For a president who has travelled the globe for a year telling audiences that “France is back” under his leadership, the country’s World Cup victory couldn’t come at a better time for Emmanuel Macron as he confronts growing challenges on multiple fronts.
The 4-2 defeat of Croatia in Moscow on Sunday by the young French team starring Kylian Mbappe was celebrated by 40-year-old Macron in person, who jumped and pumped his fists with each goal.
He even broke out a “dab” in the changing room, a type of celebration imported from American football players and rappers, as the jubilant squad savoured its success afterwards.
Beyond the sporting triumph, it will also be cheered in the presidential palace for reinforcing a narrative Macron has promoted abroad since his election: of a young, dynamic France with a more prominent global role.
“This victory will improve France’s image for several years, and almost automatically that of its leader,” Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, a French think-tank, said.
“It’s about soft power and the international prestige of France. Football is now global. Before the Chinese wouldn’t have been bothered who won, but now they want to know. Even North Korea will follow it,” he added.
Former president Jacques Chirac saw his polling numbers bounce in 1998 when France last won the World Cup even though the ageing Gaullist took little interest in football and barely knew the names of the players.
Few tangible results
Macron’s diplomatic objectives since taking power in May last year have been showing France as a key player in an increasingly fractious world, a role which he and many observers felt had been lost during the previous presidency of Francois Hollande.
The young centrist leader has travelled widely to push his blueprint for overhauling the European Union and spearhead efforts to fight climate change.
He has also lead the charge against resurgent nationalism and isolationism, both on the continent and by its traditional ally the US under Donald Trump.
Yet on issues ranging from the fraying Iran nuclear deal to initiatives to end the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Macron has struggled to produce any tangible results and his EU reform drive is also floundering.
Resistence to his far-reaching drive to reform French institutions and bolster economic growth has sparked mass strikes, with his poll numbers near the lowest since his election last year.
An Odoxa survey published on July 5 found that just 29 percent of respondents thought Macron’s policies were “fair”. While 75 percent declared him “dynamic”, only 45 percent considered him “likeable”.
Giving his first speech as president, Macron had promised to make France feel better about itself and its place on the global stage, which makes the rousing performance of its young, ethnically diverse football squad a perfect gift.
“This win is obviously going to have a magnifying effect on France,” said Paul Dietschy, a French historian specialising in football at the University of Franche-Comte.
Before attending Sunday’s final, Macron congratulated Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for organising a contest that went off without a hitch, after years of growing tensions between Moscow and the West.
“Sports are often just a pretext. Macron’s trips to Russia for the semi-finals and especially the final, with France victorious no less, may have created the opportunity for a different type of dialogue with Putin,” Dietschy said.
And the political dividends could keep coming with the country set to host the rugby World Cup in 2023 followed by the Olympics the following year.
“In the same way that ping-pong diplomacy in 1971 allowed China and the US to restore ties, we could see this facilitating France-Russia relations,” he said, referring to a visit by American ping pong players to China that year.
On the domestic front, the boisterous street parties which brought strangers into each others’ arms offers a welcome contrast to the tensions in many of France’s deprived urban neighbourhoods.
Many youths in the so-called “banlieues”, who often come from immigrant families, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens unfairly targeted by police.
“We want to hope that this France, usually so quick to doubt itself and stew over its divisions, can find in this the energy to move forward,” the La Montagne newspaper in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, wrote in an editorial.
The question is also whether Macron can capitalise on his opportunity before his five-year term ends.
“This is good for the country’s morale, but what’s going to matter in 2022 is the unemployment rate, not the second World Cup title,” Boniface said.