When French President François Hollande had asked citizens in November to fly the flag outside their windows after the terrorist attacks, he received a feeble response that led to a debate about how comfortable the French feel about displays of patriotism.
Yesterday, as France played Portugal in the European Championship final, there was no debate.
The French painted their capital in red, white, and blue – and more than just a hint of hope, a rarity in Paris these days. Fans all around the city – from the Stade de France where the final was being played, to the cafe where I was watching amid a crowd of French partisans – burst into a lung-filled rendition of their national anthem, "La Marseillaise," while French flags whipped in the wind as the match kicked off.
They needed this victory, after 18 grinding months that included two major terrorist attacks, stubborn unemployment, and the most unpopular presidency in modern French history. And they weren't afraid to show it.
"Well, President Hollande needs this victory," said one French fan at a cafe, with a “Les Bleus” scarf wrapped around her neck, which she tied around her head as the tension of the game mounted. "For us [the people, she meant], everything will be the same tomorrow."
Now that’s the France that I know, and the one I daresay I’ve come to appreciate. Yes, the pessimism can weigh you down sometimes. But it’s also refreshing how the French speak their minds – without seeming to be bothered about what sensibilities they might be offending.
Case and point, minutes into the game, and Portugal’s star Cristiano Ronaldo is down, injured. “On purpose,” was the verdict of one fan. Really? I asked. Do you really think it’s coincidence that the opposition’s key player is the one that gets hurt at the start of what is France’s highest-stakes game? I'm asked back.
Another one, uttered in passing as the game went on. “France will win. Because of money.” When I tried to say “no, no,” she asked if I watched the referees calls during the France-Germany match. “Arranged,” she said.
And then another said plainly, “France is going to lose in a shootout, I know it,” to which I had to step in. C’mon, we are only halfway through the first half.
It took two adorable little girls on the terrace outside to remind the crowd of the innocent side of sport. After Portugal scored in overtime they ran up and pressed their noses against the glass window – because of the threats of terrorism, no giant screens were mounted on sidewalks this year, only inside venue. “Ah non,” said the elementary schooler. “It is supposed to be La France.”
And yet, as the inevitably of loss dawned, these fans accepted it easily. Some were even funny about it. "This is not football, this is a Greek tragedy," said one fan. After earning some laughs, he continued, "This is a modern Antigone."
In fact, there was only one moment of tension where I stood, after a fan kicked a garbage can over, briefly jolting those on the sidewalk where the prospect of terrorism is something in the back of all minds, even if it doesn't dissuade you from taking a seat. It was cut by a group of nearby fans who laughed at him, as if it say, “Actually, it is just a game.”
Dreams of victory shattered, I really don't think the French held any illusions anyway that it would change the myriad challenges they face ahead.
Still, I tested a positive hypothesis: isn’t it good enough, to have arrived to the final game, on home turf?
"Yes," conceded one patient fan. At last, I went on, France had something to unite them, giving reason to hope together.
Wait, not so fast.
"Yes, but you see," she shot back, "This is the problem with the French. We never make it all the way."