Will Gallic grouchiness snuff out the Olympics flame?

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French diver Alexis Jandard committed an Olympics-sized gaffe recently at the inauguration of the new aquatic centre built for the Paris summer games. He spectacularly wiped out during a synchronised dive — in front of President Emmanuel Macron and a crowd of thousands.

The 26-year-old instantly turned into a viral meme, prompting French online commentators to joke that his fall symbolised how badly France itself was going to fail at hosting the Olympics. 

The reactions were typical of the very Gallic grouchiness and fatalistic irony that have become the norm with roughly 100 days to go and just as the Olympics flame has been lit. Many Parisians are planning to flee, darkly predicting that the capital will become an uninhabitable, crowded mess; the transport system will collapse under the influx of 16mn expected visitors; or a terror attack will hit the opening ceremony on the Seine.

Olympics organisers and city officials have sought to reassure residents that the city is ready. Much has been made of how “magical” the historic centre of Paris will be when it is transformed into an open-air sports arena with events at monuments such as the Tour Eiffel and Place de la Concorde.

Parisians should perhaps channel Jandard who, instead of giving in to the grumps, reacted to his wipeout with self-deprecating wit and total chill. “Have fun, this is the moment to mock me, I deserve it!” he said with a grin in an online interview. “That’s life, it happens. I’ll take it with a smile and I’d rather it happen now than during the Games.”

Unfortunately, not everyone in France is as easy-going as Jandard. Instead, nearly every issue related to the Games is refracted through the prism of the cultural, racial and economic divisions that shoot through the country. 

Take the recent spat over the Malian-French pop star Aya Nakamura, who is being considered to perform at the opening ceremony. Her genre-mixing, danceable hits such as “Djadja” and “Hypé” feature French argot and expressions borrowed from Arabic, Bambara and English, helping her become one of the most streamed French acts globally.

Yet far-right leader Marine Le Pen exclaimed that it would be a “humiliation for the French people” if Nakamura were to perform, using barely veiled racist language to call her “vulgar” and criticise her for “not singing in French”. The polemic lasted for weeks before Macron tried to shut it down, saying that Nakamura deserved a place in the ceremony.

Another absurd debate followed — again stoked by the right and far-right — over whether the official poster for the Olympics, which depicts an imagined cartoon-style Paris, had tried to erase France’s Catholic past by scrubbing churches of their crosses.

There are real questions over whether France will succeed at hosting the Games, given infrastructure strains and terrorism risks, but singers and posters certainly are not among the core issues.  

Admittedly, some challenges will be more acute in Paris because of local culture, geopolitics and the bold choice to hold competitions at still-unbuilt, temporary venues in the city centre. 

Public-sector unions from rail workers to museum staff are threatening strikes — France’s true Olympics sport — to get compensation for working through their sacrosanct summer holidays. The terror alert level was again raised in March.

Since swaths of the capital will be closed to car traffic and public transport crowded, officials have set up an advertising campaign and website with the slogan Anticiper les Jeux (Prepare for the Games). Users can input their itinerary and see how it will be affected. While practical, the whole thing seems designed to suck out all enthusiasm by focusing only on disruption.

At a recent press event, city officials gave an upbeat inventory of how preparations were on track — from adding 10,000 extra bikes for rent to finalising a clean-up effort to be able to host swimming events in the Seine. 

But what was the strategy for creating joy around the Games, I asked. The city official paused and responded with a wry smile: lots of really nice French wine.

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