French President Emmanuel Macron is about to jet off to Qatar for the second time in a week, despite broad concerns about the emirate's human rights and environmental record. Why? Because France is in the World Cup final, and Macron really is a big soccer fan - as well as a prominent advocate of the longstanding partnership between the two countries.
A video broadcast after France's victory over Morocco in the semifinal showed an enthusiastic Macron mingling with French players in the dressing room on Wednesday evening at the Doha stadium, applauding to the sound of the "Freed from desire" music hit that has become the team's victory hymn.
The World Cup in Qatar has sparked multiple controversies - from the living conditions of migrant workers to the impact on the environment of air-conditioned stadiums and the status of LGBTQ people, as well as women and minorities. Many activists, especially in Europe, had urged a boycott of the tournament.
Some on social media also noted that the six-hour flight from Paris to Doha is energy-consuming and not climate-friendly - in apparent contradiction with Macron's previous commitments.
At a European summit in Brussels on Thursday, Macron said he fully stands by his decision. "I'm backing the France team and I think that the French are too," he said.
He referred to the more than 20 million viewers who watched the semifinal on French TF1 television, a record high for a World Cup game since 2006. "Figures are there. We love our national team, we are proud of it, we want it to win," Macron said.
A 44-year-old sport lover, Macron played soccer with the team of France's elite administration school, the ENA, in the 2000s. He is a supporter of the club of Marseille, in southern France, and played last year in a charity soccer match - a first for a French president in office - during which he scored from a penalty kick.
Macron was also seen boxing during a campaign event in the northern suburbs of Paris in April this year, just before being reelected for a second term - a sport he is said to practice with some of the officers in charge of his security.
The French president had announced in advance that he would attend the semifinal and final if France qualified - just like he did during the previous World Cup won by the French in Russia in 2018.
In response to criticism, he said last month that " sports should not be politicized. "
Paris and some other French big cities have decided not to broadcast World Cup matches on giant screens in public fan zones amid concerns about Qatar's human rights record.
Macron, who said he will meet Sunday with Qatari officials, appears to be sticking to his traditional approach to diplomacy that involves speaking about difficult issues with other world leaders "every time it's needed," according to the French presidency.
He is one of the very few world leaders to have maintained an open line with Russia's President Vladimir Putin since the war in Ukraine started.
The France-Qatar relationship, which dates back to the emirate's independence in the 1970s, includes a broad range of political, economic and security agreements that involves oil contracts, arms sales and cultural exchanges. Leading French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain has been owned by Qatar Sports Investments for more than 11 years.
When Macron visited Qatar a year ago, he published a joint statement with the country's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Both leaders vowed to enhance economic cooperation and "work together to face global challenges including regional security, terrorism, climate change and energy transition."
Civil campaign group Avaaz published Wednesday an ad in two French newspapers to denounce Macron's trip to Qatar, saying "Players don't need you at the World Cup. The planet does."
"We thought that it was a shocking failure of leadership that Emmanuel Macron would go watch football" instead of attending an ongoing U.N. biodiversity conference in Canada, Avaaz campaign director Oscar Soria said on Twitter.
Some French leftist politicians have also criticized Macron's trips to the emirate.
A Green European Parliament lawmaker, Yannick Jadot, said this week that going to Qatar is a "political mistake" especially in the context of the corruption scandal that led the European Union's parliament to suspend work on all files involving Qatar.