French president Emmanuel Macron's decision to withdraw from France's delegation to World Rugby in London on September 25th is the latest bodyblow in a month of boardroom scandal and recrimination for French rugby as they make a pivotal presentation in a bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
It represents a significant fillip for France's World Cup rivals, Ireland and South Africa, who complete the three-handed race to host the global rugby tournament in six years' time.
Macron initially indicated he would be happy to personally lead the presentation, one of five to speak on behalf of the French bid.
The official reason for his change of heart may be camouflaged under the 'clash in schedule' excuse but the recent scandal that has engulfed French rugby president (FFR) Bernard Laporte is a primary consideration, especially since France's minister for sport Laura Flessel has ordered an inquiry into the affair.
Laporte, a former French national coach and a sports minister under Nicolas Sarkozy's regime , was accused of using direct influence to have disciplinary sanctions against Montpellier reduced by the FFR appeals board in relation to a matter involving supporters' banners at a match in the Altrad Stadium last season. Laporte's intervention subsequently prompted seven members of the appeals board to resign.
The club is owned by Syrian-born billionaire businessman Mohed Altrad with whom it transpires Laporte had a direct business relationship.
Altrad’s construction company became the first ever shirt sponsors of the French national team earlier this year and he is also a partner in France’s 2023 World Cup bid. There is a more direct link between the two men.
Last month the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) revealed that Altrad Investment Authority, owned by Altrad, and BL Communication, managed by Laporte, signed a one-year partnership last February.
Altrad "acquired the image" of the former coach of the XV of France (2000-2007) and secretary of state for sports (2007-2009). The newspaper alleges "that the terms of reference of the agreement state Laporte is indebted to four interventions or seminars, for a minimum of one day per event. In return, Altrad paid €150,000 to BL Communication, excluding travel, food and accommodation costs."
Montpellier were fined €70,000 and hit by a one-match stadium ban for allowing fans to display banners protesting against the proposed merger between Racing 92 and Stade Francais last April. It was reduced the day after it was imposed in June to a €20,000 fine only after Laporte made a phone call to the relevant appeals board.
Laporte rejected the allegations, telling Le Parisien that he didn't try to influence the board's decision but telephoned appeals board chairman Jean-Daniel Simonet to offer "political perspective".
Journal du Dimanche (JJD) obtained a letter written by appeals board member Philippe Peyramaure to the chairman of the committee, Simonet in which he stated: "I was advised that the president of the federation [Laporte] had intervened to ask that we modify our decision in a way more favourable to Montpellier."
That refers to an alleged phone call between Laporte and Simonet in which Laporte advocated a softening of the original sanction. Since June 30th, seven members of the appeals board have resigned.
Laporte argued he intervened to avoid further conflict between the FFR and the League Nationale de Rugby (LNR), who have an acrimonious relationship for the most part, the latest example of which was the failed merger of the two Paris clubs, Racing 92 and Stade Francais that ended up in French courts, the Conseil d’Etat.
Peyramaure's letter of resignation submitted in August – the first of the seven to do so – was published in JDD, prompting Laporte to counter in that interview in Le Parisien. "Why does this gentleman resign only now, two months after the fact? Why is he waiting for an article to speak? If he were so professional, and so independent, he would not have signed the minutes of the meeting of which he was the secretary, and would have resigned on the spot."
Laporte’s BL Communication ended the business arrangement with Altrad but there was more bad news for the FFR president when French sports minister Laura Flessel summoned him to a meeting.
“My office has talked with him, he has submitted files, we are in full reflection. We expect further feedback and then we will have to decide,” she said.
She added that France’s 2023 Rugby World Cup bid would go ahead “with or without” Laporte’s involvement.
To further compound matters, the FFR were forced into a public apology by World Rugby in reference to comments made in a tweet in which it suggested that a technical study conducted by World Rugby had France ahead in the race to host the 2023 World Cup.
The FFR tweeted the following apology on Thursday morning: “The FFR apologise for an inaccurate and misleading tweet it published on September 5 regarding the evaluation phase of the host selection process. It was incorrect to state that as a result of a technical study by World Rugby, the FFR is the leading candidate to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
“The FFR respects that the host selection and evaluation process is not complete and we reiterate our full support for a fair and robust process operated by World Rugby and its independent advisors.”
World Rugby can’t have been impressed by comments made by Phillipe Folliot, president of Rugby Parliamentary Friendship Society in France who, while enthusiastically supporting the Rugby World Cup bid, described it as “a big dress rehearsal” for the 2024 Paris Olympics adding that it was a “chance to test security”.
Why would World Rugby want their showpiece global tournament to be considered a sporting aperitif for the Olympics?
Ireland, France and South Africa will make their final presentations to World Rugby in London on September 25th while the host for the 2023 Rugby World Cup will be announced at the governing body’s council meeting on November 15th.