Aux sports, citoyens

Douglas Johnson

  • Sport and Society in Modern France by Richard Holt
    Macmillan, 256 pp, £20.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 333 25951 3

Richard Holt begins his book on French sport with two misleading observations. In the one, he recalls that when, in the course of his research, a pile of books on football or on cycling arrived on his desk at the Bibliothèque Nationale, his neighbours were bemused by his reading material. How extraordinary that he never seems to have found himself sitting next to one of those readers who begins his day’s work with a careful perusal of L’Equipe or Paris-Turf. None of them would have found it strange that he was reading up the history of past sporting events. The other, more chilling observation seeks to assure us that, in spite of the beliefs of what he calls ‘Anglo-Saxon circles’, sport is as popular in France as it is ‘almost anywhere else’. My personal experience suggests that sport is more important nationally in France than it is in this country, and I would have thought that anyone writing about it would want to describe and analyse this phenomenon, rather than present an apology for his subject.

I can recall one Christmas, when I was a student in Paris, being invited to call on Jean Giono at his home in Manosque. There I met the cyclist, Fachleitner, who had just come second in the Tour de France (and it was whispered that, had he wished, he could have been the winner). Afterwards, when I told my fellow students (self-professed intellectuals to a man) how I had spent that day, I was struck by their lack of interest in the author of Regain and Que ma joie demeure as compared to their curiosity about Fachleitner, le berger de Manosque. Some years later, when I was living by the Côte du Mont-aux-Malades, between Déville and Rouen, I noticed that, when the Tour de France was being run, most of the local inhabitants would ride their bicycles to the top of the hill – at all other times, they would unashamedly have dismounted well before the half-way mark. During this period it was impossible to enter a café, use public transport, or queue in a post office, without having to take part in the common culture of the Tour. There was Robic, the Breton, who was a difficult and hard man, Koblet, le pédaleur de charme, who always had a comb handy in his pocket, Géminiani (later to appear in Le Chagrin et la Pitié), who was a good descendeur, and Abd el Kader Zaaf, who achieved immortality when, on a hot day’s toil, he over-abused le petit vin blanc which had been provided by an enthusiastic municipality. There seemed to be neither exaggeration nor blasphemy in the newspaper accounts which compared the sufferings of Louison Bobet when a nail had come loose on his saddle to the agony of Christ on the cross.

Nor was it all cycling. I stood, with knots of people, on the Rue Gay-Lussac, and applauded Marcel Cerdan as he was driven past at a royally deliberate pace. I was taken to a chic bar in order to catch a glimpse of the patron, the legendary Georges Carpentier. I saw young boys, in Saint Malo, flinging themselves into Boyhood of Raleigh postures as they saw the four masts of the late Alain Colas’s yacht appear on the distant horizon, and I heard it pass from lip to lip that Colas was back again. When his rival, Eric Tabarly, signed his book in the Librairie Maritime, so many people turned up that the police had to keep order in the street. A distinguished political scientist, questioned about the future of France after de Gaulle, replied that his greatest anxiety was the future of French rugby: l’après-Comberabero was more pressing than l’après-Gaullisme. Staying at Carentan, in the department of the Manche, I was accosted in the street by the butcher (himself the owner of some remarkably unsuccessful race-horses). ‘Pas de chance, Oxford,’ he said, and thus I learned the result of that year’s Boat Race. In 1968 we knew that the so-called revolution was over once the Sunday-evening news bulletin went back to giving as its first headlines the result of the Tiercé. (Making one’s choice of three horses is a lively social occasion in the local café, a very different experience from the loneliness of the British football-pools punter.) ‘Ah, Monsieur, vous avez manqué une si jolie mise à mort,’ said the hotel-keeper at Nîmes as I registered, and I thought it only courteous to feign regret that I was too late for the blood-letting and to pretend to an interest in bull-fighting which I did not possess.

Nor should one think that France is a country only of spectator sports. Every municipality boasts of its construction de stades, its swimming-pools and tennis-courts. Every would-be tourist centre publicises its provision of sports facilities – riding, yachting, golf or ski nautique. In a country which is so bureaucratised as to offer shooting facilities with une carte départementale, une carte bidépartementale or une carte nationale, with an educational system that is so benevolent as to wish to send every child to winter sports, with a population that is so neurotic as to advertise le gym, c’est aussi bon pour le morale, there is no need to justify an interest in sport. With La Roue Libre organising cyclists, with I’Amicale des Trois Vallées de I’Eure or the MPM (Marcheurs à Pied de la Manche) organising ramblers, and the universality of track-suits suggesting that, as with Gaullism, every Frenchman has been, is or will be un jogger, we need make no apology for the dominance of sport in France. ‘Le sport, jamais assez,’ proclaimed the magazine Elle this summer, and we have to assume that they meant it.

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