Recent events in France have thrown doubt over the country’s ability to host large sporting events. 10 months ahead of the Paris Summer Olympics, the Rugby World Cup is an opportunity to change the narrative.
As Les Bleus were running up 27 points against the All Blacks in front of 80,000 people at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis on Friday night, another party was taking place, just south, at Place de la Concorde.
Paris’s “Rugby Village”, a Rugby World Cup fan zone decked out with enormous screens, a mini rugby pitch, a live radio station and a French brasserie, hosted a total of 50,000 people over the course of the opening night, says Isadora Soutan, the venue’s director.
“We are very happy with how the first night went, we met our objectives,” she says. “We are happy to have been able to show people a good time.”
The 48 World Cup matches will take place across nine French cities. From Toulouse and Bordeaux to Lyon and Saint-Etienne, each will have its fan zone dedicated to screening matches, creating buzz around the tournament and bringing fans together.
This is just one of the efforts France is making to impress the 600,000 foreign visitors set to arrive throughout the seven-week competition. According to Deloitte, the competition is expected to contribute between €1.9 and €2.4 billion to the French economy.
After a night of French celebrations, rugby fans braved the 32-degree heat and returned to Place de la Concorde to watch Saturday’s four successive matches. In the sea of different rugby jerseys, people sweated, passed balls around and talked rugby.
Financial data analyst Dan and transport worker Ross flew over together on Friday night from Wales to watch the opening weekend’s games in the atmosphere of the Paris fan zone. After a delayed flight, they arrived five minutes before kick-off, suitcases and all. “The atmosphere was unbelievable,” says Dan.
Both were remarkably impressed with the facilities. “I think calling it a fan zone is underselling it, this is a rugby village,” says Ross. ”Even the toilets are plummed!”
Ghosts of Champions League final
However, not everyone is pleased. Earlier in the day, Rick Waldron, an Australian-Dutch dual national, was frustrated the fan zone did not open until 2pm – an hour after the first game between Namibia and Italy had started. “Strangely, they are not playing the first game … I’m not sure the French are very good at organising,” says Waldron.
In the build-up to the Paris Summer Olympic Games next year, doubts about France’s ability to host large sporting events still simmer below the surface.
This perception was bolstered by the Champions League final between football clubs Liverpool and Real Madrid in May 2022. Because of several reasons, including fake ticketing and train strikes that damaged logistics, the crowd spiralled into chaos at the entrances of the Stade de France, leading to French police using tear gas and pepper spray on Liverpool fans.
Following the match, supporters of both sides were mugged and robbed as they tried to leave. British Labour Party MP Ian Byrne described it as one of the worst experiences in his life due to the “horrendous security and organisation putting lives at risk”.
After the incident, an Odoxa-Backbone poll showed that 53% of French people thought their country was ill-prepared to host the Rugby World Cup and the Olympic Games in 2024 – 90% said they thought it hurt France’s international image.
In a pre-World Cup press conference on September 6, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the government had learnt the lessons from the Champions League final. In what Darmanin has said is “unprecedented for a sporting event”, France will deploy 5,100 police officers on match days and 7,500 for bigger fixtures such as the finals.
Despite being booed before kick-off, the energy generated around the French team’s victory in the opening match was a good start for French President Emmanuel Macron.
With low presidential ratings, he will be hoping to reassure international sports fans of France’s hosting ability and shore up some domestic unity around the tournament – something that could easily be undone if the events of the Champions League final were to repeat.
As the heat finally started to abate on Saturday night and the big game – England against Argentina – approached, the Rugby Village came alive.
At the foot of the Champs-Élysées, with the Eiffel Tower in plain view, it’s an incredible place to watch rugby, says Dan.
“It’s one hell of a backdrop to watch a game.”