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France Hoping to Fill the Cupboard : Sailing: Victory would follow surprising result in Davis Cup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

France’s Davis Cup victory last month was one of it finest hours in sport. From Calais to Marseille, they all cried like Frenchmen.

How would they react if they won the America’s Cup?

“It will be bigger,” said Gerard Boyer. “We will go down the Champs Elysees!”

They might have to lower the mast to pass through the Arc de Triomphe--or lift the arch. The Cup may mean more to France, with its strong sailing tradition, than to any other competitor, except perhaps New Zealand.

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Neither has ever won it. But France hadn’t won the Davis Cup in 59 years, either.

“Tennis opened the door,” said Boyer, media liaison for Association Pour L’America’s Cup en France.

The syndicate jumped on the coattails of the Davis Cup success by christening its third and final campaign boat at the San Diego Yacht Club last week. With the PA blaring in French, few of the regulars around the club understood what was happening, but the event was telecast live to France and the Paris Boat Show, where the Cup was on display. More than 25,000 lapped it all up like champagne.

Win or lose, they are enormously proud of their beautiful blue boat Ville de Paris (City of Paris) and the skipper who will sail it, Marc Pajot.

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Pajot is, of course, French. The point is made because nationalism isn’t rooted as deeply anywhere as it is in the French syndicate. Italy has people from four other countries, including skipper Paul Cayard, an American. Japan has a New Zealand skipper, Chris Dickson. New Zealand has a dual-citizen skipper, Rod Davis.

Would France stand for that?

Yvon Jacob, head of Group Legris, the French conglomerate that has taken over the syndicate, said, “One of our characteristics is that we’re purely French, from the top of the mast down to the keel. We’re (adhering to) the spirit of the America’s Cup (with a) pure national challenge.

“I don’t agree with (the philosophy of) some of the other challenges.”

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France will win or lose on its own, merci beaucoup.

Boyer said, “France is historically a sailor’s country. It is our culture. We don’t need to hire anybody. And, we have Pajot.

“If you asked the French people, ‘Tell me the best 10 sportsmen,’ Marc Pajot will be in the top 10.”

In France, Boyer said, soccer is the most popular sport, followed by bicycling, tennis and sailing.

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Pajot, 38, is the Dennis Conner of France. Twice an Olympic competitor, with a silver medal at Munich in ’72, he led his country’s shoestring effort with the 12-meter French Kiss at Fremantle, Western Australia in ’86-87. It was a considerable achievement for the team to reach the challenger semifinals, nosing out the well-heeled America II from the New York Yacht Club.

“It was my first time and I had a lot of things to learn,” Pajot said. “So maybe the team was good, but now it’s different. We came here to win.

“Since ('87) I have worked to build first a technical team, and then a financial team. Ville de Paris and Group Legris came to my team to be stronger. The spirit is very strong.”

The syndicate’s budget is said to be $30 million, including a good chunk from the city of Paris and the rest from Legris.

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“I’m pleased to have the money to do things well,” Pajot said.

Legris came along about a year ago as the syndicate was falling apart in a power struggle between Pajot and general manager Eric Ogden. The team had sold its only boat to Bill Koch’s America 3 syndicate to get money to build another, but Pajot retained rights to use it for testing and training later.

And when the rest of the crew, including tactician Marc Bouet, the world Soling champion, said they would sail with nobody but Pajot, he had the boat and the crew, so Ogden was gone.

“The dispute was because of lack of money,” Jacob said. “Marc Pajot tried to find it by himself, and when you take the responsibility to find the money, you obviously accept responsibility for everything. This was not accepted by Eric Ogden and some others.”

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Jacob said that mutual friends brought Legris and Pajot together. The rapidly expanding group did a billion dollars in sales in 1990 but needed an identity.

“This happened exactly at the moment when we had just made a major acquisition in South Carolina . . . the second mobile crane manufacturer in the USA, (called) PNH,” Jacob said. “Our group was not known at all in America. We had a lot of (new) companies in the group but no common culture or identity. It seemed that using something like the America’s Cup to unify the company was the right way to do it.”

But with a clear understanding.

“We accept to come and put money in only if we have control of the operations,” Jacob said."We are not coming as a sponsor. We want to control everything. So we are managing the challenge now.”

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Jacob said Pajot runs the boat but doesn’t get everything he wants.

“When we decided to build the third boat, I made the decision. When we decided to enter into a program (of development) for, uh--what is the part under the water? Keel! It’s the same in French--I decided to build several to try several things. The main decisions I make by myself.

“We gave (Pajot) everything he asked that was reasonable. But he has accepted not to try to manage everything.”

Coronado has the best of two worlds: its own America’s Cup syndicate--New Zealand--and a native son as skipper.

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Rod Davis, 36, is the son of Whit Davis, Annapolis ’49, USN (ret.) and former commander of the submarine Razorback when he was stationed at San Diego in the early ‘60s. Rod was born in Key West, Fla. but lived in Coronado from ’56 to ’61 and from ’69 until he graduated from high school and attended Southwestern College.

The family also was based in Honolulu but settled in Coronado--"the coldest place we ever lived,” Rod’s mother Libby said.

Her father was a retired admiral--so maybe Rod Davis was meant to command.


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