- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

PARIS — This angst-ridden nation is again on the streets — not to hurl rocks at police in race riots or to protest unpopular laws but to cheer on its soccer team’s sparkling performance at the World Cup.

On the eve of the championship match against Italy today, optimists describe a re-enactment of the “black-blanche-beur,” or black-white-Arab euphoria of France’s last World Cup victory in 1998, when its multiethnic players united a fractured country in joy and pride.

The team today embraces the same rainbow hues as 17 of its 23 members are minorities, and a number of players are Muslim.

Though the team got off to a sluggish start, it battled its way to the top.

“The French team reflects French society as a whole, somewhat depressed and aging,” said Jean-Claud Kaufmann, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, “but now public opinion has changed because it has surpassed itself.”

On Wednesday night, half a million Parisians spilled into the Champs Elysees and other major city arteries to celebrate France’s 1-0 semifinal win over Portugal.

Daubed in the colors of the national flag, they lit fireworks in small villages and blared car horns.

“The scum are going to hand us the cup,” read one Paris banner. It referred to a slur that French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy made last year against ethnic immigrant youngsters, some sharing the same background as France’s soccer champions. “Isn’t that magnificent?”

The World Cup is hard to escape on these sultry summer days. It dominates conversations at work, on TV and over dinner tables.

Lawmakers of all political stripes are dusting off their soccer expertise. Even cerebral Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, known more for his U.N. speeches than his command of sports trivia, was at the Munich semifinals praising the “grace” of Les Bleus, as the home team is known.

“I’ve been here for 40 years so, of course, I’m behind the French team,” said Senegalese Moussa Sy, as he headed to a Paris mosque on Friday afternoon.

“I think the team is unifying France. It’s practically all foreign blacks, Arabs, hardly any whites.”

The national frenzy can be wearying for those not aficionados. Computer engineer Francois Toussenel could not care less who wins today.

“I’m following the matches reluctantly,” he said, “and only because every time our team scores a goal, you hear it all over the streets. It keeps me awake at night.”

The joy over its soccer success contrasts with a string of embarrassing blows to the nation’s collective psyche.

France is reeling from losing its bid to host the 2012 Olympic games, from fall riots that tore through immigrant-heavy housing projects and from spring demonstrations against an unpopular labor law that forced the center-right government into an abrupt about-face.

Some observers suggest Les Bleus’ come-from-behind success might even rub off on the country’s aging and unpopular president, Jacques Chirac, who, not surprisingly, will be at the Berlin match. Others talk optimistically about a larger turnaround.

“To have a good soccer team that plays exceptional matches is good for French morale and might play a role in boosting economic growth,” government spokesman Jean Francois Cope said in a radio interview.

“This isn’t just a passing moment,” insisted Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Representative Muslim Council of France and a die-hard soccer fan. “These feelings of national pride exist. I don’t know if they can repair all the fractures of November 2005,” he said of the riots staged by largely ethnic-African youths, “but, at any rate, they offer new hope of solidarity and might help reduce discrimination.”

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