Many French have vowed to boycott the World Cup. So his team did too well.


PARIS — Before the World Cup kicked off in Qatar last month, a quarter of French soccer fans said in polls they would boycott the controversial tournament. There was widespread outrage over the Persian Gulf state’s treatment of LGBTQ people and migrant workers, as well as the pageant’s carbon footprint.

But that was before his national team stormed into the soccer final. With France now preparing for Sunday’s game with Argentina, the moral issues that once dominated French World Cup coverage are fast becoming an afterthought.

“The French probably didn’t think the team would go that far,” said Laurent Grün, a soccer history researcher in eastern France who chose not to watch the tournament. Even some of his own family members who previously joined the boycott have already relented.

Among the French national team supporters watching the match will be President Emmanuel Macron, a soccer fan who had already traveled to Qatar for Wednesday’s semifinal and is making a second trip to the Gulf state this weekend. “I support the French team and I think the French too,” Macron said on Thursday.

The French president is one of the few top European officials to have attended the World Cup this year. But his presence in Qatar and his recent insistence that “sports must not be politicized” seem to capture the prevailing sentiment among French soccer fans in these final days of the World Cup.

For those fans who were hesitant about his initial boycott plans, Macron’s defense of the tournament has served as a justification to relent.

When France beat Morocco in the semi-final on Wednesday, nearly 21 million in France were watching on television, the largest semi-final audience since 2006, according to Médiamétrie, a polling company that measures viewership and media usage. “Clearly, there is no boycott effect,” a television ratings specialist told Agence France-Presse.

But the debate over the tournament’s ethical issues has not entirely died down. Macron’s trip energized some of his political opponents, who for months called for a boycott of the World Cup.

On Wednesday, a group of left-wing members of the French parliament held a minute’s silence to mourn the migrant workers who died in Qatar before the competition began.

Unlike previous World Cups, major cities such as Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille and Strasbourg will not show the final on giant screens in large public areas. The bars in Paris are expected to be packed and some fans may not find space to watch the game.

Boycott advocates point to a moral obligation that might be stronger in France than in other countries. Investigators are examining whether French officials, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, played a role in helping Qatar win the World Cup bid, according to French newspaper Le Monde. reported last month.

And amid an explosive recent investigation into allegations that current and former European Union officials accepted bribes from Qatar, Macron’s government is facing growing calls to rein in Qatari influence in France.

Former European official to remain jailed while Qatar investigation progresses

“It was out of the question to set up public viewing areas,” Pierre Rabadan, the deputy mayor of Paris who oversees sports, said earlier this year of the city’s decision not to host public viewing events.

He cited working conditions and environmental concerns in Qatar, and the fact that fans would be standing out in the cold because the tournament is taking place in winter and not, as usual, in summer. Yet of all the French cities that chose to boycott the World Cup, Paris was the most baffling, critics said.

The city’s powerful Paris Saint-Germain soccer club is owned by Qatar Sports Investments. And the left-wing mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who ran unsuccessfully against Macron in the presidential election. elections earlier this year, he has not shied away from showing his public support for the team when it seemed to suit the interests of his city in the past.

When Brazilian soccer star Neymar transferred to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, the Hidalgo administration allowed the Eiffel Tower will be illuminated in the colors of the club. She “depends to a large extent on the image” of the team, Bernard Caïazzo, a shareholder in French soccer club Saint-Étienne, said in October.

In many ways, the Paris boycott of a World Cup hosted by a country that owns the city’s most valuable soccer club has epitomized the dilemmas many national teams and governments faced during this World Cup: sending a stronger signal to often would have gone against his own. interests.

For David Samzun, mayor of the city of Saint-Nazaire in western France and a member of the Socialist Party like Hidalgo, a boycott of the contest would have been “unsustainable.”

In an interview, Samzun accused Qatar of “disrespecting human rights” and criticized this year’s tournament as “environmental nonsense.” But he, too, took aim at the Paris boycott, calling it “hypocritical” and suggesting that local officials should never have held their current post in the first place.

Unlike many other cities, Saint-Nazaire will show the World Cup final in a public viewing area on Sunday. A public broadcast of the semifinal on Wednesday drew more than 1,000 people to the city’s fan zone at a former submarine base.

“The economic crisis, the energy crisis, the war at the gates of Europe. When we look at the news, everything is very sad,” said Samzun. The World Cup, he added, is a rare opportunity to “bring people together, to look for popular joyful moments, and I think we in France really need that.”

For Henrik Selin, a global and regional policy researcher at Boston University, it’s an understandable position. “There is a lot of evidence to suggest that FIFA is a completely corrupt organization,” he said. “I think that should be separated from the tournament once it has started.”

Boycotts in French cities appear to have “more to do with internal politics than international relations,” he added. “I don’t think that will help improve the human rights record in Qatar or any other country.”

But tournament critic Grün was more optimistic about the chances for change, largely because the focus on the role of French officials in awarding the World Cup to Qatar seems greater than ever. “Unfortunately, it’s too late” for this World Cup, he said. But it “imposes many more moral obligations on France for the future.”

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