French Politics: “It’s Football, Stupid!” or is it the other way around?

It is not new: football can become a footboard for political power. French politicians know it so well that they even play football themselves. It is such a widespread sport in the political sphere that since 2014 there has been an official team of MPs in the National Assembly, playing a yearly match against veteran players from Les Bleus and famous media persons.

Football is the perfect playground for elected officials. With every town comes a football club – and subsidies issues, local regulations, restrictions, and retributions. Whether it is to maintain a cronyist approach, to entertain people, or simply because they enjoy the game, there is nothing that could keep a Mayor or any elected official from attending a football game, especially to be seen. And even though he never had a political career before his Presidency, Emmanuel Macron is no different. He visits Les Bleus where they train, he passionately cheers them on during matches, and makes enthusiastic locker-room speeches captured on Twitter by the players themselves.

But what is there to gain?

Power, perhaps? Bernard Tapie, a famous French entrepreneur bought the club Olympique de Marseille in the 90s, which helped him become Minister twice, MP, and MEP; he was even planning to run for President before his carreer dreams were sidetracked by judicial issues.

Better approval ratings? It is also often said that President Chirac benefited in 1998 from a “World cup” effect in the polls, jumping 14 points in popularity the following month, while Emmanuel Macron is today still dropping in the polls, probably handicapped by the Benalla scandal. Unfortunately for Macron, 2018 is not the political replay of 1998, but its sequel.

The truth is that in 1998, the only beneficiary from the World Cup victory was French football itself. Before 1998, football was just a sport. Only after the ’98 win did it become political.

Presidents started to get deeply involved. President Chirac was just starting to learn the rules of football at the time of the 1998 World Cup win. But his successors, Sarkozy, Hollande, and Macron, never hesitated to put on a football shirt and start kicking the ball in front of the cameras, cheering when Les Bleus were victorious with every other lifelong French football fan. And in times of defeat, these savvy politicians saw an opening to mingle with disheartened fans by lending a shoulder to cry on.

In 2010, when the French team Les Bleus childishly refused to get out of a bus for training in South Africa, President Nicolas Sarkozy transformed the embarrassment into a State emergency by summoning veteran team players to meet with him and his ministers while France was also under a labor strike. Not only did it seem French politics was all about football, it seemed French football also became a political issue.

The one political priority that has produced concrete outcomes impacting French football success is an extensive complete youth training. Today’s triumph can be attributed to the way the young players are detected and trained in France, a method of efficiency recognized around the world. It is imposed on pro clubs to be equipped with training centers. Today, 36 training centers are approved by the ministry of sports and welcome 2,000 young people from 15 to 20 years old, a place where they sign their first contract, thus giving them the right to a remuneration. In addition, the French Federation of Football (FFF) opened federal centers of pretraining which prepares young players (13-14 years) for the entrance to training centers.

And evidenced by the recent World Cup win, it worked. The number of players born in France and participating in the World Cup has not stopped growing for sixteen years. France had 52 native representatives present in Russia in 2018. Never a World Cup has counted so many participants born and trained on the French ground. France has sent the most native-players to World Cup in the 21st century, with 216 participants born on its ground, far surpassing Brazil and its 148 players, wrongly still perceived as the biggest talent exporter.

But while being very good at training young talents, France is terrible at keeping them. France is second in the ranking of countries counting most soccer players playing in other countries, with 821 professional players trained in France and employed outside the borders.

Generally speaking France is very bad at keeping its talents. Not only in football. In mathematics for instance, France has some of the best mathematicians but fails to prevent them from crossing our borders. Instead these young talents seek adventure and higher wages in places like Silicon Valley.

Brain drain in France has been worrying the government for more than 10 years. President Macron is determined to bring back opportunities and improve hiring practices in France. He calls it a “startup nation.” Keeping French talents inside French borders, football players as well as scientists.

French politicians are surely no different than others. They cheer up with their people and accompany the development of their pleasure, trying to gain a political reward at local, national or international level. But the success of the football youth training policy highlights the disastrous brain drain France is suffering from in various sectors. That is the new frontier Macron and his government need to tackle, and it is indeed, a very political one.

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Aristide Luneau

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