David Owen

Since he is now red-hot favourite to become the first French President to celebrate his 40th birthday in office, and since the inspectors of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s Evaluation Commission are likely to meet him - at least briefly - between May 13 and 16, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at Emmanuel Macron's sporting credentials. 

And, as so often with internet-based research projects, I landed up in an unexpected place: specifically page 625 of the Official Report of the Games of the VIIIth Olympiad in Paris in 1924.

Dominating this particular page is a fine black and white photograph of two men with laced-up boots and bulging quadriceps striking a quasi-balletic pose.

This turns out to be an image of a certain Maître Charlemont demonstrating how to deliver a high kick, while his partner-cum-adversary, possibly Monsieur Saurin, fists clenched, maintains an admirably disdainful posture.

The pair are practitioners of a sport called French boxing which, along with pelota Basque, Canadian-style canoeing and "childhood games" - a sort of prototype Youth Olympics featuring baseball, basketball, volleyball, captain ball, cage ball and others - had the status of demonstration events at the 1924 Games.

"Well before English boxing was introduced in France," the text relates, "the French were excellent practitioners of Savate, whose main weapons were the feet and legs and in which the hands were used only for defensive purposes".

It goes on to explain how a Frenchman, Charles Lecour, having suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hands (literally) of an English-style boxer called Owen Smith, went on to ally the two methods and, hey presto, "French boxing was born".

Emmanuel Macron has backed the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics ©Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron has backed the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics ©Getty Images

The new composite sport became all the rage, to such an extent that practitioners included titled nobility, such as Comte de la Rochefoucault, critic Alphonse Karr and Théophile Gautier, poet-friend of Gérard de Nerval, the writer who used to take his pet lobster for walks in the Palais Royal saying, "Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?"

The sport "constitutes a rational procedure for developing the musculature," the Official Report continues with utmost solemnity, "as well as being a method of self defence that is very effective in the street, especially for small men".

Très intéressant, I am sure you will agree, but what on earth does this all have to do with Emmanuel Macron?

Well, according to a 2012 article from the news magazine Nouvel Observateur, referenced by Wikipedia, French boxing, along with the ubiquitous football, is a sport Macron has practiced.

Perhaps the IOC inspectors next month could ask him for a friendly demonstration?

And perhaps they should be preparing for a French request again to make it a demonstration sport, perhaps alongside pelota Basque, which is terrific, in 2024.

On a marginally more serious note, I was impressed, and somewhat surprised, that on typing "sport" into the search engine on Macron's En Marche website, a long list of sports-related proposals flashed up, under the heading "For grass-roots sport accessible to all".

"We want to enable all French people to take part in a sporting activity," the website says.

"This is important for social cohesion, public health, for our country's influence and for our economy."

It sets an "ambition" of raising the number of regular sports practitioners in France by 10 per cent, or three million, without giving a time-frame for achieving this.

France is also bidding for the 2023 Rugby World Cup ©Getty Images
France is also bidding for the 2023 Rugby World Cup ©Getty Images

"The French are playing less sport," it says, citing research stating that 42 per cent of French citizens say they never play sport.

Those who play least are said to be jobseekers, pensioners, blue-collar workers and housewives (and husbands), with less than a third of regular games players said to be women.

Policy proposals include steps to boost corporate sport and to improve links between educational establishments and local sports bodies.

"Amateur sport must be anchored in the school timetable," as Macron himself tweeted in February.

The website also promises to reimburse the cost of sports club membership for anyone prescribed physical activity on long-term health grounds.

It promises more autonomy to national sports federations and the French National Olympic Committee (CNOSF), claiming that the way sport is organised in France dates from the aftermath of World War Two and is no longer suited to modern society.

And, yes, it underlines Macron's full support for Paris 2024 - as well as France’s bid for the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup, and for the Gay Games to be staged in Paris next year.

Finally, with an eye on what happens to athletes when their sports careers are over, it promises by the end of the five-year Presidential term to have done what is necessary for all elite athletes to be either undergoing training or be under contract with a company.

Of course, Macron is not yet home and hosed; he faces a run-off against Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the extreme right.

Her 144 commitments include two, as far as I can see, that relate specifically to sport.

Marine Le Pen is up against Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential run-off ©Getty Images
Marine Le Pen is up against Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential run-off ©Getty Images

Commitment 116 promises a renewable three-year "elite athlete contract" enabling amateur athletes representing "the Nation" in international competitions to maintain an appropriate standard of living while concentrating entirely on their discipline.

Commitment 117 pledges to support "little clubs" so as to enable as many French players as possible to represent professional clubs and to combat the "financiarisation" of professional sport.

This commitment also promises to strengthen measures against violence in amateur sport and to "impose strict respect of" secularism and neutrality in sports clubs.

Nothing then, disappointingly, from either candidate on promoting a French boxing revival.

Look again, though, at that magnificent photograph in the Official Report, which is accessible here, and tell me it is not as worthy of a place on multi-sports event schedules as, say, e-sports.