"We're a country that's under too much pressure. Economic, social pressure, there's too much of it," Thomas Bazzi, a 31-year-old with the colours of the French flag painted on his cheeks, told AFP.

"We needed this release," he said, smiling and holding a beer outside a pavement cafe in central Paris as cars streamed past with cheering fans hanging out the windows wrapped in the flag.

Despite the country's enviable and romanticised lifestyle, its people are regularly found in surveys to be some of the most pessimistic on the planet.

Much of this is down to decades of high unemployment, mounting public debt and the homegrown terror threat, which has led to a series of attacks since 2015 that have claimed nearly 250 lives.

But France's success on the pitch in Russia has also led to a newfound feeling of togetherness in a country marked by years of often poisonous debate about immigration and French identity.

The national football squad, most of whom are non-white, has provided a tonic after an impeccable performance both on and off the pitch as national ambassadors.

"Seeing everyone all together in the street, it's mad," Ludovic Guaignant, a technician, told AFP in Paris. "There aren't any more problems, racism -- everyone's together. You only get that with football."

His thoughts echoed those of star midfielder Paul Pogba, who like many of the squad hails from an immigrant family in one of the deprived and often overlooked multi-racial suburbs around Paris.

"There are people of many different origins, that's what makes France so beautiful," he told a press conference last week.

Such talk has led to inevitable comparisons between the current team and their victorious 1998 "Black, Blanc, Beur" (Black, White, north African) predecessors led by Zinedine Zidane.

- Security headache -

The huge crowds across France posed an immediate headache for France's overworked police. Some 110,000 security forces were deployed over the weekend.

In the Carillon bar in eastern Paris, which was targeted by Islamic State gunmen during the November 2015 terror attacks, some remembered the bloodshed and saw the victory as a reverse of the country's fortunes.

"Being world champions is symbolic," Benoit Bardet, a young IT consultant from the area near the St Martin canal, told AFP. "To come here with my friends was a way of remembering and showing that Paris lives on, even after everything that happened."

Yet the festivities tipped into violence in some cities, with dozens shattering windows at a popular store on the Champs Elysees before grabbing bottles of wine and champagne, some filming themselves with their phones.

One person was seriously injured during a brawl in which he was rammed in the head with a motorcycle helmet, an AFP photographer reported.

Ten people were arrested in Marseille, where two members of the security forces were injured in clashes, a police spokesman said.

In Frouard, a town outside the eastern city of Nancy, a three-year-old boy and two six-year-old girls were seriously injured after being struck by a motorcycle during the celebrations.

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