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Tale of two cities: Tears in Paris, cheers in London
Scripps Howard News Service


July 06, 2005

PARIS - "Quelle" surprise. The rain came just before the tears, so it is hard to know if the wet French faces were the result of nature or the International Olympic Committee, although the boos were certainly directed less at the heavens and more at the giant TV screens set up in the square in front of City Hall.

Parisians had gathered during lunch hour, maybe 4,000 or so, in the open plaza next to the Hotel de Ville, a familiarly French pile of a building, festooned with stone statues of previous Paris dignitaries and the hopeful slogan - "liberte, egalite, fraternite."

Across the face of the building was a more modern declaration, a giant banner in Olympic colors proclaiming "Paris 2012," the "s" and the "2" morphed preciously into a heart.

The surface of the square was covered with faux running lanes, as if this were an Olympic footrace, as it was, with Paris pretty much leading all the way until it lost at the end to London.

In Singapore, for reasons never explained, Jacques Rogge of the IOC was finally speaking, in English, though the French listened anyway.

"... The Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of ...", but the word "London" was nearly lost in an instinctive groan. Faces were buried in hands, and strangers turned to each other to confirm the impossible.

A Frenchman next to me turned menacingly, having heard my English. This is one of the few times lately it is an advantage to be an American in Paris.

My French is limited, but I did recognize the epithet, very universal, even with an accent. He turned away, picked up his French tricolor and hugged a weeping young woman under her umbrella.

In London, as the giant TV screens suddenly showed, others were dancing and singing and weeping tears of disbelief. This is an old feud, this London-Paris thing, and as the pictures came across the channel, the Parisians hooted cynically, though it seemed more from association than conviction.

The 2012 Olympics are London's problem now, and not New York's, nor Madrid's, nor Moscow's, these great world cities also losers in this phony race. How short a time ago it was when no one wanted the Olympics, and recent examples of empty playgrounds, such as those unused in Athens, and the great international black eye taken by Atlanta, should be enough to balance both sorrow and joy.

But this bidding got to be a little medieval, that being the long rivalry of France and England. As the doorman at my hotel grumbled, "First Joan of Arc and now this."

Maybe Paris lost because it is just so naturally unlikable. French president Jacques Chirac was overheard disparaging England's poor cooking and picking ungallantly at another British sore, mad cow disease.

I agree about the food, but just let me give an example of a recent French meal during which I had maple syrup on my eggs and mustard in my ice cream. This indicates to me that the French don't necessarily have things in the right order, either.

France will get through this with its natural indifference, insouciance being both a character trait and a fashion accessory. A shrug is as common as hand gestures. The French are capable of carrying on entire conversations without opening their mouths, though I cannot say that is also true of chewing.

It was Charles de Gaulle who lamented how difficult it was to unify a nation "that has 265 kinds of cheese." The Olympic effort seemed to have done just that, at least for a while, but my nose suspects that de Gaulle might have had a short count on the cheese.

Nearby are the gothic towers and gruesome black spire of the cathedral of Notre-Dame just across the Seine. Down the rue de Rivoli is the Louvre and its treasures, up the Montmarte Hill is the Sacre Coeur and six stops away on the Metro is the Hard Rock Cafe. Still there, all the important tourist stops.

From this there will be no lasting disappointment, and any temporary doubt about the world not caring as much for all things French as the French do will not last any longer than Bastille Day, a week away.

The stands are going up to welcome Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees. And the French still face the truly important matter of summer, getting out of Paris.

High up in the far corner of the Hotel de Ville is perched the stone figure of Cardinal Richelieu, one of history's hardest cases. He is the man who invented the French language when not doing in Huguenots. One wonders what he might have thought of so much instant gloom among his citizens below.

He would think that Paris doesn't need an Olympics. Paris doesn't need anything but Paris. And he would be right.


Contact Bernie Lincicome at lincicomeb(at)
Bernie Lincicome is a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News at

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