France is too self-assured to get its knickers in a twist over football

Versailles life doesn’t reach full throttle until 5pm – and by nine they are winding down

It may be buried deep in the small print of Uefa’s official guide for these championships but the acknowledgement must exist somewhere nonetheless: as a nation, the French, gallant and unflappable hosts of this tournament, are mad as a bicycle.

Taking on an international football tournament is more or less like having the relatives over to stay, all at once. When Poland threw their house open four years ago, they became contortionists in their eagerness to be all things to all nationalities. It was the most attention greater Europe had paid to the country since the days when Lech Walesa had thundered away from the podium in Gdansk. All of Europe flooded into Poland's cities and too right the locals were anxious that visitors would leave their land enriched. They went out of their way to explain everything to their football guests. In France, it is taken for granted that you are going to love the place sooner or later and so the day-to-day quirks go unexplained.

On most days of the week in Versailles, for example, the locals don't seem all that pushed about being up and at it until around 10. And what exactly 'it' involves is harder to gauge. Work, yes, but a significant minority in Versailles seemed pre-occupied with the mere task of being French: raising the universal practice of making a cup of coffee into a minor art form, nattering enthusiastically in the bakeries and, most of all, carrying themselves with a ridiculously careless sense of style so that when the day comes that they accidentally wander onto the set of an autumn shoot for Vogue, they aren't going to look out of place.

As far as anyone could tell, daily life in Versailles doesn’t reach full throttle until about 5pm and by nine o’clock they are happy to wind down again. Morning’s are strictly for the dogs. Except: Friday morning arrived with the usual heavy shower of rain and by 7am the town was transformed into a beehive of activity.


Barricades had been erected on all roads and residential streets. Yellow police cordon tapes were tied to every available lamp post and postal box. Solemn-looking gendarmerie stood post at every corner.

Murdered overnight

It was as if Versailles itself had been murdered overnight and the authorities were determined to get to the bottom of it.

The switch into official and bureaucratic overdrive was sudden. Now there were two distinct forces at work: the not-to-be- messed with officials in charge of whatever important function was taking place and, around them, the normal patterns of street life moseying on indifferently.

Just hours before, long after midnight, as the last of the football supporters made their way home from Germany-Poland, there had been little sign of what was clearly a fairly major state occasion in the town.

In fact, the German and Poland fans who had scurried down from Stade de France in order to catch the midnight train from Montparnasse to their quarters on the Rambouillet line discovered, upon arriving breathless and dishevelled on the platform that, non, the train would not be leaving tonight. This news was delivered by a cheerful and cherubic French man in a red cap: he appeared to be running the entire station single-handedly.

But do not despair! Instead, customers would take the last leg of their journey by bus. He explained this in perfect and heavily accented English and with a disarming smile, as if the SNCF authorities had put on this road trip as a special treat. It would leave at 12.45. “So you wait perhaps 30 minutes. Perhaps more,” he announced enigmatically.

Several dozen late commuters and emotionally taxed Poles and Germans were directed towards a basement level car park, where four buses pulled up.

The putative drivers huddled together on the footpath in deep and apparently hilarious conversation. Every so often one among their company would spark up a smoke. There was no hurry on them. Then, at some mysterious signal, the drivers decided it was suddenly time to hit the road and just like that, they were all business, urgently directing passengers into this coach or that line.

Those of us bound for Versailles were ushered onto one coach, then urged to alight and directed towards another. No sooner had everyone gone through the rigmarole of bagging seats and hooking themselves up their phones and headsets than a new driver appeared in the stairwell beckoning everyone to follow him onto yet another bus, which he was excitedly declaring as “Versailles direct”.

Obediently and brokenly, all three dozen of us shuffled off. But before we could board this particular chariot, the passengers had to witness a brief but furious debate between the two drivers. Even fluent French speaker would have struggled to keep pace with the velocity of this exchange but it was still compelling and all 30 passengers followed their conversation by turning their heads from one driver to the other, like the yesteryear crowd at Roland Garros hypnotised by one of those never-ending baseline rallies starring Lendl and Wilander.

The German contingent of the party looked particularly troubled by the debate and the confusion but everyone present was wondering if this midnight transport row wasn’t the final proof that the EU wasn’t a failed experiment after all: that the French have their ways and its pointless trying to understand them.

It finished quickly and agreeably and in fairness, once the dude turned the ignition, he drove like James Hunt. Nobody knew why the train wasn't running that night: it just wasn't. None of the locals seemed too bothered by the fuss in Versailles the following morning. It just happened.

By Friday morning, old Gare de Montparnasse was crowded with Irish heading south for today's match in Bordeaux.

One of the many ways in which everyone Irish have endeared themselves to the tournament is by pronouncing the TGV as we believe the French might, so it sounds like “Te Ju Vu”. It doesn’t make anyone sound French, more like they’ve recently been stung on the tongue by a bumble bee.

But it’s the effort that counts. The absence of wifi on the TuJuVu was marvelled at: given that the most regional services in deepest Connacht all boast on-board wifi now, it seemed perverse that France’s prestige train system hadn’t bothered. But then it also seemed French.

Rushed by in a blur

Outside the windows, La France Profonde – or more accurately La France Rainy – rushed by in a blur. It looked very pretty. But the French tricolour is not hanging from every window or flag pole.

Paul Pogba may be getting a bit of a roasting on the sports pages of the local papers but on the street, the locals do not seem to be obsessing about the tournament.

"Call me unpredictable, tell me I'm impractical," sang Frank Sinatra and if Hoboken's finest had sung it in French, he'd have had the unofficial anthem of this country. France is just too self-assured and self-absorbed to get its knickers in a twist over the mere occurrence of a bunch of football games.

By all means come and be mystified and infuriated and charmed and sooner or later – maybe as soon as five o’clock today in Bordeaux – be happy in the knowledge that France doesn’t so much host a football tournament as absorb it into their mad and wonderful everyday.