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.

Dr Holt’s main purpose is to show how sport in France has evolved in a similar way to sport in many other countries, moving from the traditional rural sports and village games, from the fête populaire and the restricted, individual, élitist concern with pastimes such as hunting and shooting, to the situation where it is an integral part of modern culture, something which involves the masses and brings together classes and people who otherwise have very different tastes. He sees this transformation taking place over the period of the Belle Epoque, speeded up by the First World War, and definitively achieved by the 1920s. Other countries might give different dates. The English might point to the fact that it was in 1865 that so many people wished to be present at the Eton and Harrow cricket match that ropes had to be put up around the ground at Lord’s; that in 1897 more than sixty thousand people watched Aston Villa beat Everton, that only 13 years later the final of the FA Cup (Tottenham Hotspur against Everton) was watched by 110,000 people. The era of mass, representational sport had begun. The rise of spectator sports, which have become not only an obsession of the masses but also a major preoccupation of those who set themselves up as a cultural élite, coincides with the rise of mass production. These productive processes intensify the needs that sport satisfies and, at the same time, create the technical capacity to market and promote sporting contests before vast audiences. France has followed the same pattern as other countries.

However, Dr Holt is able to show that in France many of the characteristics of older sports and pastimes were carried over into their modern counterparts, perhaps because the French industrial economy developed more slowly than the English, for example, and hence France remained a rural and somewhat static society for longer than many others. The traditions of the village competition were transferred to gymnastic clubs. As the various festivals, carnivals and feasts which had studded the lives of both rural and urban communities died out, and the clubs, confréries and chambrées which had helped to organise them faded away, so they were replaced by the cafés des sports, with their collections of cups and medals won by local teams and their display of sporting results. There were café-based games like boules, pétanque, quilles (or palets, a game not mentioned by Dr Holt). The Véloce-Clubs would have special banquets on occasions such as Bastille Day and Christmas. Like the undergraduate Shakespeare Society, which began each meeting by deciding ‘that the Bard be not read tonight’ before proceeding to conviviality, there were cycling clubs which would travel by train to a neighbouring town in order to indulge in social and gastronomic activity (and there was at least one cycling club, we are told, which introduced a speed limit for its members in order to eradicate all competitiveness). Church and political associations attempted to make use of the appeal of sport and the idea that those who played together stayed together was deployed as an argument for local solidarity, much as earlier competitions and fairs had been presented as essential for the reputation and standing of a community. Nor was it all sociabilité. Bull-fighting and cock-fighting persisted and retained their regional goriness. The violence which had been endemic in most village sports continued. In the early days of the Tour de France the night stages were an opportunity for local ruffians to set upon riders whom they disliked; national and local rivalries found convenient expression in the spectator violence which accompanied football and rugby matches.

Some sports retained their class aspect. Fencing, for instance, was an aristocratic sport which became popular with the upper bourgeoisie. Le Figaro, as a socially superior newspaper, created its own salle d’armes, and élitist educational establishments such as the Polytechnique, the Ecole Normale Superieure and the Ecole Nationale d’ Administration have maintained fencing instruction – can the students at Paris IV or at Nanterre, one wonders, learn the attacks, parries and ripostes of this art at which the French have always excelled? Hunting remains aristocratic, and only under the influence of televised golf-matches has golf started to spread beyond the wealthy and the Anglophile who also happen to live near golf-courses. Shooting, however, is a different matter, and it could be that Dr Holt is mistaken when he suggests that the democratic aspects of shooting are more apparent than real. It is true that the chic and the well-heeled provide themselves with exclusive shoots in the Sologne and the best Japanese shotguns with which to face docile game, but there is nonetheless a tradition which includes the right to go shooting amongst les plus vieilles libertés. With a confused idea of this being one of the achievements of the Revolution, the small notabilités of France, solicitors, doctors, dentists, shop-owners, schoolteachers, pharmacists and bank-managers, join up with their rural acquaintances for their weekend forays. Ordinary radio news bulletins give information about the abundance or otherwise of le gibier à plumes and le gibier à poils, and just before this shooting season began in the southern regions, the Communist newspaper L’Humanité announced that half of France was cleaning their rifles. The enemies of shooting, whether a selfish landowner or an idealistic ecologist, are constantly denounced – see, for example, the recent book by Jean-Jacques Brochier, Vive la chasse! Woe betide any would-be local politician who does not allow his fellow citizens to shoot on his land. So ingrained is the belief in the right to shoot that the story is told of the instituteur who sent his pupils home one day, and wrote on the blackboard in the empty classroom: ‘Je suis allé à la chasse.’ An inspector, arriving unexpectedly, is supposed to have added the words, ‘Qui va à la chasse, perd sa place,’ but it is not by chance that there is no record of the teacher actually having been dismissed.

General considerations about the role of sport in contemporary culture must apply to the French in the same sense in which they apply to other European societies. When Roger Caillois states that by establishing conditions of equality amongst the players, games attempt to substitute ideal conditions for the normal confusions of everyday life, or when Jean Giraudoux suggests that games are the modern equivalents of ancient practices (races are pursuits, climbing is the search for rare food, confrontation between teams is the defence of one’s citadel and the attack on one’s enemies), or when we speak of individuals finding their identity in the destinies of their local or national teams, then we are talking about the culture of sport in general. French sport has also retained something which is specifically French.

Dr Holt quite rightly claims that diversity has been the most distinctive feature of sport in France, and that the range of sports available there, reflecting British, German and Hispanic influences, has been without parallel elsewhere in Europe. France was also the First country to develop cycling as a spectator sport. A British encyclopedia of sport, published in 1936, makes no mention of cycling as a competitive form of racing, although by then it was France’s first national sport, and one where professionalism, sponsorship, advertising and sensationalism had long flourished. It is probable that it was precisely because la France se nomme diversité that it adopted the annual Tour de France as the great event of the year. Day by day, as the French people followed the Tour, they heard about different parts of the country: about the cyclists attacking the mountains of the Pyrenees, the Alps and the terrifying Ventoux, about the rolling hills of the Morvan and the Jura, the great plains of the east, the back-breaking cobblestones of the north and the heart-breaking winds of the west. Each stage was a discrete journey, with its own characteristics, its challenges and its perils, so that, as Roland Barthes pointed out, the Tour had a Homeric quality. It was exceptionally exciting in a predominantly rural society to watch the Tour de France go by, and roads were lined with spectators who did not normally have the opportunity of seeing great athletes or of enjoying the ballyhoo of the publicity vans which preceded the cyclists. There were local prizes within the general competition of individuals, teams and bicycle manufacturers, so that a local hero could make a special effort to be first to pass some point in his own region and thereby, not only win points and money, but also satisfy the pride of his admirers. People knew where each cyclist came from. Bobet was from Saint-Méen, near Rennes, Anquetil from Rouen; the present champion, Bernard Hinault, is from the onion country, at If-fignac, in the Côtes du Nord; Darrigade was le Gascon, Poulidor le Limousin, Georges Meunier le Pêcheur de Vierzon, and the hope for the future, Robert Alban, is Bamban le Caladois. Regional races, such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de I’Ouest or the Tour de I’Avenir, give great scope for local reputations to be displayed and sustained.

Dr Holt is right to see the Tour de France, and perhaps cycling in general, as having been ideally suited for France. What is strange is that he has virtually nothing to say about the recent decline in the status of the Tour. He explains that cycling races, the critérium, in the vélodromes, are not popular, because the rules are complicated and the whole process can be laborious for the spectator. But whereas 15 years ago the Tour de France was dominant, it is an inescapable fact that neither the young nor the middle-aged now find themselves so caught up with it. Sometimes It is suggested that this is because the Tour is too heavily commercialised: the new Minister for Sport, appointed in the wake of the Socialist victories of last May and June, let it be known that she disapproved of the investments which were being made in this national venture. This is one of the incursions of politics into French sport: the Left disapprove of those who are in sport for the money, and just as the Communists attacked the Formula One driver Nelson Piquet, because he wanted to continue racing in order to earn money even though the safety regulations affecting mechanics were inadequate, so the Socialists have a vision of a sport which is pure and healthy. On the other hand, when the Vichy Government gave the great tennis-player Borotra responsibility for sporting activities, he was quick to suggest that things had gone wrong in France because a sham-amateurism, un amateurisme marron, had allowed commercialism to corrupt French sportsmen. Today there is an almost automatic tendency to see the hand of finance wherever French sport is ill at ease. When English commentators, at a loss to understand why the English football team is unable to beat Norway, suggest that it is because English players are too money-conscious, this is a vague speculation, unattached to any coherent philosophy. But when the same suggestion appears in France it is part of a general view of society.

It could also be that it is television which has ruined the Tour de France by making it seem more arduous and less dramatic – a vision of work, not of sport. Endurance tests do not go down well on television and a public which is more interested in the results than in the spectacle of sustained effort may well have grown bored. It was different in the era of sound radio when the whole of France waited until evening to hear a voice (possibly that of André Briquet) announce the day’s result – which might well be dramatic. Equally, a more sophisticated provincial population is less excited by the prospect of the Tour de France going through its area. It could be that a spectator sport which involves the creation of a spectator community, as football does, now finds more appeal than a sport where the athletes, as it were, visit the spectators.

The French certainly share in the general obsession with football, but, again, specifically French characteristics remain. Like cyclists, players are designated by their regional connections: one reads and hears of Pécout le Monégasque, Lacombe le Bordelais, Specht l’Alsacien, Bossis le Vendéen, Platinile Stéphanois (when the last-named is not referred to as ‘notre Platini national’). When a player from Strasbourg, Bernard Tischner, joined the Rennes team, the newspaper Ouest-France wrote of ‘un peu de printemps alsacien en Bretagne’, and teams are often referred to by historic names – if Bordeaux plays against Liège, it is the Girondins against the Flamands. The French national team is always, of course, les Tricolores.

The French are both more sentimental and more determined to win than the English, When, in 1956, an unknown and poorly-rated cyclist called Walkowiak took the lead (le maillot jaune) in the Tour de France, he was reported as saying that if he won, he would see to it that his old father need never work again. It was with warm emotion at this display of filial affection that the nation watched Walkowiak win: one would have expected more speculation as to why an outsider had triumphed. The French captain was booed in a recent football match and left the field in tears. When interviewed, he said, ‘J’ai le coeur gros,’ and French readers avidly read of his reluctance to telephone his wife and children, who were on holiday, because he did not want to disturb their sleep. An English sportsman, asked how he is, might reply that he is fit, or sharp, or on form, but his French equivalent is more likely to say: ‘Le morale est bon.’ The cyclist Marcel Tinazzi (‘le Marseillais’), asked about his reactions to a bad press, replied, ‘je suis révolté au fond de moi-même’: such expressions are common in a country where sports idols (like politicians?) can fall dramatically and suddenly from favour.

Much nonsense has been talked about the English tendency to overlook the importance of the final result, as if what Tom Brown learned at school about the spirit of the game being more important than winning or losing still applied. Yet one must concede that the English take a certain philosophical pleasure in the art of losing. British football managers insist that their players did well even when the result has been disastrous, sports writers enthuse about the Cinderellas and the underdogs as they proceed to inevitable defeat, and in the happy days before Ovett and Coe television commentators shouted themselves hoarse with excitement as the gallant British boy came fifth.

It is part of the mythology of cricket to recall Horace, a horse of exquisite sensibility that served Nottinghamshire Cricket Club. When Fred Morley, the Notts last man, left the Trent Bridge pavilion, it sidled unobtrusively towards the roller, because it knew that the innings would soon be over, in cricket there is great affection for the player who cannot score runs and is not expected to (they are sometimes called ferrets because they go in after the rabbits).

France, on the other hand, demands a winner. In the 1974 election campaign, Giscard d’Estaing derided Mitterrand because, like the cyclist Poulidor, he always came second. One would have expected Mitterrand’s supporters to retort that many Frenchmen would prefer Poulidor, who never won, to the Belgian Merckx, who won with monotonous regularity. But it was not so. The remark went home. Nobody in France appreciates the man who comes second, whereas it has been suggested that the English adulation of Captain Scott betrays a national weakness for the man who failed to win. When France played England at Twickenham, the French took the opportunity of a quick throw-in from touch to score whilst the English team was unprepared. The English captain afterwards said that, in his opinion, the French move had been against the rules, but he added that he was not complaining. Can one imagine Jean-Pierre Rives saying this, or the reaction of the population of Toulouse were he ever to say it? A constant political ploy is to complain if there is a sector where French sport is doing badly. The Communists have recently demanded to know why France is doing so badly at basketball. It must be someone’s fault. Someone must do something so that France can win. There was never the slightest possibility, even when it was known that the Americans and others would be absent from the Moscow Olympics, that the French Government would boycott the games. In the circumstances they were seen as a great opportunity for French athletes to win medals. For them it was la ruée vers le bronze. One has the feeling that sport exists in France in order that there should be a great, national ‘Cocorico’; in England so that we can show our sporting qualities (and we are all agreed that those football hooligans who vent their anger when their side is defeated are a national disgrace): The French can remember the great days of the past, when Speicher won the étape of the Tour de France from Rennes to Caen, although he was so covered with boils he was unable to sit on the saddle: but for the English sport is always redolent with nostalgia – the Russians cheering Tommy Lawton, Jack Pet ersen once again losing gallantly to Walter Neusel, Larwood and Voce in the Notts eleven ... If one is living in the past, when it was always afternoon, then today there will be no winning.