Keith Duggan: French hoping team can lift air of weary forbearance
Football festival ongoing against a backdrop of terrorism concerns, flooding and strikes
French President Francois Hollande at the Albania game. He could certainly do with a good news story right now. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP
When Dimitri Payet reflected on the tears he shed after his extravagantly impressive goal against Romania on the opening night of the European championships, he alluded to two overriding emotions governing the French team: ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’.
Payet seemed to sum up the mood in Paris where the football festival opened against a backdrop of explicit terrorism concerns, flash flooding, flash strikes, rubbish uncollected all along the banks of the Seine (and other less evocative streets) and the sombre if welcome presence of police as a constant reminder of the attacks which shocked the city last winter.
“Oh, but Paris is not for changing planes,” scolds Audrey Hepburn in 1954’s Sabrina when Humphrey Bogart, ever unsentimental, tells her that he has been to Paris once “for 35 minutes” on a changeover flight to Iraq. “It’s for changing your outlook,” she says dreamily. “For throwing open the windows and letting in ....letting in La Vie En Rose.”
The tens of thousands tourists who visit the city every summer do so in the hope that Paris is going to enrich their souls and romantic spirit even as it pulverises their credit cards. On the opening night, the strains of Edith Piaf singing La Vie sounded as perfectly French as ever but her voice and the words also seemed to belong to a Paris that exists only in the wilful imagination of visitors who arrive in the city eager to be enchanted by its past.
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It was another shocking episode in a fraught time for the city and for France in general. All the bars and restaurants around Notre Dame were showing the game but Paris is catering for two distinct types of tourist just now; the tens of thousands of who are here for the football and the tens of thousands who are here solely for the city.
If you so choose, you could spend the month of the tournament roaming through Paris without ever being aware that football is taking place except for those moments when the trains stop and the carriages are suddenly crammed with buoyant Irish or expectant Germans making their way out to Saint Denis.
As Wednesday evening wore on and the French team failed to break down Albania’s stoic defence, the French supporters around St Michel became quiet and anxious and every so often, the cameras closed in on Francois Hollande, watching the game in the stadium and looking, just as Payet said, increasingly stressed as he waited for a goal that would not come.
Security has been the overwhelming concern for France but there is an unspoken sense that a truly successful tournament all but requires a dash for glory by the hosts. France’s football team has proven a hugely unifying source of joy for the country in the recent past. Hollande could use a good news story.
Right now, the mood in Paris is of a citizenry putting up with things. Much as in London and New York, you don’t have to spend much time here to get the sense of the invisible forces of capitalism and high finance sucking the affordability of everyday living skywards at a scary rate.
It’s a fair bet that if Bogart decided to spend more than 35 minutes in today’s Paris, he’d be pretty unimpressed at finding himself charged 15 bucks and rising for a beer – let alone a measure of quality liquor – in the gin joints around the Left Bank. Just getting around the city at the moment is an exercise in endurance.
The trains are going but are vulnerable to sudden cancellations or delays or changed routes. Every so often, a train full with commuters and tourists seems set to leave only to idle on the platform before a brief announcement in surly and indistinguishable French. For visitors, there is little to do other than follow the lead of locals, who permit themselves little French utterances of annoyance, pack their stuff and shuffle back to the platform to study the departures board intensely.
Everyone seems vaguely on-side with the right of the workers to strike and the attitude is one of weary forbearance. The mood for striking pops up in unexpected places too. The Ireland team had an afternoon off on Tuesday. Several of the players wandered around Versailles, where the team is based, that afternoon.
Louis XV1’s old haunt is the only real reason for visiting the city but if the players fancied touring the chateau that afternoon, they were in for the same disappointment as the long line of tourists who queued up wondering why the famous gold gates were firmly closed. A yellow sign was posted to reveal all.
En Raison d’un movement social, Le chateau et Le Domaine sont Fermes. And below in English: Due To Strike, the Palace and The Estate are Closed.
There was something wonderful about the casual power contained within this sign set against the preposterous opulence of the palace. The monarchy won’t be coming back anytime soon.
And the palace will reopen. The strikes will end. France scored twice late on Wednesday night and a chorus of cheers broke out on both sides of the Seine.