Olympics-French apathy and cost concerns dampen mayors' bid to stoke Games fervour

By Elizabeth Pineau

LA BAULE-ESCOUBLAC, France (Reuters) - When a group of mayors paid tens of thousands of euros each to bring the Olympic torch to their towns along France's Atlantic coast, a row erupted over whether the cost represented value for money at a time when public spending is under pressure.

Franck Louvrier, the conservative mayor of La Baule-Escoublac, a well-heeled coastal resort in the western Loire Atlantique department which will host the torch on Wednesday for an overnight stop, said he hoped the flame's arrival would "excite the taste buds" and boost off-season tourism.

But the resistance he and other Loire Atlantique mayors have met reflects a broader French apathy about the upcoming Games, as well as concerns about the cost of hosting the Paris event.

In an interview in his office, overlooking La Baule's yawning Atlantic bay, Louvrier said the 60,000 euros ($65,028.00) paid to the Paris Olympics Organising Committee (COJOP) had made little dent in the town's roughly 60-million-euro annual budget.

"There was no credible argument for missing this global event," said Louvrier in his glass corner office decorated with Playmobil Napoleons. "Refusing it would have been a major mistake for everyone."

Nearly 40% of French people are indifferent about the Olympics, while 37% have a negative view of the Games, according to a May 31 Ifop poll. Less than a quarter of respondents were enthusiastic about the event, the survey showed, even if past Olympics suggest the mood will lift once the Games begin on July 26.

Not everyone in La Baule, home to some 17,000 people, cheered Louvrier's decision.

Anne Boye, an opposition socialist member of La Baule's council, said Louvrier's outlay was indefensible, especially as the town's 15 minutes of fame would likely be overshadowed by the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, taking place this week in nearby Normandy.

"It's very expensive, for very, very little," she said. "The TV networks will be elsewhere."


Some in La Baule said the torch's arrival provided a welcome respite from grim global news.

Martine Wibaux, a retiree walking along the promenade by La Baule's beach, was less upbeat. She criticised the billboards set up around town to announce the torch's arrival.

"Mayor Franck Louvrier must be excited," she said. "It looks like the Pope is coming!"

France is under pressure to cut spending. Standard & Poor's last week became the second of the three big ratings agencies to lower its view on French debt in just over a year.

The decision by Louvrier and three other local mayors to go it alone came after Louise Pahun, a Green Party official in charge of sport for Loire Atlantique, decided against paying COJOP 180,000 euros to bring the torch to the department.

According to COJOP, around a third of France's 101 departments will not host the torch.

Pahun criticised COJOP for a lack of transparency over how the money would be spent. She wrote them a March 2022 letter, which she shared with Reuters, asking for more information, but said she never received a response.

COJOP did not respond to a request for comment about the letter.

Laurent Turquois, the mayor of Saint-Sebastien-sur-Loire who joined forces with Louvrier, said he had faced "lots of protest at the city council" when he spent 60,000 euros to bring the torch to his town of 30,000 people.

He denounced "dogmatic and bad faith" arguments of naysayers and said he ran a tight ship financially.

"Is it too expensive?" he asked. "What other opportunity will residents have to see the Olympic flame?"

($1 = 0.9227 euros)

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by Clare Fallon)