Paris spares no expense for World Cup. The soccer tournament begins June 10.
"Bonjour '98 - France Welcomes the World" shouts the official slogan - upbeat and ambitious - plastered nationwide across billboards, taxis, shop fronts, and most other visible flat surfaces.
As nearly 1 million foreign soccer fans converge for the World Cup, which gets under way here June 10, it is a surprisingly buoyant France that is preparing to host them during the month-long soccer tournament that has become the world's biggest sporting event.
Emerging from several years of economic and psychological malaise into the brief but intense glare of international attention, the French are looking to the World Cup to reassure themselves of their leading place in the modern world.
In full view of 9,000 visiting journalists and a projected world TV audience of 37.5 billion for the 64 matches, "France must show its savoir-faire, and that includes being able to organize great spectacles," says Claude Simonet, president of the French Football Federation. "France is a great country and it must present a great image."
The authorities have spared no effort, building a new 80,000-seat stadium in the Paris suburbs and renovating nine other stadiums as part of preparations that are estimated to have cost $1.4 billion. More than half of that money came from the public purse.
Armies of schoolchildren and students who know at least a few words of a foreign language have been mobilized to help visitors at kiosks with Internet hookups throughout Paris; the national phone company has set up an information hot line for confused fans; and state-owned radio will broadcast 100 percent World Cup-related news on a special station throughout the tournament.
The welcome that France offers to visitors must be "exceptional and perfect" President Jacques Chirac insisted last week, as he dined with the French national soccer team.