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Sports

France united targets Croatia as final World Cup clash looms

media France's forward Kylian Mbappe (2R) poses with young fans from Paris' commune of Bondy at the end of a training session in Istra, west of Moscow on June 27, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. FRANCK FIFE / AFP

French fans dared to dream of a World Cup victory on Sunday as they prepared to watch the game on a sunny summer weekend after a tournament that has lifted spirits and led to a rare sense of national unity.

Football fever has slowly built over the last four weeks as the country took its young national team to heart, with ecstatic scenes after their semi-final victory, a sign of the country's hunger for success.

On what is a traditional holiday weekend to mark France's national day, many families will watch from camp sites or hotels, while giant screens have been erected in cities nationwide under exceptionally tight security.

The biggest gathering of all is expected in Paris where 90,000 will converge on a fanzone next to the Eiffel Tower -- walking distance from the Champs Elysees boulevard where all great national triumphs are celebrated.

With success on the pitch, a country riven by tensions and still recovering from a series of terror attacks that have claimed nearly 250 lives since 2015 has been able to revel in a newfound feeling of togetherness.

"We must be proud to be French! We don't say it enough: We live well in France, we eat well, it's a beautiful country," star striker Antoine Griezmann reminded his compatriots on Friday.

Despite the country's enviable lifestyle, it has lacked "joie de vivre" for years, as shown in numerous surveys finding its people to be among some of the most pessimistic on the planet.

Much of this is down to decades of high unemployment, mounting public debt and the homegrown terror threat of late, which has fuelled fears about immigration and the success of far-right political parties.

The national football squad, the majority of whom are non-white, has provided a tonic to a divisive debate about French identity after their impeccable performance on and off the pitch as national ambassadors.

"France today is a France full of colours," midfield star Paul Pogba, who is French of Guinean origin, told a press conference last week. "We all feel French, we're all happy to wear this jersey.

"I'm very happy to have grown up in France, to have the French culture, even if I went abroad very early. France is beautiful as it is, that's how we love it, and that's how we'll always love it."

Such talk has led to inevitable comparisons to how France celebrated its diversity in 1998 when it last won the World Cup with its "Black, Blanc, Beur" (Black, White, north African) team led by Zinedine Zidane.

The optimism was short-lived, however.

Political afterglow?

One person desperate for victory will be 40-year-old President Emmanuel Macron, a keen football supporter who will be watching in Moscow from the stands with his wife Brigitte.

Former president Jacques Chirac enjoyed a surge in popularity following France's 1998 victory -- and Macron too will hope to benefit from the afterglow amid a poll ratings slump.

The former investment banker is regularly targeted by critics for being elitist and out-of-touch -- an image the beautiful game can help to soften.

A World Cup win "could indeed make him appear closer to voters. After all football is the sport where societal differences are blurred," said Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute.

Any boost to economic growth would also be highly welcome, with Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire saying a win could give GDP a further shot in the arm.

Winning the World Cup would reinforce the message pro-business Macron has delivered to international investors since his election in May last year: that "France is back" as a dynamic, exciting place.

"There's an irrational element in the economy that is based on confidence, desire, enthusiasm," Le Maire told French television this week.

One sector that is already booming is the sports apparel industry.

Fans have been snapping up team jerseys, with the "authentic" Nike version repeatedly selling out despite its 160 euro price tag.

"It's not just buying a piece of cloth, it's more of a genuine transfer of emotion," claimed Virgile Caillet, who represents French sports goods stores, last week.

Terror fears

Despite the excitement, security will be in the back of fans' minds after the series of deadly terror attacks since 2015, often by individuals attacking crowds enjoying a night out.

France has deployed 110,000 police and security forces across the country over the weekend, which coincided with the Bastille Day national holiday and military parade.

At the huge gated fan zone near the Eiffel Tower, police will be carrying out pat-downs and searches, part of expanded powers granted by a tough anti-terror law passed last year.

In case of a French victory some 4,000 police officers will be on duty Sunday night in Paris, and a huge perimeter surrounding the Champs Elysees will be blocked off to traffic, the first such operation in recent memory.

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