France Fetes 1 Million Fans

Paris spares no expense for World Cup. The soccer tournament begins June 10.

"Bonjour '98 - France Welcomes the World" shouts the official slogan - upbeat and ambitious - plastered nationwide across billboards, taxis, shop fronts, and most other visible flat surfaces.

As nearly 1 million foreign soccer fans converge for the World Cup, which gets under way here June 10, it is a surprisingly buoyant France that is preparing to host them during the month-long soccer tournament that has become the world's biggest sporting event.

Emerging from several years of economic and psychological malaise into the brief but intense glare of international attention, the French are looking to the World Cup to reassure themselves of their leading place in the modern world.

In full view of 9,000 visiting journalists and a projected world TV audience of 37.5 billion for the 64 matches, "France must show its savoir-faire, and that includes being able to organize great spectacles," says Claude Simonet, president of the French Football Federation. "France is a great country and it must present a great image."

The authorities have spared no effort, building a new 80,000-seat stadium in the Paris suburbs and renovating nine other stadiums as part of preparations that are estimated to have cost $1.4 billion. More than half of that money came from the public purse.

Armies of schoolchildren and students who know at least a few words of a foreign language have been mobilized to help visitors at kiosks with Internet hookups throughout Paris; the national phone company has set up an information hot line for confused fans; and state-owned radio will broadcast 100 percent World Cup-related news on a special station throughout the tournament.

The welcome that France offers to visitors must be "exceptional and perfect" President Jacques Chirac insisted last week, as he dined with the French national soccer team.

Beyond hard-core fans, however, the French public has yet to get very worked up about the World Cup. "Soccer is all just money nowadays," scoffs Christophe Duchamp, who sells fruit and vegetables at a Paris market. "The salaries that players earn are absurd, and at the end of the day I'm as tired as they are."

But the World Cup means money for more than just the players. Mr. Duchamp hopes to sell more of his strawberries and apples to tourists, and at a nearby newspaper kiosk, Didier Pan expects the tournament to boost sales of sporting newspapers and magazines by as much as 40 percent. "The World Cup leaves me cold, personally, but it's good for my business," he says, smiling.

Meanwhile, security forces are ready to deal with visitors who are not just here for the games. Especially concerned about possible terror attacks by Algerian Islamist extremists, police across Europe detained scores of suspects at the end of May.

French authorities have mounted a massive operation to protect the public, posting 8,000 soldiers at key installations such as power stations and telecommunications relay points including the Eiffel Tower. They are backing up 6,000 police officers on special security duty. Sharpshooters will be flying over stadiums in helicopters and plainclothes agents will mingle with the crowds.

The tournament clearly offers France the opportunity to "give the image of a confident country," as former Sports Minister Guy Drut put it, and to demonstrate that France is a modern and efficient nation that can cope with challenges and put on a global show.

This is an opportunity the country needs after several years of general morosity and dissatisfaction, as the French struggled to define their place in the world, resisting trends toward globalization that they saw as simply US hegemony, and apparently turning their backs on world currents that were shaping the future.

The past year, since Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin took office, has seen a quiet but steady upturn in the public mood, along with encouraging signs in the economy such as a booming stock market and falling unemployment. His government, pledged to modernize the French economy but careful to assuage fears of change, has enjoyed considerable success in giving the country back its balance.

At the same time, French traditions die hard, as striking pilots at Air France are showing. The pilots, whose walkout began June 1, have come under increasing criticism for being selfish and unpatriotic. Air France, the official carrier of the World Cup, had to arrange 110 special flights to bring in soccer teams for the tournament. Most foreign fans have been busily changing reservations to other airlines.

The way in which the strikers caused chaos for tens of thousands of World Cup visitors has highlighted the side of France that authorities would rather ignore. The conflict pits 3,200 pilots - already very highly paid by European standards - against a state-owned enterprise, Air France, as they try to block the company's efforts to streamline its operations and become globally competitive.

Old-fashioned French pride in the country's gastronomic wealth has also been stung by the fact that fast-food giant MacDonald's is the World Cup's official purveyor of food. Questions were asked in the National Assembly (parliament) about how this could have been allowed to happen.

But at least France has a chance to show off its riches to visitors who might not normally come here. And no matter how modern the country wants to show itself, tourist officials still bank on traditional French attractions.

"We have to play on our home [field]" in dealing with foreigners, says Andr Daguin, head of the National Federation of Hoteliers. "We have to feast their eyes, their taste buds, and their sense of smell."

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