French rugby heading for crisis
November 11, 2009
Stade Francais players make their feelings known before last week's win over Albi © Getty Images
They do things a little differently in France, in case you hadn't noticed. Strikes and anti-government rallies might be a regular occurrence in a country whose citizens pride themselves in taking to the streets at the drop of a beret but there was something different about last Thursday night at Stade Aime Giral.
The sight of two tycoons of French business, Mourad Boudjellal of Toulon and Paul Goze of Perpignan taking to the pitch to protest the decision by the French government to suppress the DIC (Droit à l'Image Collectif) would have brought a tear to the eye to any card-carrying union member.
Rumours of possible strike action are now beginning to radiate out of a worried French sporting hierarchy in protest at the new law, which will take force on July 1, 2010.
Boudjellal has every reason to be worried. The DIC, which is effectively a tax break given to professional sporting organisations in France, currently allows clubs to treat 30 percent of player's salary as 'image rights'.
This means clubs can avoid a huge tranche of France's costly social security and employment taxes. The law was created in 2004, in order that France's professional football, rugby and basketball leagues could compete more equitably with the leagues in England, Spain and Germany.
The outspoken Toulon boss claims that the changes will cost him upwards of a €1m extra a year but he has not been the only voice to speak against the new measures.
Figures from across the sporting rainbow in France have denounced the suppression of the DIC. France's football league, the LFP, claimed it would be "a disaster for French sport" while their rugby counterparts, the LNR (Ligue National de Rugby), said that "professional rugby was in danger" if the changes were to go ahead.
Public opinion however, has been somewhat muted on the affair. Veteran French rugby writer Serge Manificat believes that the clubs will find little support from the greater public.
"The French public may have voted for Sarkozy but they are socialists at heart," maintains Manificat. "There is already a lot of disquiet regarding the salaries of our top sportsmen and women in times of recession and many simply see this law as a loophole for the rich. If the government closes it, that would be popular in France."
Meanwhile, the club owners continue to protest but so far it has fallen on deaf ears. Boudjellal claims that he will not be able to afford the extra levies. In his case however, actions speak louder than words given the amount of money he has already pumped into Toulon in recent years. Stade Francais owner Max Guazzini was another to play the poor mouth, complaining that he didn't know where he would find the extra €800,000.
But while the new laws may well prompt a spate of belt-tightening at the bigger clubs, there are now real fears inside the French rugby community that some of the smaller clubs could be forced out of business altogether.
Take Bourgoin, for example. Their players have already taken sizeable pay cuts to stop the club going into administration earlier this season but the extra €400,000 that will have to be found next season could be a bridge too far for Les Berjallien.
Brive are another that face an uncertain financial future. The club had already made plans to cut their budget by 40 percent next season following the decision earlier this year of owner Daniel Derichebourg to sell the club. But with one of the highest wage bills in France (€7.2m) and several high profile players locked into long term contracts, Brive could really struggle to make ends meet next season.
Last month, an English newspaper forwarded the notion that some French clubs had a player wage bill four times that of the salary cap that operates in the Guinness Premiership. If that were truly the case, then some French clubs would be looking at incurring upwards of €4m in extra costs due to the suspension of the DIC.
France's biggest clubs are undoubtedly the wealthiest in Europe but the level of wealth has been greatly exaggerated at times. Stade Toulousain have a total projected club budget of around €23m for this season yet according to their head of recruitment, Jean-Michel Ranculs, the player wage bill will be about €6m. Bigger than most other clubs, yes but hardly stratospheric at the same time.
One thing is sure; the French people may be convinced that the suppression of the DIC is a blow against rich sportspeople but the reality is that it will be the smaller French clubs that will once again suffer.
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