Who runs French Rugby League? We are about to find out!

Rugby League World’s Treiziste Diarist Pierre Carcau looks at the battle currently being fought out to run the French Rugby League Federation, as the current incumbent Marc Palanques steps down.

The President of the French Rugby League Federation (FFRXIII) is to be elected at the end of this year. But Marc Palanques, the outgoing president, won’t run for a new term.

This is not a big surprise; this year, he made very few appearances (even virtual ones in this time of Covid-19) and no significant public declarations either . Usually this is not the best attitude to have if you want to be elected again at your job. Especially in France.

Moreover, these last few months, the communication of FFR XIII seemed to rely mainly on the gifted journalist Hervé Girette and only to took place on social networks. As a subscriber to their communiqués, I only received a few of them. There has been an ‘end of term’ atmosphere about things, even if their media officer denied this statement to me and underlined the fact that Président Palanques “has never been at ease with medias or cameras”.

So is it the right time for Palanques to leave the ship? Was he a bad captain?

Things are not so clear, as usual in French Rugby League.

If you forget that you’re a Treiziste and adopt the point of view of an average French observer, during his presidency, Palanques has been producing serious pledges of a normalisation of the game in the French sports environment. The FFRXIII have indeed signed conventions (with ministry of education, sport) to be associated with several of their programs. All right, this is not very “sexy” to tell to the media but it does pay off to be recognised by the French state and it gives the key to get grants and support to the actions of the body you’re governing.

In the field of communication, he even managed to organise a public debate with his rugby union counterpart, Bernard Laporte. Even if this historical debate didn’t turn to some significant rapprochements with the eternal rival, it did bring the interest of the media. Then, except for maybe a few awkward or controversial declarations, Palanques kept on doing what was generally expected from the President of a French state monitored federation: he gave the impression to manage the Federation with due diligence. The financial accounts of the Federation are announced to be balanced. And beyond the official declarations the truth appears in the coldness of the accountancy documents.

But on the international front, is there any big success to his credit? To be more specific, for the Men’s national team at least; since the Wheelchair RL national team won their world cup, and the Women’s team appears now more structured and are improving the level of their game. Could the 2019 tour in Australia, organised to relaunch the French Chanticleers, have written the Requiem of Palanques? The case of Jason Baitieri, the player who left the national team before they played the U19 Kangaroos, has been the point of disruption between two camps that one can easily guess; Palanques on one side and Catalans Dragons, embodied by Bernard Guash on the other.

That has been my educated guess so far.

Bernard Guash and Marc Palanques, two former players of the same generation, both businessmen with a strong personality. They could only fight each other, right? Guash runs a powerful and, let’s be clear, a very successful state within the state, but he knows that he’s blocked at a regional level. A situation which is very convenient for rugby union and some media outlets, who had resigned themselves to patronisingly recognise what they call “Jeu à XIII” as long it’s a regional, a provincial, a Catalan, exception in a land where rugby union is uncontested and is still dreaming (and just dreaming) of being as much loved as football by the French public.
A regional label which also limits Catalans Dragons’ business plan, as Guash recognised himself in the past. The reason why he reached out to Toulouse Olympique (helping Carcassonne on the way) for a now annual pre-season game and organised a business gathering in Paris. Guash is looking up north, he is looking up west but watching down south doesn’t bring much in terms of expansion. Because despite the genuine and sincere sympathy of the Dragons to the Catalonian independence project, this didn’t turn into any visible support from the “Southern Catalonia” government to RL. Rugby League is still unpracticed in Catalunya. If you want to find Rugby League clubs you have to go elsewhere in Spain. Barcelona may be the Dragons’ friend but not really Rugby League friendly.

Nevertheless, this Catalan camp does exist and will be led by Luc Lacoste, a former member of USAP’s (the Perpignan’s Union club) board.

But as I wrote above, things are not so clear in French RL; the “Perspective XIII” list includes various personalities, familiar to the readers of Rugby League World and League Express: to name only a few of them; Laurence Biville, Gilles Dumas, Patrick Entat, Younes Khattabi, Gael Tallec. And last but not least, the list got the official support of Toulouse’s Olympique chairman Bernard Sarrazain. So Perspective XIII may be the favorite list of the Catalan camp, but not only them; it’s clearly a list which reaches far beyond that.

However, my educated guess was proved wrong, at least at this stage.

The conflict seems to be more with a third list run by André Janzac, “XIII Ensemble”. An interview given by Marc Palanques to L’Indépendant and Bruno Ontentiente, shows that there is an argument with the two men. Janzac presents himself as a clear opponent to the current Presidency. He is famous in the world of French RL for being an excellent technician and appreciated for his good interpersonal skills. One of the reasons why both men won’t “spend their next holidays” together – to use a popular expression here – being the creation of a National training centre in Alzonne, Aude. A National training centre, on paper, seems a good idea as the best way to prepare the national team and promote RL in France. The French Football Association and FRU have their own, it is clearly the attribute of any credible sport. Plus, it will be accompanied by grants of up to €3.6 million from local governments. Yet the fact that this list of “technicians” challenges it is somehow confusing.

But Palanques won’t defend the project and his record himself, that will be the job of the third candidate, Fabienne Albert. The present Secretary of FFRXIII may be, if she’s elected, the first woman to be elected at the head of a rugby federation, of either code.

The election will be held on December 12th. One round, to designate 24 members of the board. The board then electing the President. Televoting will be allowed. There hasn’t been an active campaign on the social networks. Probably because the election will be played far from the screens, in lobbies or in last minute dealings. There were some problems with candidatures; Luc Lacoste was told he couldn’t run due to a technicality, later resolved to allow him back in the contest.

What is sure is that whoever runs the presidency in the future will have to walk a tightrope in balancing the interests of the Catalans Dragons with those of the national team, while respecting the obligations of any French Sport Federation.

It won’t be a cakewalk!