July 31, 2012 7:11 pm

Britain carpeted as French capture medals

Mens singles canoeing©Charlie Bibby

Fans cheer on Frenchman Tony Estanguet who won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s single canoe slalom competition at the Lee Valley White Water Centre

François Hollande could not resist a jibe at the neighbours. “The British have rolled out the red carpet for French athletes to win medals,” France’s president crowed on a visit to the London Olympics.

It was the perfect retort to David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who recently talked of rolling out that same carpet for rich French people fleeing to Britain to escape Mr Hollande’s increased taxes. France’s third place in the medals table yesterday – Britain was only 21st – gave the French one up on their ancient rivals.

Paris had bid to host these Olympics, and its defeat by London in 2005 was particularly painful as it seemed due to new French weaknesses and British strengths: London pleased the International Olympic Committee by playing up its multiculturalism, while Jacques Chirac, France’s then president, annoyed many IOC members by addressing them in French, arguably no longer an international language. That history makes France’s current medal rush especially satisfying.

“The Ecstasy” crowed L’Equipe newspaper’s front page after the 20-year-old Baudelaire-reading swimmer Yannick Agnel won the 200m freestyle in front of the watching Mr Hollande.

France also took team gold in the men’s 400m freestyle relay. The female swimmer Camille Muffat and canoeist Tony Estanguet won golds too.

The Olympic triumphs cheered a pessimistic nation educated to expect glory but mostly deprived of it during France’s long political and military decline. The country’s victory in the football world cup of 1998 was probably the greatest national triumph since Liberation in 1944, with the difference that in 1998 all French were on the same side.

Mr Hollande also gloated about the empty sponsors’ seats at London’s games. “There are simply too many corporate seats,” he said, adding that potential French hosts of future Olympics would need to sort out the problem. Paris may campaign to host the games in 2024.

Still, even this year’s games take place in a partly French city. London has an estimated 400,000 French residents, more than Nice or Bordeaux, and if medals keep coming there will be dancing on the streets and in the patisseries of South Kensington.

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