Sarkozy meets Henry to discuss France failure

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PARIS - France's humiliating first round exit from the World Cup took centre stage in French politics on Thursday, overshadowing protests against pension reforms and preparations for a G20 summit.

Police were deployed in numbers to protect the return of the team, Nicolas Sarkozy changed his schedule to meet Thierry Henry and Sports minister Roselyne Bachelot called for the resignation of the French Federation chairman.

Opposition leaders criticized the governement.

Green leader Cecile Duflot said it was "indecent to see the government giving priority to football on a day of a national strike and demonstrations all over France against a pension reform."

Non governmental organisations (NGOs) complained Sarkozy had cancelled a meeting ahead of the G20 meeting in Toronto.

Trade unions leaders said they hoped the strike would get the same political and media treatment than the crisis of the national team.

The disgraced Bleus returned home in a plane chartered by the French Federation which landed at Le Bourget business airport, 20 km north of Paris.

Their campaign, marred by infighting and the boycott of a training session, ended on Tuesday with a 2-1 defeat by hosts South Africa that left them bottom of Group A without a win.

A smattering of supporters were kept at a distance and dozens of photographers, cameramen and journalists were penned behind a wire fence.

Some of the players went straight into two coaches with darkened windows which left the airport through a back entrance without going through passport control and customs.

"They didn't have the guts to confront us. They have really reached rock bottom," a disappointed and angry fan told television channel iTele in front of the main terminal.

"IMMATURE GANG LEADERS"

Florent Malouda had gone straight from South Africa to London.

Witnesses said the Olympique Lyon players and Franck Ribery flew out on in two private planes without going through passport control and customs. A French team spokesman later said that Ribery would undergo groin surgery in Munich on Friday.

Team captain Thierry Henry was driven in an official car under police escort to the Elysee Palace.

Les Bleus' team captain, who has 123 caps to his name and is France's most prolific scorer with 51 goals, entered the presidential palace through a side door, far from the media who were waiting for him at the main entrance.

He left the same way and a government spokesman said there would be "no statement and no comment."

Meanwhile, television cameramen on motorbikes had followed the car that was driving Patrick Evra back to Paris.

The Manchester United player, who captained Les Bleus in their first two world cup games but was dropped for the last one, opened his window but cut questions short saying:

"Today is not the time to speak, today is the time for suffering."

Players and Federation leaders will however not be able to avoid questions for long.

In one of the harshest condemnations so far, Bachelot castigated "the disaster of the national team made of immature gang leaders in command of scared kids with a coach at a loss and without any authority and a federation with its back against the wall."

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