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Amid Women's World Cup run, France fights for media spotlight at home

Amid its Women's World Cup run, France fights for the media spotlight and attention at home.

Implied but left unsaid about France’s #ObjectifCanada aspirations is to close this World Cup campaign on the podium. It is a natural progression after a fourth-place finish in 2011. As written in The New Yorker, Les Bleues must demonstrate that they have what it takes to win major tournament victories. Coach Philippe Bergeroo’s players proved Wednesday in a resounding 5-0 win over Mexico that they are up to the challenge.

Many were shaken and apprehensive following France’s stunning 2-0 loss to Colombia on Saturday. Sports daily L’Équipe featured Les Bleues Under Pressure” on its cover, the first time it devoted such prime, front-page real estate to the team this month. Yet, within the first 34 seconds vs. Mexico, forward Marie-Laure Delie’s goal—the second quickest in the tournament’s history—announced that France was there to fight. Next, Les Bleues will confront South Korea Sunday in Montreal in the round of 16.

For some, France’s World Cup has just begun. So, too, has the domestic reaction, as the game concluded at midnight French local time. But the late finish didn’t stop L’Équipe from again showcasing the team on its cover, declaring “The Tornado Bleue.”

The first phase of #ObjectifCanada thus ended successfully. Regardless of how much further—or not—Les Bleues progress, this tournament is a triumph of sorts: the French are now paying attention, if only fleetingly.

Get to know Les Bleues: France's Women's World Cup contenders

This is no small feat in a country where the men’s game reigns supreme. The eminence and mediatization of women’s soccer in France is not comparable to the status or celebrity of the game in the United States. American women have long stocked suburban soccer rosters, and the sport’s media exposure has increased significantly since the United States won the 1999 World Cup (who can forget the image of Brandi Chastain that graced the SI cover immediately thereafter?).

Players like Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, and Alex Morgan are well-known names at home, while the retired Mia Hamm still has caché. Les Bleues dream of such attention, but this tournament provides them an opportunity to reach their public.

It is a needed platform. In 2009, some of the female players posed nude in the attempt to get people talking about women’s soccer. Such tactics are no longer necessary thanks to the team’s on-pitch accomplishments. But, as L’Équipe Magazine recently noted, most of the public cannot name a single French female athlete.

Live televised broadcasts of the matches helps familiarize the players—and the sport—to their compatriots. For Les Bleues’ first game against England, an average of 2.5 million French tuned in on public television. This may not sound significant, but the team’s previous record was 2.3 million viewers for the 2011 semifinal against the United States. This is a far cry from the roughly 14 million television spectators that the men’s team regularly pulls. Yet, while one cannot, nor should not, compare the two sports as they are completely different, the statistics provide greater context.

Upfront and Onside: Dispatches on the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada

Illustrations of how the women’s game is “victimized” also places reality into perspective. Take for example the controversy over television coverage of the two French national teams last Saturday. Soccer is the most popular and most populous, if not the most highly regarded, sport in France and nets a large audience. Last weekend’s men’s friendly game against Albania conflicted with Les Bleues’ second group match against Colombia.

French viewers were forced to chose between the two teams at one point. The incident sparked criticism. Jérôme Fouqueray, Director General of W9, which broadcasted Les Bleues’ match, deplored the “negative message” that the resulting conflict sent about women’s sports.

Despite the increased audience, Les Bleues lack wider media exposure and hard core fans. Two publications sought to provide greater coverage of the team in advance of and during the tournament. One, L’Équipe Magazine, devoted part of its May 30, 2015 issue to the “Bleues of France.” Inside, a 12-page feature showcased the team photographed by iconic studio Harcourt.

Boris Helleu, Senior Lecturer in Sports Management at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie (who, like the author, is a member of Sport & Démocratie), highlighted this important gesture. “If you have your photo from Harcourt,” he said, “it is because you are a big star.” The layout visually reinforced Les Bleues as such.

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A different sort of portrayal of the team was the Women Issue of Surface Magazine. In this 96-page edition, team members are portrayed in a variety of outfits ranging from the athletic to high-end fashion. For Surface Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alexandre Demetrius, the World Cup presented a good opportunity “to show the girls in another aspect,” rather than their soccer uniforms. But it was also about providing increased publicity.

“Even if people are interested in women’s soccer,” he said, “they [the players] lack representation. The idea was to give them more exposure.”

Demetrius sought to cast the more feminine side of Les Bleues. He wished to prove that they “were not necessarily women dressed like a man,” a common stereotype of female athletes. Thus, photographs of Louisa Necib in a leather dress and Eugénie Le Sommer in sequined pants, amongst others, portray a different image than the public is accustomed to. 

The players were eager to participate in the photo shoot. Several even showed up an hour early to a scheduled photo shoot in Lyon. “It was something new, and they totally went for it,” Demetrius said. The French public approved. Helleu noted that both special editions “were very well accepted by the fans.”

Such exposure by broadcast and print media is aided in recent years by professional men’s clubs. According to Helleu, Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais, which have strong women’s teams, have placed their female players front and center in publicity campaigns. This crucial support has helped grow a public presence for the athletes, many of who fill Les Bleues’ roster.

Increased mediatization, however, does not translate into full-blown coverage. The team lacks the degree of publicity that their male counterparts or the U.S. women’s players enjoy. Thus, many turn to social media in order to obtain exposure and interact directly with fans.

One of Les Bleues to most successfully do so is Laure Boulleau. The defender was named the 2013 Digital Sportsperson of the Year for her efforts online. Her Twitter account (@LaureBoulleau) presently has 143,300 followers, an increase from 23,000 followers two years ago, and documents her life on and off the pitch.

Hashflags, handles and more: Twitter and the 2015 Women's World Cup

Teammates with the most popular Twitter following include Le Sommer (40,000), Camile Abily (38,900), Gaëtane Thiney (32,400), and Necib (24,500). Each portrays herself differently. Le Sommer’s account is soccer-focused, whereas Thiney’s presents a more comprehensive picture of her non-athletic life. On Twitter, Necib reinforces a more fun, feminine side through her cover image of a sparkly high-heeled shoe. (Follow the team via Twitter here.)

Why does any of this matter? Just as in other sports, media exposure is good for development. Take the example of basketball, which benefited greatly from increased television coverage in France during the 1980s and 1990s. While the popularity of the NBA, especially Michael Jordan, spurred the sport’s growth, it is only more recently that basketball has gained greater acclaim.

The talent and fame of France’s first NBA “star” Tony Parker and the subsequent “Parkermania” have boosted the sport significantly. Portraying the women’s national soccer team as victorious stars will perhaps stoke a similar phenomenon and create new fans, an important consideration as France will host the 2019 World Cup in 2019. 

Despite the increased mediatization of Les Bleues, readers should not get the wrong idea. The team is still not widely covered.

“In France right now we are watching the World Cup in Canada because this is a mega event,” Helleu said, “and not because we are hard core fans of women’s soccer.” Perhaps Wednesday's “tornado” will be a catalyst to help change long-held attitudes. 

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and the author of “The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010.” Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New Republic. She can be followed on Twitter @lempika7.