French Pride in Olympics Includes Its 'Foreign' Stars
When it comes to besting the US, all of Europe counts as one, and even immigrants win applause
PARIS — The cattle market had about collapsed, the most severe drought in half a century had turned the grass in the west of France to powder, but all a rancher from Brittany cared to talk about was the Olympic Games.
"You know, the United States didn't win the Olympics. Europe did," he said. "Just do the calculations."
I had. The US: 101 medals; Europe, 214 (from the 15 European Union member nations). He did get around to answering questions about the cattle crisis - the Brits and EU were to blame - but his comments suggested an important cultural change in Europe: People are talking like Europeans.
The EU is wrestling with a host of problems, but this rancher in one of the most fiercely independent regions of Europe saw himself as more than a Breton or a Frenchman. At least during the Olympics, he was a European.
His was not the first unsolicited comment on America's management of the Olympic Games. A top business consultant called to ask how much Coca-Cola had paid to get the Games in Atlanta. A cab driver opined that (Atlanta-based) Coca-Cola had stolen the games from Greece "which was too bad because if the games had been in Greece, Coca-Cola could still have advertised but people wouldn't have resented it so much."
Any hint of an oversized American national ego was bound to be noticed in France, whose government has been waging a small war to limit the incursion of American culture here. Next to McDonald's (pronounced Mac-DO - you can all but drop the last syllable), Coca-Cola is a symbol here of what's wrong with America's cultural presence in the world.
Mind you, it's usually hard to find a seat in a McDonald's in France, while many traditional French restaurants languish. But McDonald's is making an effort to cross the cultural barrier - not just crush it. "Le fast food" chain now publishes its own French magazine, serves wine, adds goat cheese and basil to its summer salad, and prominently features "We serve French beef" signs.
The Olympic Games crossed a few cultural barriers of its own. The French team, which brought home an unexpected 37 medals, hailed from all parts of the former French empire.
Star runner Mary-Jos Perec ran under the French flag, but her family flew into Atlanta from Guadeloupe. Judo gold medalist Djamel Bouras is a practicing Muslim, whose father came from Algeria. He dedicated his victory to "all the poor Muslims of France." French television stations put cameras in Bouras's parents home the night he won the gold to see the reaction of family and friends. When Bouras threw his hands in the air, one woman burst into a traditional Algerian victory cry.
In an interview with the French weekly "Le Nouvel Observateur," Mr. Bouras once described walking into a French newspaper shop to see a magazine that had a picture of him. "I didn't want to buy the magazine, it was too expensive, and I asked to just look at it. The owner responded with a familiar answer, 'You know, we've already seen too much of people like you!' "
According to opinion polls, 74 percent of French surveyed think there are too many immigrants in France, up from 65 percent in 1988. Extreme right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen criticized the ethnic makeup of France's soccer team this summer just as they headed into their semifinal match for the European championship, arguing that the French team had too many "foreigners" who could not sing the national anthem, "La Marseillaise." (The French team lost the match.)
If Mr. Le Pen had his doubts about the cultural makeup of the victorious French Olympic medal winners, he kept them to himself.
Commenting on Bouras's judo victory, France's "Sports Magazine" described the winning moment: "The Frenchman fell to his knees to thank heaven for choosing him. That was the moment to believe in God.... Then, he ran toward his father, who came from Algeria, to offer France her seventh Olympic medal in judo. All the world applauded. Except, perhaps, a certain Mr. Le Pen, specialist in 'La Marseillaise.' "
Back in France, Bouras described boarding a train to his hometown of Givors. The passengers burst into applause. "That was new for me," he said.
At the Paris mosque, a young Algerian was asked what he thought about the significant number of winners on the French team from former French colonies, cried: "A lot of medals? We won them all!"
At a time when French politicians are multiplying charter flights to take immigrants "home," the Olympics were a reminder that France's immigrants brought more than social problems to France.
In Atlanta, they brought glory.