Why Paris' desperate craving for the Olympics is so utterly French
Persistence has paid off for Paris, which was finally awarded the 2024 Summer Olympics after mounting a bid for every Games for nearly 15 years. It was a telling quest for validation for a country that shouldn't need it.
Winning the Olympics became almost a national obsession for France. This was particularly striking as the evidence kept mounting that hosting the Olympics is almost always bad for the host city and country. This time around, Los Angeles and Paris were quite literally the only candidates left standing after the other cities dropped out, essentially because their own citizens revolted. (LA will host the 2028 Games.)
Despite regular warnings from economists and others about the exorbitant costs of holding the Olympics in a climate of budget belt-tightening, the dream of hosting remains popular here in France. Why? For Paris, the logic seems particularly mystifying: Arguably, the Olympics might raise a lesser-known city's global profile and brand, but there is scarcely a person alive who doesn't already know of Paris and have a positive impression. It is already among the world's top tourist attractions. Whatever Coca-Cola's challenges, brand awareness is not one of them. The same is true for Paris.
Some here are still smarting from the 2012 Games. Paris and London were very close finalists, France mounted a fierce lobbying effort including then-President Jacques Chirac, and when it came out the other way, then-Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë accused the British of cheating.
At the time, judges wavering between two very strong bids were said to be struck by the contrast between the competing cities' promotional videos. While Paris' video focused almost exclusively on the city's past, beautiful streets, and monuments, London's video focused on the present and future, as a multicultural hub of global culture and business.
But here's what I think is the biggest reason: French elites have a bit of an inferiority complex. Since the end of World War II, the dominant force in the West has been the Anglo-American alliance, and French elites are always craving reassurance that we, too, are a "Great Nation."
Éric Zemmour, a controversial French polemicist better known for broadsides against immigration, argued in a better-learned, little-noticed, but convincing historical essay that this sense has roots dating back to the earliest history of the country. The ambition of the leaders of France, from the earliest Medieval days, Zemmour argued, was to rebuild the Roman Empire. The bureaucrats who made France into the first Western country with an administrative state were trained in Roman law. They were admirers of Rome, and self-consciously endeavored to mold the young nation after its illustrious predecessor.
Hence the many distinctive elements of France: its self-definition as a country built on a set of laws, a language, and a culture, as opposed to an ethnicity (like Germany) or a location (like Italy or England); its warlike expansionism (the fleur-de-lis, the emblem of French kings, originally stood for a three-pronged lance, Charles de Gaulle pointed out in a book on the military history of France); its assimilationist view of immigration; and a haughtiness born of a subconscious sense of, somehow, representing the pinnacle of civilization.
The problem for France's sense of itself, then, is that the project failed. Multiple times, under various kings and emperors, France came tantalizingly close to decisively winning hegemony over Europe and thereby uniting it under a common set of laws and language, thus restoring the Roman world, but was foiled at the end. After World War II, when France collapsed and the global order was dominated by superpowers, it became painfully obvious that the dream was dead.
The craving for the Olympics is symptomatically French. It is international ambition that comes from a high sense of oneself, one which is immediately belied by the craving for approval that it reveals. Five years ago, when a then-new French president was elected, I proposed that France recover its sense of greatness by putting on national innovation contests in the mold of the X Prise and then organizing a Global Expo to showcase the results. The idea, I later realized, could never go anywhere: The French wouldn't put together an event that was just about us, because we'd be secretly afraid that no one would show up.
At least with the Olympics, we can be sure people will come. And it might even make us feel better about ourselves. But only for awhile.