France is associated with many things, from romance and fine food, to Champagne and the Eiffel Tower, not to mention its many great artists, the splendour of the Alps and the glamour of the southern beaches. But it is also very well known for its love of sport and the country hosts many of the world’s very biggest events in a whole range of different sports.
We are perhaps more likely to think of the French as lovers of the finer things in life, as opposed to viewing them as sport obsessives like we might with Australians. However, there is just no escaping the fact that events, such as the French Open at Roland Garros, the Tour De France and one of horse racing’s most esteemed contests, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, are significant highlights on the global sporting calendar.
Throw in an excellent supporting cast across a wide range of disciplines, and some top class football and rugby as well, and perhaps it is unfair that France is not better known for its big sporting events. Whether you want to plan a French sporting adventure or just find out more about sport in France, read on for details of all the bucket list events held in this magnificent country.
Horse Racing is Huge
If you aren’t really a fan of horse racing you are perhaps unlikely to understand just how popular the sport is in France. However, if you do love to watch and bet on horse racing you’ll be very aware of the many excellent French horses, trainers and jockeys that regularly ply their trade in the UK, as well as the high number of French courses there are which host big races on a very regular basis.
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
The biggest race of them all without any doubt whatsoever just has to be the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. One of the very richest turf races in the world, this Group 1 contest that is run over a distance of a mile and a half has been run since 1920 and is held at Longchamp, in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne park.
The Arc, as it is known, is generally considered to be the second most important flat race in Europe, behind the Derby at Epsom, and it is open to horses aged three years old and older. Winning connections will take home almost €3m and this historic French institution (the race’s slogan translates as “It’s not a race, it’s a monument”) has been won by some magnificent horses over the years.
Mill Reef, Alleged, Montjeu, Sea The Stars and Enable (2017 and 2018) are just some of the brilliant animals to have tasted glory in Paris over the years. The race is usually held on the first Sunday of October and if you are a racing fan a trip to Longchamp is a must.
Group 1 Races
Of course, France hosts many other huge races too and it is also one of the few nations outside the UK and Ireland to really embrace jumps racing. There are nine Group 1 races either over hurdles or fences and these are shown in the table below. These are all held at the Auteuil Hippodrome, which is also in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
|Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris||Chase||6000m|
|Prix Ferdinand Dufaure||Chase||4300m|
|Prix Alain du Breil||Hurdle||3900m|
|Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil||Hurdle||5100m|
|Grand Prix d’Automne||Hurdle||4800m|
|Prix Maurice Gillois||Chase||4400m|
|Prix La Haye Jousselin||Chase||5500m|
|Prix Renaud du Vivier||Hurdle||3900m|
Of these Group 1s, the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris is the first among equals and ranks as the biggest, richest and most-watched jumps contest in France. Taking place in May each year, there is a prize pool in excess of €800,000, with the winner taking almost half of that. That is a lot of money but with 23 fences and a whopping six kilometres (almost three and three quarter miles) to contend with, the horses certainly earn it.
Other Major Races
However, whilst France hosts more NH racing than many countries, it is still the action on the flat that receives the most attention. Major contests are held throughout the flat season at Longchamp, Chantilly, Deauville, Saint-Cloud and Maisons-Laffitte.
The Arc is by far the most prestigious race and the only one to really attract huge global attention. France has its own version of the Classics though, with the big three year old races being:
- Poule d’Essai des Pouliches – Held in May, equivalent of the 1,000 Guineas
- Poule d’Essai des Poulains – The French 2,000 Guineas is also run in May
- Prix du Jockey Club – June sees the French equivalent of the Derby
- Prix de Diane – And also the Oaks
- Grand Prix de Paris – July contest has usurped the Prix Royal-Oak, which was seen as the equivalent of the St Leger until it became open to older horses as well
Aside from the five races detailed above, Deauville’s Summer Meeting, including the Prix Morny, is also a huge sporting occasion, with the Prix Jacques Le Marois another huge race, one of the most important one-mile contests in the world. With several huge races supporting the big one over the Arc weekend, there really is plenty for French racing fans to enjoy.
French Open Tennis: Coupe des Mousquetaires & Coupe Suzanne Lenglen
The winners of the men’s and women’s French Open tennis tournaments get their hands on the trophies named above and whilst only true tennis fans will be aware of the Coupe des Mousquetaires and its female equivalent, anyone with even a passing interest in the sport knows that the French Open is one of the four Grand Slams.
The French Open is one of France’s biggest sporting events and takes place at the end of May each year, with the finals usually being held in June. It is the only major to be played on clay and the first ever French Open was held way back in 1891. It is the second Slam to take place each year, after the Australian and before Wimbledon, and as of 2019, offered up more than €40m in total prize money.
In terms of the men’s game, Rafa Nadal will forever be the name that comes to mind when most people think of the tournament thanks to the Mallorcan’s sensational 12 (and counting!) wins at Roland Garros.
Other Tennis Tournaments
There is more to tennis in France than just this huge event though and the Open Sud de France is a regular feature on the tour. The nation holds many other tournaments of varying importance but the Monte Carlo Masters is one of the most prestigious and is a warm-up for the French Open that Nadal has claimed 11 times! The Lyon Open also forms part of the clay court season with the Paris Masters later in the year another top level (Masters 1,000) event that serves as something of a warm-up for the ATP Finals.
Changing gear and upping the pace, France has a long association with Formula 1.
Monaco Grand Prix
Monaco is one of the most famous and prestigious races on the calendar and, whilst technically its own Principality, it lies on the French Riviera, French is the official language and from a militaristic point of view its defence is France’s responsibility. There are sporting links between the microstate and its big brother (that forms all of its land borders) too though, with, for example, AS Monaco playing in France’s Ligue 1.
French Grand Prix
Whether we consider the Monaco GP to be French or not though, France has its own F1 race, as well. The French Grand Prix dates back to 1906 and has been won by Michael Schumacher a record eight times. It was the first ever “Grand Prix”, the name referring to the “Great Prize” of cold hard cash that was given to the winner. Whilst it has been off the F1 World Championship calendar for a little while it returned in 2018 and is currently held at the Circuit Paul Ricard near Marseille (though 15 other venues have also been used in the race’s long history).
Other Motorsport Events
France hosts another hugely important motorsports event each and every year in the shape of “24 Heures du Mans”, 24 Hours of Le Mans in English, or just Le Mans as it is commonly called. Held near Le Mans, a city in northern France, this endurance race is unique, offers huge prestige and has been held since 1923. Contested in June, the small city that plays host comes alive for the few days around the race and this is an unusual, though undoubtedly major sporting event that petrol heads should add to their bucket list.
Tour de France
Moving from four very fast wheels to two slower, man-powered ones, the Tour de France (TdF) pre-dates the two races mentioned above and was first held in 1903. It sees teams of cyclists battle it out for 21 stages with just two days of rest as they cover in excess of 2,000 miles.
This gruelling event often travels outside the borders of France (indeed, the 2014 race began in Leeds, West Yorkshire) but travels around France, alternating between clockwise and anti-clockwise circuits of the country, taking in both the Alps and the Pyrenees. Held in July, the final stage always ends in Paris and watching the sprinters do battle on the Champs-Élysées is a marvellous sporting spectacle.
Football in France
France may not have invented the beautiful game but they have certainly played a huge roll in its history, helping to create many of the huge international tournaments that form the core of the game today.
Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)
French administrators were crucial in establishing the game’s international governing body, FIFA (the French name and acronym, Fédération Internationale de Football Association/FIFA are used all over the world), as well as the World Cup, Champions League and European Championships.
Euros & World Cup
The country hosted the first ever Euros in 1960 and was also host nation in 1984 and 2016. France continues to play a big part in the administration and organisation of the game and has also hosted the World Cup in 1938 and 1998, and has been the venue for the European Cup/Champions League final many times, including the first ever final in 1956.
Internationally France has had a decent record in major tournaments, especially as hosts. They have won the World Cup twice, in 2018 and 1998, and the Euros twice, in 1984 and 2000.
Looking at the domestic game and we see that France has a very strong top flight. Currently Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG, funded by Qatari petro money, are the dominant force and the Paris outfit have won the Lique 1 title six times since 2013. The other big clubs, historically speaking, are Saint-Etienne (though the last of their 10 titles came in 1981), Marseille, Monaco, Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux.
As of early 2020, France was ranked the fifth strongest club football nation in Europe but that may improve if PSG can finally end their long quest for a Champions League title. Irrespective of that, football in France is a really big deal and going to see the international team, Les Bleus, or a big Ligue 1 clash, is sure to be a real thrill for any sports fan.
Rugby league is played in France but the XV-man code is by far the more popular of the two. There are around 10 times as many registered players of union than there are for league and France is the most populous of the major union-playing nations.
Internationally, France have traditionally been major players in the Six Nations tournament (as it is now called) though ahead of the conclusion of the 2020 tournament they have gone a decade since their last success. That said, they were champions in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010, although they have never won the World Cup, despite making the final in 1987, 1999 and 2011.
In terms of club rugby, France is very strong though and sides like Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont are (or have been) among the best in the world, or certainly Europe, over the past decade or so. No side has a better record in the European Rugby Champions Cup that Toulouse and the domestic Top 14 is one of the strongest competitions in the northern hemisphere.
Golf has not always been a huge sport in France but it received a major boost when Le Golf National, on the outskirts of Paris, hosted the 2018 Ryder Cup. France probably won’t host that contest with the USA for a long time but Le Golf National continues to host the Open de France, the oldest national open in mainland Europe, first held in 1906.
For a couple of years, it was part of the Rolex Series and offered prize money of $7m but this is no longer the case. Whilst it is no longer quite such a prestigious event, it still attracts many world class players and aside from its national open France also hosts a number of smaller tournaments, as well as events on the women’s and senior tours.
Given France is home to two of Europe’s biggest mountain ranges, the Alps and the Pyrenees, as well as its highest mountain in the 4,810m Mont Blanc, it should come as no surprise that winter sports are big in the country. France is home to many world class ski resorts and has achieved great success in a range of events including various skiing, boarding and skating disciplines.
It regularly hosts world class skiing events and whether you ski or board yourself, the atmosphere around these is often superb, making them yet another great sporting occasion in the country.
France & The Olympics
France has had a strong connection with the Olympic movement and the country played a big part in creating this global sporting extravaganza. France hosted the first ever winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924, and has hosted the games twice more since.
They also hosted the first modern summer Games to be held outside Greece, hosting the second ever event in 1900. Paris was again the venue for the Games in 1924 and 100 years on from that it is set to complete the hat-trick in 2024.