Today, I decided to check out the French newspaper Le Monde to see what was new in the disaster which was the French excursion to South Africa. At the same time I opened my online edition of the NYT to see general reactions to the World Cup. Low and behold I see in both quite a bit. But what was disturbing was the shift in rhetoric from one of technical and tactical abilities, having a lame duck coach, etc. to one of Race, Nationality, French Identity, and Patriotism.
The gist of the argument is that problem with the team had nothing to do with the age of players, the lame duck coach, but instead the fact that the team looked like the melting pot of French society, with players from many corners of the former French Empire—Senegal (Evra), Guyana (Malouda), Cong (Mandanda) to a name a few. How could the foreigners, these not true French, be proud to wear Les Bleus. They won’t sing Les Marseillaise! In fact the right-wing philosopher Finkielkraut, as well as right wing politicians, referred to the team as “a gang of thugs” and “black-black-black”, and equated them with the young men of Afro-French and Franco-Middle East descent that engaged in protest and riots that spread throughout France 5 years ago. Never mind that stars of Les Bleus past and present included the likes of Zidane (Alegeria), Thuram (Guadalupe), Viera (Senegal) and other “immigrants”.
Many assumed that the love fest following the 1998 World Cup Championship and susbequent Euro 2000 win, would change France forever. In fact, scholars that study race, sports and politics, like Andrei Marcovits of University of Michigan, extolled the virtures of the integration of France and French society exemplified by that team, lead by Zidane. France would finally open it’s arms wide, and finally accept the melting pot it had become.
But the fact of the matter is, France has always had a troubled time trying to integrate immigrants into its society—whether they were from other parts of Europe, or the far flung corners of its “Empire”. Despite being the birthplace of Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité, France has been an incredibly closed society to immigrants. France has strugglled mightily with the concept of Egalité within its own borders, but always quick to criticize other countries that fail to act with equality. It was no shock to many of us that study race and collective action, the French riots of 2005. There has been no systematic attempt by the French, at a structural or cultural level, to incorporate immigrants—save for their exploitation whether it is in the factories, brothels, restaurants or the soccer pitch. And those areas that rioted had rates above 50% of unemployment and poverty, with some areas as high as 80% unemployment for young immigrant men.
Moreover, France has led the world in Islamophobia, with bans against the Hijab and other head scarves and shawls for women, and local politicians banning the construction of mosques well before places like Spain, Switzerland, and yes the United States attempted to pass similar laws. However, in France’s desire to appear to be a place of freedom and equality, they tried to use a frame of “liberating women” in its ban of head coverings. But the underlying sentiment of the legislation was that of racism, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobia, and was led by the French Right and Far Right political parties.
And now again, rather than admit it was a HORRIBLE idea for the FFF (Federation Francaise de Foortball) to bring back Domenech as the coach after a disastrous Euro 2008 campaign, the Right uses this idea of National Identity and Race to bang the drum not just against the team and the players, but immigrants writ large. They want to further scare the population with the idea “if this can happen to Les Bleus what can happen in our country” (fear mongering around Race by the Right is a favorite world wide it seems).
So while sad that the French resort to blaming its players of other than “pure French blood”, it should come as no surprise. Embracing diversity is only useful when it gets you something, like a World Cup, European Championship, of Confederations Cup. Otherwise, send those foreigners back to the slums of Paris and Marseilles, and leave the football to “real” French. Never mind that Henry and Anelka were born in Paris and Versailles respectively. They’re too Black to be Les Bleus.