Codes of difference in France

Rugby League World’s regular Treiziste Diarist, Pierre Carcau, assesses a key difference between the two rugby codes in France.

If you are a Rugby League addict and didn’t follow the recent events in French rugby union, well you are of course forgiven. League has its own issues: no use looking for other problems elsewhere!

Yet if you are not living in France and are interested in French Rugby League, you should pay attention to what happened recently to three rugby union ‘celebrities’ in France; Bernard Laporte, Serge Simon and Mohamad Altrad (pictured left to right above). They were taken into custody (after 32 hours in custody for Bernard Laporte) and released afterwards.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that they committed a felony; in France, unlike what urban legend may say, or American movies will tell you, the rule is the same as in the Anglophone countries; you are innocent until proven guilty and moreover in France, you can be kept in custody also as a witness.

The investigation, about a case of a presumed conflict of interest is still in process, at the time of writing. To add to the drama, this occurs in the middle of the campaign for the French rugby union presidency.

These three personalities are not League haters; for Bernard Laporte (President of the Union federation, the second largest sport federation in France), rugby à XIII , that he keeps calling « jeu à XIII », does exist but for him, broadly speaking, it’s some kind of Catalan exception in country ruled by union. Serge Simon (vice president of the Union federation) rarely mentions Rugby League in his statements but never blames it either. The businessman Mohamed Altrad, the chairman of Montpellier union club is not unknown to the French Rugby League world. Altrad was indeed the sponsor of the Catalans Dragons until last year.

The three men have nothing to do with their ancestors of the 1940’s, who banned Rugby League in France because of a so-called ideology of purity in sport.

So why look at this issue closer and at these three individuals in particular?

Because it shows a difference between France and the UK regarding the two codes.

In the UK, it is often said that there is a social gap between league and union. League would be the sport of the working class, and union the sport of the aristocracy and the (upper) middle class.

In France, you don’t find this distinction anymore. The fact you play union or league, or even a rugby code at all depends firstly on your place of birth. You may be a blue collar worker and playing union, because it’s the most important sport practiced in your southern village, or a white collar playing league in a great city such as Paris or Lyon. At union, especially in the amateur sides, you may even find all the social classes in the same team.

The managers of union named above are not representatives of the cast of the privileged, even if they are now wealthy: when Bernard Laporte speaks up in front of the media, he doesn’t use a coded language with an over-inflated verbiage; he’s a former player who succeeded in the game and then got his fame from it. Mohamed Altrad is a self-made man, a businessman who is a survivor of a personal tragedy: saying he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth is an understatement. The third character Serge Simon, a dedicated physician, at ease with the modern language of communication, is the intellectual of the group. But he was also a prop, one of the best ones of his generation.

Nowadays, here are the kind of people French Rugby League has sometimes to cope with, as a direct or an indirect obstacle to their development.

Entrepreneurs, businessmen who have access to the big companies and politicians, at ease with money unlike their ancestors.

But not the guardians of a social order and not necessarily people close the conservative parties. Okay, Laporte was a minister when Nicolas Sarkozy (eq. conservative party) was president, but Simon supported Segolène Royal (eq. Labour party) when she ran for the Presidency. And Mohamed Altrad stood for mayor of Montpellier this year on a “neither left nor right” list.

Perhaps unlike its English counterpart, French Rugby League cannot count on social reflexes or political camps to defend their cause. Therefore, their objective is clear; establishing themselves in the French sporting environment on their own terms.

In some ways, it is encouraging; Rugby League is not stuck to a social class or a political party and can therefore appeal to everyone. But paradoxically, it complicates the task of those in charge of Rugby à XIII; how can they establish their code in this complex French world that mixes money, media, sport and politics, and with so few means at their disposal?