Paris, France, Jul 15 – French fans dared to dream of a World Cup victory on Sunday as they prepared to watch the final on a sunny summer weekend after a tournament that has lifted spirits and led to a rare sense of national unity.
Across the country, parks, bars and balconies have been transformed into a sea of blue, white and red flags as football fever sweeps the nation, with a flood of excited fans hungry to watch the action.
Much of the younger generation is hoping to taste the same euphoria their parents knew 20 years ago when France won its first World Cup.
“They’ve talked so much about ’98 but I wasn’t even born. We’re going to make a new ’98!” said 15-year-old Martin said after the team’s semi-final win this week.
Football fever has built over the last four weeks as the country took its young national team to heart, with ecstatic scenes after their semi-final victory.
Just a day after France celebrated its Bastille Day national holiday, many families gathered on Sunday to watch from camp sites or hotels, while giant screens have been erected in 230 fan zones across the country under exceptionally tight security.
The biggest gathering is at a fanzone beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which police said had reached its maximum capacity of 90,000 people on Sunday a full three hours before kick-off.
Marc, 32, and his wife and four-year-old son were among those who went to the fanzone, which is walking distance to the Champs Elysees avenue where all national triumphs are celebrated.
“These are rare moments, we have to enjoy them,” he said.
On Tuesday, when France beat Belgium to qualify for the final, hundreds of thousands of revellers gathered on the Champs Elysees.
And if Les Bleus end up striking gold on Sunday, the numbers will likely be far higher.
“It’s very touching to see the whole of France reunited, regardless of where people come from or social class,” said 26-year-old Lea Perier in the northern town of Bayeux as she waited to catch a train to Paris to watch the match with friends.
Although she “normally hates football”, Perier found herself swept up in the wave of excitement. And if they win? “I’m going to party in every single street in Paris,” she grins.
– ‘Proud to be French’ –
With success on the pitch, a country riven by tensions and still shaken by a string of attacks that have killed nearly 250 people since 2015 has been able to revel in a newfound feeling of togetherness.
“We must be proud to be French! We don’t say it enough,” star striker Antoine Griezmann reminded his compatriots on Friday.
Despite France’s enviable lifestyle, it has lacked “joie de vivre” for years, with numerous surveys finding the French some of the most pessimistic people on Earth.
Much of this is down to decades of high unemployment, mounting public debt and the more-recent homegrown terror threat that has fuelled immigration fears and support for far-right parties.
The national football squad, most of whom are non-white, has provided a tonic to a divisive debate about French identity after their impeccable performance on and off the pitch as national ambassadors.
“France today is a France full of colours,” star midfielder Paul Pogba said this week.
“There are people of many different origins, that’s what makes France so beautiful. We all feel French, we’re happy to wear this shirt.”
Such talk has led to inevitable comparisons with 1998 when France last won the World Cup, celebrating diversity with its “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, north African) team led by Zinedine Zidane.
– Political afterglow? –
One person desperate for victory will be President Emmanuel Macron, a keen football supporter who will be at the stadium in Moscow with his wife Brigitte.
Former president Jacques Chirac enjoyed a surge in popularity following France’s 1998 victory — and Macron too will be hoping for the same amid a poll ratings slump.
A World Cup win “could indeed make him appear closer to voters. After all, football is the sport where societal differences are blurred,” said Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute.
And a win would likely boost economic growth, with the sportswear industry already enjoying a boom.
Fans have been snapping up team jerseys, with the “authentic” Nike version repeatedly selling out despite a 160-euro ($185) price tag.
– Terror fears –
Despite the excitement, security will be in the back of fans’ minds after more than three years of deadly attacks, often targeting crowds enjoying a night out.
France has deployed 110,000 police and security forces across the country over the weekend.
“Everything is being done so the French can live these festive moments with peace of mind, despite the terrorist threat which remains at a high level,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.
In case of a French victory, some 4,000 police officers will be on duty in Paris on Sunday night, and a huge area around the Champs Elysees will be blocked off to traffic for the first time in recent memory.