- 8 Oct 07, 04:37 PM
Paris - It is not true that the first word a French child learns to utter is “non”. It just feels like it.
The petty bureaucracy for which the Rugby World Cup host country is infamous has, it seems, become even more of an art form.
The stadium entrance you used yesterday, you can’t use today. You‘re not allowed to take this lift - even though it’s the only one that will take you to the press conference. You mustn’t go through that door - even if your accreditation allows you to be on the other side of it.
You can buy a soft drink in the media centre, but not a sandwich - even though the two are stacked next door to each other in the cooling cabinet.
The restrictions are trifling, but, because they are unfathomable, intensely irritating.
You start to take seriously the words of a journalist who light-heartedly declared that France’s two national sports were going on strike and sidestepping laws they don’t agree with.
You start to understand how the big “non” himself, Charles de Gaulle, could pose the question,”how can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different types of cheese?”
But you don’t question what staging this World Cup, or what last week-end’s extraordinary victory over New Zealand, means to the French people as a whole.
The extraordinary scenes in old Marseille on Saturday, when, in front of giant TV screens, the delirium of England fans still basking in the glory of that afternoon’s shock defeat of Australia, was matched and then magnified by French acclaim for events in Cardiff, were repeated throughout the country.
And, while Sunday’s newspapers blared “Enormes” and “Immenses” in banner headlines, one of the most repeated shots on French TV was the joy on the face of President Sarkozy as he sat in the stands at Cardiff.
And well might he grin. He knows what happened to Jacques Chirac’s poll ratings in 1998; the then president didn’t know half the names of the France team which won the French-hosted football World Cup but still saw his popularity soar. Sarkozy has some painful reforms to implement. He’s desperate, therefore, to cash in on any feel-good factor engendered by “Les Bleus”.
And broadcasters TF1 have also got a lot riding on French success; if Bernard Laporte’s men make it to the final, the channel can charge over 200,000 euros per 30 second advertising slot. If it doesn’t, the price is less than half that figure.
While the French economy as a whole is looking for a boost - a successful competition could, it’s been calculated, bring an extra 1.6 million tourists and an extra two billion euros per year - the British economy is apparently already suffering.
One survey reckons that one in ten British workers will spend at least 30 minutes a day catching up on the World Cup, with a total loss of 31 million hours' productivity and about £461m.
From a rugby point of view, that’s worth every penny. After an abject performance against South Africa, England were written off by everyone except themselves.
Now, especially following the exit of Australia and New Zealand, they entertain a realistic hope of becoming the first side in history to retain the World Cup.
First in their way, though, is a French team that believes that, after its own near-miraculous victory over New Zealand, it too has a date with destiny. The nation as a whole believes it too, and in a million words or so has not been afraid to express it.
By contrast, Phil Vickery and his men only need to know one word on Saturday night. The word is “non”.
Alastair Hignell is a former England rugby international who commentates on rugby union for Radio 5 Live. He is covering England at the World Cup. 5 Live's full broadcast schedule is here.