PARIS – The World Cup-winning French team returned home to a heroes' welcome on Monday, parading down the Champs-Elysees as hundreds of thousands of cheering fans gave a raucous welcome to the country's newest idols.
France overcame a determined Croatia to win 4-2 in Sunday's final in Russia, with teenager Kylian Mbappe applying the coup de grace and cementing his place as a new global superstar at the age of just 19.
Millions of fans in France then celebrated into the night, honking car horns and flying the tricolour flag while the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe were lit up in the national colours of blue, white and red.
Crowds began converging early Monday on the Champs-Elysees, the gathering point for all national celebrations, to catch a glimpse of a returning squad which has captured the country's imagination.
“We're so proud of this team, they have truly become our players,” said Priscilla Lagneaux, 28, as she waited under a wilting sun on the avenue. “We had to see them.”
As the celebrating players descended on an open-air bus under heavy police guard - some of the 2,000 officers deployed in the capital - nine jets from the Patrouille de France, the air force's acrobatic unit, did an honorary flyover trailing blue, white and red smoke.
Commentators have focused on the outpouring of patriotism and sense of national unity created by the multi-ethnic French team, many of whose stars including Mbappe and Paul Pogba hail from deprived and often overlooked suburbs of Paris.
Laurent Joffrin, editor of the leftwing Liberation newspaper, said they had lived up to the ideal of “the republic that we love: united and diverse, patriotic and open, national without being nationalist”.
'Allez les Bleus!'
After leaving the Champs-Elysees, the players quickly changed into custom-made blue suits before being welcomed at the Elysee Palace by President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who were also decked out in blue for the occasion.
Macron has already promised the Legion of Honour for the victors' “exceptional services” to the country, an award already given to the legendary team which won France's first World Cup title in 1998.
The first couple then posed with the team as they sang the Marseillaise national anthem and waved scarves for a joyous group photo, before heading inside for a private meeting.
“Thanks to you all!” Macron told the team after gathering again outside. “This team is beautiful because you are united!”
Despite a voice nearly failing him, Pogba then proved himself a showman off the field as well as on by leading the guests in an impromptu celebratory rap punctuated by “Allez les Bleus!”
“It's true, we went on the pitch, and we said, We're going to crush them all!” he said.
Nearly 3,000 guests have been invited to the reception in the Elysee gardens, including around 1,000 youths from local football clubs such as Bondy, the gritty Paris suburb whose towering housing projects produced Mbappe.
“We're going to say thank you!” said Sacha, one of the young players at the palace. “I don't regret not going on vacation this summer.”
Afterwards guests will be treated to the beats of DJ Snake, who has worked with pop stars including Lady Gaga and is part of the Pardon My French collective of French DJs.
Macron had already celebrated with the team on Sunday - even doing “dab” dance moves with players in a video that has gone viral - after attending the final in Moscow.
Some analysts believe the 40-year-old centrist will benefit from the feelgood factor sweeping France, with Macron able to show a common touch after months of criticism from his opponents that he is distant and elitist.
Later the team will attend a dinner in their honour at the posh Hotel du Crillon.
'Together for life'
In Paris, the metro system has temporarily renamed six of its stations in honour of the key players, with the Victor Hugo stop - named after the famed 19th-century writer - becoming Victor Hugo Lloris after the team's goalkeeper.
Two stations were rebaptised in tribute to Deschamps, who captained the national side to its first World Cup victory, won on home soil in 1998.
“There are two things that matter - one is that these 23 players are now together for life, whatever happens, and also that from now on they will not be the same again, because they are world champions,” a champagne-soaked Deschamps said Sunday.
Macron will be relieved that joyous and occasionally chaotic celebrations across France on Sunday night passed off without any major incident following a string of terror attacks in France since 2015 that have claimed nearly 250 lives.
There were 292 people arrested nationwide and isolated clashes between police and rowdy crowds in Paris, Lyon and Marseille.
For Croatia, a country of just four million people, the loss was bitter but their fans took solace in the best run in the nation's history, which featured a stunning win against Argentina and a semi-final victory against England.
“Thank you, heroes! - You gave us everything!” read the Sportske Novosti front page. “'Vatreni' (the “Fiery Ones” in Croatian), you are the biggest, you are our pride, your names will remain written in gold forever!” the newspaper said.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)