How Macron's warm embrace of Mbappe sums up 2022 for France

It's been a bittersweet year for the country, whose post-pandemic recovery was undermined by crises both domestic and foreign

France's forward Kylian Mbappe is consoled by French President Emmanuel Macron after the World Cup final in Lusail on Sunday. AFP
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Amid high drama in Qatar, the faces of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe firing the imagination of a watching world, an eventful year for France was reflected in other images capturing the changing moods of President Emmanuel Macron.

In Mr Macron’s expressions could be seen unbridled exhilaration at France’s comeback from being two goals down, the despair of ultimate defeat, grudging respect for the Argentine opposition and warm consolation for the deflated players, Mbappe in particular.

France was no longer top of the world in football. After the trophy-winning World Cup exploits of 1998 and 2018, finishing second in Doha was a slip from heady heights mirrored in at least one other aspect of the President’s experience of 2022.

The French election season of the year started well, with Mr Macron given genuine cause for exhilaration as he again beat off the far-right challenge of Marine Le Pen.

To win another presidential term at all was a significant achievement after a difficult first five years. The period was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a steep fall in public support as discontent grew during the violent anti-government revolt of the Gilets Jaunes protesters.

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Macron’s display of emotions during and after the final carries important symbolism

As in Doha, that comeback proved short-lived. In June, Mr Macron’s party, formerly En Marche and now Renaissance, suffered punishing losses in the legislative election that customarily follows the race for the Elysee. For the first time since 1997, a serving president’s party was left without an absolute parliamentary majority, its law-making powers curtailed.

And between the elections, French authorities suffered the humiliation of being held largely responsible for chaos at the Uefa Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool, which ministers had tried falsely to blame on supporters of the English club.

On the international stage, grudging respect was how the President’s dealings with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, might be described.

Mr Macron presented himself as a critical friend, doggedly pursuing a negotiated answer to the crisis in the face of derision from Britain as its then prime minister, Boris Johnson, claimed leadership of international support for Ukraine.

While hopes of diplomatic resolution still flickered, rational analysis saw merit in the Macron approach. But the more hawkish British line began to assert itself when, deaf to all pleadings, Mr Putin sent his forces into Ukraine in February. Moreover, the invasion was launched less than three weeks after the much-mocked Putin-Macron meeting at the Kremlin, when the distance separating them at either ends of a long table attracted more attention than the substance of their discussions.

If the cruel litany of death and destruction that was to follow in Ukraine presents an obvious source of despair, domestic issues have triggered a range of emotions.

The economy is a case in point. In its review of French performance published last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) identified reasons for – if hardly exhilaration – some encouragement, as well as warning signs.

The report applauded France’s “robust recovery” from the impact of the pandemic, with consumption, investment, employment and workforce participation returning to pre-crisis levels faster than in most European countries.

The IMF also recognised France’s ability to resist the worst effects of the war. But it added: "While France is less directly exposed to the energy shock due to its reliance on nuclear energy and low dependence on Russian gas, the energy crisis is dampening the recovery by reducing consumers’ purchasing power, denting confidence and exacerbating supply-side difficulties.”

The report predicted further economic damage from the conflict with slower growth likely in 2023 along with weakened confidence and the dampening of household real incomes and consumption.

Not everything is gloom-laden. Messi and Mbappe go back to being teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. And France can be pleased that tourism bounced back in summer from the pandemic, with visitor numbers at or even above the figures for 2019. To those who know it intimately, France remains one of the best countries on Earth even if – as the President has pointed out – its inhabitants do not always realise it.

However, issues of internal security have continued to be highlighted in 2022. France has had to live with harrowing judicial sequels to the terrorist threat that has bedevilled the country for decades. Two major trials resulting from deadly atrocities reached conclusions this year.

Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor of the gang of attackers who inflicted carnage on Paris in November 2015, killing 130 people and injuring nearly 500 more, was given a whole-life jail term. Sentences of between two and 18 years’ imprisonment were passed on eight people convicted of offences linked to Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian who drove a lorry into crowds on the Nice seafront in 2016, killing 86, before he was shot dead by police.

People gather around a makeshift memorial to pay tribute to the victims of the attack in Nice. AFP

France’s patchy record of attempting to assimilate Europe’s largest Muslim population is well documented. Each terrorist incident plays into the hands of the anti-immigration, often Islamophobic far right as evidenced by Ms Le Pen’s disturbingly strong minority support in the presidential election (more than 13 million votes, 41 per cent of the poll).

Not even the unifying qualities of the World Cup seem capable of healing the deep mistrust that exists between communities in France. After France beat Morocco in the semi-finals, violence erupted on the streets of Paris and other French cities, with the worst of the trouble blamed not on fans of Moroccan origin but on racist extreme right-wing elements. The threat to security these groups pose is not new; Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this month that of intended terrorist attacks in France foiled since 2017, 39 were Islamist extremist and nine linked to the “ultra right”.

Football cannot stop sinister groups or individuals from wanting to cause bloodshed. But the multiracial make-up of France’s national team should be a matter of national pride, a useful tool in striving for more harmonious community relations in which people with roots in former French colonies of the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa feel welcome in the European country where they were born or have made their homes.

To that end, Mr Macron’s display of emotions during and after the final carries important symbolism. It was both fitting and uplifting that among the closing images of the tournament, as 2022 draws to a close, he was shown embracing and consoling the procession of overwhelmingly black French players as they collected their runners-up medals.

The tougher challenge is to make the spirit of inclusiveness, evoked by the President’s warm gestures, endure more successfully than the vaunted black-blanc-beur (black/white/Arab) slogan that marked that earlier French World Cup squad’s victory in 1998.

Published: December 21, 2022, 2:00 PM
Updated: December 27, 2022, 9:24 AM