Mayday, mayday! How football may save France

State of emergency: Violent protests have dogged France in the run-up to the Euros. © PA

The European Football Championship kicks off on Friday. The setting is France: a once-great country drowning in economic and social woes. Could football deliver the kiss of life?

France. A great and historic civilisation. A wealthy, Western European land, the home of good food, wine, beautiful architecture, wondrous scenery, ultra-fast trains and summer holidays on the Mediterranean. It is surely an ideal place to hold a major international football tournament.

And yet France is in distress. Strikes are proliferating, with violent protests taking place in every major French city. A recent Spectator editorial called the country the new ‘sick man of Europe’. Some claim that since 2009 France has led the European table for days lost to strikes, and for Euro 2016 a railway walkout is threatening to cause havoc for football fans travelling around the country.

Unemployment is high with 25% of young people not in work, nearly twice as many as in the UK. Even the weather has played up with torrential rain causing floods as, last week, the River Seine also burst its banks in central Paris.

Jews are leaving in droves — 8,000 moved to Israel in the last year, fearful of their future in a country where anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism are rising: a state of emergency is still in place in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last winter.

The far-right National Front party is leading in the polls, while the Socialists of the president François Hollande are polling in the mid-teens. This is an angry country growing less and less sure of its place in the modern world. It is even worried about the future of its language.

It is hoped that hosting the European Championship will restore some national pride to France, as well as presenting a positive image to the millions of fans following the tournament in person or from home on TV.

In fact one of the best things about France at the moment is their football team. In Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann they have two of the world’s best young players. The French are the favourites, and the last time they hosted a tournament — the 1998 World Cup — they won it. Can football heal a nation’s woes?

Trouble in paradise

The great thing about sport is how it distracts people from their day-to-day worries and unites them in a common cause. Despite the concerns, the tournament is likely to be a huge success: exciting football, hot weather and the fans enjoying a great time. France’s problems will not have disappeared in a month’s time, but the mood of the country will be a whole lot brighter.

That’s being optimistic, reply the pessimists and sceptics. France’s problems are so great that they are bound to have an effect on the tournament. And even if there are no major disasters, the country will still face huge challenges when the tournament is over. Sport is fun and diverting, but it changes little.

You Decide

  1. Will hosting Euro 2016 show France in a good light or a bad light?
  2. What is it about football that makes it the most popular sport in the world?

Activities

  1. Write down the name of the national team you think will win the European Championship. Put your prediction in an envelope, and open it after the final so your classmates can see who got it right.
  2. Research the history of France. At what point do you think it was at its strongest, and at what point was it weakest?

Some People Say...

“Football doesn’t bring people together; it drives them apart.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like football. Why does this matter?
France is a hugely important country, particularly for the UK. It lies just 21 miles away and has a comparable population. For centuries our relations have been close: sometimes friends, sometimes rivals even enemies. But what happens in France matters, for the UK and the rest of the European Union.
I remember people being worried before the World Cup in Brazil. And that went fine, didn’t it?
Yes, that is true. Brazil was gripped by protests in the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup. There were worries about whether stadiums would be ready and whether Brazil’s transport infrastructure could cope, but despite some inevitable problems the tournament was deemed a success.

Word Watch

Ultra-fast trains
The TGV takes just over three hours to travel the 536 miles from Paris to Marseille on the south coast.
Sick man of Europe
This term was originally coined for the Ottoman Empire in the mid to late 19th century, but since then nearly every major European country has attracted this sobriquet at some point.
25%
According to Statista.
Nearly twice as many as in the UK
According to the ONS the youth unemployment rate in the UK is 13.7%. By way of comparison it is 6.9% in Germany, 20.1% in Ireland, 39.1% in Italy and 48.9% in Greece (all according to Statista).
8,000
According to CNN.
National Front
‘Le Front National’ has evolved from being a party on the margins to being the most popular in France. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party’s founder, has tried to modernise the party, and its social conservatism, opposition to immigration and support for high public spending has gained it lots of support. But many still feel that the party remains a fundamentally far-right one, though the party rejects this term.
Mid-teens
A recent BVA poll put Hollande’s party on 15%.

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