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France, Football and Race

June 22, 2010

In 1998, the French team that won the World Cup united the nation (in as far as that is a meaningful term) behind a multi-racial, multi-ethnic team, that represented modern France, black, white and ‘beur’ – North African. The team could hardly have been written better to cover the gamut of French identity. Basque (Lizarazu), Breton (Gui’varch), Armenian (Djorkaeff, Boghossian), the black players from around France’s former colonies and overseas provinces: Senegal (Vieira), Ghana (Desailly), Guadeloupe (Thuram), New Caledonia (Karembeu). The overtly Gallic Laurent Blanc and Emmanuel Petit. And above all, the iconic figure of Zinedine Zidane born in Marseille of Algerian parents. Their success, their teamwork, their mutual respect and their unity provided a devastating rebuke to racists like Le Pen who had called for a French team that excluded immigrants and their descendants, ignoring the long tradition of French footballing greats of foreign extraction – Just Fontaine, Raymond Kopa, Jean Tigana among them – as well as the social realities of modern Europe.

The moment of unity was brief, in a country riven by social and ethnic division like France it could hardly be otherwise and Les Bleus success in 1998 and in winning Euro 2000 was never going to do anything more than gloss over the alienation and unemployment of the banlieues and the entrenched economic and racial barriers that hinder social mobility for poor families in immigrant communities. And when the team began to falter, the criticisms about the ethnic make-up of the, increasingly black,  team began to be made again. In 2005 the former left-wing intellectual turned anti-Islamic ideologue Alain Finkelkraut gave an interview with Ha’aretz when he said “We are told that the France team is admired because she is black-white-brown. In fact, today it is black-black-black, and they laugh at us across Europe.” Finkelkraut’s overt racism had a pretty small constituency then, and the return to the national team of Zidane, Thuram and Makalele saw Les Bleus return to success, reaching the World Cup final.

From the moment when Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi though, things have only gone downhill. The FFF persisted in employing Raymond Domenech as coach, despite his obvious ineptitude, as well as his various bizarre acts (proposing to his girlfriend in the immediate aftermath of France’s humiliation in Euro 2008, wittering on about picking players based on their star signs) and divisive personality. Concurrently, there were more obvious personality clashes emerging from within the squad – unsurprising when it contained a number of prickly personalities.

France stumbled through qualification for the 2010 World Cup, finishing behind Serbia and being forced to play-off against Ireland. After 2 games of relentless mediocrity, France finally managed to win, but only after an unpunished handball by Thierry Henry set up the winning goal. This prompted another bout of national soul-searching both at the incompetence of a national team made up of successful players at Europe’s biggest clubs and at the cheating of Henry, who had taken on Zidane’s mantle of being the untouchable talismanic figurehead of the national team.

With France having qualified, Domenech sought to re-establish control of the squad. Karim Benezma, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa were all excluded from the squad, assertive personalities who had been involved in clashes with other squad players in the past. Nasri had a well-known difficult relationship with club and international teammate William Gallas, while Ben Arfa’s departure from Lyon to Marseille was hastened by a scuffle with Sebastian Squillaci – who did make the final 23. Whatever justification Domenech may have had in leaving out these players, it significantly weakened the playing resources available to France. On any reasonable assessment, Nasri offered a better option on the right-wing than the hapless Sidney Govou, and even after a season warming the bench in Madrid, Benzema has more ability than Gignac, Valbuena or Cisse. More pertinently, the exclusion of those three meant that there were no players of North African extraction in the French squad.

This is a hugely significant fact. The Beurs are the most alienated, least integrated section of society, distrusted by white France for their resistance to French cultural norms and in particular for being Muslim. Zidane has become a national treasure, beloved on all sides despite his lapse in 2006. But he remains an exceptional figure (in every sense). At a time when the French government is seeking to ban the burqa, the fact that no French born North Africans are in the French squad, but seventeen are representing Algeria is an obvious indication of a failure of integration.

If Domenech thought by his selection he would ensure harmony within the French camp, he could hardly have been more wrong. First Florent Malouda fell out with him, then Nicolas Anelka, before the whole team went on strike at the punishment meted out to Anelka and the publicising of the nature of the disagreement. The French media united in condemning the players as selfish, childish mercenaries. The team’s results went from bad to worse. The sorry saga summed up in this brilliant updating of the Bayeux Tapestry. But that is just football, and shouldn’t matter all that much in the great scheme of things. However, it’s given the likes of Finkelkraut a chance to emerge from under their rocks. Finkelkraut has condemned the team as amoral thugs, beset by ethnic divisions. Others have sought to identify the individual failings of the players concerned as emblematic of the failings of the poor, multi-ethnic banlieus that some of them came from (for those who didn’t come from that heritage, then their background is seemingly irrelevant). This is clearly nonsense, plenty of national teams from a plethora of social and ethnic backgrounds have imploded in internal feuds before, but such is the level of disgust at the on field incompetence and off field squabbling of the national team it may be that the nonsense is able to find an audience both among those already predisposed to demonise the banlieues, and amongst those in them as yet further evidence that France is not willing to accept them.

[Post-script]

While writing this, I read Richard Whittall’s article on France’s defeat where he argues:

The social problems in modern France were as rampant then as now, minus the more high-profile rioting of recent years (the prophetic La Haine was produced in 1995).  A World Cup and a Euro didn’t kill it off.  Neither does France’s exit mean France is headed for some internal social reckoning.  At best that is the thinking of romantics, at worst, nationalist reactionaries.  Let France be terrible at soccer, let the jokes ring out about Anelka’s little coup d’etat.  But don’t drag your social political op-eds into the sports section, lest your social politics become mere sport.

As argued above, I accept that the success of a multi-racial team didn’t solve France’s social problems, so why should I fear the converse – that the failures of a multi-racial team will exacerbate them? Well, partly it is the failure to even create a multi-racial team, with the beurs excluded. Partly it is in the context of a French government which makes little secret of its contempt for any identity in France that doesn’t fit in to its own narrative. And partly it is just a reminder that social and racial barriers will not fall gradually aside under the inexorable march of history, they will only be brought down by a constant awareness that they are there and that they need to be combatted.

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