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Angry Sarkozy Takes on Anti-Anthem Soccer Rowdies

A heated debate has broken out in France over the decision by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to cancel soccer matches at which spectators whistle during the singing of the national anthem.

The French national soccer team

France's players are reported to be unconcerned by the heckling by Tunisian fians

The decision was announced Wednesday by Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot after Tunisian fans jeered while Tunisian pop singer Laam sang the Marseillaise before Tuesday's friendly between Tunisia and France at the Stade de France.

Sarkozy described the incident as "scandalous" and summoned the head of the French Football Federation, Jean-Pierre Escalettes, to the Elysee Palace for a meeting. The result was a decision to cancel games when the anthem is jeered.

"The president took the match very hard," Escalettes said. "He did not hear the Marseillaise being whistled... He just could not understand why the (French) players were being constantly jeered."

Reason for whistles unclear

Prime Minister Francois Fillon told RTL radio the whistles had been "an insult to France, an insult to French players ... it is a lack of respect for an entire nation."

In fact, this was far from the first incident of its kind. Moroccan and Algerian fans had previously jeered the French anthem before friendly matches against Les Bleus.

Police in yellow reflective jackets standing in front of a crowd at a football stadium

The decision to cancel matches could lead to crowd control issues

And in May 2002, then-president Jacques Chirac famously left the Stade de France ahead of a France Cup final when the Marseillaise was loudly heckled by fans of the Corsican side Bastia.

Some Tunisian fans who took part in the latest incident said that their whistling was nothing personal.

"It's a custom with Maghreb fans," one young man told France Info radio. "We whistle no matter who the opponent is. We are just warming up for the game."

But a young woman named Leila said that the noise was generated by a deep resentment. "It feels good to yell," she told the daily Le Figaro. "It's for all the times we bowed our heads or were humiliated."

Overreaction to whistling just as stupid, some say

French players seemed unconcerned by the incident. Midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa, who is of Tunisian origin and was taunted during warm-up, said that the incident was nothing serious. “Those youngsters, they are Tunisian, they wanted to show themselves, to make themselves heard. You have to understand them."

In fact, the decision to simply annul the matches has provoked at least as much consternation as did the whistling, with critics accusing the government of overreacting and creating a dangerous situation for stadium personnel.

Segolene Royal standing in a suit in front of a white background

Segolene Royal spoke out against the decision Wednesday

FFF head Escalettes said, "I will not throw 50,000 people into the streets unless (proper security) measures have been prepared in advance. Unquestionably, from now on, measures will be prepared in advance."

"Good luck to those who will be asked to clear a stadium before the match begins," former Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal said.

"To whistle at the Marseillaise is stupid," said another former presidential candidate, centrist Francois Bayrou. "But to overreact to the whistling is just as stupid."

French media also reacted critically to the move, with the influential sports daily L'Equipe writing, "The measures proposed... are no more acceptable than the whistles heard during the Marseillaise."

And the daily Paris-Normandie asked, "How many whistles will it take before a stadium is evacuated? Ten? One hundred? Ten thousand?"

One important point not yet mentioned, but one that may soon be evident, is that the decision has given rowdies and hooligans another weapon to disrupt the sport.

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