French cultural favorites: chic clothes, haute cuisine, and soccer

President Francois Mitterrand broke off important talks in Lisbon to fly home for it. Communist Party leader Georges Marchais cut short an emergency Central Committee session to attend.

The extraordinary occasion last Wednesday evening was the finals of the European soccer championships at Paris's Parc des Princes.

When France's national team beat Spain to win France's first major championship, 2-0, this country, known for its divisiveness, united for one night. Jubilant throngs danced all night on the Champs Elysees. Even in Corsica, the island plagued by separatist tendencies, cafes were packed with television watchers.

''We hate the French,'' explained Yves Stella, editor of the Corsican Nationalist newspaper and a recent parolee from prison for anti-French terrorism , ''but we love soccer.''

The celebration is something special for France. Other nations are also divisive and yet unite in soccer mania, but traditionally French athletes have fared abysmally in international competitions. Sports, and especially competitive contests, have never played so important a role here as in the United States and other sports-minded societies. This is changing - and the superb French National Soccer Team is at once causing and benefiting from this transformation.

The French, of course, long have enjoyed leisure. In the countryside, Sunday bicyclists and old men playing a slow game of ''boules'' have been a common sight for years. Active ski vacations to the Alps and trips to the beach are a national obsession.

In general, though, eating well, dressing stylishly, and thinking ponderously have always been valued much more than running far. French schools, for example, have no sports teams and few physical education classes - a fact humorously portrayed in the famous scene from Truffaut's ''400 Blows,'' in which students jog aimlessly through Parisian boulevards during their one weekly gym outing. Athletics are considered detrimental to a proper academic atmosphere, and Frenchmen are horrified by the seriousness of American college sports. Athletic ability is considered irrelevant here for admission to top universities.

Much of this taboo against exercise has disappeared lately. During the past decade, there has been a boom in athletic participation, according to Georges Sendeu of Energy, a sports consulting firm here. French sporting clubs now claim a total of more than 4 million members, three times the 1967 number. Skiing and tennis have grown the most, with soccer, cycling, and rugby also becoming more popular, and the French spend more on sporting goods than any other group of Europeans.

''The growth is a result of the new quick pace of life,'' Sendeu explains, pointing to France's recent and rapid urbanization and industrialization. ''People who are cooped up in offices or factories need exercise to relax.'' Still, increased participation has not changed the lackadaisical French attitude toward competition. Go to any park, and you will see a French jogger who resembles an emblazoned peacock. The clothes are more important than the speed or distance of the workout.

Winning is not drilled into children. There are no Little Leagues. The few national programs to develop international-caliber athletes are recent developments.

''We love being amateurs, watching sports, or competing lightly,'' explains Jean-Francois Renault, associate editor of L'Equipe, France's only sports newspaper. ''But our young seem to shy away from serious competition.''

The reasons for this timidity are cultural and ideological. Bound by a strict class system, the French are taught not to push too hard. It is considered better to inherit money than to earn it, take in a quiet moment than cram for exams. Moreover, a legacy of the leftist May 1968 revolt was to question rules of academic and social competition. Sport did not escape this questioning.

''Many of the phys. ed. teachers come from that generation,'' explains Renault. ''Philosophically, they oppose competition. They feel it enslaves man in training.''

The results of these attitudes are clear. Triple-gold-medal skier Jean-Claude Killy was French. So is cycling star Bernard Hinault. And race driver Alain Prost.

But they are the exceptions to the general rule. The French won only one silver and two bronze medals at Sarajevo's Olympics, and they will be fortunate to do as well at Los Angeles.

Even when a French athlete is world class, he tends not to play up to his ability. Tennis player Yannick Noah is a perfect example. Many consider him the most talented player on the tour. Many also consider him the tour's least committed player, preferring the fast life at night to hard work on the tennis court during the day. In tough, close matches the result is usually a Noah loss.

For a long time, the French soccer team followed this form. Talent they had, but not any staying power.

At the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, the French showed finesse with the ball. But they weren't tough enough to take the ball away from the rough Germans, Italians, and Argentines. They lost in the first round.

In the 1982 World Cup, French attacking skill took them to the semifinals. Then disaster struck. Ahead by two goals against the Germans with time running out, the French collapsed, letting the Germans tie up the game and push it into overtime. The French struggled on, scoring again. But near the end of the extra time the Germans intimidated them physically, and tied once again. On penalty kicks, the French were finally eliminated.

This year, the French had the home advantage, and a captain, midfielder Michel Platini, who had learned how to win. After the World Cup defeat, Platini had left France to hone his skills and warm his pockets in the tougher and richer Italian league.

France's new toughness showed. In a physical opening match against Denmark, the home side prevailed 1-0. Three more spectacular victories, including a 5-0 destruction of Belgium, followed, and the French were in the semifinals against Portugal.

Then disaster appeared near once again. Behind 2-1 in overtime, Platini nicked a ball to a teammate who tied the game up. With only 57 seconds remaining , Platini himself scored to put France in the finals.

The final against Spain was not so spectacular. The Spaniards elbowed and chopped the French at every opportunity, and the home side failed to find its rhythm. But near the end, Platini scored on a free kick, and a French drive up the left side netted the clinching goal.

More important, the French showed the true signs of a champion by winning when they were not at their best. Post-game commentaries showed how much the French had learned - and how high their hopes are for the World Cup in Mexico two years from now.

''France is a great team, a magnificent team,'' murmered Spanish coach Antonio Munoz.

''We were a little slow, a little on the edge,'' commented a smiling President Mitterrand on national television, ''but very scientific with collective qualities.''

The President's comments show this soccer team has really done much more than just win a big match. To the President, after all, the match seemed worthy of Descartian logic, and in this intellectually minded society there is no better proof that the French are taking sports more seriously these days.

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