'C'est Pas Possible'

The military band was there; the stage lights flashed on and off in a celebratory rehearsal and the giant screens set up in front of Paris City Hall captured a swelling crowd of thousands. Every speculative mention of France winning its bid for the 2012 Games elicited a "Pah-rree!"--clap-clap-clap. And every live satellite shot of the rival British crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square, 220 miles north, drew cheerful booing. All that was left, hoped French personalities paraded via the screens, was "le sacre"--the consecration. But, at 1:48 p.m. local time, just as International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge was handed the winner's envelope, the heavens opened and rain fell hard. Still, buoyant Parisians hung on his every word, until the last one: London. And then, shock.

"C'est pas possible, c'est pas possible," hummed one shocked spectator, "it can't be." Others could only clap their hands to their mouths. Some suddenly noticed the rain, struck up their umbrellas and lurched off the square. The band was silent. One young boy, about 10, decked head to toe in the bleu, blanc, and rouge of the French tricolor, cried, red-faced; his mother looked on as news photographers snapped his picture; one English photographer stopped to comfort the boy, saying he was disappointed, too.

The loss is a sucker punch for 2012-favorite France, eager for good news after a rough spring. An unemployment rate of 10 percent and limited prospects for economic growth this year was enough to put the country in the doldrums. The divisive European constitutional referendum, which drew a question mark over France's European role after the nation voted no in May, added to the malaise. But the 2012 Olympics, for which Paris was long favored, had support across the political spectrum and the blessing of 75 percent of French and 87 percent of Parisians. Many hoped for a repeat of the World Cup effect of 1998, when France's hosting of--and victory in--soccer's world championship sparked unprecedented national harmony. "The World Cup in 1998 was a unifier. Olympic Games unify a country, but we didn't get them," said Pierre Kapfer, a French hurdler in today's glum city hall crowd.

When Paris Deputy Mayor Anne Hidalgo came out to thank the crowd, she was applauded. But when she continued, "We congratulate London," the crowd jeered: "No! Boo!" An English family, in the middle of the aborted celebration, tried to be discreet. "We have to be quiet," smiled Caroline Timmis. "I think it was a shock," said her husband, Oliver. Added Caroline, "We thought it was going to be Paris. You know where we'll be in 2012!"

"It's a big disenchantment," said Sebastien Fouquet of Paris. Some French onlookers were just disappointed; others expressed bitterness and questioned London's tactics. "Fair play is an English word, but they didn't follow that," said hurdler Kapfer of the London bid.

Others cried politics, and economics, and so weren't surprised at the French loss. Still, many put a happy face on the defeat. "I'm very happy; I'm not surprised," said Christian Camus, optimistically clad in a Paris 2012 T shirt. "I knew they had a bigger budget; when it came down to London or Paris, I knew London would win. And when it comes to [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair or [French President Jacques] Chirac, Chirac's popularity rating around the world is just lower." Camus argued that some of the voting came down to the British prime minister taking his six-month turn at the rotating presidency of Europe, which begins this month. "It's political. It isn't like the Games of 100 years ago. Today, it's about business," said Camus.

"I'm obviously disappointed," said Thierry Rainaud, a Parisian and former judoka. "It'll be decades until it comes back here. But London is stronger than us on many fronts. On economics, on road safety, they get things done, and I think that played into it."

There were, however, some dissenting voices in the crowd. "I'm probably the only one in the crowd happy that it's London," said Linda Saad, 23, of the eastern French city of Metz. "It's sport; it shouldn't be politicized," she said. London, she added "is more adapted economically."

Not to mention that the British capital is close enough for Parisians to experience the 2012 excitement--without the hassle. "I'm very happy that London got it," said Jean-Pierre Cuidet. "The games will be two hours from Paris, and the French won't have to spend any money on them. I would rather see the money go into medical research. If we can use that money to find a vaccine for AIDS or a cure for cancer, it'll be better spent than throwing it into a two-week party." When London faces inevitable gridlock in seven years time, others in France may feel the same way.