Since Emmanuel Macron has become president of France in May 2017, it has been somewhat of a golden era for French sport.
In 2024 the Summer Olympics will arrive in Paris, 100 years from its last hosting in the city in 1924. In 2018, France won the soccer World Cup in Russia, its second ever title. This year France won the Six Nations with an impressive Grand Slam performance, and will be one of the favourites for the Rugby World Cup, also hosted in France, next year.
In 2017, Macron pledged to "strengthen the place of sport" at the heart of French society. Five years later, having been elected over extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, Macron will now see out these great events as president.
Reports say Macron talks regularly to the superstar without an intermediary and during the coronavirus pandemic he asked Mbappé to encourage young people to be vaccinated
Soccer is the most popular sport in France, and Macron has always looked to using being fan to his advantage, emphasising his love of Olympique Marseille, traditionally the best-supported club in France. Macron attends the Coupe de France final every year, and like Boris Johnson, Macron was quick to denounce the European Super League plans even though no French team was participating in the plans.
The image of pro-European and pro-international diplomacy is at the heart of Macron's selling point. Having failed to convince Vladimir Putin from the abyss of war in Ukraine, Macron has engaged in a far less serious, but nevertheless complicated world of multi-million euro soccer transfer negotiations, principally the transfer saga surrounding France's most famous sportsman Kylian Mbappé.
Astronomical figures are quoted to keep Mbappé at the Qatar-funded Paris Saint-Germain, a £150 million signing-on fee if he puts pen to paper on a two-year contract extension. To this point Mbappe has refused to sign a contract to stay in Paris, with Spanish giants Real Madrid expected to be top of the list of suitors. Mbappé has said he will be silent on his decision until the end of the Ligue 1 season on May 21st.
Macron, not one to miss an opportunity to get involved in a major talking point, has taken the unusual step of intervening to try to persuade the Les Bleus star to remain at the Parc de Princes, personally contacting him and making public that he wanted Mbappé to continue to play his club football in France. Little matter that he was encouraging the best player of his “beloved” Marseille’s rivals to stay in Ligue 1.
“Unfortunately you can’t speak about Kylian Mbappé going to OM [Marseille]. If he was willing to come I would have fought to make that happen… but he said ‘not so far’. So it’s better to fight for him to stay in Ligue 1,” Macron said.
Last year, Macron said it was important that Mbappé stays “for the club, for the French Championship”, although claiming “I will never put pressure on a player, it’s an intimate, personal choice that I respect, it’s a career development”.
On another occasion Macron spoke glowingly of Mbappé, saying he “demonstrates the qualities of the greatest: lucidity, courage, resistance”.
In the searing 2019 French drama film Les Misérables (unrelated to the popular musical), set right after the French World Cup win, Mbappe's name is thrown around regularly by the black teenagers of Montfermeil, who will later be involved in a day of heavy police violence in the suburbs melting pot environment. The fortunes of Mbappé, the immigrant son who rose to be national hero, draw a stark contrast with the troubled and impoverished teenagers and the ensuing violence in the film.
Mbappé’s stature in France among young people is seen as invaluable to the French government, his success offers hope for millions and distracts from government failures in the deprived northern banlieues. Reports say Macron talks regularly to the superstar without an intermediary and during the coronavirus pandemic he asked Mbappé to encourage young people to be vaccinated.
Mbappé is a commercial behemoth in France, and a cultural icon of Paris already. The boy of Cameroonian and Algerian parents from Bondy that became one of the world's biggest stars, a trip to Paris will see Mbappé dotted around billboards, TV ads for companies like Hublot and Nike, while his image fronts the biggest video game in sport, EA Sport's Fifa football series. According to Spanish newspaper La Cuatro, the French president has proposed to Mbappé's entourage to make him the ambassador of the French delegation to the 2024 Olympic Games.
It had become accepted that Mbappé would leave PSG for Real Madrid to further his career when he didn't sign a new PSG contract last summer, to test himself in a stronger league and give himself a better chance of winning the Champions League. Despite winning Ligue 1, this season has been perceived as a failure for PSG, although his star still burning bright having scored 33 goals in 42 games.
Macron is a politician focused on image (as shown by when he suddenly ditched his traditional navy suit for stubble, jeans and hoodie in "war room" photos in the style of Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy), and understands sport brings collective happiness. A happy electorate is more likely to want things to stay the same. Or so the logic goes. Just ask Charlie Haughey or Shane Ross.
Despite Mbappé's good terms with Macron, he didn't follow fellow French players Dimitri Payet and Blaise Matuidi in endorsing Macron in the election against Le Pen. But should the last-ditch attempt by Macron help to keep Mbappé in Paris come off, it will be the perfect start to his sport-focused mandate and his next five years as president.