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French spirit of 1998 turns sour

Zinedine Zidane
Zidane has become a role model for France's immigrant population  

By CNN's Simon Hooper

Paris, France (CNN) -- Four years ago France's stunning win over Brazil in the World Cup final in Paris sparked wild celebrations across the country.

With a squad drawn together from north Africa, west Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific islands, Armenia and the Basque country, the success of Les Bleus was also hailed as a victory for French multi-culturalism.

"This is a France that wins and is, for once, united in victory," said president Jacques Chirac, while newspaper Le Monde called the team a "symbol of the diversity and of the unity of the country."

But as the world champions prepare to defend their title in Japan and South Korea, the success of National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of presidential elections has shattered the hope that football could be a panacea for France's troubled race relations.

After polling 17 percent of the vote, Le Pen finished second to Chirac and faces the incumbent president in a runoff on 5 May. (In-depth coverage)

"Like the vast majority of French, I am shocked," Ghanaian-born national captain Marcel Desailly said on his Web site. "I just hope that the French come to their senses and vote against him."

The World Cup was a particular embarrassment for Le Pen, who had called the French side "unworthy" representatives who did not even know the words of "La Marseillaise".

France's World Cup hero Zinedine Zidane was a member of the marginalised group targeted by Le Pen in the south of France. The son of Algerian immigrants, Zidane had grown up on the tough housing estates of Marseilles, where the National Front enjoyed significant political support.

Eurphoria after France's 1998 win
Eurphoria after France's 1998 win  

Yet after his two goals in the final more than a million people gathered on Paris's Champs-Elysées to chant Zidane's name.

But while Zidane may provide a positive role model for members of France's immigrant communities, hopes that his goals against Brazil could also help beat the National Front have proved hopelessly optimistic.

"The politicians thought they had solved all the problems through football," anti-racist campaigner Mouloud Aounit told Reuters. "In fact the effect lasted about as long as the fireworks."

With a struggling economy, rising unemployment and housing pressures for a growing immigrant population, France's race relations are more acute than ever.

"There is a lot of discontent and people living in misery and Le Pen has been able to exploit all the social evils," Bernard Lama, France's reserve goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup, told the newspaper France-Soir.

"The values we stood for in 1998 have been blown apart."

Yet football remains a model for positive racial integration in French society.

Since Raymond Kopa, the son of Polish immigrants, and Moroccan-born Just Fontaine starred for France at the 1958 World Cup, French football has been open to outside influences. Even Michel Platini, France's greatest player, came from an Italian family.

France remains the main destination for hundreds of young African players hoping to make the grade as professionals. The current leaders of the French championship, Lens, draw heavily on Senegalese talent, including African footballer of the year El Hadji Diouf.

And a reawakening of the 1998 spirit during this year's World Cup would be a welcome boost for French anti-racism campaigners.

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