What football team does Francois Hollande support?

Francois Hollande football

The French, English and Scottish football seasons have all started during the last few weeks and this has got me thinking about differences in attitudes to football and the two sides of the Channel. For example, I recently realized that I knew of the favourite football teams of all but one of the UK prime ministers from during my lifetime but could only name the preferred club of one French president from the same period.

When it comes to UK prime ministers, it makes sense to start with Thatcher as her arrival at 10 Downing Street occurred in the same year as my own arrival in the maternity wing of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Her successor as prime minister, John Major, once said that Thatcher “dutifully turned up to watch great sporting events, but always looked rather out of place”; London 2012 chairman Seb Coe argued that ”she never really understood sport until it migrated – and sometimes mutated – beyond the back page, or impacted on other areas of policy”.

The favourite teams of her successors as prime minister are as follows: Chelsea (John Major), Newcastle United (Tony Blair), Raith Rovers (Gordon Brown) and Aston Villa (David Cameron). Tony Blair has talked of his childhood memories of watching Newcastle United at St. James’s Park and the mis-reporting of these recollections once sparked debate over Blair apparently having allegedly claimed to recall watching a famous player who had in fact in retired before Blair started watching Newcastle.

Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair, grew up supporting a local team. In Brown’s case, it was Raith Rovers, a team who play in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy. As a Scottish politician with aspirations in the UK parliament, Brown at times faced criticism for underplaying his Scottish roots in order to appeal to a predominantly English UK electorate. A prime example came when he talked of his fond memories of seeing Paul Gascoigne score for England against Scotland at Wembley in the 1996 European Championships.

Current UK prime minister David Cameron claims to support Aston Villa as they were one of the teams who played in the first match that he attended. As Cameron was brought up in Berkshire, he cannot claim that this choice involved following his local team or represents his roots in the same way that Blair or Brown have at times sought to. However, those who see Cameron’s Conservative party as being dominated by a rich elite might feel it appropriate that the prime minister supports a team whose name includes the word ‘villa’.

When it comes to French presidents from 1979 onwards, until recently I only knew that Nicolas Sarkozy was a fan of Paris Saint-Germain. Sarkozy’s presidency, and that of current head of state Francois Hollande, show that publicly demonstrating enthusiasm for sport as a French politician is not always well received. Sarkozy’s enthusiasm for jogging was criticized by right-wing intellectual Alain Finkielkraut for being somewhat unpresidential.

During this summer’s World Cup, Francois Hollande’s enthusiasm for football was criticized by Luc Ferry who – like Sarkozy – is a member of the centre right UMP party that is currently in opposition. Ferry complained about a generation of politicians who he claimed ‘prefer football to the economy or philosophy or history‘ and accused Hollande of abandoning his responsibilities to the French nation by organizing a screening of one of France’s World Cup games in the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French president. Ferry was not alone in criticizing Hollande for his interest in following the World Cup as this article shows.

In a situation that some would say has parallels with his private life, it appears that Hollande has not been a faithful to a single football team. He has talked of having initially been a fan of FC Rouen due originally being from the Normandy town and having played for their youth teams. However, he has also evoked his liking for Breton sides Nantes and Guingamp as well as his long-held interest in Monaco. Elsewhere, it has been reported that he is a fan of both Monaco and Barcelona.

These attitudes to supporting a football team are in stark contrast to the notion that being a supporter is about remaining loyal to a single team no matter how they are performing. However, it is generally much rarer for public figures in France to show an interest in football and it seems that a lot fewer French people than Brits actually have a favourite team.

Although the size of the French and UK populations is very similar, France is a much larger country in terms of area but has many fewer football teams. While there are 92 league teams in England (and a further 24 teams in a national non-league division immediately below the football league) and 42 in Scotland, there are only 58 teams (of whom no more than 46 can be professional) in France’s three national football leagues.

Consequently, the size and number of teams in France means that it is possible to be quite far from a  league football team. As demonstrated by this map of where Ligue 1 teams are located, this is particularly likely to be the case for people living in central France. Additional maps show that this trend is somewhat less prevalent where Ligue 2 teams are concerned but is certainly true when it comes to the teams who compete in Le Championnat National (the third tier of French football).

Although the criticism of French politicians’ interest in sport in many ways points to differing attitudes towards football on the different sides of the Channel, it is nevertheless the case that politicians in both countries are also happy to exploit the sport when it suits and when their national team is doing well. It may be more acceptable for British rather than French politicians to show an interest in football, but France’s 1998 World Cup victory showed that politicians on all sides are happy to exploit football when it can be held up as a positive symbol of French society and the French nation.


How important is it what football team a politician supports? To what extent should politicians take an interest in sport and do they always do so in a sincere manner? Feel free to let me know via the comments box below, I’d really welcome feedback on what I’ve said here.

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The Greatest Documentaries of All Time

The September 2014 edition of the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine features a poll of more 300 critics and filmmakers that has been used to draw up a list of the greatest documentaries of all time. This has resulted in the drawing up of  a critics’ top 50 and a filmmakers’ top 30. Topping both lists is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

As someone whose teaching and research has focused mainly on French cinema, I was excited to see five French documentaries in the critics’ top 10. Even among this small group of films, there were quite a few different themes and approaches. Claude Lanzmann’s 550-minute long Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) was number two on the critics’ list, a place ahead of Chris Marker’s cinematic essay and travelogue Sans Soleil (1982). Alain Resnais’s concentration camp documentary Nuit et brouillard (1955) was fourth, two places ahead of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s cinéma vérité masterpiece Chronique d’un été (1961). At number 8 was Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000), a quirky film shot using hand-held digital cameras.

The Sight and Sound list got me thinking about what I would include on my own list of best documentaries. For this reason, I have drawn up a list of ten documentaries that I feel stand out for a variety of different reasons. Some are cinematic masterpieces of their time while others are ones that I simply found to curious or amusing, or which had a degree of personal sentimental appeal. As it is so hard to compare radically different types of films, I have decided to list them in the order in which they were made.


Nuit et brouillard (Alain Resnais, 1955)

Released teen years after the end of World War One, Alain Resnais’s documentary about Nazi concentration camps is rooted not just in the past but also the then present and future. It constitutes a meditation on war and memory and reflects on the wider question of to what extent it is possible to represent and adequately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust. It knits together archive footage and still images of the camps as well as shots of what the camps looked like at the time of the film’s production. The gentle music of Hans Eisler and the poetic script written by Jean Cayrol and spoken by Michel Bouquet combine to form a powerful piece of documentary cinema that raises questions about both history and the power of images.


Le Joli Mai (Chris Marker, 1963)

Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai has the feel of a leisurely stroll round Paris and was shot in May 1962, shortly after the end of the Algerian War. Marker took on the role of the off-screen interviewer, asking Parisians about their hopes and fears after a period during which France had been involved in a succession of wars (Second World War, the Indochina War and the Algerian War). Despite being two and a half hours long, the film still succeeds in providing and engaging – and occasionally amusing – portrait of Paris and Parisians in the early 1960s.


Loin du Vietnam (Chris Marker et al, 1967)

This collective project brought together short films by leading French directors such as Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. It also featured footage shot by international filmmakers such as Joris Ivens and William Klein, providing it with a range of perspectives on the Vietnam War. The film also constituted a meditation on film and what happens when a film ends and an audience lives the cinema and heads home. Godard’s segment, which broke the rule that none of the directors should appear in their own part of the film, featured footage of him contemplating the potential impact of political cinema while fiddling with a camera.


Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)

I sometimes struggle to put my finger on exactly what it is about Steve James’s Hoop Dreams that makes it so engaging. The film tells the story of two Chicago high school students who hope to make it as professional basketball players. In many ways, it is a traditional sporting story about the underdog trying to overcome adversity. The central duo, William Gates and Arthur Agee, are African Americans from a run down part of Chicago who end up attending a well-to-do school that is renowned for its basketball history. For almost three hours, Steve James succeeds in providing a fly-on-the-wall portrait of  the pair’s ups and downs as they strive towards their goal in a film that raises issues about education, race and social division in the United States.


Etre et avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)

I first watched Nicolas Philibert’s film Etre et avoir in autumn 2002 in Lille. I was returning to France having worked in a primary school a year previously, so the documentary about a single room primary school perhaps had a natural appeal. Although such schools are increasingly rare, the film did have a universal appeal due to its focus on learning, growing up and the passing of the seasons. It was also the first documentary by Philibert that I had seen and I remember marveling at the subtlety of his filmmaking. A rarely audible and never visible presence in the film, he succeeded in producing a sentimental and at times moving portrait of the world of education and kids growing up in rural central France.


On n’est pas des marques de vélos (Jean-Pierre Thorn, 2002)

Cinema and the RepublicTo see the film’s trailer, click here.

If it was subtlety that was at the heart of Etre et avoir‘s appeal to me it was perhaps the directness of On n’est pas des marques de vélos that grabbed meThe film tells the story of a breakdancer known as Bouda who is deported from France to Tunisia despite having been legally present in France since he was a few months old. The film both tells the story of the development of hip-hop culture in suburban France and makes hip-hop culture (rap music, breakdance routines, graffiti-style titles) part of the film’s aesthetic. This film itself was one of the reasons that I wanted to do a PhD and being able to interview its director Jean-Pierre Thorn in 2005 was a real privilege. It was a further privilege to be able to use an image from the film on the cover of my book Cinema and the Republic: Filming on the Margins in Contemporary France.


Favela Rising (Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist, 2005)

Matt Mochary and Jeffy Zimbalist’s Favela Rising has a similar focus to On n’est pas des marques de vélos  as it shows how hip-hop music and dance can play a role in seeking to provide a message of hope in Rio de Janeiro’s under-privileged areas. The film tells the story of the AfroReggae movement, and especially the role of drug-dealer turned community worker Anderson Sa. As with On n’est pas des marques de véloship-hop culture is both part of the film’s subject matter and its aesthetic.


Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, 2006)

It is probably fair to say that Air Guitar Nation is not a film that is widely seen as having marked film history. Although it may not be groundbreaking in cinematic terms, it brings to the wider public a lesser-known international cultural event: the World Air Guitar Championships. The interviews with the competitors, whose routines involve miming to backing tracks as they pretend to play an invisible guitar, are frequently amusing. At one point a competitor proudly states that he considers himself to a musician but sees one of his main rivals as a mere actor.


Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

Man of the Wire stands out largely due to the spectacular footage of high-wire walker Philippe Petit, whose exploits include tightrope walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York during the 1970s. The film features many interviews with Petit as he describes the meticulous planning he devoted to such endeavours and also looks back at his roots. Personal footage from Petit’s own archive helps to build the story and Michael Nyman’s soundtrack adds to the dream-like atmosphere.


The Great Hip-Hop Hoax (Jeanie Finlay, 2013)

The Great Hip-Hop Hoax tells the story of a Scottish rap duo who decide to pretend to be from California in order to make it in the music industry. The film is full of twists and surprises as the pair’s hoax goes remarkably well, fooling fans, music journalists and members of several rival bands. It is also a tale of two friends whose meteoric but constantly somewhat precarious rise leads to significant tensions along the way.


What do you think of this list of ten memorable documentaries that I have drawn up? Which films would you include in your list of great documentaries? Feel free to let me know via the comments box below, I’d really welcome feedback on what I’ve said here.

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