Apr 17, 2024

France’s Olympic Chance

French glamour and pride will be showcased when Paris hosts the Olympic Games this summer—while exposing endemic faults that urgently need fixing.

General view of the Eiffel Tower Stadium, under construction for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Champ-de-Mars Arena in Paris, France, April 13, 2024.
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The eyes of the world will be on France this summer as, for the first time in one hundred years, the country hosts the Summer Olympic Games. As in 1924—the height of les Années Folles, or “Crazy Years”—Paris 2024 will be a chance to show off monied glamour.

There is an operating budget of €4.4 billion for the greatest sporting extravaganza on earth, with the total cost rising closer to €9 billion when building projects and other expenses are considered. The private sector, including France’s flagship companies such as energy group EDF and telecoms giant Orange will be covering most of the cost.

For Bernard Arnault, the head of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH and someone who regularly tops rich lists as the wealthiest man in the world, “it is only natural that LVMH and its houses would be part of this exceptional international event.” Thus, LVMH jeweler Chaumet is designing the iconic Olympic medals—gold, silver, and bronze—and its Champagne label Moët Hennessy will provide the bubbly at hospitality venues. 

If this all sounds wildly upmarket for what is meant to be a global celebration of the power of the human spirit, then check out the ticket prices—the only ones available for the opening ceremony at the time of writing cost €2,700, while a seat at the closing event is available for €1,100. A first-class athletics hospitality package on the night of the men’s 100-meter-sprint final is €10,200 per person. 

Despite this, the mascots for both events are modelled on the red Phrygian caps worn during the French Revolution of 1789, when ordinary citizens overthrew the monarchy, and established a republic based on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” for all. The official motto of Paris 2024 is “Games Wide Open” and there are technically enough cheap tickets available to keep the less affluent sports fans happy, even if they will struggle to pay for food, transport, and somewhere to stay.

Endemic Faults

In this sense, the myth of the Olympics has a great deal in common with the myth of France itself. Both are based on a series of illusions that cover up rampant inequality, along with numerous other endemic faults. The focus is on the superficial side of a nation that undoubtedly works extremely well for a super-privileged elite, but increasingly less so for millions of others.

My vantage point to the injustices was originally from a housing estate very close to the stadium where the Olympics athletics events will take place. The Stade de France, in the Parisian suburb of Saint Denis, is traditionally held up as a symbol of success—it is where France won the football World Cup for the first time in 1998 with a team that was supposed to represent the multi-ethnic republic—but it is still surrounded by deep-seated social and economic problems.     

Those of us from ethnic minorities—I am from a Muslim family that traces its roots back to Algeria, once France’s most prestigious colony—dominate such out-of-town areas called banlieues to such an extent that Manuel Valls, the former Socialist prime minister of France, described them as being subject to a “social, ethnic, and territorial apartheid.” 

People living on the neglected estates are expected to stay put, with little prospect of decent educational opportunities or proper careers. These are just the types who will be excluded from the Stade de France on the big sporting occasions. 

The Surge of the Far Right

Those who currently have no problem getting into all French institutions are the far right, who now have a very good chance of delivering a head of state in 2027.

Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (RN) has been the runner up to Emmanuel Macron in the last two presidential elections. He cannot stand again in three years’ time—only two terms are allowed constitutionally—and Le Pen is currently leading opinion polls as his likely successor. (RN is also projected to beat Macron’s party, Renaissance, by a double-digit advantage at the European Parliament election in June.) 

This is despite Le Pen being one of only 89 RN-linked Members of Parliament—a relatively small number out of 577 MPs. However, a power base in the National Assembly is by no means a prerequisite for ultimate power in France. Instead, a determined individual can play the system. 

The RN was founded as the Front National (FN) in 1972 by Le Pen’s father, the now convicted racist and Holocaust denier, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Those who made up the original FN leadership committee included men who had fought in the Waffen-SS or served with French paramilitary police units that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. 

Marine Le Pen claims to have softened and diversified the party—she even tried to recruit me when I met her—but Nazi nostalgia remains strong among some of its rank and file. So does vicious prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, not least because of the bitter resentment over the loss of France’s colonial Empire in Africa, and especially Algeria, in the 1960s. Le Pen still regularly complains that “immigrants turn France into a gigantic squat” and that “entire neighborhoods are taken over by foreigners.” 

Gallic civilization was once exported with pride, but now it has been replaced by the kind of corporatism exemplified by the Olympics. Globalization is considered as much of a threat to traditional France as civil strife, industrial decay, and corruption. In the latter case, the offices of the Olympic organizers in Saint Denis were raided by the fraud squad last summer. The money earned by its chief executive officer, Tony Estanguet, is also subject to a judicial enquiry. In all these cases, those being investigated—including Estanguet, who earns €250,000 a year plus bonuses—deny any wrongdoing. 

Recent presidents of France have also routinely pleaded their innocence during their own corruption enquiries, but this has not stopped them being convicted in courts. Former conservative presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and the late Jacques Chirac both ended up being found guilty of crimes, as did former Prime Minister François Fillon. Such sleaze is commonplace, and undoubtedly undermines democracy. 

Taking to the Streets

Macron came to power in 2017 as a progressive politician pledging to reform France. Since then, however, his policies, from law-and-order to immigration, have become far more reactionary. And a Paris elite still benefits most from the trappings of power and the riches of modern capitalism, while millions of citizens struggle, despite France’s much-vaunted egalitarian motto.

Yes, there are plenty of civil service jobs—public spending currently represents 59 percent of GDP—but pay is as low as morale in this vast, unmotivated workforce. State debt exceeds €3 trillion, and the government ran a budget deficit of 5.5 percent of GDP in 2023, which a number of economists believe is not sustainable.

Because of my origins, I have plenty of insights into race relations. France does not even officially gather statistics about ethnic or religious minorities, as it is meant to be a “color blind” republic that treats everyone equally. Yet discrimination is rife. Unofficial sociological surveys have found that more than 90 percent of Black people say they have been the victims of racism, while minority groups in general are also woefully underrepresented in politics, the media, and other key industries.

So-called color-blind egalitarianism is a pipe dream. It ignores very real forms of racial and religious discrimination. If you do not have official data about a problem, then it will remain conveniently ignored, so as to preserve the status quo.

Such inequities infuriate ordinary people, who regularly take to the streets to express their outrage. Last year was one of the worst for rioting in recent French history, which is saying something for a country built on violent revolution.

Early in 2023, millions opposed a plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. It might not sound like a particularly controversial measure, but it struck at the heart of the Gallic belief in quality of life, especially when Macron decided to push it through without winning a parliamentary majority. People of every age group, and indeed every class, rebelled, but the “Jupitarian” president did not care—the bill passed into the statute book by special decree.

This was a prime example of how undemocratic the French political system is—a single alpha male president (it has always been a man so far) can simply ignore parliament by ruling by decree over every field of national life, thus acting like a quasi-monarch. Macron’s aloofness has struck me every time I have met him. 

Other presidential powers allow Macron to choose his prime ministers, and to appoint anyone he likes to form his cabinet, whether close friends or corporate cronies. Not even the prime minister has to be an elected politician. The head of state also has his finger on the nuclear button. 

A Broken Republic

The current Fifth Republic is a makeshift measure created by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958 to impose military rule during the Algerian War of Independence. It is thus outdated and points to a yawning democratic deficit. Checks and balances are needed to put an end to this elective dictatorship. 

There was also rioting last summer, following the shooting dead of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French of Algerian-Moroccan background from a suburban Paris estate, by a policeman. This prompted more than a week of intense violence, as youths demonstrated against alleged racism, up to and including murder, by the forces of law and order.

Arson attacks were widespread and made easier because of the amounts of rubbish on the streets caused by a long-running strike by binmen. It is hoped that the boulevards and squares will be a lot safer and cleaner by the start of the Olympics, but do not count on it. 

Farmers who this year threatened to “starve Paris” with tractor blockades have also said they will target the Olympics, when masses of military-style police units with guns drawn will be out in force, equipped with tear gas—a chemical weapon banned in war zones. Those contributing to the disruption might also include workers from multiple other sectors, from hospitality and transport to staff at iconic tourist sites, such as the Eiffel Tower. 

Macron is even talking about cancelling the planned opening ceremony on the Seine—when barges containing different teams are due to process down the river—because of the heightened threat of terrorism. A “Plan B” will instead see the event held inside a stadium.  

Fixing France

There are no magical solutions to France’s ills, but the country does need to accept reality, and to deal with it appropriately. France is overwhelmed by idealism—this dates back to the Enlightenment—but it is frequently impossible to apply it to real life. 

As a French-Algerian from a modest background, I know that too many ethnic minorities are excluded from establishment roles. I had to go abroad to further my life chances—first to the United States and then to the United Kingdom. I was offered paid assignments and contracts in the so-called Anglo-Saxon world, as well as access to elite institutions, including Oxford University, the London School of Economics, and the BBC in Britain, and the University of Michigan in the US, on the strength of a short application and an even briefer interview. 

 Yes, there is elitism everywhere, and the class system undoubtedly still persists in countries such as Great Britain, but as someone who has studied and worked there as a foreigner, I can vouch that there is far more egalitarianism than in France. One only has to look at how diverse the higher echelons of society are—both the United Kingdom as a whole and Scotland have a prime minister from an Asian background for example, while Wales just got a black one. Other ethnic minority ministers in the highest offices of state are commonplace, too. 

In fact, academic performance is more strongly linked to social background in France than in any other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country. Despite the republican motto, disparities prevail. 

In class as in later life, gold standard conformity is always expected too: Some 99 percent of candidates for the French baccalaureate—the main qualification for a university education—pass. This statistic might sound egalitarian enough, but it in fact renders entry to a first-degree course a formality, rather than an achievement.

Thus, public universities, for which only a modest fee is required, are like super social engineering farms—thousands graduate with often worthless primary degrees. Only a favored class gets to the top through elite public institutions such as the Grandes Écoles mostly funded by the state because they are from the “right” background. This is a blatant contradiction of France’s supposedly egalitarian ideology. 

A consistent way France clamps down on minorities is banning Muslim women from wearing any type of “Muslim dress.” Headscarves, for example, are said to break strict laws concerned with the separation of Church and State, and so athletes covering their heads will not be allowed to represent France at the Olympics. This weaponization of laïcité—the French form of secularism—certainly belies the country’s alleged belief in egalitarianism.

France is also profoundly misogynistic. The 2023 annual report by the French government’s principal equality watchdog revealed that the country “remains very sexist in all its spheres,” and there were calls for an “emergency plan” to combat growing, and often lethal, violence against women. From power players in politics to men in the streets, this sexism crisis shows no sign of abating. 

More Democracy 

Thus, my suggestions for making France a better country include a shift away from presidential government to a more democratic parliamentary system, and less emphasis on Paris as the only place in France that matters. 

There should be an end to paramilitary cohorts that resort to colonial law-and-order tools, such as curfews and obligatory identity checks—policing by consent rather than by brutality. There is also an urgent need for the problems of those living on the suburban housing estates to be recognized and tackled properly. 

More democratic institutions will also ensure far more effective court convictions and education to fight the normalization of racist discourse—which is openly encouraged by the media. There should be fewer history lessons about ancestors of all French people being the Gauls, and more taught about France’s recent fascist legacy and the savagery of its imperialism. 

Just look at the way former African colonies such as Niger and Burkina Faso have been rejecting lingering French influence and exploitation in recent months and years. Populations there are sick of the French maintaining military bases there, while exerting financial control through Paris. They want to be left to run their own affairs. 

The hosting of the Olympic Games can often be a watershed moment in the history of any country—world interest and huge amounts of cash focus minds and can inspire positive developments. In the case of the French Republic, radical change cannot come soon enough. 

Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic (2023).